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Digital Design for the New Audience – the Challenge of the "Always On" Web

Google Bryant Park-1We’ve talked before about the coming ubiquitousness of smart phones. Verizon’s recent announcement that they will reduce prices on all their phones (except for two models) to under $99 is only going to spur this trend. Within ten years we may even see the concept of paying for phones disappear (or at least see them become so cheap that they are essentially free). It’s not inconceivable to picture smart phones having the same sort of consumer penetration that landlines or the ultimate mass-market communications platform, television, currently enjoys.

That’s a major shift in digital access and it’s going to have a significant impact not only in the US (where new economic classes will have be online on a consistent basis for the first time) but also abroad (almost all of those 300 million Indian honors students mentioned in this video will have digital access too).

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Google Bryant Park-1We’ve talked before about the coming ubiquitousness of smart phones. Verizon’s recent announcement that they will reduce prices on all their phones (except for two models) to under $99 is only going to spur this trend. Within ten years we may even see the concept of paying for phones disappear (or at least see them become so cheap that they are essentially free). It’s not inconceivable to picture smart phones having the same sort of consumer penetration that landlines or the ultimate mass-market communications platform, television, currently enjoys.

That’s a major shift in digital access and it’s going to have a significant impact not only in the US (where new economic classes will have be online on a consistent basis for the first time) but also abroad (almost all of those 300 million Indian honors students mentioned in this video will have digital access too).

But it’s not just the mobile platform that’s fuelling online access. The rumors about Apple’s forthcoming tablet computer should only spur more excitement in the superhot Netbook category. Microsoft’s announcement of an online version of its Office software and Google’s announcement of the Chrome OS should also spur growth in this space. The popularity of cloud computing will continue to drive software prices down and make enhanced functionality basically free as well.

So as digital designers and developers, it’s conceivable that we could see exponential growth in the worldwide audiences for our products. The challenge is to effectively identify the content this new audience will be seeking. And my question is are we really thinking about this enough?

In a recent post, I asked what innovation efforts the government should back. But we all really need to think about this within our own companies as well. To a certain degree, the online world has been a tool of the upper and middle classes, used primarily for education and entertainment. When we present solutions to clients, we often fall back in to the usual tropes of media, advertising, and academia, fields from which many of our thought leaders have emerged. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with this, and the web community has created some remarkable resources for users based on this skill set.

But if digital presences are going to become a part of EVERYONE’S day-to-day life, don’t we need to expand the discussion beyond these categories. Shouldn’t we be bringing in everyone from urban planners to industrial designers to economists to systems engineers?

How would this work? Here’s an example. In the US, we’re currently in the middle of a major debate about healthcare reform. One of the main points of discussion is the digitization of health records. Surely a boon for all but a complex issue tied up in concerns about privacy, regulatory issues, and systems standardization. But what’s to stop us from putting the power back in to the individual’s hands? A busy working mother, who’s taking time off from her job to take her sick child to the doctor, doesn’t want to be filling out patient history forms every time she takes her child to see a new physician. Why can’t the AMA design a standardized digital template that she can store on her phone and wirelessly broadcast to the doctor’s computer whenever she visits a new healthcare provider? It wouldn’t even have to be something she pays for, as Pharma companies would probably jump at the chance to sponsor this type of digital communication.

Design is at it’s best when it impacts everyday lives. As online access becomes more and more available, we need to go beyond casual gaming, online video, and chat to offer digital tools that profoundly impact people’s lives. And to do that we either need to expand our own knowledge bases or bring in experts in other fields to help us better understand user needs. This entire great experiment that is the Worldwide Web evolved by people taking tools designed for one purpose and using them in new and unexpected ways. How much more often could this happen if we brought in fresh perspectives that aren’t used to viewing online tools through our own embedded perceptions?

If you work in a big corporation ask yourself what resources can I utilize to foster this kind of discussion. And if you are more entrepreneurial ask yourself, what business events or forums can I attend to interact with the type of people who might help me encourage this type of thinking in my team.

What are you making for the audience that’s coming?

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