At one time or another, we've all wished that we could predict the future. That we could take out a crystal ball and peek through the cloudy haze, getting a glimpse of what is to come. But we can't predict the future with certainty. We can, however, forecast it.
But we shouldn't be weathermen about it. Our friends at Human Factors International recently did a paper arguing that designers should really take a page from the futurist playbook.
Of course, it's crucial that we design with the future in mind, especially since we no longer have control of the screen-size our products will appear on. Our products must work on any device, if not all of them. Which means a designer has to be aware, be prepared — like a futurist. As HFI writes:
So that's what the futurist is trying to do all the time. Not trying to predict with certainty ' because we need to have enough room to change what is going to happen. That's the goal of the futurist.
What's needed for a designer to shape the future is to listen, act and design for now with tomorrow in mind. Let's take a closer look at what that means.
Pay Attention to What's Around You
Ever hear the old joke, "pay attention, it's free"? Well, it's true. Paying attention doesn't cost you anything, but failing to pay attention can cost you dearly. Not paying attention cost BeenVerified's co-founders dearly, burning through $550,000 in funding because they built a product that wasn't needed.
It's important to not just listen to what's happening to you, but to really take it in. Absorb what's going on around you. Doing so, opportunities will reveal themselves, and you may pick up on patterns. It's what futurists do, as HFI points out, scanning what's around them to see what patterns they can ferret out.
Take Steve Jobs. He's probably the quintessential example of this. He constantly had an ear to the ground on what was going on, spotting opportunities that others missed. For instance, when he saw Xerox's computer and mouse, he immediately noticed what they had missed. Xerox saw a device for experts. Jobs saw a device for the masses, figuring out how to make it better and affordable. He was inspired to improve on what they had done.
Actually hearing, not just listening, also keeps you on your toes. Box stayed ahead of the competition by paying attention to it. For example, the scare of G-Drive was enough to spur them to turn to a fermium business model. Seeing what the competition was doing also forced them to ensure their product didn't look like anything else on the market. It also forced them to focus 100% on the Enterprise Cloud.
Imagine where the company would be had it just keep its blinders on. They might very well have suffered the same faith as BeenVerified.
Don't React, Act on Data
A futurist is investigating when he pays attention to the world around him. He's on the hunt for data, which he can use to forecast tomorrow. Designers can do the same.
We've said it before, designers shouldn't be afraid of data. Decisions can be better influenced and not based on intuition. Hard data can tell us a lot of what's going on, where we are and where we need to be down the road.
Data can allow you to see where your efforts need to be focused (or refocused). Which came in handy for One Kings Lane to stay ahead. As CEO Doug Mack said at his recent soapbox, sales in mobile have skyrocketed, going from 0% to 25% last year. During Thanksgiving, there was a 40% spike in the usual holiday traffic that carried through the Christmas season.
Those numbers showed One Kings Lane that mobile is changing the way people shop. Now, they're focused heavily on mobile, working on its iPad app and retrofitting its iPhone app. They're also making the site responsive for Android users.
Design for Now, Keep Tomorrow in Mind
A designer has to design for now, but keep it scalable and flexible enough for tomorrow. Or design with trends in mind and change user behavior. Let's go back to our friends at HFI one last time, as they put it:
The designer needs to realize that this is something that isn't happening yet, but will happen five years from now.
In order to shape and influence the future, it must be on your mind. But don't look so far down the road that you don't see what's in front of or around you. If you don't pay attention to the market and data of now, then you might not be able to meet the needs of tomorrow.