A look into the future; enter the futurist

Here is a fun exercise with respect to products that have remained relevant for many years. Quick, think of the most enduring designs of all time. What did you come up with? Did you reach back to the classics like the Honeywell thermostat by Loewy, the Coke bottle or Bic pen? Did you think of the moderns like the original iPod or maybe a Nest? Why did the product last so long? Was it attributed to an exclusive technology, defensive pricing, lack of competition? How did these designers and design teams achieve a bit of product-life immortality when other designs in the same space came and went?  Maybe their products simply meet users’ needs and expectations which have remained unchanged over the years.  The challenge to keeping a product relevant and competitive 7-10 years is understanding how and why trends in user behavior will change, so the product includes the appropriate attributes and features to meet these changes.  If you are design leader faced with developing product solutions that need to remain relevant, competitive, and profitable in the market place for several years, this might be for you.

Look, some markets like tech, are short lived by design and thrive on delivering the latest iteration in quick succession in pursuit of closing out Moore’s law.  A laptop is ancient after 3 years and according to my kids it is practically a crime if you are rocking a smart phone that is 2 generations behind the most recent version.  But other categories require more staying power from their latest incarnation.  Some markets like medical or juvenile products are a bit more obvious where long development timeframes, regulatory certification and multi-million-dollar tooling cap-ex are but a few influencers that require market place permanence.  For those fellow developers in either category, I feel you.  Many other categories, however, place the burden of a long term stay in the market on the clairvoyance of the design team to make the right calls that meet users’ needs today, tomorrow, and the next day.

Our role as new developers is often that of the ones being placed in a dark room and asked to find the light switch.

light bulb in darkDuring the kickoff of a project it is typical to begin with little more than basic consumer understanding of the current or past perspective of an existing design.  Our role as new developers is often that of the ones being placed in a dark room and asked to find the light switch.  Through various methodologies and techniques within a structured approach or design process, we engage consumers, evaluate business metrics and objectives, benchmark the competitive landscape, and review intellectual property (IP) minefields to make sense of a viable direction and bring clarity to how to move forward, i.e., find the “light switch”.  The questions we face are: how long do you want the light to stay on, 7 – 10 years, 15?  How will we know what changes the user will face in an ever-changing world that will influence our design to meet those needs?  Change is constant.  And the rate of change is constantly changing at an even faster pace.

The growing role of the futurist is the element that helps us get out in front of the current user dynamic to anticipate the emerging needs, so we can make the right choices during development today for a relevant solution tomorrow.  The futurist helps us see and understand shifts in macro trends of technology and socio-economic behaviors to help identify what looms on the horizon.  Funny that I am looking back to talk about the future, but during the mid-1990s when I wore the appearance of a younger industrial designer I worked on a project at Black & Decker (B&D) as part of the housewares team.  We were tasked with finding new solutions to improve how families prepared meals at home.  If I asked you today to come up with improved food preparation ideas for 2030 for a typical family of 4, both parents working and two children in day care and grade school, what would you start to consider? Obviously, you don’t have all the information, but you have a lot of questions.  How do you get out in front, beyond the influences of today’s family structure and routine?

How will we know what changes the user will face in an ever-changing world that will influence our design to meet those needs?

The futurist was the secret insight weapon during this project.  In addition to the typical demographics and project brief we received for the kickoff ideation session, the futurist illuminated what changes we could expect in the next 10 years and the understanding of the real events behind those trends that were forcing those changes to occur. At the time (remember mid 1990s) more women were entering the workplace alongside of their husbands, breaking the traditional role of homemaker, with a sharp rise expected for more women to enter the work force (common place today, as forecasted).  Simultaneously, there was a new growing trend for one or both grandparents moving in with the kids instead of going to an assisted living or senior home. The working parents were raising kids and acting as care givers for the grandparents. The futurist dubbed this “The Sandwich Generation”.  With both parents working, kids needed to be picked up form daycare, and homework help was often the first task when entering the door in the evening.  The futurist helped us understand that the byproduct of this new family dynamic resulted in “Time Compression”, the other macro trend.  Mom, who was still considered the preparer of the family meal, was not starting the meal until much later after a long day of work.  With this behavioral understanding our design team was tasked with looking at ways to improve the efficiency and convenience associated with meal preparation to meet this growing trend.

OK, get ready to be blown away! This led us to breakthrough innovation for the day (remember mid 1990’s).  We generated thinking around bar code scanners that would inventory your items whenever you placed them in or removed them from your kitchen cabinets and refrigerator.  Computers would access your inventory list of ingredients and suggest meals and provide recipes based on what you had in stock.  The same list would be sent to the grocery store, filled, billed, and delivered to your house.  OK, nothing revolutionary here and pretty “meh” by today’s standards.  If challenged with the same problem today, do you know what changes are coming in the next 10 years to prepare your solution for tomorrow?  Just as we looked at the roll of integrated technology back in 1996, how will you consider the roll of IoT to evolve to influence everyday life?  What changes will occur with the integration of AI?

By integrating a futurist’s perspective within the design process, a team can better understand the potential long-term shifts that influence human behavior. 

The inclusion of the futurist in the design process 20 years ago was an eye-opening experience into how to generate high-level thinking that could deliver solutions years ahead of their time, most of which were spot on, and are common in today’s home.  In fact, the achilleas heel to our thinking was we were too far out in front of the technology curve (a lesson for another time).  By integrating a futurist’s perspective within the design process, a team can better understand the potential long-term shifts that influence human behavior.  This understanding empowers a team to decide what technologies, features, and characteristics they should consider while addressing those shifts to remain relevant.  Does every project need, or will benefit by having, a futurist? No more than every project needing a full usability or industrial design team, but a more regular appearance can help, especially when the project needs to last in the market for several years.

Abstract tunnel view of skySo, if you subscribe to this thought of giving the futurist a regular seat at the user centered design table, what projects are candidates?  Not every project needs a futurist any more than UX or industrial design (ID), but a more regular appearance can help. Especially when the project needs to last in the market for several years. What benefits can the futurist bring to design thinking? What considerations would influence how we work with this unique group and what challenges should be considered? What is the accuracy when predicting long term trends?

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