Style & Class was a speaker series in Ottawa, hosted by Shopify. I spoke on what the skills, trends, and tools we should be using to make products that remain relevant.
As mentioned I’m Tom Creighton, the director of design at Wealthsimple
How many of you have heard of Wealthsimple? Niiiice
for those of you who haven’t, our five-second elevator pitch is that we want to make investing easy and accessible for everybody
and Today I want to talk about something I’ve been thinking about as we expand our team and expand our offerings, which is “future-centered design”
and to my mind there are definitely two prongs to this – both literally “in the future”, in terms of tools and sustainability and minority-report VR interfaces
… but the second prong is the future of our relationships through design – that is, the questions about how we can keep our clients or customers happy and engaged for a long time as current users of our products – which I think is almost certainly relevant to the work we’re doing
… and ultimately I don’t think those two things are as different as they seem.
So there are a number of questions we can ask ourselves about what ‘future-centered’ really means
1. what’s going to inform UX in the future? What should we be thinking about right now?
2. what are we actually trying to describe when we can say a design is ‘future proof’?
and 3. What are the tactics and patterns we can use to actually ship stuff that stands the test of time
And I think this is super relevant because we’re seeing the emergence of a lot of things that end in -tech
I myself work in fintech, we’re seeing medtech, edutech, civictech, and so on.
I think the differentiator here is that a LOT of the apps we use today have a very snackable engagement horizon – like my interaction with a tweet last for a couple of seconds, but my interaction with my RRSP needs to last for decades.
I don’t want to suggest that Future Centered Design is a framework that I’ve come up with to 100% solve this problem, but I wanted to invite you into my thought process in terms of looking at this problem.
so thank you for coming on this journey with me
So let’s imagine we have a looking glass into the future – what are we going to see?
Well, probably a bunch of things – new challenges to answer with design, new products and platforms, new customer relationship desires and methodologies – probably the design process itself will change.
And from this future vantage point, could somebody 10 years from now pick up your app or product or whatever and would it still make sense to them?
I think the challenge with being truly future-centered is answering the challenge we’re already seeing from the tech industry – that is, that’s it’s very disruptive. Whether that’s good or bad, we can totally see this trend of disruption in action with companies like Uber, Tesla – I mean, Shopify is a great example as well.
So when you’re designing something, you need to think about how resistant it’s going to be to change, or how well it’ll stand up to disruption.
To be sure, some things really should be ephemeral. Something like aBuzzfeed listicle are intended to have a shelf-life of, say, a week – but those are very ‘of the moment’ artifacts.
If we’re designing something – an investment platform, for instance – where we want it to have the longevity and ability to serve someone through their whole life, how are we going to get there?
Before we dive too deep I’d like to throw down some caveats –
let’s acknowledge that dealing with this rapid change is difficult… and part of our challenge, as creators, is to help people deal with that change.
People, certainly including myself, resist change and want to hang on to the tools and systems that they already understand.
I do think there’s a tendency within some organizations – less so startups, but certainly within older, more entrenched industries – to really dig in and make change more difficult and exhausting that it needs to be.
It’s certainly possible to wait too long to act on future-proofing, and as a result, we’re often building in a very reactive rather than proactive mode
That is – responding to crisis rather than grabbing on to opportunity.
It’s extremely easy when we’re in this reactive mode to just focus on short-term results instead of looking ahead.
But by the same token, change is constant.
I think a great example of seizing on the opportunities presented by looking forward instead of digging in your heels is the recent transformation of Microsoft.
When Satya Nadella become the CEO a few years ago, he very ambitiously started to transform Microsoft into a cloud-focused, mobile-first company – reframing what Microsoft could be.
Microsoft’s culture at the time was very much one of silos and internal competition — not exactly conducive to digging out of crisis-mode reactive thinking.
