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Designs on the Future: Fjord’s 2018

Mutual validation is a pleasant experience. I recommend it. It’s the experience I enjoyed recently when I clicked through Fjord’s Trends 2018 report, and sat down afterwards to talk through the topics with CEO Olof Schybergson.

Fjord is primarily a design consultancy, not a marketing agency — although it’s been part of Accenture Interactive since 2013 — so it was remarkable to see, reflected in these trends, something like a contents page for DMN’s planned 2018 coverage. 

From the merger of digital and physical to AI and machine learning, from social responsibility to blockchain, it was all there. And Schybergson had some great perspectives to share. His starting point: “Brands are built over time through a collection of experiences. They’re not built through advertising any more. Therefore, fusing the traditional practices of brand building and marketing communication with experience design makes a ton of sense.”

Next: “Physical Fights Back.” 

This is the eleventh annual trends report from Fjord, based on insights from the full team — over 1,000 people in 30 global locations, as well as about 100 clients.  “We got things right most of the time over the first ten years. When we were wrong, it was usually about timing.” The trends are intended to surface over the next twelve or so months, and Schybergson thinks “this is our strongest set so far.”

One trend surfacing already of course, especially in retail, but across the mobile and IoT networks generally, is the merger of the digital and the physical. It also exemplifies a meta-theme which runs through all the trends: “Tension.” Tension between the digital and the real, between man and machine, between transparency and control, and so on.

“People used to go around essentially replicating their organization by building a digital organization,” such as “replicating the shopping experience by building an eCommerce store.” But this isn’t just the pendulum swinging the other way, is it? “Exactly. It’s about thoughtfully infusing data and the digital experience into everything.” And one of the main enablers of that is that data isn’t just inbound on mobile. The device in your pocket now “spits data back out” into the connected environment.

Next: “Computers Have Eyes.”

Computer vision is also real and relevant for brands right now. “I think this is a very tangible and quite simple trend: The simple observation that, in addition to computers having ears and mouths, they also have eyes. They’re often overlooked as a marketing opportunity.” The eyes (cameras in devices), are of course connected “to smart stuff in the cloud.” 

Powered by Google, search queries can now be driven by just pointing your device at something in the environment, thanks to big advances in image recognition. Needless to say, it also helps with price comparisons in stores — and with automotive purchases by showing information based on photos of number plates.

“And QR codes in certain markets are very successful. As a designer, I find the QR code visually offensive. But if you can get the benefit of the code by pointing at anything in the real world, that’s kind of interesting.”

Next: “Slaves to the Algorithm.”

“This has really big brand and marketing implications. The basic premise is that, in both the digital and physical world, we’re influenced by what we see.  We’re shown lots of stuff, and we might get promotions, and we make a decision and pay for it.”  When people start using voice and chat interfaces instead, that’s a “fundamental challenge.” 

With voice, “it’s not practical to present 20 or 30 options for you.” In order to create least friction, for example, Alexa might just choose the brand for you, based on purchase history and inventory. “I had always thought this would lead to massive challenges for the numbers two, three, four brands. The number one brand will be safe.” But what if the answer from Alexa is to order Amazon Basics? “The gatekeepers have all the control. If they want to, they can become the biggest brands themselves.”

Next: “A Machine’s Search for Meaning.”

“This is about the interplay between machines and humans in the workplace.” This has big implications for a large company like Accenture: “If hours by humans weren’t valued any more, that would be an existential threat. So we try and think not of man versus machine, but of man alongside machine in the workplace.” (See our coverage of a recent Pega study on that topic. One of Fjord’s examples: Recent Harvard research showed human pathologists beating AI on cancer diagnosis: but machines and human pathologists working together had an almost 100% success rate. 

“We came up with a number of [additional] jobs which will actually need to be done. For smart technology in the workplace, you need people who can train machines; you need explainers, translators, sustainers. So even in just this very specific area, there will be new jobs created, although some jobs will be automated and go away.” But this is nothing new with technology: where did telephone and elevator operators go? 

There remains the challenge of training people to transition to new roles. “In the past, the model used to be, you go to school and learn something, then you get a job and apply it. The new model is going to be learning all the way through.” These are 10, 20, 30 year changes, even though the theme is here and now.

Next: “In Transparency We Trust.”

This is about blockchain: But isn’t there a risk that blockchain will just remain a niche trend for the foreseeable future? “I think the answer will really depend partly on whether enough people will see the need sufficiently to address the trust issue [about data] and whether you will get smart people like designers involved in making it tangible enough so that people can start to engage with it. Otherwise it will remain a somewhat clever but abstract phenomenon floating in the ether.” 

Organizations are, however, starting to adopt it (even Schybergson’s favorite soccer team). “There’s been so much talk about cryptocurrency that people equate the two, but you can apply blockchain to so many different things.” An example from Accenture and Fjord: their involvement in ID 2020. Refugees trying to make a life in the new world without identification, can be helped to get a verified identity with the use of blockchain. “If you can have a use case, and say ‘blockchain helped fix that problem’ — refugee identity, or combating voter fraud — people can start to see there’s a real benefit there. Maybe you can fix problems which can’t be fixed otherwise.”

Next: “The Ethics Economy.”

“This is one of my favorite trends. Consumers increasingly make choices based on things like purpose, ethics, and values. The same with employees. At the same time, we have increased polarization and tension in the political sphere, and long-respected institutions being challenged.” If trust in government and its institutions is being eroded, this is “an opportunity for businesses to step into that void and take more of an active stance.”

This means it’s not enough to “follow a narrow corporate social agenda, or only act when there’s a crisis. You need to be more pro-active about your values and your contribution to society.” More examples: IKEA opening up job opportunities for refugees; Tesla sending solar panels and batteries to Puerto Rico. “Neither of these were expected or asked for by anyone.”

Next: “Design Outside the Lines.”

“This is quite personal for us, and introspective as well. In Fjord, we’re essentially designers. When you design a Carnival Medallion experience, for example, you don’t design just a physical touchpoint or a screen any more; you orchestrate the whole experience. Therefore, you design systems. Systems of communication, systems of interaction, systems of experience. 

“For those of us who grow up designing quite tangible artifacts, this is a big challenge.”

Images courtesy Fjord. Most of the examples discussed above, and many more, at Fjord Trends 2018.

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