The Future of User Experience, Part Two: The Evaporation of Technology
Apr 24, 2014
In my last post, I explored some of the history of user experience design. What I found was a general progression of understanding. There is no single point in space and time that marks the birth of user experience design. However, in the modern industrial era its definition is expanding at a rapid pace. This expansion roughly started with the idea that workers can increase their efficiency and effectiveness simply by adjusting the design of the tools they use. Further down the path, someone realized that attention to detail of the worker’s physical and mental experience could further increase employee and employer prosperity. Eventually, with the introduction of research-backed participatory design, the foundation for user experience design was laid.
Enter: Digital Technology.
In thermodynamics, a phase transition describes the transformation of a system from one state of matter to another. When enough heat is applied to ice, for instance, it turns into liquid water. Its atomic structure is still H2O, but it exists in a different form, with different properties. Information is the atomic structure of every user experience. And, with the invention of the internet, digital information underwent a phase transition. Where it was once static, slow and required physical transportation, it is now fluid, dynamic, interactive and unbelievably fast. It’s as if information, like H2O, can be transformed from a solid-like state into a liquid-like state with the application of digital technology. I believe this analogy continues. Digital information is undergoing another phase transition right now… this time from liquid to gas.
Think about it. Interacting with information digitally once required these big metal boxes with all kinds of peripheral gadgets and wires and moving parts. Information flowed freely, but it still had to be contained in wires and non-portable devices. Now, wires are slowly becoming obsolete. Those large bulky computers are now relatively tiny devices we carry around in our pockets and backpacks. Eventually, I believe, digital information will evaporate. It will still be atomically sound, just as it always has been, but it will exist in a different form, with different properties. Humans will still want to access it, create it and distribute it with optimal efficiency and in a comfortable and delightful way. And rigorous research will still be required in order to discover the best ways to achieve that level of prosperity in experiencing digital information.
Remember the movie Minority Report? Captain John Anderton, the main character, was able to control, create and navigate digital information without ever touching any physical objects. It was as if the objects that were once required to perform such tasks evaporated, leaving only the requirement of bodily motion for interaction. This transformation is now becoming a reality. Interestingly enough, some of the most advanced examples of this new reality in mainstream society are in the video game industry. Microsoft introduced Kinect for the XBOX 360 in 2010. The Kinect is a device that allows users to navigate menus, create and retrieve information (and play video games, of course) through only bodily gestures. It works remarkably well, too. I believe this kind of technology will completely permeate everyday life, and in some ways it already has. We don’t have to touch toilet handles, sinks or hand towels anymore. And you might’ve noticed that we haven’t had to open a door to a retail store in at least a decade. Technology is evaporating.
It’s likely that one day even external screens and displays may not be necessary anymore. Heads-up displays, or HUDs, marked a turning point in the augmentation of reality… yet they’ve been evaporating too. Displays are getting thinner and thinner. Check out your local Best Buy’s television section for examples of this. Google recently patented a design for contact lenses with embedded cameras. What if a similar contact lens could display an interface or any other piece of information that, again, didn’t require any peripheral devices to interact with? The design of that kind of interface would be fundamentally different than anything we’ve created so far. To walk even further down Theoretical Lane: perhaps one day we won’t need TVs or laptops or phones at all. Computing power might somehow be omnipresent, and we’d just tap into it when we needed to. This is all fun, imaginative theory, of course, but there’s no dismissing the fact that technology is on a path to invisibility, transforming digital information into a gaseous state along the way.
User experience design transforms in parallel with digital information. As new advancements in technology emerge, it is our responsibility as experience designers to understand them better and faster than our peers. Our goals and principles will remain atomically sound, but our knowledge and understanding of the ways people interact with information will change. If you want to be the best experience designer you can be, you must understand and implement this concept perpetually. It is this fact that separates user experience design from other professions.
User experience design isn’t a career, it’s a journey. Our next step forward won’t look anything the last step we took.