As the rate of technological innovation increases, we have to rethink our methods when designing for the future. Here’s how to approach the needs of the users of tomorrow with forward-thinking, ethical design.
Designing for user needs is at the core of UX, but have you ever tried designing a solution for a user who doesn’t know they have a need for it yet?
Innovative technologies are reshaping our lives to a degree where disruption has become the norm. This poses incredible challenges for designers to become modern-day fortune tellers that go beyond current user needs to predict and build the world of tomorrow.
Building for the future also carries a great deal of responsibility. As digital tools become a more integrated part of our daily lives, designers are also accountable for the intended and unintended impact these solutions have on the users — and for the behaviour the technologies may induce.
So how do you overcome these challenges and turn your design thinking towards the future’s unknown problems?
We need to challenge traditional design thinking
Henry Ford revolutionised transportation more than a century ago when he introduced the Model T automobile. He’s been attributed the quote:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Designers face the same challenge today when working in the innovation space. Ask the users what they want, and they’ll tell you their needs here and now, but as innovators, we’re developing solutions that address needs years into the future.
Pick up a textbook on traditional design thinking, and most of it will be dedicated to the research phase. What years of working in innovation labs have taught us is that traditional research with heavy emphasis on preliminary user interviews doesn’t cut it when our ambition is to build for the future. The average user isn’t capable of predicting what their needs and interaction with technology will be years from now. In addition, they rarely have the know-how to be able to imagine what changes disruptive technologies will drive. After all, most of them aren’t machine learning engineers, software developers, or UX designers. Who would have thought our cellphones would become small supercomputers in our pockets? Or predicted the massive influence social media platforms have had on our daily lives?
As a future-thinking designer, you have to move your focus to more diverse testing practises to gain insights into user behaviour and their interaction with the product, you’re developing.
Stick with us as we explore how.
Designing for the future — the recipe
Given you don’t have a real-life fortune teller on your team, how do you go about designing for user needs that don’t yet exist? Here are five steps that will help you design for the future:
1. Map the future
To understand the future user’s needs, you have to map what the future may look like. Mapping expectations of future developments requires a triangulation involving the general public, experts from the field you’re working within, and policy makers.
In LEO Innovation Lab, we’re developing solutions to improve the lives of people living with chronic skin conditions. We’ve mapped the future patient journey from first symptom to correct treatment, and we use it on a daily basis in our work. To get a realistic prediction of the future, we studied the current patient journey closely and identified the potentials for optimisation based on expectations relating to factors such as technology, the political landscape, the direction the healthcare system is moving, etc. — and what part we have to play in the future of healthcare.
2. Step up your understanding of the technology you design for
Designers need to step up their game if they’re working with innovation and emerging technologies. This involves understanding the possibilities and limitations of the technology, you’re designing for. For example, if you’re designing for a product that involves machine learning, you need a basic understanding of data collection, model training, and model evaluation.
It doesn’t mean that you have to add machine learning engineer, software developer, and data scientist to your CV. What it means is that instead of working in silos, designers and developers have to exchange knowledge and work more closely early on to achieve an optimal result.
Many UX and UI designers have probably experienced working with the Project Manager to develop what they believed to be the perfect design — only to have it shot down in implementation. You avoid this by breaking the linear workflow and operate cross-disciplinary to take advantage of each team member’s unique competencies from the get-go. The result is a more robust product encompassing the creative skills of the entire team.
3. Co-create with other segments than the mainstreamers
The traditional approach to design is often to develop user profiles and personas based on the mainstream segment. After all, it’s the biggest group of users, and you want them to adopt your product, right?
But the mainstream segment is hard to motivate and not necessarily tech-savvy, which their input will reflect. So when designing for the future, there’s another more valuable segment to include: The innovators and early adopters. Why? Because they understand the tech, they want to get involved, and they are very critical. This makes them valuable co-creators.
And if these first-movers adopt your product, the dissemination to mainstream markets happens almost effortlessly on your part.
The tricky part is getting access to this segment. Here, partnerships with institutions, communities, or startups are particularly valuable.
4. Simulate experiences
If you want to test whether a solution will play into the user’s future needs, you have to simulate experiences. This is not about giving people a polished product to test, but to understand how users may respond to the solution, you’re developing.
For example, imagine an app capable of diagnosing skin diseases. Are patients interested in being diagnosed by a machine?
