Open to the unknown: a reflection on user experience forecasting

A seemingly unusual request landed in our mailbox this spring. User experience forecasting for 2020, it said. A large technology company wants to know what the top mobile experience trends are going to be on a different subcontinent next year. What are the visual stories that will lead their mobile experience? Can we define distinctive design language for specific users to meet their needs? After brief consideration about the potential risks of both the unfamiliar market and the very open brief, we put together our proposal.

We created a constellation of the strategic and user experience research, concepting and prototyping approaches which we thought would provide us with the knowledge we required to deliver the right result to our client. We trusted our own process, as we advise others to do so often, and began our journey.

As it turns out, we weren’t far off the mark—but like all good stories, ours doesn’t end there. We knew it was critical not to make assumptions about this territory as yet little known to us; just like the old adage ‘you are not your user,’ we couldn’t allow ourselves jump to any conclusions here.

We started our research broad. We looked at what was moving the region socially, technologically, economically, and beyond. We looked at what was moving the rest of the world in the same vein. Where did they overlap? Where did they differ? What nuances indicate convergence or divergence of global and local trends? How can you make sure a pattern is really a trend? User shadowing, expert interviews, and extensive desk research began to paint a picture of the landscape. Each piece of research seemed to validate the other. Eventually we felt confident enough to draft the first trend stories along with initial segmentation and personas.

But there was one key insight that was fundamental to the way that we approached the project. It wasn’t “trend X will instantly make the first mover a market leader.” It wasn’t “if you get this concept wrong, you are doomed to failure.” It was this:

“We get all these trend reports. They’re complex and exciting, but we as designers don’t know what to do with them.”

We could have done the best and most extensive research in the world, but without this realization, we were teetering on the edge of a black hole in terms of the value we were delivering. And so it was, the indispensable truth: we were designing for designers. A flood of questions, challenges, and ideas was upon us. How might we ensure that our strategic insights are relevant and consumable for a design team? How can we go beyond just trends to make something tangible in design? How do we make sure that what we create is inspirational material, not a ‘guideline for the future’?

We created three prototypes for future mobile experience built directly out of the knowledge generated by our research. These prototypes were never meant to see the light of day. Sounds pointless? They had another purpose: to empower the design teams to view the research like a recipe book. All the user insights, expert analysis, experience principles … the components, visualizations and models; visual trends, mood boards and best practice—we built prototypes that made clear exactly where we had used each one and what its impact was on the design system, experience choices, and on the user.

Rather than ‘here is your future experience,’ we said ‘here is the map, and here is the compass. Now you know how to interpret a trend in your brand’s context, in your users’ contexts, and in your design team’s context.’ In short: this unassuming insight allowed us to move from classic trend analysis to product-driven storytelling, equipping the team with understanding instead of just knowledge, inspiration instead of instruction—and we are excited to do it again.

_Jack Mitchell is UX Strategist at MetaDesign Berlin
_Image by Erik Eastman on Unsplash