It is next to impossible to fully articulate just how much has changed since this author last sat down to write a blog post. The COVID–19 virus is first and foremost a medical emergency and humanitarian crisis, which has impacted every aspect of personal and professional life for most of the world’s population. Beyond the immediate lockdown operation, there is a realisation that if and when we get to the other side of this, not everything will go back to the way it was.
This will mean sadly yet inevitably that businesses that have been in operation for decades will go to the wall and never return. But it means also that new ways of working and behaving will become entrenched and commonplace.
An author who I greatly admire, Yuval Noah Harari, commented that the university at which he lectures had been discussing online course delivery for close to a decade, but within two weeks of the crisis it was fully implemented. Organisations who are used to doing business over an Americano in trendy coffee shops are recognising that video conferencing can be almost as good as face to face. And it’s difficult to see how we pull back from that. As my good buddy Niall McKeown observes “the horse and cart never made a comeback”.
As a result of all this rapid change, and the view that things are unlikely to ever be as they were, technology specialists have been wondering and predicting what the future might be like. In common with the rest of humankind, this author doesn’t know the future. However, as a UX professional he can use design thinking to identify some of the forces which will mould it.
Across many UX disciplines (such as research, analysis, planning, prototyping, iteration and design) their evolution has been driven by an identification of the causes of bad design, and the building of process to mitigate those causes.
Since the start, UX strategy has planned forward by looking backward.
Hindsight is indeed 20–20, and with this clear vision comes the opportunity to review history, identify success factors, and use those factors to define and hone future process. Creatives, strategists and innovators were thinking about this long before the world wide web was invented in the early 1990s, and I’d like to consider what two seminal books on the subject from decades before might teach us about emerging tech.
James Webb Young was among the first authors to claim that creativity was a process (and not just a talent) in his seminal 1940 tome “A Technique for Producing Ideas” and Everett Rogers identified the characteristics of successful innovations in his 1962 classic “Diffusion of Innovations”. In other words, both authors argued (coherently, in this author’s view) that innovative ideas could emerge from established process, and those innovations could be assessed for likely success based on a set of empirically–derived characteristics.
Webb Young discovered his book idea entirely by coincidence. As an advertising executive it was his job to come up with creative concepts and ideas for his clients; something he was very good at. One day a client asked him a throwaway question at the end of a meeting “How come you are so good at generating good ideas – how do you make good ideas?” At first, Webb Young thought it was a daft question but as he ruminated on it he started to realise that he did indeed work through a process in order to come up with good ideas. Here is how he summarises the process:
- gather new material, both specific material (related to the product or task) and general material (fascination with a wide range of concepts)
- work over the materials in your mind, looking at the facts from different angles and experimenting with fitting ideas together
- put the problem completely out of your mind and go do something else that excites you
- your idea will come back to you with a flash of insight, only after you have stopped straining
- shape and develop your idea into practical usefulness, put it out into the world, submit it to criticism, and adapt it as needed
80 years later, his process remains the foundation for innovation sprints, creative workshops and many activities in between.
Rogers similarly sought to deconstruct the success factors of innovations, by looking at hundreds of innovations from the previous century, some of which succeeded and some of which didn’t. He identified the five universal characteristics which all successful innovations imbue, shining a light to future success by providing innovations with benchmarks which they must measure well against, if they are to expect to win in the future. These are:
- relative advantage – is it better than (x)?
- compatibility – how does it fit my daily life?
- complexity – is it easy to use?
- trialability – can I give it a go?
- observability – what does it look like, can I see it working?
As we look forward therefore, could I propose the five characteristics of successful future tech, and counsel that we bake their principles into all aspects of innovation processes, particular those with one eye on designing the future? Here’s what the last quarter century of digital innovation might tell us about the next:
- driven by convenience, speed and efficiency
- mobile (not necessarily a phone–like mobile device but rather accessed–anywhere)
- empowers the customer, even if it means reducing the power of the seller
- flattens hierarchy by removing layers of bureaucracy
- the winners will do customer experience better than their rivals