5 developments that will shape design in 2017

From systems thinking to voice interfaces, these are the design trends to watch in the months ahead.

By Mary Treseler
January 4, 2017
Telescope on Eiffel Tower Telescope on Eiffel Tower (source: Adrian Scottow via Flickr)

As awareness of design’s value continues to grow, 2017 promises to offer the design community plenty of opportunities and challenges. Here’s a look at what designers should pay attention to in the year ahead.

1. Systems thinking

Anything created today exists and interacts within a larger ecosystem. Systems thinking is by no means a new discipline, but it has started to work its way into design conversations, and for good reason. Systems thinking is focused on looking at the entirety of a system and understanding the interconnectedness and relationships between elements in a system. In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows shares a great quote from a Sufi teaching story that encapsulates the essence of systems thinking:

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You think that because you understand “one” that you must therefore understand “two” because one and one makes two. But you forget that you must also understand “and.”

The best applications, services, and products will have designers with a firm systems-thinking mindset behind them. Systems thinking doesn’t solve complexity, but it will help designers think about their products as part of an ecosystem. If you’re going to learn one new skill in 2017, systems thinking is the one I’d recommend pursuing.

2. Designing for voice

Machine learning, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence (AI) are fueling the development of voice user interfaces. In 2016 we witnessed the arrival of voice as a relevant and useful interaction model, with Amazon’s Alexa being the most compelling example. Designing for voice is in its early days, and its applications are promising—from chatbots to cars. I expect we will see tremendous experimentation and growth of voice user interfaces in 2017. Cathy Pearl, author of Designing Voice User Interfaces and director of user experience at Sensely, says:

Many companies and developers are jumping on the voice trend. Amazon, for example, allows any developer to add new “skills” to their Echo. It’s important, however, to consider whether the task or app you want to build will actually *benefit* from voice. Voice is great for hands-free, accessibility, and efficiency. It’s not so great for public spaces, noisy environments, and privacy. As more people build VUIs, designers will play a crucial role, crafting conversational experiences that are useful and engaging. We already know a lot about good VUI design principles, but we need designers to apply them and to have the tools to prototype and build designs quickly and easily. Just like a poorly designed website can drive users to frustration, a poorly designed VUI will do the same.”

One of the challenges voice represents for designers is identifying use cases for voice. When a new technology emerges, it’s our nature to want to apply it to everything in reach. While it may not be appropriate for all products, voice will play a dominant role in our multimodal future.

By the way, Cathy is doing a webcast with us—”Designing for voice interactions“—on Jan. 19. Reserve your spot and mark your calendar.

3. Design thinking

The customer-centric experience economy is driving the adoption of design thinking. Jonathan Follett explains:

Design thinking is helping organizations change their cultures to become more customer-centric and collaborative. While this type of deep culture shift doesn’t happen overnight, it can ultimately propel organizations forward to serve new markets and redefine businesses.

Like Lean and Agile, design thinking isn’t a silver bullet, but it can improve an organization’s ability to innovate. I expect we’ll see wider adoption of design thinking in 2017 along with an emphasis on measuring its impact on the bottom line.

4. Core design tools grow in importance as complexity increases

With increasing complexity of both the design discipline and the world you are creating for, designers increasingly rely on tools to understand their customers and communicate with their stakeholders, users, colleagues, and management. The common thread with these design tools—which include storytelling, journey mapping, use cases, and personas—is that they help designers clarify focus, communicate purpose, and create a shared understanding. As Jim Kalbach, author of Mapping Experiences, points out:

The strategic function of the activity of mapping experience is about helping organizations to really see the world differently through the eyes of the customer to the degree possible. That’s just one tool that helps us do that. It’s not a silver bullet, and there’s other things that people do, like personas and other types of research, and other types of activity, so I think it fits in with a range of things that we’re doing to help us understand the complexity of end-to-end experiences.

Tools companies such as Adobe and InVision have recognized this growing need for collaboration and communication, and they have built this into their prototyping tools. I expect we will see a greater reliance on these tools as complexity increases and collaboration spreads across teams and organizations.

5. Emphasizing the “return” in design’s ROI

Companies have invested in design, and now they’re looking for their return. For design to continue to have an impact on business, three things need to happen: first, we need to grow more design leaders; second, metrics need to be introduced to measure progress and impact of design on the business; and third, organizations need to educate themselves about, and continue to grow, their UX capabilities through maturity models.

We’ve seen a rise in design leadership from organizations such as Capital One, Intuit, and IBM. Design at these organizations is part of the DNA. Leaders at these companies are expected to inject design—and extract value—from product, strategy, and the organization.

What constitutes leadership? Designers who are empowered and engage across teams to help grow the business. Kristian Simsarian notes:

It’s really important for designers to be able to talk and collaborate with executives, especially CEOs and sometimes even boards. That’s not something that’s in the design training.

Design can uncover new opportunities for businesses, as Kristin Skinner—coauthor of Org Design for Design Orgs, managing director at Adaptive Path, and head of design management at Capital One—explains: “The generative qualities for design can help to realize new business value.” We’ve all read and referenced DMI’s Design Value Index report, which quantifies design’s impact on revenue. Forrester and others are investing in research and analysis of the space, and I expect we will see many others shed light on both ROI and maturity models like this one in the next 12 months.

Post topics: Design