CES Trends for Digital Product Designers

by Luke Wroblewski January 20, 2010

Each year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is a cavalcade of new gadgets and product announcements. But among the thousands of gizmos on display, interesting trends about the future of digital product design can be found. In an effort to succinctly outline these trends, I read through CES summaries from Venture Beat, Fast Company, CNN, and more.

In a nutshell, a plethora of networked, touch-based devices is set to expand home, mobile, TV, and even automobile Internet application usage. Think Internet everywhere.

CES 2010 had no shortage of new netbooks, e-book readers, tablets, and even smartbooks (hybrids of smart phones and netbooks, and perhaps e-book readers and tablets). The common thread among these networked devices is the ability to get online and thereby read and write Internet content or run services from "the cloud". For designers, this means digital content will need to adapt to lots of new form factors (screen sizes, display capabilities). So it's time to brush up on scalable design and liquid layouts.

Not only is digital content going to be available on many new devices. It's expanding to new environments as well. That means people can access and use Internet applications in their home, TV, mobile and car. Not only are companies releasing networked devices for these environments, they are supporting platforms for them as well. Once there's a platform -you can build on it. That means developers can create software for it or hardware to integrate with it, and content authors can publish to it. Many of these platforms are adopting Apple's app store model to distribute and sell applications including Ford's Sync platform for cars and Yahoo!'s TV widgets platform for TVs. In these new environments for Internet applications, not only will designers need to consider user context (on the couch, in the car) but specific application frameworks and capabilities as well. What Ford Sync's platform supports Apple's iPhone platform may not.

Last but not least, Natural User Interfaces (NUI) are the dominant mode of interacting with this new set of networked consumer device platforms. NUIs rely heavily on touch and gesture based interactions that reduce the distance between user and content. So the interface on NUI-based devices is physical and often invisible. As we are still in the early days of natural user interfaces, designers should expect significant improvements and many new UI experiments. For example, Motorola debuted its Backflip phone (with a touch surface in the back of a phone, allowing you to control the screen without obstructing your view of it) and Microsoft said it would launch Project Natal, (which has camera-based sensors that can detect your full body movements) in the fall of 2010. So if you haven't gotten your feet wet with natural user interfaces, now's the time to get some lessons learned.