How thinking about the future of technology (and humanity) improves the of today.

Last week I had the pleasure to host the local UX meetup and hold a small talk about with my colleague Maja Dika who dedicates her whole time to that topic. I loved the idea of introducing this new concept to my Viennese UX friends — and show them how it’s an interesting and relevant field UX designers should look at. As the feedback was so phenomenal, I thought to share the insights with a bigger crowd. Here we go.

What is Speculative design?

Maybe that’s the first thing we should answer when talking about its relevance for UX. Speculative design

aims at exploring and criticizing possible futures by creating speculative, and often provocative, scenarios narrated through designed artifacts.

Let’s talk about each component separately.

Possible futures:

When we talk about our future, we can be pretty sure about some things which are going to happen — that’s the probable future. And apart from that, there is an infinite number of scenarios which might happen. By thinking about some of them we can identify a preferable scenario, one we can work toward already today.

There is an infinite number of future scenarios probable, some are preferable. ©Liechtenecker. Based on: The Future Cone / Version by Dr. Joseph Voros

Exploring and criticizing:

We can explore the possible futures by thinking of different areas of life — after a certain technology or social change has taken place. This exploration helps to include all types of people into the discussion and to democratize it.

So far it has been the huge tech corporations and media like Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google sharing their vision of the future and influencing our picture of the future in a strong way.

But they are not the only ones who can think of a vision, we all can. And we should — lead by designers who have all the necessary methods in their hands.

Designed artifacts:

Speculative design is a method which explores possible future scenarios and ends up creating a prototype of something which might exist in the future.

That prototype is the „artifact“ of our preferred future. It is used to help us normal people feel, what this future might be like to then be able to decide if it’s something we want to happen or not. Apart from that, those artifacts can help overcome the fear of the future and inspire us to take action now.

Speculative design for UX

UX Design is said to be a discipline which works on improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with a product or service.

We create this amazing user interaction with products and services by gathering the requirements of current and potential users, designing alternatives, prototyping, and testing.

Cooler design alternatives

Being a very interdisciplinary field, we strongly rely on research and industry standards — which ironically are also created by huge corporations (e.g. Material Design). While standards may guide and help us during the design process and especially support us when research comes short, we need other tools and methods to help with idea generation if we want to create meaningful products for the future.

Design for the future

But why should I create products for the future, you might ask. I’m creating products which will be used today. Let me give you an example of that.

Let’s imagine you got approved for a new project this month, for a big and complex app or platform. Your MVP will launch at the beginning of 2020, the full version will be done by 2021. The time most users will start using your app or platform will be by 2022. Three years from now. But most strategic decisions have to happen now, in 2019, and still be valid by the time the service is fully available.

We have to face strategic decisions for 2022 already today via Liechtenecker.

So how can you ensure it will still be meeting the needs of your users in 2022? How will their life look like by that time? Do you at least know how your life will look like then?

Well, you don’t and will maybe never know for sure. But methods of Speculative Design might help you to at least think about the possibilities. UX designers are user-centered — so let’s be focused not only on current users but also on the users of 2022 as well.

Apple & Speculative Design

The example most people use when talking about the connection point of Speculative Design and UX is the launch of the iPhone 2007.

Until then the world was familiar with computers, mobile phones, and some chosen companies were working on creating tablet computers (so actually the iPad was developed before the iPhone). Steve Jobs then consciously decided to launch the iPhone first as it could „easily fit into the pocket“. How is that Speculative Design?

  • The world has never seen anything like it before
  • Apple moved away from current constraints of „phones look like the look“
  • Apple imagined the future while re-thinking the role of technology in everyday life
  • And shifted the entire mobile phone market
  • By that changing our whole life in the last 12 years
This is how other phones looked like in 2007. To imagine the first iPhone was definitely a big innovation via Genius App

So every UX designer who wants to be great, to make a difference and create something extraordinary, needs to think beyond our tech world of today. If we want to use design to change the status quo then Speculative Design is a method you need to involve in your UX tool kit.

Traditional vs. speculative design

There are some different approaches in the traditional design opposed to speculative design. While the traditional design is solving problems (well or find current usability issues), Speculative Design aims at finding problems which might occur in the close future.

Consequently, the traditional design provides answers and makes us buy, while speculative design asks questions and makes us think. The traditional design works in the service of the industry by creating an optimal user experience. Speculative design, on the other hand, works in the services of society by supporting the creation of various future scenarios and encouraging us to discuss how we want our lives to look like in 3, 5 or 10 years.

Does it work in the daily business?

The answer is yes, it does. Just as design thinking and design sprints, methods of speculative design can work wonder if you know when to use them. Here are some scenarios we’ve been using it for. Speculative design is great for:

  • Working on the company vision for the next years
  • To share the company vision to inspire employees, clients, society
  • To offer different future visions and open up a discussion with the team, clients and other stakeholders
  • To make sure to be innovative in the next years as well
  • To start or continue digital transformation by asking: how will the digitalization of my product/service influence the employees, the clients and society?
  • To see how a new product will change humanity
  • To imagine the possibilities of your product development in the future

Speculative UX Design

There is a lot of insecurity when creating digital products which should be useful not only today but also tomorrow. No method in the world (so far) is able to give us a 100% guaranty for the future. But we at Liechtenecker love asking critical questions because they help us shape our lives the way we want. And especially UX designers should use their skills to inspire and innovate companies and businesses.

I’d be happy to hear about your experiences with speculative UX design if you had any — and about your opinion on that topic.

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