Future Thought: Are You Really the ‘You’ in User-Centric?
This is part two of a five-part series on the technological, environmental, and socio-political conditions that shape our lives today and tomorrow.
What if a piece of technology truly understood you, your needs and, in that way, was genuinely personalized? What if you, the individual, were at the core of a design? This is the foundation of truly user-centric design and the Holy Grail for the design community.
"What if you, the individual, were at the core of a design?”
The promise of more customized user-centric experiences defines the work of many designers across modern industry. With ever-increasing consumer expectations heaped upon them, any designed experience must be just right the first time. And for that experience to be just right, at the very least, it must have the illusion of being designed for a unique person.
"The reality is that many ‘personalized’ experiences are designed for us, not by us."
Change is afoot
It may feel like these partially-personalized user experiences are an acknowledgment of our distinct and varying needs at any moment in time and space. But at best, most technologies can only understand us in a simplistic way. They can only identify us as the type of person who likes X and does Y, because these behaviors reflect the patterns of our broader peer group.
Consider driving in your car, and suggestions for BBQ restaurants automatically populate your GPS as you begin a new search. Your GPS chose BBQ restaurants, because at some point in the recent past you had Googled them. But in reality, the query was research for a friend’s baby shower 2000 miles away. And you are vegan.
Or imagine if you had purchased a pair of jeans online from retailer X. In order to do so, you searched to find the best price. Despite having followed through with that retailer, now retailer Y and Z continue to bombard you with ads for jeans you already own.
Examples like this are reductive, sure, but they point to a massive investment in the notion that Big Data alone can create the best user experience. Big Data only works if we ask the right questions and if we have the support of the software that can identify the right patterns.
Intuitive design is one of the early manifestations of a customized user experience. It is defined as design that works without the user needing to think about it. And for it to be executed with any success, designers must understand the psychology of human interaction. Companies like Apple pioneered this charge. One need look no further than the example of a baby using the iPad. But, designing intuitively is incredibly difficult to execute successfully.
“Design does not become intuitive by magic,” explains UX researcher Ditte Hvas Mortensen for the Interactive Design Foundation in Denmark. “When we experience a design as intuitive, it is because we have encountered something like it before.”
The reality is that we all experience the world through different lenses. Therefore, designing for something we have encountered before is not all that helpful because those familiar encounters dilute across different cultures, generations, and economic standing.
What we have come to understand as designed, personalized experiences are actually not about us individuals at all. They are intuitive, yes, but they are designed for the masses. So then, does intuitive design—the design framework that has propelled companies to superstardom—have its limitations too? Designers the world over certainly believe so.
What does truly user-centric design really mean?
One significant challenge of a truly user-centric design is the precondition that the designer possesses highly personal and granular data on its users. Naturally, privacy is a major sticking point: people are reticent to share personal information.
When the stakes are high, as is the case in most medical research and development, people seem more willing to share personal data. If staying alive is the reward for handing over our DNA, odds are we will do it. Innovations like 3D printing have experienced fast growth, despite the threat associated with sharing such private information as our DNA, because the results can be that rewarding.
Perhaps when it is not a question of life or death, at least at first glance, designers must work harder to earn trust. They must humanize a technology by making it valuable to the people who adopt it.
The seamless integration of devices and systems is undoubtedly valuable to users. This has come to be known as the Internet of Things (IoT) or as it is applied to automotive technology, the Internet of Vehicles (IoV).
“When things are connected, it just makes everything so much simpler,” says Mark Zeinstra, leader of the IoV Group at Faraday Future. “If our cars can communicate obstacles and issues to one another, then we’ll all be that much better off. For instance, if a driver half a mile up the highway slips on black ice, then every other car can adjust accordingly— immediately and automatically.”
If our devices are seamlessly connected—if our cars are talking to one another, for example—it is inevitable that patterns begin to reveal themselves. And therein lies the opportunity for the next frontier of UX: machines that can actually think.
The term Artificial Intelligence (AI), which encompasses machine learning, is defined colloquially as a machine that is able to mimic cognitive functions—ones that humans associate with human minds—like “learning” and “problem solving.”
Time to imagine.
It is time to imagine yourself at the core of a design, one that adapts to your changing needs minute-by-minute. Time to imagine yourself as a muse—a relationship that both benefits you and the designer—because a design is now charged with understanding your behavior in order to be able to predict your needs with meticulous accuracy. Time to imagine that for each person on this planet, their every experience is personalized to the nth degree. And from there, time to imagine that each of those are connected.
This defines a truly user-centric experience, reinvents intuitive design, and puts Big Data to its best use.