Opinion / Thinking Further than the Future
R/GA London’s senior experience designer, Matt Cane, argues that UX designers should think about what's on the horizon as well as what's right for now to evolve their methodology
What is ‘further future’? Well, it’s like the future…but further. At the moment, experience designers and strategists are focusing on ideas for connected homes and how everything can be automated to give people a seamless experience. The further future is different. It’s something so far beyond the future that it’s almost incomprehensible. Product designers and architects regularly innovate in this space – just take a look at Ferrari’s stunning new spaceship (above), showing an ambition that the design community has had for years.
So, why don’t experience designers get involved in this amazing world?
Creative minds have been pushing the boundaries of our imagination for years, even centuries. Bauhaus and Swiss are two prime examples of design innovations that seemed strange and unconventional when they arrived on the scene in the early 20th century – but these days they feel more and more relevant. The Barbican’s amazing Future City exhibition back in 2006 posed the question: ‘What would it be like to live in a hairy house, a floating city, or an inflatable pod? Pure fantasy or the shape of things to come?’
These creations are baffling, amazing, intriguing and all the things that get us excited but there needs to be a parallel shift in how we, as experience designers, are working.
Traditionally the UX community is seen as an extension of innovation. Once the idea is conceived, a UX designer comes in, makes it work and then moves on to the next thing that’s right for the ‘now’. But as industry expectations get higher, people want to see game-changing design; and if we want to join the party, we too have to start looking into the next next-generation of products.
There have been pioneers of this ideation process over the years, so let’s turn to them for inspiration. A great example is the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan whose opinions about product and service creation back in the 1970s and 80s were seen as crazy. On a memorable radio broadcast in 1979, he argued that electronic devices would eventually become an extension of our nervous systems.
He found that one of the best ways to interrogate problems and think about ‘further future’ was to employ the kind of questions you ask when solving a problem in design. These were known as the Tetrad of media effects.
This tetrad is broken down into four questions:
1 – ‘What does it (the medium or technology) extend?’
In the case of a car it would be the foot, in the case a phone it would be the voice.
2 – ‘What does it make obsolete?’
Again, one might answer that the car makes walking obsolete and the phone makes smoke signals and carrier pigeons unnecessary.
3 – ‘What is retrieved?’
A sense of adventure or quest is retrieved with the car and a sense of community returns with the spread of the telephone.
And the absolute keystone from a UX perspective...
4 – ‘What does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended?’
An over-extended automobile culture longs for the pedestrian lifestyle and the over-extension of phone culture engenders a need for solitude.
These questions are pure inspiration for forward thinking and have the power to drive the evolution of UX methodology. They were posed to designers in the 1980s and always had the user at the core. Without these questions, products and services will get in the way of our natural lives – and that’s exactly the point. UX designers need to embrace the further future if we want to create truly new experiences with people at the heart of our ideas.
Think about the future, but don’t forget about the further future.