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In university I had a cultural history class about Walter Benjamin’s “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” and it has always stuck with me. In it Benjamin proposes that a work of art needs to be seen in its historical and cultural context. Now I’m not saying that digital design is today’s art. But context still dictates how we view it, how it is appreciated, and how it evolves.

Only three decades ago the web consisted of simple white pages with black text and blue links to other pages. It was seen as a tool to convey information, before commerce found it an effective marketing tool. New business models rose up and now everyone I know uses digital services like Spotify, Netflix, etc. The digital landscape I’m designing for is constantly changing. To be able to look forward at what the coming years have in store for the field of digital design, it’s important to understand that new contexts will force design to reflect these changes. So the question becomes:

What will the context for digital design be in the coming years?

 

Design for an ecosystem – part 1

When people think of the web, they think of websites. But what even is a website nowadays? Has our image of purely information pages remained, or are we aware that streaming services, e-business, IoT and other web based software are also a part of that same web? In 2016 Gartner published the below diagram. It gives a nice overview of the types of digital products.

Source: Gartner

Looking at this diagram from a design perspective it becomes clear that the function of the design differs per section. Easiest is to start on the left, with the customer facing products. Design here is mostly used to communicate the values of a brand and its products. In the center we find products for which design is mostly used to determine which kind of information is valuable. The right side of the diagram is more task oriented. Design here should focus on supporting these tasks. Guiding the user with minimal interference. Of course, there is also internal branding that happens here, but that is often less at the core of what these products do.

Often our clients have products in multiple locations of this spectrum. And even though the function of the design is different, we want them to be recognisable as being from the same brand. This context makes the current trend of design systems a very logical one. It allows us to reuse elements across products where possible, ensuring consistency. But it also helps us see where custom solutions are needed.

 

How we can help you in this context

  • We can help you determine which products can be added to your own ecosystem to add value to your business.
  • We can create an overarching design system and accompanying style guide, that ensures that these products all feel as a part of your brand.

 

Design for an ecosystem – part 2

Current design systems mainly focus on a singular type of delivery: screens. And only screens within the range from smartphone to high density desktops. But outside of these more traditional interfaces, there will be an increasing need for other types of designs.

One type of design that we can add to our design system is voice and tone design. In April 2015, Gartner predicted that by the end of 2018, 30 percent of interactions with technology would be through “conversations” with smart machines, many of them by voice. Tractica is a market intelligence firm that focuses on human interaction with technology. Their reports say the use of virtual digital assistants will grow from more than 390 million worldwide users in 2015 to 1.8 billion by the end of 2021. And this is expected to keep growing. This means that the way your brand communicates with your audience becomes more and more important.

But also other types of screens, and sizes. The NPD group says 16% of Americans owned a smartwatch at the end of 2018. But smartwatches have seen a year-over-year growth in the first quarter of 2019 of 48% according to Counterpoint research. This is a sign that focusing on just handheld or stationary devices might soon become outdated. Responsiveness was a good first step, now it’s time to think about making products truly cross-device, or device-agnostic.

 

How we can help you in this context

  • Research what the adoption of these newer technologies are with your target audience, so we can decide if it’s interesting to expand the ways your product or service can be reached.
  • Extend your design system and style guide to include voice and tone design, and design for other types of devices.

 

High quality content

When we focus on the products that are used for branding and marketing, at its essence is content. The goal of design here is to convince potential users of the value of a brand and its product or service. Which means that not only the way content is portrayed is important, but the content itself as well. These two are two sides of the same coin. Without high quality content, a great presentation can only go so far in expressing the value for the user.

So how do we determine high quality content? One way is to look at quality from the perspective of SEO (article in Dutch by my colleague Nina). In Google’s 2018 update to their SEO ranking algorithm this is reflected in what they call “E-A-T”. Which stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Another way of looking at the quality of content is to ensure it (and the way it’s displayed) reflects the brand or product values. A third way would be to ensure it reflects the customer journey, so that the user feels recognised during their customer journey.

More and more content will be published in the coming years. Driving up the necessity for high quality content to differentiate a brand. Yet, not for every type of website or application content needs to be created by the owner of said product. With the constant increase of content creators and locations it is shared in, users will look for ways to help them deal with this information overload and digital sprawl. This means we will see an increase of sites and services that offer “filtering”, “aggregation” and/or “connecting”. With filtering the selection determines the quality of the content. With products that focus on aggregation, the quality is determined by the completeness of the collection. Connectors do nothing but connect users to sources of high quality content. This could even be automated using profiling and algorithms. Using the data of how your product or service is used together with machine learning, can give unique insights in which content users are looking for, how they interact with it, and whether they appreciate it or not.

