From September to November, 2019, the hardworking THC team went to DesignYatra, Goa,  Hyderabad Design Week and DesignUp, Bengaluru. We spoke with global gurus and spent time with designers, product developers and researchers across companies. We spotted four big trends,  which we believe, will impact the design and product ecosystem significantly. 

1. Redefine Empathy 

Is the eternal search for the e-word misled? The pioneer of human-centred design, Don Norman, asked this controversial question earlier in 2019. Everything we heard pointed to the contrary. 

We think empathy is a broad concept that is misinterpreted and misunderstood. Putting yourself in users’ shoes to understand behaviour, as say, Facebook did with 2G Tuesdays, is now table stakes for all product design and development.

Empathy today is the ability to understand motivation, not behaviours. We need to ask not the ‘how’ or ‘what’ but the ‘why’ and solve for it. 

Payal Arora, digital anthropologist, and author of the book ‘The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond the West’, said that empathy is particularly key to an understanding of first-time Internet users. 

“Paternalistic structures, driven by the West, don’t work. (The next billion users)  are not a homogenous population. A teenager from the next billion, will have more in common with a teenager in Boston, than with a 60 year old in her community” 

Payal Arora, Author, ‘The Next Billion Users’: Digital Life Beyond the West 

Companies putting empathy at the centre of their research efforts are seeing dividends. Smriti Bafna, Senior User Researcher, MakeMyTrip, explained that a deep dive into why people still booked offline, helped them find their next ‘100 million users.’  Empathy is equally important in the B2B world. Parul Tyagi, UX Design Manager, Hewlett Packard Enterprises, explained how helping clients visualise problems through well-presented data, actually helped increase sales of enterprise software.  

We believe that, going forward, studying user behaviour will lead to marginal improvements and studying motivation will lead to true differentiation. This demands empathy. 

Three questions to ask yourself

  • Do your current practices deliver an understanding of user behaviour or user motivation?  
  • Developing empathy takes time. Have you allowed for unstructured time with users, just to observe and understand?   
  • Do you have reliable systems in place to cascade these insights to other parties who need to be aware of them?

2. Upskill or Die 

The good news is that the machines are not coming for your jobs. We heard speaker after speaker emphasise that creativity was not under threat by Artificial Intelligence just yet!  

The bigger threat today, is being luddite about embracing change – this could ensure your obsolescence much faster than any AI. 

Product designer, Simone Rebaudengo, reminded  us that fabricators had never considered plastics for manufacturing until metals became unavailable during World War II. Designers of that era had no choice but to understand the new materials and learn to work with them. He advocates a similar attitude towards the ‘materials’ of our time.   

Data is today’s plastic. There could be another ‘material’ in a few years.   

The reverse is just as true. Other disciplines will need to equip themselves with a deeper understanding of design. Global Head of Digital at Infosys, Scott Sorokin, said he would “expect 1/3rd of DesignUp’s audience to comprise data scientists in 3 years” 

The biggest misunderstanding around upskilling is that it only means learning a new software or tool.  

85% of the jobs in 2030 do not even exist today, so a myopic perspective will not help. Instead,  take a wider view of your capabilities and ambition and study their intersect with bigger ecosystem trends.  Let this understanding inform your upskilling agenda.  Take confidence from this statement by legendary typographer David Carson, who spoke at DesignYatra. 

“Everyone has the same software, but nobody else has your eyes and experiences, and the way you see things”  David Carson, Designer & Typographer

Three questions to ask yourself

  1. What are your goals, as a creator or a business? 
  2. What are the ecosystem trends that could impact your journey?  
  3. What should you be doing to ensure that you are prepared for the intersection of  (1) and (2)?  

3. Let’s Get Phygital 

As a species, we crave social interaction. Why else would millions of people attend conferences and events, when the content is available online? After a singular focus on online interfaces, design is waking up to the fact that online experience is greatly enhanced when integrated with the physical world.  

Phygital demands immediacy, immersion, and interaction. More importantly, it means not mentally cordoning off the physical and digital worlds. 

At DesignYatra, we saw several examples of this, ranging from the whimsical to the game-changing. Designer Kelli Anderson’s project,  ‘This Book is a Camera’, has a fully functional camera in a pop-up book and can be bought for $27.  The ubiquity of QR codes in China was held up as another example of how digital-physical thinking can help drive adoption with first-time Internet users.  

Orlando Mathias, Founder of consultancy AllofUs, which was recently acquired by BCG, talked about working with the Google ATAP team on Soli, a chip that understands the nuances of human movements, so that gestures like waving your hand become a form of input. 

The mobile phone is central to the digital design discourse in India. It may be time to look up from the screen and ask what a device-less future could mean for us

Two questions to ask yourself

  • When was the last time you looked somewhere non-digital for inspiration? 
  • Can your digital solutions be enhanced by merging with the physical world (and vice-versa)? 

4. Prepare for the Circular Economy 

Last month, luxury brand Prada, became the first fashion brand to raise a sustainability linked loan from Credit Agricole where repayment terms are conditional to meeting key sustainability targets.  

We heard from multiple speakers that the age of the linear ‘take, make, dispose economic model, which relies on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy, is now drawing to a close’*.  Designers and businesses must embrace this and prepare for change. There were several interesting experiments on show, including Marjan van Aubel’s Current Table, that converts household objects into generators of solar power. 

This is not an easy path. The Indian Government’s proposed ban on Single Use Plastic, expected to be announced on Oct 2,  2019, was  pulled back in the absence of viable alternatives. Indeed, as this UN report shows no such ban can be successful without commercially viable alternatives in place.  The onus will fall on creators to identify these alternatives and create sufficient interest in them.

As concerns around sustainability inevitably move from fringe to mainstream, it is time to understand the ramifications of the circular economy 

A circular economy is one where every  ‘actor in the economy (company, person, organism) is connected to other actors. Together, they form a network in which the actions of one influences all others’*.   What is your role in this new landscape? We believe that early movers who adopt the systems thinking that this new construct requires, will build differentiated careers and businesses. 

Three questions to ask yourself

  • Responsibility: How do your practices impact others – what is your role as one of the actors in a circular economy?
  • Repurposing: Can you develop design practices that encourage reuse and repurposing?
  • Opportunity: Can you use your skills to help others do the same?

* Towards a Circular Economy, Ellen-MacArthur Foundation