Trends are only as meaningful as the insights they bring. When trends only exist as a response to, or a repetition of, a popular concept, without delivering a positive or useful experience, they quickly become stale or even gimmicky.
Design trends are valuable, but only when they are rooted in a logical and applicable strategy adjacent to cultural, behavioral, economic, or even geopolitical trends. Making a connection between a user + business need is the most responsible way to deploy a commonly used interaction, motion or development technique.
The following design and development trends were hot this year and will likely pick up steam in 2017.
1. Conversational UI and advanced machine learning: Consumers are interacting with branded bots which simplifies customer service.
For organizations with historically unsatisfactory customer service reputations, chatbots provide a unique opportunity to turn the user’s experience around. When we use common interfaces and platforms—like SMS—rather than requiring users to get comfortable with an entirely new application, we can increase efficiency and gain greater trust. Because chatbots are programmed to mimic the best of intentions and customer service interactions, users can rely on a consistent experience to get their questions answered and their irritations resolved.
Some tech blogs speculate chatbots will eventually replace customer service professionals. We don’t see this nearly as likely as chatbots are a means to an end, not the end itself. Chatbots provide stopgap support to customers when and where they need it the most as bots can respond quickly and provide unique, personable interactions. However, they cannot replace the entire customer service ecosystem—nor should they try to. Used appropriately and within limits, bots are a powerful tool in an organization’s customer service arsenal.
2. Augmented and mixed reality.
2016 was the year these computer modalities entered the wider public consciousness. Although virtual reality has been around for decades, only recently with Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens has AR/MR demonstrated the viability for long term use.
For example, AR made a consumer splash with Pokemon Go which paved the way for a greater acceptance of virtual reality and new gaming experiences. However, we’ve long held that forays into mixed reality have the potential to, and should, provide a service of some kind—not just entertain. Rich opportunities exist to connect users with experiences otherwise thought obtainable only through science fiction—mapping MRI data directly onto patient bodies to assist surgeons in the operating room, for instance, is one such practical application we were honored to be a part of.
It doesn’t end there, though.
For every major technological leap forward, we must consider the broader implications of these applications and how they will shape future experiences to come. Designing only for today’s problems limits our ability to empathize with future users. For every new mixed reality project, the deeper question isn’t, “What does it do?” but rather, “What will it mean?” Will the project assist limited mobility users to achieve independence? Will it grant convenience in an otherwise inconvenient or oppressive system?
Although mixed and augmented reality are picking up steam this year, the focus has largely been on the bells and whistles of the new platform. We’re eager to see this change in 2017 with a focus on solving tangible, real world user problems.
3. Mobile’s reign continues—and strengthens—with faster and better devices.
Strategists and researchers often discuss mobile overtaking desktop, but when Google reported that over 1/4 of all users only use a smartphone—nearly 2X as many as those who only use a computer—it became apparent 2016 was the Year of Mobile. If you aren’t reaching your customers on mobile, you’re potentially missing a quarter of your audience, particularly when you consider customers in emerging markets.
Consumers are also switching between devices—and between online and in-store properties—more than ever. The pressure is on for brands to deliver a consistent, omni-channel experience that meets customers where they are. This is a significant lift for small businesses. Partners that can help them do this in a smart, scalable, and affordable way have a big opportunity here.
And though it may feel a little invasive at times, personalization through contextual data allows companies to tailor the customer experience more than ever before, making everyone feel like they’re receiving special, concierge-like treatment. This is quickly becoming table stakes—the data is there. Those who continue to treat all of their customers in a generic, just-another-number fashion risk being left behind.
The mobile experience isn’t just about designing or developing new breakpoints. It’s about considering the tone of where your user is when they’re accessing your product—the experience must be compact and easy. It must echo recognizable interactions, animations and transitions. The mobile experience must be an unmistakeable digital expression of a brand’s purpose.
Not all trends are created equal, however.
One of the more confounding trends during the last twelve months has been the rise of brutalist websites—sites that are purposefully unusable or visually unappealing. Since many websites are still struggling to be accessible for all, we’re hoping that the increased attention on unnavigable and unattractive sites will place greater emphasis on beautiful, functional, and accessible website design and development for all users.
2016 saw a focus on motion graphics and modular systems. While we reflect on what’s worked for users in the last year, we’re looking forward to connecting our customers with their customers, in whatever form that takes.
Whether we develop new mixed reality experiences, chatbots for customer service portals, or help healthcare customers see their plans in a completely new way, our focus will continue to be on delivering a seamless experience for users.
Illustrations by Art Director, Graham Barey.