 

How we can help you in this context

  • Determine if you are a content creator, or if your product or service is a filter, aggregator or connector (or which combination of these).
  • Set up machine learning to determine how users interact with your content.
  • Have our copywriters and designers support you in creating high quality content.

We need to understand your business, the needs of the users and the best way to bring those two together. This leads to a more data-driven approach to design and continuous optimisation.

 

Data-in and data-out

Another way in which the context for digital design is changing, is the focus on business value. The days in which design is seen as a mere layer of veneer are behind us. In 2018 McKinsey came out with their report called The Business Value of Design, which mirrored earlier findings by the Design Management Institute from 2015 that companies that were design-led outperformed other companies. This view of digital design will become more and more common as it aligns design with business’ need for measurable success.

When the function of the design (which problem are we solving?) and the value of its outcome (what is the benefit for our business?) have been defined together with a strategy (how will this add value to our users?), it becomes easier to determine how we can measure this success. But it also makes clear which information is needed to answer those questions: we need to understand your business, the needs of the users and the best way to bring those two together. This leads to a more data-driven approach to design and continuous optimisation.

 

How we can help you in this context

  • We can do user research to help you understand the user needs better.
  • Together with you we can determine the function of the design, based on your business goals and the user needs.
  • We can set up a dashboard with qualitative and quantitative KPIs to ensure you constantly know how well your digital product or service is performing.
  • We can set up data-driven continuous improvement cycles to optimise conversion.

 

From user-centred to value-centred

Continuing on the subject of value. I have a hard time with Aarron Walter’s Hierarchy of user needs. I think it allows for an interpretation of functional that’s too narrow. I’ve heard it explained as functionalities that a product or service should offer the user. But what I think lacks in that explanation is the function the design has for the business. It gives a completely user-centred interpretation, forgoing any commercial aspects like branding, positioning and even conversion.

Since 1986, when Don Norman came up with the term user-centred (interface) design, it’s been firmly adopted by digital designers as a way to make their designs more successful. But I prefer a different way of thinking. Because users don’t always know what’s good for them. And if they do, it might not be good for business. I prefer to look at the value for both sides of the communication.

But we can do better. When we only look at the value exchange between a user and company we’re ignoring the context in which this takes place. An exchange between these two parties also generates a profit or loss for their surroundings. For example: a company that produces guns sees value in someone buying their product. In return the buyer of the gun sees value in the product, i.e., to give them a feeling of safety. But what is the added value of this exchange for the community at large? Accidental killings, an arms race between civilians and criminals, a higher percentage of successful suicides? When this negative impact becomes clear, the public could demand that the value exchange stops. On the other hand, Patagonia has seen a steady growth every time they are more vocal about how they strive for a smaller environmental impact by for example championing repair and reuse of their products. They even have their own environmental activist support organisation called Action Works. And apparently the value that they add to society with these efforts are appreciated by their target audience, making it a win-win-win situation.

In today’s world technology has a unique ability to affect people at scale. Even more important than scale is the speed at which technology can affect that scale. That’s why the ethics of companies are more and more closely examined (e.g., Facebook or MIT after Epstein). It should be clear that when companies want long-term success, they need to take all three sides of the value exchange into account.

 

How we can help you in this context

  • Create an insight into what values your audience is looking for, and what the impact on society might be.
  • Come up with creative solutions to maximise all sides of this value exchange.

 

New contexts require a new design attitude

As designers we should realise that our solutions are part of a bigger ecosystem for our clients and their audiences. Especially now, in a time where interfaces are changing and expanding in exciting new ways that bring new opportunities. But a big part of making opportunities a success is the quality of the content; not just the way it’s presented. To make sure we are able to steer towards success, we need data. In the earlier mentioned essay by Walter Benjamin, he wrote that art has become scientific and I think that’s true for digital design as well. The big difference is that digital designers are in the unique position of acting as the conscience of their clients, overseeing the impact business decisions have on the audience. And we as designers should embrace that responsibility fully.

 

Like to have a chat on design in the age of digital transformation? Find me at wouter@hoppinger.com

 

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