When designing a client’s next big website, we like to think ahead of the best-practice curve. Technology changes fast and there is always a risk that what is great today will be so-so six months later, and positively tired in two years. So how can you design something that maintains lasting relevance?
Accurately predicting the future is very difficult, but there are some good ways to provide a chronological perspective that can inspire your designs. This article will introduce the basics of trend analysis and highlight some observed trends relevant to technology design:
- Interaction replacing information architecture
- Hi-fi – lo-fi loops
First, let’s look at why trends are important.
Why Trends Happen
Humans do not stumble blindly from one new thing to the next, but instead react to newness based on their previous experiences. We look for things that are a bit different from what we have seen before, but not too different. The psychologist Wilhelm Wundt showed that a certain level of unusualness is dopaminergic, but too much novelty becomes too stimulating, curtailing the effects of dopamine. So in a world of yellow boxes, an orange box is amazing but a red box looks ugly. Six months later, in a world of orange boxes the red box is a genius idea. This is one of the engines that drive change in design; every new thing is a reaction to what has come before.
Trends can be continuous or cyclical. Examples of continuous trends are Moore’s Law and population growth. These continue until disrupted by a natural limit or a disruptive idea or technology. Cyclical trends repeat over time; examples are fashion, or the color of electronics (e.g., black vs. silver audio equipment). Cyclical trends react to what has come before, and each cycle is a little different from the last time around.
Trends can also be disrupted by technology (e.g., touchscreens changed mobile phones) or innovation (e.g., Jonathan Ive vs. beige boxes for PCs). You have to look for unchallenged design conventions and be aware of upcoming advances in materials, manufacturing, miniaturization, power supply, processing, and business models that remove design barriers or set up new design options. But don’t let your imagination run wild; before technologies mature there is usually excessive hype about how much they will change things.
You will also need to have some insight into people’s motivations to make your own guesses about the potential appeal, uptake, and use of new products. But these predictions are often very misguided; think of the surprise success of text messaging and the continued failure of video calls. And you can make your own predictions about the current push for 3D movies and TV.
Some guidelines for mapping the recent past to the impending future are:
- Look back in history at least as far as you want to look forward into the future.
- Analyze whether each trend is continuous or cyclical, and gradual or reactive.
- Scan the horizon for possible disruptive events.
- Distinguish between long-term trends and flash-in-the-pan fads.
- Incorporate some insight into people’s motivations.
So with these basic principles explained, it is time to present some perspectives on trends happening today. These observations are not supposed to be comprehensive but hopefully they can be informative or inspiring, and always remember that predicting the future is famously unreliable!
A long-term trend in the West has been the weakening of formal styles. We used to dress for dinner. Suits used to have waistcoats. Ties used to be mandatory. Now there is a much wider range of style, with some areas being still quite formal (e.g., law, finance) but others being semi- or fully casual.
This change is mirrored in UX design, where language used to be formal but now it is conventional to use everyday language. My Blu-ray player says, “This operation currently prohibited for this disk,” which in today’s setting has an overly formal tone, leading to poor UX. Compare that to the error message when Firefox restarts and can’t open all your tabs again: “Well, this is embarrassing.” Or when Gmail has been offline and reconnects: “… and, we’re back!” The conversational tone is casual and fits in well with improved UX, as a thoughtfully styled, casual tone improves the user’s feeling of engagement with the system. The trend toward more casual language is also driven by our exposure to media like texting and Twitter, where brief messages amplify the casual style as words get crunched and missed to save space. This casual style creates feelings of friendliness and closeness.
Casualness is also mirrored in page layouts and visual design. Recent mainstream designs have moved away from traditional menu bars and frames to simpler layouts using lots of white space and casual statements in large text (e.g., see the latest National Australia Bank redesign). And I recommend that you browse some of your favorite and familiar websites on the Wayback Machine to see how design styles and moods have been changing.
A more casual style in language and in visual design induces a better feeling of engagement in the user; casualness is associated with concepts such as friendliness, group belonging, cooperation, safety, sympathy, and feelings of connectedness.
The whole world is becoming more casual and connected, and I doubt we’ll see a reaction back to formal, except possibly a rebirth of politeness.
So to future-proof your design, be as casual as the most casual example in the same class of product, and review your competitors, paying attention to their tone of voice and conversational stance. If other products in the class still look a bit formal, go a bit more casual. Ways to be casual include:
- Avoid jargon.
- Use conversational grammar and short sentences.
- Don’t state the obvious. Allow the context to communicate the objects and then only use words for the actions. For example, on a page of product images, there is no need for a “Products” heading.
- Humanize information by, e.g., using labels like “Showing 1-20 of thousands” instead of “1-20 of 12,739.” A real person wouldn’t say “12,739;” he would say “about 13,000.”
- Avoid artificial friendliness such as, “Good to see you again!” or “How can we help?? Try to be real; e.g., “Hello again” and “Need some assistance?” It’s a website so don’t pretend to be a person unless you can reveal the actual person (read on…)
Related to the feeling of closeness we get from casual language and styling, there is also a strong trend towards making people feel more connected to the human aspect of digital content they consume, be it closeness to the producer or to other consumers of the content. We are encouraged to feel connected to the newspaper article or blog by the photo of the author (particularly with editorial writers). If readers feel like they are in a conversation with someone they know, they will stay longer. Some sites also tell us that the article we are reading is also being read by others, that we can add to the comments, and that we are encouraged to tell our friends about the content; each of these creates a strong sense of connectedness.
