The simplest metaphor for the next wave of UX design is air.
It’s invisible. It’s everywhere. It conforms to whatever space in which it resides. With the emergence and adoption of natural language/voice interfaces, expanded IOT offerings and machine learning/AI, UX design is poised to adopt those same qualities in 2018.
With the advent of the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and to a lesser extent Siri, the past year finally saw mass adoption of voice-based interfaces. Powered by cloud-based natural language processing, semantic search and a pinch of machine learning, more than 30 million of these devices found residence in American homes in the fourth quarter of 2017.
What could be simpler than an invisible interface? Well, for consumers, maybe, but not necessarily for content providers or UX designers. Moving from a presentation of information to a fluid conversation requires an entirely new mode of thinking, not to mention tagging and syndicating.
Thankfully, to get our collective heads fully engaged in the movement, Amazon has an easy to follow guide to creating an Alexa-friendly voice-based UX, so does Google, with their guide, “Extending the Google Assistant,” which includes a Design Principles and Methodology for conversation design.
Uncovering information on the internet used to be attached to what we like to call destination behaviors—finding something required having some destination in mind: a URL typed into a browser address bar or a specific app launched on a mobile device. But with voice assistance, you command the information to be delivered to you. It doesn’t matter if you are sitting on the couch, chopping carrots in the kitchen, or singing in the shower. Ultimately, thanks to your smart speaker, you’re commanding information to make you its destination, pulling answers literally out of thin air.
It’s part of a larger trend of the breakdown of separation between data and the environment. Information is becoming an overlay to our everyday experience. Today, it’s a kitchen conversation with a helpful but disembodied Alexa as you slice through a newfound recipe. Tomorrow, it will be a semi-transparent layer of meta-data superimposed over every object in your view through a pair of AR glasses. As UX designers, we will all need to understand that we will less frequently be creating a self-contained experience than crafting an enhancement to more layered, contextually driven data presentations occurring whenever, wherever users happen to be. Which means how we present those layers need to conform to the moment of delivery. Which brings us to wave number three...
Legend has it, that in or around 2002, Jeff Bezos wrote a memo that famously commanded all development within Amazon be built as a service layer API that could be called upon by any other service or process within the company datasphere. For example, if HR wanted a new tool to search the database of employees, that tool would primarily be a fully developed API that could accept requests and return data usable by any other tool that may, at some point in the future, also need access to employee information. In other words, they made it possible for any data source, and the rules to access that data, to be conformable to any future need.
UX designers need to begin to think of journeys as conformable. It’s not enough to assume a user will enter or complete a purchasing journey on some form of responsive web experience. They may be buying through an Amazon Echo or Google Home. Or, they may be telling their voice-assistant driven AR goggles that they want to buy the same pants as a person in their view is wearing, while finding out what other colors are available in that style. The experience you design for that customer is the conversation your ecommerce system is having with the cloud-based virtual assistant that is acting as concierge at that moment.
We need to increase the amount of data abstraction (service layers, APIs, etc.) that we build into our data models and systems today, to prepare, like Jeff Bezos did a decade ago, for any new modes of interaction that may be heading our way.
We’re all taking the road never traveled.
In a world without sign posts, it’s seems expedient to claim we cannot design for a future we can’t fully or clearly see. But the truth is, if we can once again channel the spirit of Jeff Bezos, you may not be able to plan for a single future, but you can better position yourself for all possible futures. As we all undertake our digital transformation, brand experience, customer experience and enterprise activation projects this year, there’s nothing preventing baking in the foundations of tomorrow’s interfaces, or lack thereof, today.