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Design and the Coming Iceberg

I am a product designer. I have been part of frog for nearly 20 years. In that time I have seen our industry change quite a bit—yet it is nothing like the changes I see coming. Our industry will have a choice to make: either change radically, or be relegated to decorating the surfaces of the world.

Our challenge begins with our history. Product designers have historically been focused on creating the things we can see, feel, and operate. It's still that way today. Even the newer field of software user interface design is largely derivative of the approach and values created by industrial designers many years ago. While these two disciplines together make up the heart of product design today, it has been the field of computing that has driven so much change recently. Twenty years ago, computing was just coming into its own as a medium to which designers could usefully contribute. Since then, computing has been the medium for just about every major opportunity for product innovation. Audio devices became essentially small computers. Mobile phones became small computers. Everything from medical devices to sports equipment is being augmented by computing. Working in this new medium, many of our early challenges began as a raw effort to get the product to work effectively. We were dealing with the limitations of slow processors, constrained memory, low-resolution screens, and unwieldy bulk. Over time, the technology improved to the point where we could focus on making the product more usable and enjoyable. Today, as the once difficult feats of functionality and usability become table stakes, our focus is shifting towards driving greater systems-wide thinking and more beautiful, humanistic experiences. Computing-driven products are no longer islands. They exist as parts of greater systems and brand experiences. The product design industry has collectively responded to this challenge over the last few years; but as we do, new waves are coming that will drive frog's evolution going forward.

The first wave: Experience Design. This wave is essentially upon us, and yet – although the idea among designers is not new—it is only just now becoming evident to many of our customers. The measure of a company’s value has traditionally been driven by the aggregate value of its products and services; a company’s brand equity was the only way to measure its collective impact. While design has always sought to visually and conceptually draw a systems-wide connection across a product line, we were otherwise free to approach each product as an individual design and engineering challenge. This kind of thinking had its advantages, as it allowed the designer to draw out the individual assets of a product along the same lines a consumer would experience the product. For example, if you made the toaster look great, operate easily, and cook bread effectively, you would directly create a satisfying experience for the consumer. The path to success was direct and visceral. And to be clear, those experiences aren't going away. We still want and need simple products like toasters. But that's not where the exciting new challenges are in design.

The modern design challenge is to define a great experience for a consumer that is composed of a range of touch points, in various cases composed of interactions with several devices, retail experiences, personal contact points, software interfaces, physical mechanisms, data, and software intelligence. The focus of great experiences has shifted from properties like form and color to ideas such as choreography and curation. What it has meant for design—for frog—is a massive expansion in what it takes to make a great product. We are still responsible to create great individual product experiences. The traditional challenges like form, color, usability, functionality, etc., didn't go away. They became complicit in a larger scope of storytelling—not merely how the single product could be defined, but how the entire customer experience, often across an expanding landscape of touch points and interactions, might unfold for the user. We are systems designers now.

The second wave: The Iceberg. With the first wave consuming our immediate attention, it is important to begin preparing for the second wave coming right up behind it. This wave promises to dramatically change how we as product designers can define a great product experience. While the first wave, Experience Design, expanded the stage for design and essentially matrixed many of our craft’s traditional levers, it did not fundamentally alter our vocabulary or our medium. But this oncoming wave promises to do just that, as the reach of design’s influence grows to encompass what is unseen below the surface. Traditionally, so much of what a designer does is essentially solving for what is manifest—what we can see, touch, and operate. But this will change. It is changing now. Products and experiences are increasingly defined by attributes that are less tangible, less obvious to the user. Just think of what you love about e-mail, SMS, or Facebook. These aren't great inventions because of their interfaces; the value of these tools is defined through the content we create as users, and their ubiquity of service. This new world is powered by software logic, algorithms, data models and other attributes below the surface we can see. Moreover, interpretive forms of interaction such as voice and gesture are beginning to drive the quality of a good product experience. This poses a challenge for an industry focused on traditional design skills. We will need to adopt new skills and new ways to describe our ideas to companies as the product of our thinking becomes less tangible. In some ways the design industry has begun to adopt, but The Iceberg goes much deeper than we yet realize.

