5 Trends Changing Design

Previously, I’ve written about the potential causes of the design gap, when designs fall short in meeting both user needs and business goals. This gap results from how the design process is structured, who is participating, and how they communicate.

However, there are broader forces that are changing the way information, products, services, systems, and spaces ought to be designed. Here are five trends that are widening the gap – making the design process more complex and raising its stakes:

1. New Patterns of Use: Fueled by mobile technologies, global organizations, and perhaps a bit of restlessness, people are now more mobile than ever. For instance, a recent DEGW follow-up survey of a global technology company revealed that its employees were working from home twice as much as 4 years prior. In addition to becoming more mobile, work is becoming more collaborative (F2F and virtual), more visual/media-rich, and easier to share while making/producing has also been democratized – How many people are NOT making something at work? These use patterns will require new design approaches and solutions.

2. Shifting from Ownership to Membership: Brought about by new means of coordinating activities / communicating, economic pressures for thrift, environmental sustainability concerns, and (maybe) the web’s emphasis on sharing, we’re moving from the owning the products and spaces we use to more of a rented, membership model. Zipcar is the poster-child for this. For spaces, this means instead of designing for a single owner/function,  the space has to be designed to accommodate a diverse audience, to change over time, and to have services designed along with it – programming events and hosting/managing the space and its network of users. In effect, the business models for use are changing. (More on this here in a previous post)

3. New relationships Between Producers and Consumers: What were two separate domains (to paraphrase Don Draper: “People don’t know what they want ‘til we tell them”) are now connecting in new ways. Mass customization is enabling people to design their own products (see Nike iD).  Mass collaboration and social production are engaging “consumers” in design and production processes –  gathering initial ideas, feedback/testing, and endorsement/recommendation. New contractual relationships between designers, fabricators, and clients are emerging (for instance IPD).  Last, perhaps the change that’s needed most is shifting design from the delivery of a fixed/finished product to providing a service of continuous support for use – since needs and uses inevitably change.

4. Specialization of Roles and Expertise: Complexity and competition beget specialization. The ability for firms to work across geographies as well as the shortage of projects in a down economy are increasing competition. Design problems are more challenging in response to factors above. This creates the seemingly irresistible impetus to specialize in order to stand out (a old professor of mine demonstrated this half-jokingly when he said if you’re an English lit major, the best thing to do is focus as quickly as possible so you can become the world’s expert…. not on Dickens, or even Oliver Twist, but on Oliver Twist’s diet – who knows, you may soon be needed on CNN as a talking head). The trouble is, if everyone goes the specialist route, who’ll take responsibility for the big picture?

5. Accepting / Rewarding Refinement Over Novelty: In the era of the mash-up, the prototype, and the endless versions/updates/releases (have you downloaded iTunes 10.01.3 yet?), both designers and their clients seem to be more accustomed to the idea of design as something  gradually refined over time rather than having a pure mandate for novelty following a eureka moment. There is also more data on performance which can often guide incremental improvement. (As an aside, have you noticed the increasing frequency of movie sequels lately?) Perhaps we can take cues from the entertainment industry where new films are often pitched as a combination of existing ones and take advantage of this shift so that we can devote more energy to meeting user needs and business goals, even as they change, rather than newness for its own sake?

These shifts will impact the skills needed for designers, the mindset required, the processes used, and the underlying business models (compensation, contractual relationships, etc) – and all these impacts need to explored and tested. Regardless, design strategy is needed to focus and guide a design process. Hang on.