I think it’s probably way too soon to definitively call it a success or failure, but it’s definitely already paying dividends – if you look at products like the Surface Studio, we can see that proactive instead of reactive mindset at work
To me this very much seems like a product that was designed to get way out in front of real customer needs – this was designed for the future of a specific customer, not just trying to be “Microsoft’s iMac”
if we need any further indication that change is a constant, the devices that we’ve all got in our pockets are a great example
The Motorola RAZR and the first iPhone were on the market at the same time
And I think this is a perfect example of what I’m talking about
The RAZR was from a long line of devices that innovated on tech
The iPhone – and specifically iOS – tends to innovate on design and experience
… and we all know how that turned out
I love this example as well – Amazon as it was ten years ago and Amazon as it was recently
And let’s be clear, as with the entire web, obviously Amazon’s got a lot better at design 🙂
and they’re doing things that maybe we couldn’t do at the same magnitude ten years ago
things like extremely personalized suggestions, a more focused store, way more emphasis on search
… but the *fundamental mission* hasn’t changed
Amazon has figured out how to roll with disruption, the pace of technology, and understand how to continue to re-fit “online commerce” into the shape of the future.
Again – the tech is certainly important, but it’s invisible – the future-sensitive design is what engages users and moves goods
Sooo in just 20 years, we’ve gone from being super excited about the entirely revolutionary concept of the hyperlink and Geocities to a world of wearable computers and conversational interfaces. That’s all super cool stuff.
A lot of questions of where tech is taking us revolve around the tech that we’ll have access to in the future –
… are we going to have a sweet Minority Report gesture-screen or a Star Trek -style voice UI?
And as you might guess, I think this is focusing on the wrong thing.
We definitely can’t rely on tech to future-proof our products.
It’s fun to think in science fiction terms but the questions we should actually be answering are about what user behaviours and interactions will be available to us in the future
Future proofing, by definition, is the process of anticipating what’s coming down the pipe and minimizing the shocks and stresses of its arrival
I’m sure as people in a creative industry, we’ve all dealt or are going to have to deal with that particular kind of project where the scope outlines every possible device:
… and that’s fine! We can build this – We have the technology!
But where I think that kind of thinking leads us astray is in terms of how we’re framing the problem
We’re thinking in terms of screen real estate, input methods, responsive layouts –
– rather than thinking more deeply about outcomes over platform conventions
And I think this is the main differentiator between design that is very disposable and design that can flex and adapt to future developments
Certainly most websites and apps are going to look and act very differently 5 years from now – there’s a certain unpredictability about when our designs are going to break – and we tend to just gloss over that
In a way I think we’ve been trained to think short-term – what’s the deliverable, who are the stakeholders, what’s the workback – instead of thinking about larger systems of delivery
How can we design systems that grow with time and have longevity, instead of get replaced?
I’m certainly not advising that we rarely update our designs – but that very often, we design with an extremely short shelf-life – either intentionally or out of habit
This is a great example – a digital camera designed by Ikea not to be sold, but just to be given away as a promotional item at a launch and then, I imagine, forgotten – how many of these went into landfills or are lost in the backs of drawers?
I’m not suggesting than design can’t be transitory – from a purely tech perspective this is an extremely cool artifact – but perhaps we owe it to our clients and peers to think slightly longer-term, to examine the longer-term impact of our work
That is, this doesn’t say much except “Hey, look at this cool thing”
The extreme malleability and fungibility of the work we do as largely digital designers encourages us to create a lot of throw-away, improve-it-later work
Instead, I would suggest that designers who want to work in a more future-proof and future-centered way should be more like architects
We need to aspire to design and build beautiful things that last longer
That doesn’t mean UI can’t evolve or adapt to new circumstances – in fact, that’s basically the whole job of design
… but it *does* mean it can and should remain reminiscent, or follow naturally, from the original design – be true to a system of design, rather than a single instantiation of it.
Build in some space for growth, in other words. Think bigger than the moment – this is why we see design systems emerge from maturing design organizations.
