Top 5 Design Makeovers for 2014

January 6, 2014

Making drones less dreadful is #1 on my redesigns of 2014 list

This time of year, everyone seems to be making a list. Lists of resolutions. Lists predicting what’s to come. I’ve decided to focus on innovations that could benefit from a human-centered redesign. A few of these inventions are already commonplace, some live at the fringes, and one barely exists, but all have the potential to revolutionize our lives—for better or worse—depending on how they’re designed.

1. Drones

The media has been abuzz with stories of drones being used for peaceful purposes. Earlier this month, Amazon used one to deliver a package to a customer within 30 minutes. While CEO Jeff Bezos admits the experimental Amazon Prime Air service is four to five years away from rollout, the stunt provoked much chatter about the ground-breaking potential of unmanned aerial devices.

But drones still suffer from a major image problem. They’re widely perceived to be weapons of war and invaders of privacy. And their looks—creepy, insect-like—don’t help matters. If drones are to be accepted by the masses, whether to deliver packages to suburban backyards or life-saving medical supplies to remote African villages, they’ll need to start blending into civilian life by looking and acting a whole lot friendlier.

It sounds like an oxymoron now, but how might we make “delightful drones” a reality in 2014?

2. Big Data

Today’s big-data apps are designed to benefit companies and governments, not individuals. This unbalanced stance risks alienating the very source of the data—people.

As more companies profit from tracking our movements, behaviors, and preferences, why should we continue to cooperate? Why should our health care providers or banks know things about us that we don’t know?

What if we took a human-centered approach and designed transparent data platforms that created value for companies and consumers alike? What if consumers could monetize their own data?

3. The Mobile Experience

Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone and its panoply of apps. But instead of simplifying my life, I find myself spending more and more time managing my mobile existence.

For instance, to effectively use my fitness app, I have to input my food intake, weigh myself regularly, recharge the pedometer, and then review and make sense of the data. Between that and the constant updates, subscription renewals, and password management, the cognitive load is burning more calories than my workouts.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, and Uber is one of them. The design team clearly thought through the entire experience, from the great on-screen interface, to how you request a car, to the year-end summary delivered just in time for tax season. Uber doesn’t just get me from here to there, it fits into the context of my life and makes minimal demands.

Inspired by experiences like Uber, how might designers create apps that seamlessly integrate into our everyday lives?

4. 3D Printing

I’m excited by 3D printing’s potential to revolutionize how, when, and where we make things. Over the coming year, we’ll see a succession of new technologies that extend the range of materials, reduce the cost of manufacturing, and increase the resolution of the parts we can make.

But while companies like MakerBot and Shapeways make it easier to jump in and learn how to “print” new stuff, today’s computer-aided design tools are still too complex for casual users.

In 2014, I want to see tools that make designing in 3D as easy and intuitive as GarageBandmade composing music when it was first released in 2004.

How might we create simple, engaging, creative tools that will shape a new wave of democratized design?

5. Self-Driving Vehicles

Although you don’t see self-driving cars on the lot yet, I worry that this emergent technology is compromised, both by both non-human-centered design and non-human-centered regulation. I’ve tried some of the latest driving-aid technologies—lane following, automatic cruise control—and while impressive, they can act in unexpected ways and make the driving experience more stressful.

Instead of viewing self-driving cars as an evolutionary innovation, it might make more sense to think of them as a totally new form of transportation, so we’re forced to design the experience from scratch. Perhaps at the start of a journey, the passenger could be prepared for occasions when they’ll need to take over, just as travelers are prepped by flight attendants on planes.

Maybe, in lieu of a regular dashboard, an onboard robot co-pilot could brief us throughout the trip, handing over the reins to us humans only when necessary. And, so we feel protected no matter who’s behind the wheel, what if insurance companies allowed us to add our android chauffeurs to our auto policies?

How might we ensure that the auto industry takes a human-centered approach in all aspects of vehicle design in the coming year?

I’m sure we’ll be reading a lot more about these technologies in 2014. My hope is that by refining their design according to human needs, they will become indispensable—changing our lives for the better for decades to come.

Best wishes for a happy, thoughtfully designed New Year!

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)