Austin in SXSW – The Digital Master (3 of 3)

Last week we spoke about the impending changes in our move from automated to intelligent services. Less UI and more AI might be a killer combination, bringing ease and delight to the complexities of the modern world. This week we’ll see how this type of continuous disruption is more killer than just an app.

The digital master of process

From Lean UX to continuous integration, our processes for generating new ideas are increasingly driven by analytics and usage stats. What allows us to navigate the murky waters of uncertain custom resonance is the intangible skill of vision making; visions that exist only in pixels. Rather than capturing value through physical objects, we’re gaining premium prices for services, and, increasingly, experiences. But there’s also a dark-side to the disruption spurred by the collusion of design and technology.

Working “lean, quick, and dirty” is increasingly expected from the design team. The popular philosophy of the moment sounds like: fast to market, faster to fail, faster to learn. Design needs to adapt to the speed of software. Here, Ross Snyder lead us through the process of continuous deployment that Etsy uses to push new changes live every day. What that means for designers is a need to work within these types of  agile processes, and as we heard at SXSW, that means Lean UX.

We’ve got to provide visions that last beyond the next device, and understand goals that span technological boundaries. In design, we sit in the middle of two powerful forces for building visions: user research and new technology. Astro Teller spoke about the “moon-shot thinking” applied at Google X. Counter to the quick market launch philosophy of Lean UX, Teller encourages us to push our expectations of what’s possible. The space elevator, the automated car, google glass — these are visions, only some of which get implemented. Vision-making and perspective-shifting should be part of our vernacular as designers.

With business models abounding, the value of design is increasingly realized through services. In software, we’ve seen a move from client-based software sold by the unit, to server/web-based platforms sold by the seat, to an AppStore model of software of free-to-play-with paid upgrades. Importantly, we no longer sell software, we sell experiences facilitated in part by software. Physical objects will become a cheap and readily available part of that experience. The amount of swag I walked away from at SXSW made me wonder whether the internet will end up subsidizing all our material belongings.

The PC is dead; people are nursing their smartphones, and now glass is likely to disrupt our habits once again. The most stimulating talk of the week was by science fiction author and veteran of SXSW: Bruce Sterling. His musings on disruption challenged the notion that technology is putting us in a better place. As such he encouraged us to own up to and embrace the destruction that comes in the wake of technological change. The age of making a great product, then selling it with continuing minor upgrades, is nearing an end.

To kill and eat it is vicious but honorable.
Bruce Sterling, SXSW, 2013

Sterling tells us that those who live by disruption die by disruption. We must accept that our hands are not clean, acknowledge that, yes, we’re killing the past. Rather than claim that design and technology are constantly making the world better, we must accept the outcome of well-designed products. If we automate bank deposits, people at your local branch will lose their jobs. If we make online flight transactions cheap and delightful, those folks at the travel agency will lose their business. As people read shorter form text on their glass, authors of novels, like Sterling, will suffer. Our technological solutionism has casualties.

Whatever happens to musicians happens to everybody … You don’t recognize its tragic dimension. We’re not surrounded by betterness. Better isn’t a measurable quantity like mass or velocity. Google doesn’t have an evilometer. You are living an illusion: No true badness or goodness. Trying to get reality emerge from the shadows of futurity.
Bruce Sterling, SXSW, 2013

After SXSW I’m now convinced that the digital representations of our physical spaces, our behavior, and our processes are more true than their real-world counterparts. Our experience of the city is mediated by our iPhone apps. Our loyalty programs know us better than we know ourselves. The processes that guide our work are either driven by data metrics or live only in the imagination of the digital world.
In essence, our master record of reality used to be physical but is now its digital, and that changes things. Consider this: the next app you design might be printed in plastic, the next intern you have might be an AI, and your next design brief may emerge from a collection of algorithms. With this future before us, I’m sure it won’t be long before our cities – and not a few minds – flip like Austin did in SXSW.

Patrick Keenan

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