It’s almost a cliche to say that we are in an age of unprecedented technological change. Concepts like Moore’s Law, which states that overall processing power for computers doubles every two years, attempt to bring this rate of evolution into perspective. At the same time, there is more attention than ever being paid to the role that product and user experience design plays in successful innovation and company success. A recent McKinsey report that studied more than 300 businesses found that companies that embrace design created 32 percent more revenue and 56 percent more shareholder returns than competitors, over a five-year period.
Designers often play a central role in mediating how people end up experiencing new technology; they define interfaces, interaction models (think chatbots, voice interaction, gestures), and user flows. So what is the designer’s responsibility when it comes to new tech? Are there evergreen approaches that designers can rely on when working with cutting-edge technology? And how can designers keep on top of things when they are changing so fast?
We talked to two designers working in different contexts, Andréa Crofts and Minh Dao, about these topics. Andréa is a product manager at League, where she leads the product design team in creating experiences that help customers live healthier lives everyday, through a customer-centric health benefits platform. Minh works as a designer at Element AI, the world’s largest artificial intelligence (AI) research lab, building AI-driven products for organizations. Both designers have experience working on projects that bring new innovations to people through digital products.
Why staying up to date on technology matters
The first question on our minds was why it matters for designers to keep up with technological advances? For Andréa, the framing of the question needed to be broadened. “It’s so important, but I think it’s not only about staying up to date on technology, rather staying up to date on the world and how it’s changing. If all you’re doing is reading about the latest programming language but you’re not out there experiencing human things in the world, you won’t be able to tell compelling stories in your work.”
From Minh’s perspective, it comes down to being able to design effectively, and support clients or the people you work with. “When I was consulting last year, most of the questions I got asked were around things like smart recommendations, algorithms, and AI. It’s very typical for people to expect product designers to be able to answer questions on these topics and be able to design solutions with these in mind.”
Of course, this raises a question of how deep you should go in your understanding of these topics. Minh says this all comes down to knowing enough to have effective conversations with those you are collaborating with. “It’s about having enough understanding to vouch for what this technology enables for the end user, and why it matters to the experience. You don’t need full technical knowledge, but you do need to be able to negotiate with your team and drive the value through into the thing that we eventually build.”
Challenges when designing for new technology
Working on projects that involve new technology brings with it challenges for designers and teams. At ElementAI, Minh experiences this first hand. “Our customers often want to use AI to make sense of their data and automate getting to insights from the data. Working with AI is a new context, and we need to figure out where everyone fits and what a good process looks like.” While the design process can serve as an overarching guidepost, to solve these problems there is a need to work with people from really broad backgrounds, like engineering, academia, research, and design. “There is no cut and paste process that can solve these problems. It requires a true multi-disciplinary approach, and we can’t reuse old methodologies.”
There are also limits to new technologies, even ones that seem like a silver bullet to problem solving, like AI. Even when you understand what users want to achieve, there are constraints driven by the sophistication of technologies. Minh shared an anecdote about working on IBM Watson Analytics several years go. “We were focused on using natural language search queries to make sense of large data sets, so for example a coffee franchise manager wanting to ask what the best selling coffee across all locations in a particular area was. Even though we knew what we wanted to achieve, the technology was very limiting and there were issues. Working at the cutting edge of new tech means there are also limitations based on how mature a technology is.” This is where you have to be able to prioritize, and negotiate what’s possible with the underlying user need in mind.
When Andréa worked on a project designing a data dashboard for Muse, a meditation headband, it was crucial to emphasize the right data, not just the data that’s possible to collect and display. Muse is a brain-sensing headband that guides people through meditation, while tracking brain activity. People can choose to share this data with a health professional, for example if they are living with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The first challenge was thinking about data and permissions. “Surfacing data is very controversial, but when it’s in a closed forum that you opt into like that, open data can be really effective. It can allow both the patient and the health professional to recognize patterns, have better conversations and ultimately make lifestyle adjustments.”
When mediating people’s experience of using Muse, the design challenge was also putting the emphasis on the right data. Muse shows people when their brain is in an ‘active state’ and a ‘calm state,’ and for users, it could be disheartening when they see many active minutes despite making the effort to meditate. “Health professionals are trying to communicate the importance of regular meditation, rather than the result of each individual meditation session. So our challenge was, how do we de-prioritize this active state and instead prioritize the calm state, and how do we motivate people through frequency or streaks?”
The interface design ended up highlighting calm minutes, rather than showing comparative percentages of time spent in calm, active, or neutral states. An emphasis on streaks supported the user to celebrate the benefits of continued investment in meditation. Finally, color and shape were used to make the UI feel calm rather than frustrating. “Color has a ton of sensitivity around it, especially when you’re in a certain state of mind. So we used cooler colors rather than warmer colors, and rounded edges. Subtle things make a big difference.” People’s experience of this new technology that encompasses hardware (the headband) and software (the interface) is really shaped by the design decisions that the team made.
Principles for designing with new technology
While tech evolves, the good news is that many principles of design and UX are evergreen. Keeping user needs and the problem you are solving at the forefront of the work holds true regardless of the medium or technology you are working with.
