Getting Design Right Requires Taking the Future into Account

Human centred design is all about empathising with the user/consumer; discovering their values and aspirations, challenges and pain-points. Empathy is very important and useful if we want to design a product or service that will be well received and widely used by our target group. But is it enough?

Can we be sure that the insights we get by investigating our potential users are sufficient for coming up with relevant and truly amazing (and working) design solutions?

The problem is that life is not standing still but ethnographic research methods we use for empathy capture our users in the current moment in time. Some years later they will have changed as persons because of what is happening in their own life but also because of what is happening around them. Usually, when designing products and services we want to solve problems that are acute at the time but we also want our design to stay around and relevant for a years.

This is where futures thinking or strategic foresight (or futurology) steps in. For the designer, besides being human centred, should be able to place his design task in a larger framework of what is going on in the world. Futures thinking is not predicting the future but viewing the coming decades methodologically, in a structured way. Just like in design thinking, in futures thinking, divergent thinking – gathering signals about things to come and drivers that allow change to happen, is followed by convergent thinking – synthesis of the findings into scenarios of possible futures (the ones we want to happen and the ones we want to avoid).    

One way for the designer to benefit from futures thinking is learning to see the big picture and take into account the framework and network where the design shall exist. The other way is evoking creativity within himself, the users and clients by encouraging wild imagination and courage to dream (in a systematic way). The third way is getting a feeling of empowerment from the realisation that future just doesn’t have to happen but it can be shaped by people’s will and each one of us can contribute.

My firm belief is that integrating futures thinking into the design process will give every design a great boost and make it more resilient to the future. I can predict with confidence that learning to become a futurist will open new neurological pathways in my brain which will make me a better designer for clients and a more interesting companion for myself.

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