Experience Design, Design Strategy, Innovation, Methods, Technology

Design Strategy Can Tell the Future

We’re all trying to see the future. What would it mean to shape it?

A good design strategy shows a clear path to the future.

As business leaders, we gravitate towards phrases like “the art of the possible” because we realize that the future is infinite in possibility, and that there’s an art, or craft, in visualizing those possibilities. When reimagining experiences within experience design initiatives, design strategists’ goal is to visualize a future that does not yet exist, describe the human value of that future, and help organizations see a path towards achieving that future state.

Good science fiction—both dystopic and optimistic—helps us see a plausible vision of the future and gives us a way to react to it. We can watch Bladerunner and decide if we like how that future feels. This type of future projection through media works because the future seems realistic enough (we can see a path from here to there), is vivid (there’s no ambiguity around what it feels like), is built on real behavioral patterns like fear, love, and longing, and its narrative challenges select social norms while leaving others fully intact.

“Science fiction is largely a design provocation.”
As designers, we try to emulate this visioning of a plausible future in the work we create.

When describing possible future states we’ve uncovered through the ethnographic or design research learnings, we create what’s called a Strategic Provocation. In layman’s terms, we tell a story, shown via a sketch, or a video, or an interactive experience. Why? Because throughout human history, stories are the most accessible way to convince people to think differently.

This story, as a design, is materially different from a production-ready design. At this stage, we’re not trying to design something that’s ready to build and ship. Our primary intention is to encourage people to challenge their preconceived perspectives and to vision a future that’s plausible, if not fully realistic. It asks the viewer: do you want this future? Is this a future that’s believable? Is it one you might want to experience, and help build? Do you believe in the value of this future? Moreover, as a decision maker, is this a future that you feel is valuable to fund and invest in?

Imagine a future where our voice-activated products can help us age in place with subtle reminders and nudges:

Imagine a future without majors, where students assemble their own curriculum:
Imagine a future where the experience-generation can explore new financial services that support their lifestyle:
How to Create Effective Design Provocations
  1. Be electively naive. When bringing the provocation to life, we need to understand and acknowledge real business, technological, political, social, or financial boundaries – and then ignore some of them. This evokes questions: Are you sure this axiomatic business truth that you’ve always viewed as a hard and fixed constraint is really as static as you believe? How badly do you want this future vision to become real?
  2. Stay grounded in some degree of behavioral realism. The story of the future needs to be plausible because an audience needs to relate to it. The Jetsons is not a plausible future—it’s a comedic one, and we reject it out of hand as juvenile. To be fully embraced, a new future needs to be built on a solid present, evidenced by behavior. There are things that people will and won’t do, and while these things change and evolve, they do so at a much slower rate than technological advancement. In the future, we may very well wear heads-up displays like Google Glass promised us, but when it was initially introduced, it over-challenged our understanding of privacy norms and personal space.
  3. Be vivid enough to spark the imagination. This is about bringing the idea to life. The details of the experience someone will have has to be considered as if it were really going to be built. Interfaces need to seem realistic, with common navigation and interaction paradigms. Objects need to look and feel real, appear to respond to physics, and act as we would expect or anticipate. When we see the designed artifacts that make up the future, we can’t second guess them – they need to blend into the story, acting only as props for telling a larger story of value and experience.
At Modernist, we use design provocations to help our clients see the world differently, and to help them navigate the future.
What is the future you want to see emerge? What does it take to build it?