Andréa emphasises the importance of storytelling and humanizing technology. “Even when we’re operating in completely different spaces, like creating a virtual reality (VR) app, the same principles really do apply. Speak to people in human language, tell stories, help people to contextualize themselves in the experience you are creating.” This is all about designing products so that people can feel comfortable, and so they feel it’s personalized to their needs. “You see this with the different ways apps try to show you they know you, for example Wealthsimple will ask you what your goals are, whether it’s buying a home, or saving for retirement, in the onboarding flow.”
The end user, and their context, are always top of mind for Minh as well. “I try to hone in on using interaction patterns that are known or familiar to our users, based on what they might be used to using.” He also tries to consider where the effort will sit in the product-effort triad. “How can we remove as much of the effort from the user as possible? Especially for onboarding or input flows, how can we leverage technology to get a user into a product as fast as possible and then use things like progressive disclosure to build the relationship?”
A final crucial principle is that of trust. When working with new technologies, designers need to enable users to have a sense of control and trust in what is happening. “Being able to trust what’s going on and feel comfortable is crucial for users. If I were to ask Siri or Google about the information are they are using to get results for me, it should be very transparent how that is happening,” says Minh. Revealing the inputs to a result will build user trust in the output.
The designer’s responsibility
Design choices have a knock-on effect in how new technology like AI or chatbots exist in the world and the impact they have. For both Andréa and Minh, considering the possible impact of the work you are doing is a crucial responsibility for designers. “I need to think of the impact a product or technology is going to have on the people on the other end; am I doing things that make sense for the end user? Designers need to be really great at unlocking value for people,” says Mihn. “We also need to think about other types of impact; for example, is this a product that could displace people from their jobs due to automation. If so, we need to be aware of that and we have a responsibility to support our clients to plan for and anticipate that.”
Similarly, Andréa is highly aware of her responsibility as a designer. “I’m thinking a lot about the challenges we have as creators of technology to really think deeply about the behaviors we’re creating. For example, the types of habit-forming loops we are designing into products. You look at certain products like Instagram that are focused on driving things like daily active users or even hourly active users. A lot of people are suffering from mental health issues as a result of this infatuation with a product that is supposed to be connecting us.” She also mentions that it’s not just a software issue, but that in a highly digital-first lifestyle, hardware can also have negative impacts. “I actually got a repetitive strain injury and was off work for two weeks because the new MacBook butterfly key mechanism in the keyboard isn’t creating enough depth of movement!”
In her work, Andréa tries to keep this responsibility at the forefront through a few different tactics. “We developed a list of questions that give us a lens through which to design. For example, what if everyone did the thing I want them to do? Am I maximizing happiness for the greatest number of people? Am I treating people as an ends or as a means? Am I treating people as a way to meet business objectives or am I really enabling them to meet their needs?” This spills over into the way that goals and metrics get set. “We’re thinking about shifting measures of success from things like net promoter score (NPS) and usership numbers to how did our features actually provide impact and how did that make people feel? For example, asking people to give feedback when they’ve finished one of our health programs.”
For Minh, it also comes down to the values that you are expressing and imbuing through your work. “It’s something we discuss a lot, the impact of AI and the things that we do here. We talk about how we can empathize with end users and the companies we work for. We hold dearly that it’s for us to determine what this technology ends up looking like in the world. We want to ensure that reflects certain values like diversity, and empathizing that with end users and not just the bottom line.”
Advice on keeping on top of new tech
For designers trying to figure out how to stay up to date on technology, Andréa and Minh have some similar advice. Both of them emphasize the importance of working with and learning from experts. “I’m lucky at ElementAI that I work alongside really smart scientists, who can elevate my knowledge to a minimum level. I go for lunch or a beer with them and ask lots of questions!” says Minh. That interplay between expertise and design was something Andréa echoed. “There’s an app called Moodnotes, and you can really see how the design firm ustwo paired up with experts from the beginning, in order to include the latest in cognitive behavior therapy in how the experience is designed. I think that’s where things are headed, in terms of designers working with experts to create these experiences.”
Reading along with ongoing curiosity is also great ways to stay informed. “I like pieces like Marli Mesibov in Smashing Magazine talking about designing experiences to improve mental health, or Ella Espinoza’s Betakit piece on how to design healthcare to be more human,” says Andrea. Minh likes books by Kevin Kelly, and reads publications like The Verge and Wired. “It’s also really important to get inspiration outside of technology and design, by going to museums or studying philosophy,” says Minh. “I love going to exhibitions by artists like James Turrell, who uses light and space and our eyes, saying so much and so little at the same time.”
With great power…
While no one can predict what new technology will emerge to shape our day-to-day lives and experiences, it’s likely that the increasingly central role of the designer will continue in creating these experiences. As Minh puts it, “Designers have a raw skill set that’s very valuable in the future, in that we offer a lot of impact on a product or company through our creativity.”
With this great power, comes great responsibility. Andréa elaborates, “We’re essentially digital urban planners. We can either very intentionally or very unintentionally build these products that thousands if not millions of people will use. That’s an enormous responsibility to talk to the right mix and diversity of people, and to start thinking deeply about the impact of the work you are doing.”