One day, robots will inherit the earth. As machine learning and artificial intelligence make bigger leaps forward year on year, product design, UI and UX do so as well, by leveraging the power of machine intelligence to solve the world’s most complex problems.
Thinkers all over the industry believe that one day, machine intelligence will outsmart our own. Some hope for joint neural networks to become reality, at which point every single aspect of our lives will be drastically changed – but until then, we are left speculating and trying to predict the future of the design industry.
It’s rather hard to anticipate what may happen in the next decade. Technology advances at a much faster pace than we think, and five years from now things may already be much different than they are now. With the advent of Mixed Reality and the likely projection of data in our physical world, product design will be changed forever. So it is normal to go entirely Black Mirror on this and believe things will not go for the better. As cynical as I could ever be, I think we can be a bit more optimistic on this.
The future of product design is smart, ethical, agentive and holistic. And let me tell you why I think so.
Artwork credit: Mark Brown
Business, Tech, Collaboration
Clearly designers will love what they were put on this earth to do – design products and user experience. But nowadays, and as teams become more collaborative than ever, product designers wish to be more involved with the entire process of bringing their creation to life. This will inevitably lead to some good overlaps between departments. Great product designers will want to learn more about every aspect of managing a product/project from start to finish, including some elements of finance, selling, revenue and profitability.
This is not to say the product designer of the future should aspire to become a salesman or a CEO, but the transferable skills one can gain from either process are invaluable as we approach a more holistic future. Collaboration will be expected and even nurtured, leading to designers stepping out of their teams to learn across departments. In turn, other departments will start to apply the Design Thinking everywhere, making processes smoother, more creative, more organic and driven.
A range of technological advancements will make the design process smoother or more creative, and in some cases, even plain futuristic. As Voice UI becomes more advanced, voice assistants will be able to gather information from all kinds of media and sources, going beyond text. There are already examples of Alexa Skills and applications that are making use of Voice UI to improve people’s lives, and this is where product design can jump in. More advanced machine learning and thinking will make all of this possible.
Moreover, if it’s true that Mixed Reality is the future of design, advertising and tech, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what Augmented Reality can do. Products of the future will have to incorporate AR, VR and MR in their design, building interfaces and experiences between the product and the user which have never been possible thus far. This will not only affect the end user, of course; product designers will be able to visualise their product in advance immersed in a 3D physical space, tweaking it and polishing it as required to detach their design from a bi-dimensional screen.
Overall, the future of product design is bright, technology-wise. But there is more.
Image credit: PepsiCo Design & Innovation
The Potential of Agentive & Generative Design
There is this incredibly fascinating talk by Christopher Noessel, Global Design Practice Manager for Travel & Transportation at IBM, who explained the power of Agentive Technology during a Talk at Google. The easiest way to think about Agentive Design is to try and conceive an AI that works for you. Whilst smart algorithms and machines already do the work for us, they still require a basic input, button or some other form of interaction to work. Instead, Agentive Design can be seen as a butler or a valet.
Agentive products would come to you if there is a problem (“I ran out of clean cloths”), but they would be largely autonomous and driven by artificial intelligence, doing the work for us with minimum control.
Agentive Technology sees the product and the machine as running their own system, with the human only interacting occasionally to do some tweaks and polishing from time to time. Agentive products would be able to pause and restart entirely by themselves, implement loops, practice, implement suggestions, monitor and perform a whole set of independent actions on which the human will have little control – but just enough to help if things go wrong.
Needless to say, AI and machine learning will fuel this new approach greatly, and in fact, Google and other tech companies have already started working on this model of design. Noessel’s Talk at Google is from 2017. Since then, car manufacturers done monumental progress in producing self-driving cars, which would act as proper self-controlled systems, over which the human has just enough agency to avoid a disaster.
Alongside Agentive Design, Generative Design is probably one of the most prominent systems on the rise, once again featuring the power of artificial intelligence and algorithms to help with the design process.
The easiest way to describe Generative Design is as some sort of AI-generated design. In other words, an algorithm gets fed with a bunch of information and data, from customer preferences to design guidelines, and is programmed with such stringent criteria that it is impossible for it to act out of a set of given constraints. Rather than think creatively, the machine will process all those inputs and generate an output, such as a potential model or design, creating efficient parts with the minimum amount of materials.
Generative tech still leaves much of the design process in the hands of the designer, who will be able to make the final amends and perfect the output. It should be noted, however, that the designer does not need to be a human, and it could even be a test program or an artificial intelligence, switching inputs and values until the desired result is achieved.
Below is the Samba, a piece of furniture created by Guto Requena with generative design.
Image credit: Green Furniture Concept AB
Ethical Design: The Future of the Industry
Beyond technological advancements, machines and all the beautiful flavours of AI, there is one increasingly important trend that is set to change the undertone of the industry for the upcoming decade. If Covid is to teach us any lesson at all, it is that people care about authenticity and honest more than anything these days, and design cannot escape from being an accurate mirror of society in that sense.
Conscious, sustainable, responsible design will take the centre stage in the upcoming years. This will be designed focused towards social good and bringing a positive change into people’s lives. Ethical products will help end users develop a good habit to counter a bad one, they will guide them in seeking more meaningful life experiences and reaching both personal fulfilment and mental wellbeing.
Ethical design is not just about the end product, however; it can also be about making a conscious choice, as a designer, to not work for an unethical company. Many freelancers in the Creativepool community choose that path willingly, by refusing to work with companies that are not in line with their values. This leads to a series of considerations on ethical design.
Ethical Design means prioritising the values at the core of the design over profit and revenue. It means keeping User Experience on top of your mind at all times, and knowing that a better UX will lead to more profit in the long run. It also means catering for a number of different (and diverse) users, being inclusive in design and accessible to look after multiple user needs. Transparency and honesty must take the centre stage in ethical design, leading by example with the same eye for authenticity mentioned above.
Ethical Design isn’t just about making green apps or using sustainable materials; it’s something embedded into your entire design process, from concept to iteration and release, by wanting to prioritise meaningful experiences and interactions with your end users.
A new dawn of Product Design
The 2020s decade will certainly see a number of innovations and new approaches to Product Design in ways we can hardly predict. It is also entirely sure that, seven years down the line, these predictions about the future of Product Design prove to be entirely wrong. There may be more innovation, there may be different tech, maybe Mixed Reality will flop and we will go back to the physical experiences we all cherish today – just a bit more polished by AI.
In this scenario, and as we battle daily against the stupidity of other humans for a better world, we must not forget the lessons that nearly two years at home have fed us with: that we need to be as authentic as possible, looking at our most treasured values of kindness and humanity to bring about a much better world.
One where Product Design will be one of the many catalysts of change we all so desperately need.