Design Futures: Part 3

by August 28, 2006

Part two of Design Futures: a conversation about the role of design-driven leadership in the product development process (be sure to check out part two first).

Bob Baxley While I appreciate and respect your points Jim, I stand by my original assertion that none of us can accurately predict what's going to happen even five years from now. The fact of the matter is that we're living smack dab in the middle of not only the largest but perhaps the only truly global revolution to have occurred since the dawn of civilization. Literally every nation, every culture, and every individual on the face of the Earth is effected by the globalization of trade, the unprecedented pressure on the planet's natural resources, the unfettered expansion of Capitalism, the rise of extremism, and a myriad of other forces. Any one of these forces alone would introduce a virtually unprecedented level of variability and unpredictability into forecasts of the future: add them together and all bets are off.

I realize that sounds a bit to the Left of extremist but I hold to the point that the potential impact of these forces cannot be accurately predicted or over-emphasized.

With all that said however, it's equally true that it's impossible to know exactly when any of these forces may reach sufficient mass to cause a large-scale disruption of current models and therefore, many companies, industries, and technologies will continue to evolve in a reasonably predictable manner. All things being equal, it's a pretty safe bet that networks will get broader, processors will get faster, RAM will get cheaper, and hard drives will get bigger. What's less clear -- significantly less clear -- is how all this technology will be put to use.

For example, you write, "Mobile technologies are also led by Europe and Asia, so we can see the types of services Americans will be using in the next couple of years..." How can you draw that line between behavior in other cultures and future adoption in this one? There are dozens of technologies, services, and behaviors that have failed to jump such cultural lines. What's the evidence for believing that mobile technologies are necessarily going to spread from one culture to another?

Personally I don't see Americans adopting mobile services with quite the gusto of Europeans or Japanese anymore than I see Americans getting as rabid about World Cup Soccer as the rest of the world but that's a different question and a different debate.

My point is simply that there is an unusually high number of large-scale variables in play right now and as such, the predictability of future technology adoption is extremely low. Not to repeat myself, but to repeat myself: in times of change, the most rationale course is a relentless focus on learning, adaptation, and creativity.

Dirk Knemeyer I want to circle back to the direction Luke and Bob were heading on this thread, which I think gets to the heart of the core issue: despite the local conversations on design futures often taking on an "us vs. them" focus, being part of a successful future demands we begin to erase these polarities. People need to focus on the bigger picture and embrace the seismic change that is in process, rather than wring their hands about it.

I know that everyone in our group (myself included) is very bullish on a generalist approach, which is again coming through in this conversation. But I want to temper that a little bit for the sake of presenting a more nuanced picture. Certainly, the design leadership space that we talk a lot about will increasingly require very broad, generalized knowledge and expertise. That is just a given, since the complexity, integration and interoperability of products is only going to increase. But the truth is that not everyone wants - or is able - to be a big picture generalist. And while our conversations tend to elucidate that path ad nauseum, the flip side is there are also going to be jobs for expert specialists, perhaps more so in the future than ever before. Let me give you an example of this in practice:

In the early days of professional web design, we saw a center of gravity form around "webmasters," jack-of-all-trade professionals who often handled everything related to developing and managing a website: from design to writing to programming. But as the web became more mature and complex it became evermore apparent that these "generalists" were inadequate to the job before them: the importance and sophistication of the web got to the point where it demanded different, specialized participants. Thus the role of things like usability testing and information architecture came to the fore, and a diffusion of the "webmaster" or "web designer" ideals in particular began to fade away. As a result we had a few years or more of highly localized specialization, with design teams often laboring along with an outrageous diversity of what I would characterize as overly specialized participants. That is beginning to even out now, and the people with the greatest value are those that synthesize multiple tactical disciplines into one designer. As time goes by the breadth of this synthesis will only need to increase and, unlike the webmasters of old who had knowledge about many things but wildly varying degrees of skill in each of them, the digital product design professionals of tomorrow will need to achieve excellence that crosses multiple domains that only recently were still being treated as separate, siloed roles. This becomes less a model of generalist success and more a model of highly experienced and skilled designers who aggregate various skill sets into a complementary and finely-honed set of tools.

Similarly, Bob's point of there always being room at the top is a good one. And the craftsmen (and women!) who are exceptional at more niche (but necessary) skills such as illustration will always have opportunities, so long as they are bullish about honing their craft and pushing their level of performance. Of course that sort of dedication to constant personal development applies to all of us.

Finally I want to put a strong mention in for the importance of user research as a first-person skill that everyone related to digital product development (not just design) will need in the future. For all of the problems with the whole user-centered design movement and methodology, what arose from that trend that is dead nuts on the mark is the imperative for everyone involved in both creation and decision making to truly understand - in a very real-world and first person way - how the products we create relate to the behaviors and lifestyles of real people. While there will always be a place for user research as a specialization, that knowledge and skill needs to become an integrated part of what each of us are doing. It is going to take some time for the general rank-and-file to evolve away from relying on blunt second-person tools like personas and research reports, but the sooner we're able to successfully evolve, the more equipped we will be to succeed in the future. And that generalization doesn't even get into the rapidly increasing importance of cross-cultural and local factors, which again multiply the complexity of understanding users.


Keep reading: part four of Design Futures