Tools, insights, and technologies for long-now design.

Designing the Future: Cooper in Berlin

Most software projects are built around the question “What are we going to do next?” But occasionally we’re asked to think farther out. Projects focused on the 5-10 year range are more about “Where are we headed?” and “What’s going to inspire people?” These are different questions to ask, and answering them changes the usual process of interaction design.

I’ve been thinking about these things for a while, and while at the MobX conference in Berlin I conducted a workshop where a group of 16 designers and strategists took a look at how you answer these questions.

So…how do you do it? The core of the matter is to understand what’s going to be different in the future you’re designing for.

These kinds of projects are less about “What’s next?” and more about “Where are we headed?” and “What’s going to inspire people?”

Part 1: The future is made of people…people!

The class first talked specifically about one thing that won’t change in the future, and that’s people’s goals. Sure, the species changes, but far too slowly to be of use to our 5-10 year purposes. What does change at the scale of 5-10 years are the layers of technology we’ve developed: mechanic, electric, digital, political, legal, and cultural, to name a few. There might also be environmental and even geological changes that happen in that timeframe, but the one that interaction designers focus on is of course the technological.

“Any future vision should still be solidly rooted in a goal-directed process.”

Attendees reviewed existing examples of personas and then created their own. Many came with particular projects in mind, and created provisional personas based on that. Others who couldn’t reveal current projects created personas based on sci-fi characters instead.

Part 2: Pick a future. Any future?

With provisional personas in hand, we moved to the other part of designing for the future. In the 5-10 year horizon, you do have to place a bet on what might happen to the thing that will change—the technology. The class discussed several places to turn to find future forecasts and selected one to build design visions upon.

One student from Munich raised a great observation: If your organization or project is already dedicated to a particular technology, it might seem like your future is already mapped out for you. But your tech will exist as part of an ecosystem of other technologies, so you still have some work to do to understand how it will fit into people’s entire lives.

Attendees discussed various sources for forecasting:

After comparing the types of forecasts each is likely to provide and how actionable they might be, students selected a set of technologies that applied to their project’s domain and fit their particular persona.

Part 3: Goals + future, shaken, not stirred

Next, attendees got to bring their designer skills into play by using their selected future technologies to address their persona’s goals. First attendees drafted scenarios in text, and then after a little cartooning warm-up, drawing scenarios that described the context, interaction, and results.

Some were betting that 3D printing would catch on, and asked how that might help their homemaker persona manage her time with all the demands on her time. Some were hoping that a less-dorky-looking version of Google Glass would catch on, and asked how that might improve their persona’s health routine. One attendee liked the notion of agentive assistants, and imagined how that might help a dentist persona manage his client base and give the best possible care.


Awesome sketch by Jessica Hagy of Indexed

Part 4: How do you evaluate the future? (When it doesn’t exist yet)

Next, attendees discussed the ways by which you can critique and nurture a future vision through various iterations. In addition to existing tools of pair design and heuristics like Cooper’s four types of work (physical, visual, cognitive, and memory), we discussed the strategic and cultural critique of future technologies. Most notably, the class discussed Marshal McLuhan’s “tetrad” of media critique and applied his four questions to their scenarios before iterating them a final time.

Part 5: Inspire people with great storytelling

Finally, attendees discussed that when working on a long-term vision, you’re not going to write up a spec or a requirements document to inform developers. Instead you’re going to want to share it in a way that gets to the reason you got into the project: to get people talking about it, or even get them enthused and ready to rally to make it happen. Some form of visual storytelling, with plenty of spectacle, is called for. Though attendees didn’t have time in this short workshop, we did review examples and discussed the necessary elements.

And next time

So far the feedback from the workshop has been positive and Cooper is bringing the next iteration of this workshop to the Bay Area in July 2014.

I am grateful to the Berlin group for a great first run! Cooper will be back there in May to teach our On The Road training.

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