Everything we do will change. That’s obvious, isn’t it? As times change, so do we, our environment, our stuff and how we do things. Dozens of new books are written every year about what’s about to change and how. Few are likely to get it all right. So in the spirit of hubristic futurism, here are a few themes—off the cuff, of course—that I think will be resonant amid all the flux of the next few years.
Digital + Analog
Digital doesn’t always trump analog. Sure, it’s contributed obviously superior replacements (e.g. email over memos), but it’s also created feedback loops that inform new takes on our old ways of doing things. There are many examples of this, particularly in media: Print-on-demand books (I’ve made a tradition of creating one I call a mixbook every year), novelty magazines and newspapers (see MagCloud and Newspaper Club), even snail-mail subscription services like Quarterly, a business borne out of a uniquely 21st century mashup of pen-pal network and “slow blogging.”
The digital-to-analog feedback loop is empowered by the long tail phenomenon so central to the internet. An interconnected populace will always support a greater diversity of niche interests than a disconnected one, which is why we’ve gone from a top-40 music culture to one in which “alternative” is meaningless. While that may make Madonna-level popularity a thing of the past, it has made broadened the scope of possibility for all kinds of musicians who wouldn’t have been marketable in the past. It’s this sort of world in which print-on-demand is not only possible but potentially very powerful. The same goes for all kinds of things for which there are far more scalable digital replacements. Just this morning I walked past a poster for a local band announcing their cassette release party. It’s not just that the ’80s are back, it’s that it’s 2012 and all things are possible, especially the small, connected ones.
That connection idea leads me to another thought—about trust. Trust is another essential to interactive design and, unfortunately, one that we’ve been fumbling with since the beginning of the internet. The big guys—the AOLs, Apples and Microsofts—didn’t really need to focus on building a rapport with users because they didn’t need to worry much about users going elsewhere. But that’s changed quite a bit. Sure, those big guys are still around and (for the most part) still very big. But bigness doesn’t nullify vulnerability. The same long-tail business that makes vinyl and cassette micro-releases possible today also makes a way for a small, obscure, digital David LLC to topple Goliath Inc. One that could seduce us away from Apple might be working on that right now.
The point here is that we need to understand that the design conventions of big corporations don’t necessarily engender trust anymore. The little startup that knocks down Microsoft won’t do it by creating a prettier version of Windows. It’ll do it by designing a new way to interact with information that’s closer to what we’re yearning for today, not what we’ve been using for decades. An alternative to Facebook won’t be just another list of avatars with a hipper interface. It will be something new, something that prioritizes an element that we care about that’s missing from the status quo. Cowbird, for example, is another social network. But it prioritizes storytelling and the senses over data hoarding and advertising.
As far as design is concerned, I’ve been thinking of this subtle, trust-focused shift as the Etsyfication of the interface. It’s digital-vérité. It’s OK with leaving some edges rough for the sake of communicating authenticity. It’s one of those things you trust because it’s familiar—you recognize that it could have been made by you.
I’m really not qualified to say much about economics, and I’m not especially keen to dive into it as a subject in general given all we’ve experienced since 2008 or so. (And obviously, economics could be listed as an influential factor no matter what the subject of the list.) But I will say one thing: Not all information is a product. The ways we understand and articulate design are fundamentally different when the goal is something other than sales. But, for the most part, we take our cues from design produced by corporations. This needs to change, and it will.
Of course, it’s not just about design cues. It’s also about getting off of our addiction to advertising subsidies (see Clive Thompson’s recent Wired column on the problem with the ad-supported tech model). This is why Kiva and Kickstarter exist: Money is a tool, and its destiny is not always profit.
The touchscreen is the biggest game-changer to interactive design since the mouse. New precepts include: There is no rollover state anymore. The average user’s finger is fatter than you want it to be, so make that button bigger. Drill-down browsing menus aren’t as “handy” as search bars and well-formatted results lists.
We’re a bit data-obsessed right now. So much so that we’re swimming in data and desperate for better ways to filter and make sense of it. Interactive designers will need to build stronger information management skills in order to best organize dense data flows in a variety of contexts.
If you think touch is a big deal, speech is going to be bigger. But right now, most interactive focus is on screens, especially if you’ve been paying attention to the corporate futurism propaganda of the likes of Corning (A Day Made of Glass) and Microsoft (Productivity Future). We’ve got to get past Minority Report, which more than a decade later is still the most compelling and thoroughly considered future vision we’ve yet to dream up. So much so that we’re still trying to produce it.
Meanwhile, we’ve got other amazing things going on, things that are far more futuristic than screens. Siri and Google Voice Search are hints of what’s to come. They point out the biggest limitation of our interactive technology—that in order to operate your device, you have to be looking at it. Going from input devices like the mouse to touch is an innovation, sure, but one predicated upon limitation. Hand-eye-coordinated interactions are not necessary to everything we might want to do with machines, but they have been up to this point because we hadn’t figured out how to create effective voice-command software. We’re getting there, now. Consider what being able to interact with your computer and other devices completely hands-free could mean. Really, consider it. I don’t think we have any idea just how transformative this will be. But designers are going to be the ones to encounter those transformations first.
You’ve probably heard about the internet of things. (Although I agree with Russell Davies that a better name for it is the the internet with things.) After all, the whole idea is about networking objects by connecting them to the internet, not to create an entirely new internet. So far, the application of the idea has been more on the cutesy and self-quantified side of things, but that won’t be it. The real meat of the concept is in its potential to distribute computing throughout our environment so we can make the infrastructural, logistical and resource management progress we need to survive. It’s a long-term vision, but one fueled by some very critical short-term concerns. I may have dissed corporations a bit earlier in this post, but I do think IBM makes a superb case for the potential of networked objects to help us with those concerns. The design implications of IBM’s vision are innumerable.
But in the short term, consider this: What kind of interactions are possible and facilitated by the networked objects already in our pockets? Our smartphones have cameras, microphones and GPS with which they can inform any network that will talk to them via images, sound and coordinates. If you’re constantly telling the network about where you are right now, what could that network help you do? How might that sort of connection create its own feedback loop and impact how we design our environment? There are already city projects beginning to explore that question, by the way (e.g. Masdar City and PlanIT Valley). The possibilities for design are endless, and our consideration of them right now is not a flight of fancy—it’s a responsibility. Because while I find the the-city-as-computer idea fascinating, we need to be a critical part of that conversation now if we want to avoid someday waking up trapped in Tron.
In the interest of wrapping this up, let me finish with an exhortation. These themes are all technologically complex and force us to expand the meaning of “designer.” That’s going to make us uncomfortable. But rather than resisting it, we need to accept the challenge. To do that, we’ll need to become more familiar with all kinds of new things, including programming, the physical infrastructure of the internet, logistics, resource management, environmental change, electronics, robotics, audio production, data security and even legal compliance issues.
But in the midst of all these new challenges, we need to also be mindful of what our individual design efforts do in the aggregate. Have you ever wondered why human progress tends to produce an environment that looks less and less suited to humans? I think it’s partially because in trying to build a better world, we end up creating a new one on top of the one we already have. But is that the kind of world we want? I don’t think that’s a silly question to ask.
See Christopher Butler and other design thinkers at the HOW Interactive Design Conferences in Washington, DC, and San Francisco this fall.