Recently while describing some bold "next-gen" concepts with my prototyper, he suddenly blurted out in exasperation, "Please stop saying next-gen! Everybody is saying next-gen!" I paused for a second, taken aback by this unexpected outburst by my typically reticent coworker, and then started laughing. Indeed, he was correct. There is a buzzwordy usage of next-gen, akin to game-changing or disruptive, phrases indicative of the attitudes and values of the current tech scene, thrown about pervasively, if not always convincingly. It seems that next-gen has become another cliché, and thus somewhat meaningless as a result.
Yet if we take a closer look, the truly big design challenge isn't creating next-gen concepts per se—though innovation and novelty for the sake of progress are indeed arduous tasks—but rather transitioning people from a previous experience model into a new, significantly different one. By people, I mean both consumers literally buying into a new world order and also various stakeholders, such as internal managers in the ecosystem of partners, vendors, investors, and so on.
We only have to look to what Machiavelli said around 500 years ago:
"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." (from The Prince)
Introducing change for the better invariably brings out the toughest enemies, who will fight to preserve the safe, convenient way of doing things, for many reasons. Therein lies the dire problem of designing next-gen: It's not just consolidating the risk to propose a new experience model; it's also persuading folks to "cross the chasm" toward the execution and adoption of a concept, per Geoffrey Moore's and Everett Rogers's pivotal texts.
So, aside from the hoopla of designing for what's next, a designer's greatest value is actually found in ensuring an effective bridge to help someone exit the safe confines of convention into enjoying the green fields of possibilities with confident optimism—and even stoking up some sense of wonder or joy. Successful designers of next-gen know how to guide that transition with grace and charm, embodied in the product's interface and overall experience.
Indeed, Transitional UX—if we may call it that, because we always need more confusing labels for design practices—will be an ever-increasing issue, thanks to rapid changes to desktop and Web platforms, whether from frequently updated app releases with new features or the simple housecleaning of old features into new forms of visual and behavioral expression. Also, we must note the emergence of new modalities of interaction thanks to wearables, the Internet of Things, peer-to-peer shared services, cloud-based data, and smart devices powered by learning algorithms. Whew! This all resonates with a "next generation" of abilities and values, yet the issue persists of how to guide and ultimately bridge people over to this Brave New World. What's a designer to do?
The problem is in persuading folks to 'cross the chasm' toward the adoption of a concept.
Let's break this down, as there are a variety of issues at the heart of Transitional UX:
- Fundamentally it's about change management: how to offer positive psychological support, coaxing and comforting a user through changing models. Change is traumatic at emotional and cognitive levels. It can be very painful to re-learn systems and adapt to new routines. The familiar is comforting, while the new is threatening. Since change is hard, as the designer you must gently help the user along to a newer, better way.
- Take proactive steps around promotion and education: how to inform both stakeholders and markets that a change is coming soon, and begin to rally the momentum for why it's a good thing. In this era of rapid, PR-driven news cycles and quick-fire tweetables, drumming up the awareness and inciting curiosity or excitement about the changes is half the battle. This plays a part in smoothing over the dramatic shift, getting folks used to a "new day" of different, yet familiar, interactions.
Examples: Advertising campaigns, marketing messages, visual materials, media elements. All of this shows how "the new" fits into "the normal," creating a comfortable, yet exciting "new normal" way of doing things better. And showing why it's better!
- Build the scaffolding to support discovery and learning: how to introduce someone to changes, to support playful discovery of what's new, per the context of use. Help the user overcome learning curves, since all interfaces have a curve—but how shallow or steep is it? What tools, techniques, or patterns can amplify the user's learning, making it enjoyable and memorable to overcome prior habits? Jony Ive of Apple often talks about product design decisions that feel "inevitable"—the user's ability to comprehend those choices might not be!
Examples: A "What's New" or "Welcome" placard, how-to videos, "coaching marks" that contextually point out specific elements of the new interface, ways to "gamify" skilling up in the new model—tastefully, of course! Mobile and Web apps each have patterns addressing this level of assistance. Video games are an especially valuable source of inspiration.
- Pursue that extra step of bridging with smart enhanced guidance and reinforcement of value: Offer the opportunity to be summoned on demand like a concierge or magic genie (think of Amazon's new customer help beacon for Kindle Fire) to provide valuable targeted assistance, guiding the way forward in a specific, nuanced way.
Examples: This requires a multifaceted approach led by "design thinking." Beyond conventional help, or FAQ, or customer service, or even Google search or discussion forums. Some novelty and cleverness are needed to disguise the help as something anticipatory and intelligent, expressed in a delightful way.
With this Transitional UX mindset, the designer focuses on what's needed to evolve and expand the currently familiar model, to envision what's next, and to help us all get to that place in a supportive, optimistic way. Of course, we should pursue daring moonshots that defy everyday routines, but let us remember to ask: How can we help everyday people cross that chasm, get to other side and connect with what's new, help them see the value, and incorporate it into their daily lives? The driver is this: To help users adopt new patterns of behavior, shape their existing outlook with an evolved sense of hope and expectation, guided by a determined optimism for something better, to improve their lives.
So, yes, keep striving for breakthrough designs and progressive paradigms (self-driving cars! talking devices! holographic lenses!) and yet ... let us also strive to be vigilant for the transitional opportunity that helps folks adopt what's next and define a new normal. And if you pull it off just right, you've created a model of change that satisfies some problem to be solved, in a way that gets folks hooked into a new way of doing that's both logically and perceptually better. Transitional UX requires a special blend of psychological and political statecraft, with some nuanced thinking about the interactions. It's a daunting challenge that must be tackled after you have designed "next-gen," but it's necessary to ensure the design gets adopted and valued by the folks you wanted to help in the first place.
Uday Gajendar is currently principal designer at Peel, defining what's next for mobile and IoT in TV and home control. He has 15 years of experience across enterprise and consumer UX, all based in Silicon Valley along Highway 101. firstname.lastname@example.org
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