The product design process and what’s coming next for the future?

August 4, 2020

There are so many voices about design methods and design thinking in this ever-changing digital world. In this article, I will take you through to the current major UX design process and several new approaches to the design for the future world.

Design for this new world has become a big challenge for us and the next generation of designers. Comparing to the problems we can tackling nowadays, future products can be more and more complicated.

The technology will grow faster than we think it will be. Ray Kurzweil in his book “The Singularity Is Near” described that in the near future, machines intelligence will outsmart humans’ intelligence, and these two would merge. He predicted this based on the exponential growth of information-based technology. Since then, many researchers and designers start to focus on computing beyond the desktop. Since the beginning of the 21st century, this type of research diverged into Virtual Reality, Tangible Computing, Affective Computing, Ubiquitous Computing, and Augmented Reality.

IoT and AI are coming. The world is full of “wicked” problems.

“The most profound technologies are those that can disappear.” — Mark Weiser the father of Ubiquitous Computing & Calm Technology.

IoT and AI would bring more and more problems to our world together with tons of convenience. The world is getting more and more “Wicked” problems. Our information on a certain topic can be not enough to come up with a complete, workable solution. We used to think of products as some requirements documents. But now, the requirement will keep changing and sometimes even hard to recognize. To make this more complicated, it could be like solving one problem will bring another two or three new problems. For instance, IoT could bring data security problems. AI will bring new problems like human ethics and privacy. And some concepts can bring long term impact on society. And those will be the things we designer have to tackle.

Major UX process: classic UX, Agile UX, and Lean UX.

Before we get into the future design thinking. Let’s first have a look at the major UX processes that are commonly used by most of the digital products companies for now. Those major processes include the classic User-centered Design process, and the two variations called Agile UX, and Lean UX.

Classic UX, or traditional UX, is an approach that focuses on user needs at the very beginning of the product design process. This is also what most design background students were taught at school. The approach believes that by digging into the users (user interview, focus group, contextual observation, etc.), we can figure out what the product could be like. Theoretically speaking, there is nothing wrong with this approach, and there are quite some successful products designed in this way. However, this approach is not so practical for small start-ups, and companies that eager for revenue booths in the short term. Thus there are quite some variations.

The Agile UX evolves from the Agile development working process. The approach makes a good combination of classic UX and agile development processes. As agile working is a way of working that addresses fast and efficient communication styles, the commitment of delivery, and the possibilities of adapting and iterating. It makes a good fit with UX methods if bring UX design into that cycle at the right spot. Typically, what companies do is to involve UX designers at the very beginning of the product development cycle, and keeps design always 1 sprint (2 weeks) ahead of the development.

The Lean UX takes a different perspective. The approach involves users’ opinions at the very end. However, the fast development process allows the companies to iterate fast the product itself. Lean UX relies on real usage data on the products. Typical ways of working include A/B test, 5 seconds test, and other data gathering methods. As the major goal of Lean UX is to ship the product as soon as possible, the concept is all about shipping, measuring, validating, and iterating. Both Agile UX and Lean UX require close collaboration between designers and developers. Companies that utilize those design process often put designers into the product development team instead of in a big design team.

The future design process addresses human value and involves multiple stakeholders.

Future products can be more and more complicated because of new technologies and the complexity of the problem itself. IoT and AI are two great examples, which will bring ethics, privacy, and security issues. There are existing design processes that already consider the complexity of future product design.

The design should combine technology, business, and human values together. IDEO’s design thinking has been the industry leader into this way of working. This approach addresses the importance of creative thinking through the diverging and then converging of all kinds of ideas. And the human-centered design concept is core in this process. However, it evolves classic HCD(UCD) into a mature one regarding to combine with technology, and to creating business value.

A similar approach that also focuses on creating value is called Value Sensitive Design(VSD). VSD emphasizes the importance of bringing value to multiple stakeholders, both direct stakeholders, and indirect stakeholders. The value includes privacy, trust, sustainability, pleasure, freedom, equity, ethics, and more. The approach goes through three stages: conceptual, empirical, and technical. During the conceptual stage, the team analyzes stakeholders, advantages/disadvantages, and value scenarios. The empirical stages involve users into the process with interviews or surveys. The technical stage covers the technical feasibility check and prototyping.

Co-creation, or participatory design, is another approach that highly advocating for letting users participating in the design process. Later it evolves to gathering multiple stakeholders, and multi-disciplinary designers into the design process. During the design process, everyone becomes stakeholders and designers, and use the specially designed design toolkit to assist on design. But of course, this kind of design process does not need to involve all people all the time. Mostly, the co-creation sessions focus on the pre-design and generative design phases. The prototyping, validation, and final product design should be done by professional designers.

Last but not least, those design approaches can be combined and can keep evolving. There should also be ways of innovation based on the characteristics of the product itself. But the true concept here for the future product design is that we should always put human value first, always consider long term impact, and try best to build a sustainable future. As designers, we need to closely collaborate with AI/IoT researchers, data scientists, cognitive scientists, neurobiology scientists, developers, and business owners. As for the business, we need stable investment authorities, a healthy market environment, and open government policies.