The third wave: Organic Products. Products will evolve to evolve. A new generation of products are being designed to grow alongside the user, to adopt new features, and to adjust behavior to better serve the user. There are hints of this happening but the full impact of this trend may take more time to build. We recently worked with Honeywell to create an innovative home thermostat called Lyric that demonstrates how powerful this trend will be. The device is designed to learn from the user and adapt its temperature management routine over time. Because it is connected to the cloud it can also learn from its surrounding community of devices. This device is also part of a family of devices. As the user installs additional devices they are designed to pool their capabilities, working as a “team” to share capabilities and functions. Each device can tell its own story as well. It will help Honeywell understand how it is being used and how to improve and expand its value to the customer. It can be updated over time to adopt entirely new features and deliver a progressively improving experience. The product itself can tell its own story, reporting back to its maker how it is being used and “understanding” whether the user is satisfied. In this way the design challenge becomes not merely to create an ideal instance of a product, but a fully designed lifecycle. The task is more akin to designing the DNA of a body more than the construction of the body itself. It also means the basic deliverable and contracting model of design will need to change. Today a designer team delivers a production-ready thing. We work with the mindset of delivering something finished and ready for manufacturing and consumption. But tomorrow's designer must be prepared to ride alongside the customer for the life of that product, helping the product grow and adapt in response to real usage over time. Designers working for startups and companies like Facebook have already been living this on the software side for a number of years—they work on live products and can test assumptions in real/near-time, but this trend will spread well beyond the cutting edge and into hardware and everyday experiences.

There is a twist to these trends. I want to punctuate these three trends with a beautiful irony. Because of this expanding landscape of design, users are finding it much harder to identify with products. They seem more complex because in so many authentic ways, they are more complex. But conversely, people long for simplicity. They want to identify with the things they use and own. And because of the growing gap between these emotions and the abstraction of value, they are increasingly turning to the manifest attributes to identify with a product. A guy may love his smartphone because—in his mind—it has a sleek shape, a vibrant screen, and a cool interface; but most likely, his love is really inspired by the elusory qualities of his experience, driven by cloud services, software algorithms, clever data models, etc., all working behind the scenes to create what should rightfully be called beauty—equally as beautiful as any of the design elements he can actually see and touch.

We have to be prepared to recognize these trends as they evolve. They don't come announced. They tend to creep up on us through evolving technology and the shifting needs of our customers. We have to lean into these ideas to capture them early, before they are commodities. We must adopt technology as part of a designers’ toolset, not merely the post-facto means of bringing a design to life, but the very material used to forge our thinking. It is our fortune that technology is on our side. When I began my career, technology was a problem to overcome. Just getting things to work was 90 percent of the task. But today, the tools are evolving to where we can quite literally think by making. The effort we expend to sample our ideas, the disposable artifacts used to demonstrate our designs, is being challenged by the opportunity to develop within the target technological platform. For example, today we explore user interface ideas with Photoshop but it's becoming within scope to simply develop the ideas as working expressions of code. We're not there yet, but the outcome is inevitable. In the late 1980s print design experienced a similar transformation. Designers used to develop their ideas in rough form, far removed from the actual production medium. That changed with the invention of desktop publishing tools. The term WYSIWYG became a reality. Design and Production became technically the same with any separation only remaining for the management of large volumes of content. The same evolution will happen in product design, but over a longer timeframe. Lastly, as more of what we design is socially connected, a consumer's decision to adopt a technology increasingly becomes one of whether to opt into or out of society. This poses a wider ethical angle to what we do as designers. When everything becomes interconnected, our responsibilities change.

“Design is how it works.” This is how the late Steve Jobs described the greater value of design. The statement is true now more than ever. And it goes even deeper than what Jobs might have implied. The “it” of that quote becomes not only the experience of a single device, but a composite experience made up of a multitude of touch points, not only what we can see and touch, but by a world increasingly unseen and diverse, and by an organic mindset that says that the product, the “it,” is no longer a fixed static thing, but a growing, evolving experience that ultimately can begin to mirror our ideas of life itself.

Design must grow and evolve. It needs leadership and risk-taking. This is our challenge.