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How Far We’ve Come: Looking at the Past to Consider the Future

Ben Gremillion
Ben Gremillion

CEO of UXPin Marcin Treder is no stranger to UX design, having worked in the industry for many years. He’s seen drastic changes, predictions gone wrong — and right.

What’s changed? Have we advanced? Recently I talked to him about the state of design over the past decade.

BG: What has changed most in design thinking over the past decade?

MT: “Design Thinking” or design thinking? (laughs) The core of the design process remains exactly the same. It is simply timeless. Design understood as creative problem solving, creating and meeting needs, finally embracing opportunities on the market through a human-centric set of activities, remains as true as 10, 20, 30 or even hundreds years ago.

Sure. But something’s changed in the last 10 years — business-wise, technologically, and culturally. What’s had the greatest impact on the design industry?

In terms of culture, the Western world took a turn towards the simplicity of form, function and “aesthetization” of everything. Compare the design of first mobile phones to what’s dominant today, or even compare new cars to cars from the beginning of the century. Differences are so drastic.

Simple object design

Objects have to be beautiful in order to generate economical value and beauty. They got defined by simplicity. This a huge cultural drive towards aesthetics and functionality is changing everything and of course it also elevates the position of design.

Good design became inclusive. Especially in the last couple of years good design became ubiquitous. Well designed objects are often very accessible to the general public. The virtual world started to be decently designed all around. People definitely have greater access to good design than in the past.

And then there’s business. Companies realized that good design is not an option, it’s a necessity. Design progressed from an afterthought to the heart of the product strategy. The success of Apple probably had a lot to do with this trend.

In the digital world, research and analysis became very accessible (thanks to Google Analytics!), and business owners started to understand that design can directly affect financial results. This trend definitely elevates the importance of design. Back in the day I’d never be promoted to management, if not for a series of successful multivariable tests that led the company significantly grow the revenue.

Digital outran physical. Out of five most valuable companies on the planet, four are mainly making money in the digital space (Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook), or are heavily related to the digital world (Apple). Four out of five! That means that products of the most valuable companies on Earth are very visual and very interactive. They have to have great design! Long gone are the days where the value had been hidden in factories, mines or on oil platforms. The age of digital requires presence of great design.

“Long gone are the days where the value had been hidden in factories, mines or on oil platforms. The age of digital requires presence of great design.”

Finally, there’s technology. Technology became much more democratic. Before the twenty-first century, technology was something to be mastered by engineers and hardly understandable to everybody else. Today servers are very cheap. You can learn programming in a relatively short time without going to a university. And you can build your products really fast.

That means two things: First, there are more digital entities than ever. Second, more people participate in the digital economy. With that in mind no wonder there’s more designers than ever, more design education and more design job opportunities. Our industry is booming!

Don’t forget our tools. Ten years ago design was often an afterthought. We had a limited number of useful tools. Photoshop, Paintshop Pro, Gimp, Axure, OmniGraffle — that was really the entire market. Today tools are much better, more accessible and adjusted to our use case.

So more tools and more available technology are opportunities for designers to grow. Do modern technologies make designers more creative today, or did the restraints of older technologies force them to think more creatively?

Designers have way more possibilities to express themselves these days. Ten years ago constraints were often suffocating. Often we would end up with ideas that were simply impossible to pursue. With modern technologies, “impossible” disappeared. Everything is just a question of cost.

Ten years ago, people looked ahead to the future and saw … what?

The year of mobile! Every year in the past decade was “the year of mobile.” While mobile is definitely changed the way we see the digital space, the one big year for mobile never happened. It was a gradual launch. We’re somehow experiencing the same situation with AR/VR today. People expect to have a breakthrough year. I think we’ll just realize in 10 years that we can’t imagine the world without virtual and augmented reality.

“Every year in the past decade was ‘the year of mobile.’ ”

A more specific example: 10 years ago people still believed in total replacement of front end coding with some sort of WYSIWYG editor. I think today we know that this is not going to happen. We’ve definitely learned a lot about tech and design debts.

10 years ago the user experience world was full of hope for the future importance of our field — but also constantly troubled by the lack of it. In Poland we had just a handful of UX practitioners, and we were all focused on selling UX to companies. People did not see UX as important at all. The entire industry was getting ready for the future revolution though (laughs).

Here’s another more specific trend. People believed in a way more scientific form of user research. Eye tracking was a hottie in 2006. For couple of years it seemed that if you didn’t learn how to use an eye-tracker, then you’re finished! Obviously that never happened.

Design for mobile devices, UX, eye tracking — sounds like people in the mid-naughts had big aspirations for 2016. Which of those predictions came true?

UX definitely became very important!

What advancements in UX and UI design did people not see coming 10 years ago?

I don’t anybody could predict the aesthetization of the digital world. Minimalism killed all the other trends really quickly.

“Minimalism killed all the other trends really quickly.”

It’s said that hindsight is 20/20. Knowing what you know today, what would you have done differently 10 years ago?

I would started to work on UXPin earlier (laughs).

Where do you see UXPin in 10 years — or is it possible to look that far ahead?

[Over the next 10 years] UXPin is going to streamline product development across different platforms including AR/VR, holograms … and all these devices that we can’t even imagine today. It will bridge design and development forever!

What advice would you give entrepreneurs who want to plan a business to stand the test of time?

Never stop talking to customers and always think about the revenue.

Thanks for your insight, Marcin. Here’s to another 10 years of advancements in design.

Ben Gremillion

by Ben Gremillion

Ben Gremillion is a Content Strategist at UXPin. He’s worked as both a web designer and a back-end developer. On the side he builds and maintains a CMS for webcomic artists, and participates in annual NaNoWriMo challenges.

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