We are in a pivotal era when it comes to design. Never has the barrier for entry been so low. Never have there been so many different platforms to design for, or the realms of possibility been so ripe- and yet the future of design has never been more unclear. Devices and platforms are changing so rapidly that design seems to be as rapidly changing as the landscape itself, leaving designers with a powerful unknown: “What are we truly designing for?”
Jonathan Speh is the art director of Idea Booth, a digital agency downtown Chicago. He has a powerful response to this question: “We aren’t just designing for devices anymore. We’re designing around people’s lifestyles.”
To dive deeper into this idea and approach to design, I sat down with Jonathan to discuss the current state of the industry and, more importantly, where things are headed.
“If you look at how people are approaching design today, it’s very platform focused. You either design for iOS or Android, PC or Mac, desktop or mobile, etc. That’s always the first question, is what we’re designing for. Is it a website app? Is it a landing page? Is it a mobile device? The first question is always around the platform itself, and where the design is going to live,” said Jonathan.
He continued, “if you look at what some of the truly innovative companies are doing out there, they are asking a very different question. The first step isn’t the platform or the channel. The first step is understanding the user and their individual lifestyle. It’s not just, ‘Is this person going to use this app on their phone?’ It’s, ‘is this person using this app on their phone while they’re climbing a mountain, or while swimming underwater? Okay, let’s keep that in mind while we design it.’ You have to understand the lifestyle that you’re designing around, otherwise you’re going to miss subtle opportunities that could be crucial to the final design.”
Jonathan went on to explain that groundbreaking companies are already working with this in mind. For example, the concept behind the Amazon Echo was not designed simply for a “product device.” It was designed around the lifestyle of a tech savvy consumer looking to mesh aspects of their “on-the-go” lifestyle with their home base. The Echo works because it integrates into a series of routines and habits, and that’s what needs to take priority.
“It’s not so much that we pull our phones out and arbitrarily use them anymore,” he said. “It’s more about the fact that these devices have become a permanent extension of our lives. So we, as designers, have to keep in mind how the device and the app or the website, etc., integrate with that lifestyle. Instead of designing an app that’s catered toward doctors, for example, how can what we design perfectly compliment the lifestyle, schedule, and habits doctors already live by? Instead of disrupting their natural state, how can we add value in the right ways, at the right times? These are the more important questions when it comes to design.”
It’s apparent that the future of design cannot be rooted within the confines of a device. Creating something for “mobile,” for example, is no longer enough. You have to cater to the lifestyle of the user, and the way they will actually be using the device and app in their life.
“How can we add value in the right ways, at the right times?”
“Another important aspect of this,” Jonathan added, “is the line between UX and UI. At some point, it became popular to talk about UX. Companies would pay more if you had both a UX architect and a UI designer. UX architects have become what developers once were. People don’t really understand how it works, so they assume it’s important (which it is) and are willing to pay more for it.”
Jonathan continued by saying, “But in many cases, UX is now starting to take priority over UI—and that’s leading a lot of people astray. Most of the stuff we use- mobile apps, websites, etc.- are for a business’s promotion, advertising, or even just for fun, or to make a statement, or to get people engaged. And in order to do that effectively, it can’t all be about functionality and usability. If that were the case, let’s go back to the 90s and just rework things function in today’s environment and forget about design completely. And for a lot of UX architects, that’s their mentality. As soon as you apply style and design, they say, ‘Well, is that usable? Does the user need that?’ And in doing so, they eliminate the element of surprise and delight.”
Truly magnificent design resembles art—and that’s difficult to quantify.
“As we begin to move into this new era of designing for people’s lifestyles and habits, the element of surprise and delight is more important than ever,” Jonathan concluded. “The user is supposed to find the experience cool, and unique, and worth telling someone else about. It is supposed to compliment their life so well that they couldn’t imagine their life without it—and you cannot achieve that by solely focusing on functionality. You have to have both. It needs to work without any pauses or hiccups, and it also needs to make the user pause and say to themselves, ‘wow, that was awesome,’ in a way that perfectly compliments whatever it is they’re doing.”