Connectedness is used everywhere as a way of increasing engagement and influencing people to feel part of something, and to do something because other people are doing it too. An early example of this was the Amazon recommendation engine, and today social media is personalizing almost all the content that was previously impersonal and solitary. When we are sitting alone at our computers we can now sense the crowd around us.
For us as social animals, this is not a pendulum trend; the drive to feel connected with others, even passively, will only get greater. Indicators of connectedness, such as faces and social media feedback, make us feel closeness and hence safety in much the same way as casual language makes us feel we are among friends.
To future-proof your design, include information about the identity and/or actions related to three groups of people: the people on the inside (the company), the general public (crowd information), and the user’s friends (social media). Ways to increase connectedness include:
- Have human faces in the images on the site—the more real and less stock-image-esque, the better.
- Reveal the author of the content wherever possible and as much as possible:
- write as a person representing the group, not as the group.
- reveal the name, perhaps a picture, perhaps the Twitter handle, and perhaps some other public-facing personal social media related to the author.
- Most sites have quick links to social media; it’s expected now.
- Reveal what other people are doing with the content and related content and, if you can, what the friends of the individual reader are doing (an advantage of Facebook Connect, for instance).
- Put real people and real contexts in the “About us” section.
Interaction replacing information architecture
In the old days of static, text-and-image HTML pages, information architecture (IA) was king. Arranging content with a classy and intuitive IA was the clear path to success. Interaction consisted of hyperlinks that replaced the current page with a different one.
Gradually, interactive elements have crept in. As web technology has continually improved, it has become possible to include more interactivity into a single, loaded page. Look, for example, at all the functionality in a Facebook news feed page: you can hide updates, play videos, open chat, update your status, peek at extra information with tooltip panels, and so on, all without forcing a page reload. This makes it possible to explore and act on information on a single page, using a simple view that allows you to dig deeper into the bits you want to investigate and find rich functionality when your cursor gets close to something you might want to act upon.
Meanwhile on desktop systems, interactions are increasingly moving from the menu bar and toolbars to context menus and floating toolbars (think of Word, Quicktime, iMovie), and the effects of actions are increasingly available as an instant preview (from WYSIWYG to WYGIWYS). The locus of user control is moving toward being centered on the object being interacted with (the content) and away from the overall application framework (the structure).
Knowing the object of a user’s attention is helpful in focusing the available interaction options. You can present fewer options, maybe just the key options, in context. For example it’s easier to click “Hide updates from FarmVille” on a single News Feed item than having to address the issue in the Facebook settings area. This leads to a really punchy UX because the main point of interaction has only a handful of controls instead of tens or hundreds.
As well, people prefer direct manipulation of objects; it leads to greater satisfaction. Dragging a photo to the trash can be more rewarding than clicking the photo and then choosing a “delete” function elsewhere on the screen. The trend toward more direct manipulation is very strong in the rise of touchscreens.
The evolution of interaction is a huge area, and all the details can’t be covered here. The key point is that instead of designing myriad content and providing a way to navigate around it, we are designing a much simpler organization of richly interactive content. People have a strong preference for direct manipulation, and figuring out how an object can be changed by prodding it is easier than understanding how things are arranged by exploring an IA.
To future-proof your design, provide as much functionality as possible in place, even if this requires a greatly reduced set of options.
- Have contextual controls that appear on mouse-over or selection.
- Don’t think in terms of screens but instead in terms of interactive objects within screens.
- Look for ways to make the interactivity the core of the UX vision.
- Be prepared to sacrifice completeness for punchiness in the main display areas. Hide a complete set of functions away somewhere where it can be free to be clunky.
Hi-fi – lo-fi loops
As technology gives us better and better fidelity in sound, image, video, and refinement of hardware, there is starting to be a counter-reaction. For example, Lomography is a popular photographic trend that is a reaction against the incredible image quality that is now available in digital photography. Lomography uses really quite rubbish cameras (such as the Lomo, hence the name) and takes advantage of unique, stylized effects allowed for by the lo-fi technology such as blurring, coloration, and light leaks that smear across the image. You might even own the Hipstamatic iPhone app or something similar. These are built on the idea that there is more charm and character in a lo-fi image, and that forgetting about fidelity helps you to focus on creativity.
As digital devices become characterless digital blocks (compare an iPhone 4 with the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance) there seems to be growing interest in arts and craft (e.g., Etsy), although this also trends with the economic situation. People seek the authentic and individual charm of the handmade and intricate over the accuracy, sameness, and soullessness of the mass-produced.
Similarly, there are often cycles in the music industry where better technology leads to more polished sounds and then a reaction of punk, garage, or grunge shuns production values and even musicality for the perceived authenticity of creative, expressive music.
So sometimes high quality, hi-fi technology will please users, but at other times they may find hi-fi to be sterile and lacking heart, so a design that helps to reveal the hand of the artist will connect better with the audience. It requires a bit of creativity and insight to know which side of the coin is appropriate for a particular design at a particular moment.
Futurology used to try to predict definite futures, but the current view is that there are multiple possible futures, and we influence which ones come true. Companies now think about potential and preferable futures, and make strategies to improve the likelihood of the preferable futures.
Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” So the best way to make a product or a service that is still relevant in three years is to:
- know the trends and pitch the design just far enough ahead of them.
- design something just different enough so people love it so much that it influences others to design things similar to your design.
If you position it correctly, your product won’t just fit into the future, it will have helped to define it.