From paper to pixels: How design shapes the future

From paper to pixels: How design shapes the future

At my house growing up, my entrepreneur parents littered our dining room table with papers trying to navigate the financial complexities of their business.

They sorted bills and invoices to create a makeshift tactile map of their small operation – in effect, designing a financial system view based on a workflow that suited them. In its own way, it was gloriously effective, and very inventive.

Today, that collage of paper has been digitized on the 2D screen of our phones, tablet or laptop. But we’re still clicking through software tabs to navigate a user interface that’s not far removed from the dining room table – still pretty clunky too much of the time.

That’s about to change. New immersive tech like VR, AR and MR will usher us into new digital spaces that will bring emotional connections even to month-end account reckoning. Those pieces of paper on the table will take on new life with customization and personalization limited only by our ability to imagine and create.

Yet the pressure is constantly on designers to navigate between future vision and current realities. The challenge is to look out across time from the dining room table to imagine how much more of our earthbound physical experience can be positively transformed by technology. And always, we must begin our explorations with design processes that ensure our teams develop deep empathy for real people trying to solve real problems or we’ll get too far ahead of ourselves.

My own work leading a future-oriented team with Intuit’s advanced design and technology group means touching a broad range of technologies – to really understand and experiment with them, and then inform and inspire the rest of the company. Across my career at companies that successfully blended world class hardware and software, I’ve found three ways to bridge the connection between vision and reality:

Deliver products that actually help people’s lives

It’s tempting to create technology for its own sake; but to truly create value, it must relate to a human need. Whether in hardware or software, design must consider the context of use –the combination of physical and digital interactions, and the emotional response – and then produce a solution that helps and even delights.

With Amazon’s Alexa platform, Google Home and others, creative design via a voice interface is about to explode. VR and AR adoption, meanwhile, remains very early days but is no less important. Consider the data: In her annual Internet Trends spotlight, Mary Meeker noted the 35-fold surge in Google voice search queries since 2008. In VR, IDC forecasts sales of 110 million units in 2020, from just 9.6 million in 2016.

Let’s please make all this useful.

In the financial world, for example, many people are uncomfortable talking about their personal finances in public. Our job is to design an experience appropriate for the context. Voice may be a fine medium to interact about cash flow or an account balance in the privacy of a home or office. But in public, a customer might feel more comfortable posing a query via text message, or there might be a multimodal interaction – a voice input, but with a text response.

Learn, experiment – and then make something

When designers explore new technology territory, we must quickly become experts – or at least obtain deep knowledge that we can apply to our world so that we can start developing future experiences.

Experimentation is key. Oculus, HoloLens, Samsung Gear, Amazon Echo – name most new leading hardware and software platforms and we experiment with it in our studio. With these new immersive and conversational interfaces – whether it’s AR/VR/MR, Voice or Chatbots – we focus resources on understanding the technology, the landscape of different players in the market, and getting our hands on the gear.

As designers, technologists and hackers, we all possess a ‘creation chromosome’ that triggers our inherent need to learn by building things. In this future-building scenario, that means prototypes – a video, some code, or a nearly full-blown app running on a smartphone. With each prototype and experiment we learn something new that can then inform and inspire our team and others in the organization.

By learning, experimenting, and creating, designers ensure that they are looking around the corner – again, with a laser-focus on filling a real human need.

Inform and inspire across your company

At the highest level, company leadership must want to beat a path to the future and also must understand that it requires both an operational and mindset discipline.  A future-embracing mindset impacts the brand and culture – including employee retention and engagement. The operational side ensures innovation is woven into the product development processes.

Future-oriented designers can help deliver the future faster by influencing cross company collaborations. Create demos to engage engineers, finance and even your CEO – to let them experience new technologies. The demos, whether physical or digital, act as conversation starters. At Intuit, we ‘design’ the demos with a carefully crafted script, to tease out human reactions to new experiences using questions like, “How did that make you feel? If you think about the company or your part of the business, can you imagine a customer using something like this? How could we make their life better?”

The idea is to expose them to a new experience and then, through a series of questions, stretch their brain – and then link it back to relating the technology to a human need.  

The bottom line: Believe in the future

Finally, designers must be optimists. Keep your head up and believe strongly that thoughtful design and collaboration can create a brighter future. Embrace that mindset, and you’re well on your way to catapulting your organization to the human-centric design future of tomorrow.

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