Predicting the Future in 6 Easy Steps

The number one objective of every design project is to predict the future. That is what we do as designers – we design the next: app, tool, product, invitation, logo, and more. Even if we are referencing a bygone era in our design, we are designing for someone to see it tomorrow.

When the future is next month’s site update or the next killer app, there are clear signposts indicating what will be generally successful and what will fail. For example, it is pretty easy to predict that next year’s Smartphone users will expect an evolved voice interface. The way designers answer that question will vary greatly, and some may choose to ignore it, but there is a clear Siri signpost in the road forward.

User feedback is an essential tool in any designer’s toolbox. Our culture of rapid iteration allows designers to quickly respond to feedback from users. We refer to fairly reliable user metrics to know where problem areas exist and to locate opportunities for future iteration. Of course, as designers we become influential users as well . When we use the tools and devices we ultimately design, that influences the decisions we make when designing a product. And in turn, we are often the users called upon to coach our non-designer family and friends through complicated tools.

We are also influenced by the immediate world around us. Pop culture gives us glimpses of what is, or soon will be popular or cool in the timeframe in which the product will be used. We talk to designer friends; read design blogs, magazines. Designers are influenced by modern culture in every design.

All of this influence helps to give designers a fairly accurate picture of what will be successful in a few months to a year. But what happens when we start to look further into the future, beyond, say, a year? There are no actual users to observe, no data loop available to respond to and use as a source of inspiration. The world of today is decidedly not the world of tomorrow. Designing two plus years out can be a daunting prospect. The signposts start to blur, and it’s harder to see specific trends. The blurriness grows exponentially the farther into the future the product stretches.

So, how do we do it?

 1. Look to Hollywood.

Not only do films give the designer an immediate visual representation of a possible future, but they are also germinating a seed in millions upon millions of future users. Movies are responsible for setting expectations of what the future will be like all over the world. As Julian Bleecker pointed out at Kicker’s first Device Design Day, it is difficult to determine if the clam phone would have been nearly as successful if it weren’t for its prototype: Star Trek’s communicator. The product perfectly fit into the masses’ collective fantasy of what the future of communication should look like.

2.   Read other peoples’ theories.

Theory plays with the world in abstracts, not practice. It looks at the world from a 50-foot view, which is extremely helpful when trying to predict the future from about the same distance. Theory helps to give perspective on the human condition and how it evolves over time.

Sci-Fi literature is an equally great resource. Fiction is similar to Hollywood in that it influences future users, just a smaller number of them at once. But written visions of the future differ from film in that they allow the reader to form her own image of what that experience looks like. It becomes a very personal expectation of the future. Also, Sci-Fi writers tend to have very specific opinions on the future and how it should work, so many tend to read like thinly disguised theory.

3. Play with scientists.

Scientists are continually learning new information about how people make sense of the world. This means many opportunities and new expectations about how the world can and should work.

4. Pay attention to technology.

The technology being developed today will greatly impact what is possible tomorrow. Know what it is and what it can do. And not just to the amazing work coming out of MIT, but what makers and tinkerers doing. The introduction of Arduino has drastically impacted the advancement of commercial robotics and at-home 3D from a far-away possibility to our very near future. Paying attention to technology from the think tanks, as well as garage tinkerers, will help predict the building blocks of tomorrow’s products.

5. Know history.

What have people attempted in the past that failed? Maybe it was just waiting for the perfect mix of technology and pop-culture expectation to succeed. The Treo tried for a decade to do what it took the iPhone no time to do. A little bit of timing, a lot of technology advancement, and a little magic Apple dust brought Smartphones to life.

History is also helpful in changing perspective. What did people do before X existed? If all these existing products and infrastructure didn’t exist, what would we create with today’s available materials? Questions like these help to reframe the problem so that it is possible to triangulate a new, and better, answer.

6. Be an artist.

Everything above can help determine the proverbial zig, but what about its counter zag? That is where art comes in. Artists specialize in rejecting expectations – at creating unexpected and wonderfully surprising connections. This ability to freefall with the imagination is exactly what is needed to predict an unseeable, unknowable future.