Blog / The future of digital products and how we’ll design them in the future

April 21, 2015

What will digital trends change about the digital product design process – it’s a hard question to answer. So I’ll start by unpicking how we currently design for digital…

Whilst I’ve always had a process of sorts it’s never been the same every time. The high level framework is always there, but how each goal is reached has varied from one client to the next. But ultimately I begin each time by asking myself these same three questions:

  1. Is there a need?
  2. What problem are we solving?
  3. Can it add value?

I don’t think I can talk about digital products (i.e. apps, websites or interfaces) without mentioning the devices that we use to access them.

Before we think about the future of digital, let’s talk devices

Devices have, in many ways become a commodity, most of us have at least one and they are about as powerful as we need them to be for us to get things done. Whether you need a 7.5” screen to do those things on is another matter. Whatever size you go for there is no doubt that they are our lifeline to the ‘world within the world’.

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But what of the digital products that we view this world through? Are they, too, being commoditised? Do we need another social channel, music player, news feed or inaccurate fitness tracker?

Back to digital products and services – where will they fit? With this in mind I find myself asking, can a standalone digital product (an app, a service, an interface) solve a real world problem? Can I find a compelling reason to create one? After all, they are just a part of our lives now - like our weekly shop for groceries or the commute to the office. They are becoming less of a primary focus and instead just something we interact with. Or more often than not something that interacts with us. We are becoming far more passive as apps and the connections between them become more complex.

And devices will increasingly be central to the story - the lens through which we consume digital services. Devices of course still have their place. They are what help bind all of these product strands together. Their power is in how they connect disparate parts of our digital lives and serve them up in a convenient and effortless way. But how many devices do we need to alert us to our Facebook updates, emails, latest tweets, sleep patterns and weather forecasts… We are seeing the same digital products served up again and again on a plethora of devices.

If there really is an internet of things out there then our devices are simply our command centres. But for how much longer? Why not just have notifications for my email pop up at my desk when I get into the office, train times as I get dressed on my mirror, weather updates on the glass when I open the blinds in the morning… but do these things make the real world a better place? They might put more information in context but does that solve a problem we currently have?

And now for the trends – what can we expect to see more of? In my mind there are two real trends we have seen developing:

  1. Identifying a problem that needs solving, and;
  2. Creating a product that you think people might want or find convenient and then create the need for it. I’m looking at you Apple.

With the latter being the most popular of late. That’s not to say that something born out of a drive for convince cannot make the world a better place. I have been greatly inspired by an interview by Bill Gates for the Verge regarding one digital product in particular. That of mobile banking. In it he talks about the village of Sori in Kenya’s where fishermen and their wives have started using a mobile service (M-PESA) allowing them to exchange funds over the network using SMS messages. As many of the traditional banks were either too far away, or demanded minimum deposits the villagers could not afford.

Prior to M-PESA, the women worked only in cash. To sell their fish, the women would have to travel by bus to markets, trips that cost them money and time. Since the adoption of M-PESA, the women send the fish to market by bus and receive payment remotely. “Where it may have taken a woman a week to sell two bags of fish in Nairobi, she now spends one morning buying and sending the fish on a bus to Nairobi for sale by her customers,” reports the study. With their newfound savings, women reported being able to make long-term investments: sending their children to better schools and building themselves more durable homes to withstand seasonal floods.

Full article here.

This is just one example of a ‘digital’ product driving real change.

And the process?

I often wonder whether there can ever be a ‘fixed’ process. A lose framework maybe, but ultimately I think it is a question of having a number of tools that you can use to get the job done. A toolkit if you will. After all, we are all different and a process that works for some may not work for others.

So what’s next? I see a future where digital products are truly integrated into our day to day lives. Helping us solve real world problems rather than just perceived digital ones. The process we use to make this happen?

  1. Is there a need?
  2. What are we solving?
  3. Can it add value?

The three principles outlined above still hold true but how we get to those answers will evolve as we do. In order for us to do that we must continue to use and develop our sets of tools to help us answer those very important questions.