Architects have to do this because you can’t unbuild a space, you can’t deploy a new building from Github
They have to consider both the *now* usage and the twenty-years-from-now usage, both in the structure itself and the context in which it’ll be embedded
There are definitely both predictable and unforeseen factors that could force us to change the design we’re shipping – emerging technology being a great example – VR, for instance
I’m not convinced that anybody wants to -say- set up an RRSP in VR, but I have thought about it … how might we adapt our current thinking to work in a different medium?
But what I’m saying is that there are design-related factors we can mitigate
A UI might feel outdated in terms of design or behaviours, perhaps doesn’t have the flexibility or ability to scale, or has growing inconsistencies in how it’s implemented …
these are all anti-future-proofing issues that will only escalate and become more of a problem as time goes by
When we’re facing a design problem, I think there’s an opportunity to look at all of the factors that might potentially break our designs in the future and at least rectify those that we’re able to.
Our choice, as creative workers, is in how we adopt trends and patterns, how we systemize and architect our work, and the assumptions we make about future capability.
All of these things can affect the longevity of design.
On the point of being an architect, I have a perfect analogue for this idea in a real-world project
This is Villa Verde in Chile, so-called “incremental housing”
the project was to re-build houses after an earthquake
for me the importance of this project is that it thinks about a very permanent object – somebody’s actual house – in the same way that we can approach digital projects
the architects in question could have built something very typical – be more economic, be more of the moment, just filled in the whole structure and called it a day – typically how we build houses
What they DID do is take an ‘incremental’ approach – put the complex moving parts in place – things like plumbing, electricity, the outer walls – but then left space for future expansion
In fact, left things open for the homeowners themselves to build out what made sense for them
This is an AMAZING metaphor for thinking about future-proofing our design work
Design can’t – cannot – be a static unit that we just drop on our customers or clients – but is, and will always be an ongoing project.
What these builders have done is left space – space for that growth to happen – in their design.
So, great – we’ve got some very 10000 ft. ideas to think about in terms of how to centre our design for a longer-term approach, but how can we actually implement this?
How can we change our design process with boots-on-the-ground thinking to allow us to be both reactive and flexible enough to build products that survive and thrive?
What we’re concerned with here is increasing the longevity of our design thinking – not necessarily in terms of brand expression or visual standards – although we should certainly be thinking about those things – but in terms of very atomic, granular functionality that will continue to serve our clients well.
That is to say – those things that will help us survive big changes in the future, rather than cause us to have to continuously make big changes in the future.
This obviously isn’t the final word on doing this – everybody has their own context and we’re certainly all learning – but these are definitely some of the things I’m thinking about and trying out as I try to take a bit of a longer viewpoint on what we’re building – roughly in order, I guess, of very granular to more holistic
The most obvious starting point being Brad Frost’s idea of Atomic Design
if you’re not familiar with it, the whole point of this type of system of how to approach design is to traverse from the very concrete down at the left end up to a more abstract level.
And so following this system, we can really promote consistency and scalability while also keeping that flexibility
and where I think this is going to be actually the most important if we want to be future-centered designers, is right in this area.
That is to say, the fundamentals of the bits and pieces that will make up our interfaces in the future probably aren’t going to change that much – the goal is still going to be delivery of information and enabling interactions
… but we’ll have to be thinking more about how our higher-level elements – organisms, in this system – come together. We’re definitely not building just ‘pages’ anymore and we certainly won’t be in the future – and our design needs to be flexible enough to deal with that.
If we have to blow up our molecules and organisms because they don’t make sense in the future, our design system is brittle, not elastic – there’s no room left in it.
but the flipside of that – or the balance to it, maybe – is not to be too reductive, not to think about ONLY the components.
Here’s a screenshot from a very rude app called Authentic Weather
The experience has been boiled down to just this one joke
As a joke it succeeds – as a useful app, it’s been reduced down so far to present this particular idea that it’s actually not terribly useful as a weather app. There is no path forward from here.
