When I started out in the early, heady days of new media, it was a Flash(y) wonderland of trial and experiment that explored all the boundaries of the digital playpen. Some of the work that came out of this period is risible in retrospect, but no one can deny that the explorations around the edges offered rugged stereo experiences. But now we have too many Barrett Homes and Levvittowns online: monotony and monopoly on form and function, look and feel.
It is with regret that I have now concluded the design world has become flat. Flat as a pancake. The web as an experience has plateaued. UX is now powering how new ideas are expressed, with an agenda to be useable and get things done quickly. But it has come along and hijacked the depth of creativity and experience that we ploughed into the design days of yore.
My argument here is that whilst tech and its co-worker UX have been promoted, design has been demoted to middle management. And these new leaders have got in the way of brands’ ability – or opportunity – to entertain and emotionally connect with their customers. So much investment is poured into tech R&D, the result being too much meaningless functionality that has crept into the mix – much of it superfluous, adding noise to experiences. This is at the expense of exploration into interface – which is the emotional alloy with the customer.
Twitter and Facebook are uprising – where is the grit and wow? The tech is clever, but rarely do we see anything smart in terms of interface. You would expect, among all those democratised crowd-funded projects, we would see bucket loads of innovation and intelligence that was not clever to use but bright to the eye.
I point a finger to the Valley. There is a West Coast graphic style that felt bright and optimistic a few years ago but now every new start-up is doing that ‘affable’ thing that frankly looks too easy and lazy.
Complexity and confusion, speed and minimalism combine to flatten products and experiences so that they can be mass-produced, but they don’t bide so well for the development of meaningful relationships with technology. It’s tech before the true needs of people: too little thought is expended around the behaviors and desires of people.
There is a case and place for Simple: I don’t want my local government website to entertain me. But ALL web templates seem to have come inline to look identical – you’ve seen those parallax designs with their divided, endless scrolling pages. Interaction design seems to have come to an abrupt halt and a lot of the pioneering talent has jumped into the worlds of art and experience.
This flatness is ubiquitous – it doesn’t just stay on the page. Even 3D objects now embrace the flat. The interior of a BMW is unequivocally of-the-brand – there is no mistaking it. But if you look at the outside, manufacturing and contemporary trends have shaved off too many edges, and leveled off unique qualities. So now we have cars looking the same. There’s a great opportunity to create great car interfaces, but all these do is emulate the analogue.
YouTube just wants to be a TV screen. Where is the intelligence? When are we going to start integrating some of these technologies with one another so that we bring richness to the visual experience? The best we can enjoy at the moment is a bit of ‘second screen’ banter on Twitter.
So what does this mean for brands? They need to start owning their interactivity, so that the feel is branded. Apple is onto it, but what about the automotive or banking industries? How can an interface be HSBC through and through?
How can brands build their personalities in digital environments in meaningful, expressive or surprising and magical ways to engineer an addiction in customers? How can a brand be communicated to customers in the same exciting, entertaining way? How can we embody it so that the user experience on the eye, interface, or even skin, is quintessentially of-the-brand?
Let’s look at the sector that is surprising and entertaining these days: game development. Developers are producing multi-layered mazes of complexity and wonder that people learn to navigate to gain pleasure and reward. We need to introduce similar levels of enjoyment around the brand experience so that they may have better relationships and more poetic conversations with customers. It’s about recalibrating the dominant and one-directional digital diatribe that we’re currently locked into.
We need to bring interactive, digital experiences back to the brand to question how often organisations and branding agencies consider connectivity, and how values are experienced through all of its facets. Because a brand’s positioning, products, services and tone of voice and values can all be embodied into an intelligent interface. A focus on the simple needs and emotional triggers will create longer lasting relationships that every business seeks.
Daljit Singh is a digital strategist, designer and founder of the consultancy Happiness. He tweets @dalj