5 tips for making your designs future-proof

Huge's Josh Payton outlines five key design principles that will stand you in good stead – no matter what the future holds.

I was younger than I can remember when my parents bought our family an Apple IIe computer. When I was 11 I thought Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

At 19 I was on Makeoutclub, three years before Myspace was cool. It was only 10 years ago that the Motorola Razr was the hottest phone on the market, and it's top selling point was simply that it was thin. Now I'm in my mid thirties, and I've outgrown so much of the technology that has consistently changed the way we make sense of things.

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In only 20 years we've gone from marvelling at the revolutionary concept of the hyperlink and dial-up access to living in a world of wearable computers, anticipatory design, and the emergence of cyborg-level augmentation of our physical capabilities. Because of this, the most common questions I'm regularly faced with revolve around where our technological path is taking us and how companies, designers, and developers can keep up.

Making predictions about the future has a funny way of making one look foolish, but there are some enduring principles that I think transcend whatever prevailing industry trope is en vogue.

01. Humanise your mission

Most designers are familiar with the concept of a user-first approach, and this empathetic attitude towards product creation should touch every corner of an organisation.

In 1980 Bill Gates stated Microsoft's mission as: "A computer on every desk and in every home." He understood that his mission statement had to clearly express Microsoft's objectives in a way that could easily be measured and was relevant to everyone, from his employees to his suppliers to his customers. In a time when computers were perceived as daunting and complicated, he set forth a goal that anyone could understand and alluded to the approachable future of computing Microsoft intended to enable.

In the same way, any team large or small needs to create a message that inspires and motivates everyone who they hope to engage. All too often we get fall down the rabbit hole of KPIs and analytics, unicorns and USPs and we forget that we're making things for actual people. Users don't care about sprints, deliverables and deep-dives. If you can't state your big idea so succinctly that your parents can understand, you're probably doing it wrong.

02. Create lateral efficiency

With the introduction of Material Design, Google has taken the concept of the global experience language and put it squarely into our shared cultural lexicon. With Atomic Design, Brad Frost outlined a similarly reductive approach to propagating design patterns.

This lego-brick-style of thinking has the dual benefit of making designs scale efficiently while making them as future-ready as they can be. The next step is to apply this approach to data, process, feature-sets, and governance. There's massive room for improvement in areas that make businesses efficient.

Organisations who can standardise and implement flexible, even modular, working processes will foster better communication and collaboration. Product features and functionality should be modularised so optimisations made by individual teams can be propagated to all other teams for free. Centralised and accessible data—everything from inventory levels to analytics to employee schedules—makes the path to innovation much shorter. You don't want a culture that asks, 'Why do you need this,' you want one that says, 'This is here if you want it.'

03. Balance reductivism with systems thinking

Modularity is only one side of the coin. It's human nature to take things apart to see how they work. Systems, however, are not the sum of the performance of their parts, but a product of their interactions.

Users encounter products as a whole, not as a collection of independent functional units. For instance, if you have a desktop website, a mobile website and an app, each of these should serve a unique purpose which is non-duplicative and complimentary to the others. Each product should make the others stronger and strengthen the product ecosystem overall.

Third party platforms—social, search, app stores—should be similarly considered. There's little reason to post the same picture on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Each of these should also serve a unique purpose, compliment the others, and build an inbound connection to your owned channels.

04. Don't over-rely on best practices

We call them 'best practices' for a reason. They're great tools, but like any tool, best practices wear out and need to be replaced from time to time. There are many 'best practices' in widespread use today that were originally created to mitigate technical limitations that no longer exist (mega menus, anyone?). Apple exploited best practice in computer hardware design—the boring beige box—by introducing the iMac, which initiated one of the greatest comeback stories in history.

In an industry preoccupied with disruption, one would think an ethos of dispensing with best practice should be commonplace.

05. Fix it or nix it

The digital landscape is littered with zombie products. Amazon's discussion forums are a good example of this. They're fairly well trafficked, but they're clearly not a priority as the design and functionality are years out of date. Leaving neglected or broken features to languish this way leads to a messy product and a poor brand impression.

Product owners are adept at prioritising and investing in new and existing features; likewise they should keep a keen eye on shutting down features that are unloved or have underperformed. People whined when Apple killed the optical drive, but you don’t hear anyone lobbying for it now.

Words: Josh Payton

Josh Payton is vice president of UX at Huge, Europe and Asia.

See the author speak at Generate!