So obviously we need to balance the idea of making those future-proof molecules with the idea that these things will be always consumed within a context
Modularity is only one side of the coin – a design isn’t *just* the sum of their parts, but are judged on their overall, holistic interactions.
Your users or clients will always encounter your work as a whole.
If we go back to thinking a little like an architect, and you’re creating, say, a desktop and mobile website and an app – we should be thinking about what we’re putting inside the container of each of those things.
Yes, they should *definitely* feel all of a piece, but also serve a purpose that’s non-duplicative and complementary to each other.
Next, be super wary of trends
This is the perfect companion slide to my RAZR and iPhone slide from earlier
because it shows perfectly how making assumptions about where things are going – can lead you astray
You probably could have extrapolated from giant brick phone down to RAZR-type flipphone – that kind of makes sense…
and then the iPhone shows up and wrecks shop on your trendline
The point being here that if we’re being truly future-centered we can’t – or shouldn’t, anyway – jump on any trend train without realizing that by doing so, we may be making design decisions that are going to suffer from extreme depreciation
Like for sure, it’s fun to just go buckwild with the latest design trend and try stuff out, but if something isn’t proven to work well from a research and UX standpoint, it’s probably not a safe bet for longevity.
A great example of this the shift around 2010 from skeuomorphism to flat design – the result of trying to reduce clutter and maybe be more true to the digital medium.
But the lesson to draw from this isn’t “Flat design is now the thing, better get on that bandwagon”
but instead, “How can this trend help or hinder communication and accessibility” – despite the fact that the appearance has changed, the actual functionality and format of the iOS home screen, for example, has remained pretty constant.
The foundational design of it – a grid of tappable icons – has been the same for 10 years. That’s pretty good future-proofing.
and finally, let’s remember that what we’re really trying to do is build that long-term relationship between our design and it’s end user
we make a lot of assumptions about how our products might be used for reasons of practicality or because we have limited time, or because we’re going with our gut, “being creative”.
If we do want to build products with longevity, we need to get better about reducing the number of assumptions we’re making.
Every assumption produces a certain amount of fragility – it introduces another way our UI could break for our users in the future, could break the relationship we’re trying to build.
Something we can try to build in, though, is that the product itself can help us discover those long-term user goals. If we’ve done a good job in terms of leaving that space to grow into, we’re in a better spot to respond to new needs as they arise.
say, for instance, what DO people want from online investment???? – not just now, when they’re, say, signing up for a roboadvisor for the first time, but ten years from now, forty years from now.
If I can use Wealthsimple as a living example of this principle in action – the app today is way more complex than it was six months ago, and back then, it was more complex than it was six months previous to that, and so on.
This was almost entirely driven by reacting to the needs of our customers – there was no mandate, in fact, to build specific things. We left in that open space for discovery, tried to not paint ourselves into a corner.
We built the future of the product, in essence, by letting our clients dictate what they needed to feel comfortable about trusting us with their money, what made sense as the other half of their house.
Every client touchpoint was an opportunity to be proactive about solving a need, rather than waiting for it to become an acute pain point.
Not just how to keep them as customers – I mean I think at a very basic level, the product could remain useful for ten years – but how to keep them ENGAGED for ten years.
So what are our future-centered design takeaways?
First: The future is definitely going to be more complicated: let’s future-proof as much as we’re able to right now – build those processes and approaches such that we’re leaving space for ourselves to grow
Second: There are lots of things to think about in terms of having a future-proof mindset – chief among them thinking like an architect, being mindful around our decision-making: what are the transitory choices we’re making vs. the very permanent ones?
and Finally, and happily, there’s a lot we can do to help us get there – pick our spot on the modular vs. holistic scale that can support the needs of a relationship, not just achieve an one-off outcome
… At the end of the day our clients and customers just want to be able to make choices that help them reach their own goals
And hopefully we can be there for them in the future.