The long-fabled future of a world without traditional human-to-computer interactions is no longer science fiction. It’s a reality. Consumers all across the globe are wearing computers on the wrists, talking to artificial intelligence to check the weather and monitoring body functions through micro-devices. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible through creative technology design, and yet the masses still see holograms and implantations as far-off science fiction, rather than the very close and possible future.
Designers and developers are leading the charge into the future, but not without their fair share of challenges and hurdles. With a blank slate of endless potential, how can we design for a simple UX while still having a visually appealing product? Moreover, what if, in the near future visuals are not required at all?
The New Frontier of Design
Holograms, audio controls, wearables … new technologies have the potential to disrupt the screen entirely. Society is teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley of a world without traditional UI, and designers must take the reigns.
Take audio design, for example. Voice technology and virtual assistants are already rendering many screen functions moot. Technology leaders such as Apple, Google, Samsung, Amazon and beyond are pouring resources into voice, creating a screenless interface simple and intuitive enough for any consumer to use. Google, for example, has made creating an app on the Google home quite simple though Google Console. Designers can have fun building the tone, language and personality for the app easily in as little as five minutes. While it’s true that we live in a world where some still battle this technology, it’s also the case that audio assistants are carving out a place for themselves in our home and our lives. The technologies powering audio controls are being developed and refined quickly, so learning how to design for it now is key.
Itcher, a recommendation engine that helps users discover movies, music, television shows, bestselling books, games and more, requires no UI at all. The voice-powered platform allows users to ask their voice assistant for a recommendation, prompts them with questions to better understand his or her tastes and preferences and leverages artificial intelligence to provide optimal recommendations.
Designing for audio navigation is not necessarily fully intuitive. More so than with desktop screens or handheld devices, interactive audio treads on the brink of the uncanny valley—imitating humans in many respects but still not quite convincingly human. Audio designers like the team at Itcher must consider factors such as lexicon, pitch, volume, direction and most importantly, value for users to want to interact with a voice-controlled device.
One contributing factor for the rise of audio is the rise of wearable technology such as smartwatches, AR smart glasses and beyond. Designed to be connected to consumers at all times, wearables are blurring the lines between technology and its users. As the wearables become better optimized for everyday use, the screens will shrink, and likely disappear altogether. This will make audio design more valuable than ever before.
While people are still going to be very dependent on traditional screen interfaces for quite some time (especially for complex tasks), there is no doubt the world is hurtling towards a future where screens are no longer a necessity, but an option. Designers and developers no longer have the luxury of waiting for the next big thing to enter mainstream—it’s here.
Focus on the U (User)
No matter if you are designing for a wearable, a voice assistant or a mobile app, customer feedback is an important aspect of innovation and design that often gets overlooked. Of course, the first thing a designer must consider should always be the end user—know the business and customer requirements so they are making the best product that will fill the needs of both. A designer that does not approach a project by asking many “why” questions of both the company and the target audience will not have the information they need to build the best and simplest interface she or he can.
Innovative thinking is important at all points of the design process, but to ground design in reality rather than getting trapped in science fiction aspirations, designers must have both quantitative and qualitative research to better understand not only the functionality success of a product or platform, but also the user sentiment. This requires heavy interaction with stakeholders (both internal and external) at every stage of the design process.
Bring customers in to soundboard ideas, test products and platforms and engage on a deeper level with the business. At Shutterstock, we speak to customers on a regular basis, hold focus groups, and use user testing platforms to ensure we have customer feedback at many steps along the way. It’s vital for customers to be able to interact with products and platforms along with designers. This allows for greater creativity and most importantly, simplicity in UX.
Focus on Simplicity
Shakespeare’s quote “Brevity is the Soul of Wit,” from Hamlet, is typically interpreted for works of writing, encouraging authors to be concise. However, this is also true of all creative endeavors, writing, art and design. Making things simple (concise) takes hard work, it takes time, it takes skill and giving yourself the space as a designer to do that work is critical to finding success in creating a “simple” design.
Designing something simple is one of the hardest things every designer faces. Sure, it’s easy for the designer to come up with a simple interface that answers the customer’s needs at a cursory level, but often there are additional requirements or stakeholder feedback that one also has to take into account. It’s important to remember that product, UX and engineering are all parts of an equal trifecta. Designer and developer questions, as well as conversations with real customers about how to solve a user’s need, will only make a product better in the long run. The challenge for designers is balancing immediate feedback from their company and users with forward-thinking innovation.
It is often not intuitive for both businesses and consumers alike to imagine a future that pushes the boundaries of what exists. Designers are uniquely positioned to bring abstract innovation and technology to the masses through simple and intuitive UX.