In LEO Innovation Lab, we conducted an experiment where we recruited users who wanted to get a skin diagnosis. Since we hadn’t yet developed the capability for AI-powered skin diagnosis, a group of dermatologists identified their skin condition from photos. The users, however, were initially told that an AI had made the diagnosis. The purpose was to evaluate their experience with receiving a medical diagnosis from a computer.
A similar experiment was carried out by the Danish Tax Administration. They wanted to build a chatbot — but would people even want to use it? And what should the chatbot know? To get answers, they built an interface that looked like a chatbot but was controlled by employees. Users were told they could ask the bot anything. 200 participated in the experiment. The results showed that about 3 in 4 asked a question relating to the riveting topic of tax deductions — and the bot was therefore programmed to be able to respond to these enquiries.
5. Work with coded prototypes
If you’re looking to create the next big innovative solution, you need to test your concepts. Whether a button is blue or red, or whether a specific function has been implemented isn’t important — at least not to those of us who develop the solutions. It’s another story for the users.
A common problem when testing simple flow prototypes is that users get stuck on usability. When we initially tested the Imagine app, where people track their skin through photos, we experienced this issue first-hand. We tested our concept before implementing a live camera, which turned out to be a major distraction for the users.
Now we work with coded prototypes. Why? Because it eliminates a lot of the noise that distracts users, and it makes it possible to evaluate the user’s interaction with the tool, you’re developing.
You may also be designing solutions for users where time isn’t on your side. For example, one of the groups, we’re designing for, is healthcare professionals. Their time is extremely valuable — and limited. So when we test prototypes, we need to be smart about it and make the interaction as realistic as possible — with code. This allows us to validate ideas and concepts, and identify potential challenges in the interaction.
Developing for the future makes us responsible for the future
Congrats — you’re now ready to take over the future with great design!
…except for one thing. Designing for the future generates not just a whole world of possibilities but also responsibilities.
When you design a new app, device, or the like, you’re responsible for the ethical design of the technology. When creating a new design or technological artefact, you’re also designing a certain mediation of the world to the user. In other words, a certain design is built to create a certain perspective for the user on how to understand or use the technological artefact, whether it’s an app, digital platform, or physical tool — and this is where the ethics of designing for the future comes into play.
Ethical design needs to address how the design of technological artefacts affects the way in which we perceive the world. There are two properties of technological artefacts that we’re ethically responsible for when designing for the future:
- The mediation of the world generated by our design
- The intentional and unintentional practical use of our artefacts in real-life
Think of our behaviour on social media. The way we interact on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter is very different. We also get very different perspectives of ourselves, the community, and the world around us from each of these platforms. This mediation is not only a result of user interaction and user-generated content. It’s as much a result of the designed purpose of the platforms and the technology used to create the artefacts.
It’s easy to blame the users when a digital tool ends up serving an unintended and perhaps problematic purpose. Designers and developers are, nevertheless, also responsible when their product induces a certain behaviour, whether intended or unintended. The design of social media platforms, for example, is often made to instigate high engagement on the platform. But in doing so, are they generating meaningful engagement between people? Do they facilitate a sustainable culture in our everyday life? Or is the designed purpose unintentionally fuelling division and hateful interaction between people?
With rapid advancements in technology, it’s not just our everyday objects that are changing — the technology is also changing us. Therefore, for a design to be ethical, you need to be aware of the consequences of current and future practice surrounding your design. You need to predict the intended and unintended use of non-existing technology. How? Through thorough reflection and by gathering the necessary input to consider the unintended users, uses, and consequences when employing new technologies.
Here, the steps involved in designing for the future can help you:
- When mapping the future, you get a realistic forecast based on input from the general public, experts, and policy makers.
- When you seek to better understand the technology through a cross-disciplinary approach, you’re better equipped to also understand the potential uses of your product.
- By co-creating with innovators, you get valuable, critical feedback to cover blindspots.
- Simulating experiences generates insights into how the users will interact with your product.
- Working with coded prototypes creates a more realistic user interaction from which you can test and validate some of your ideas and expectations.
Spoiler alert: Even with this method, you won’t be able to predict the future with perfect accuracy — but you will have a solid basis for shaping the world of tomorrow with ethical, innovative designs.
By Mischa Szpirt, Techno Anthropologist
Rie Scheuermann, UX/Design Specialist
Andreas Larsen, UX/UI Engineer