In 2018, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of app technology.
Let’s start with the good. Apps are no longer a novelty, they’re a known quantity. As such, the technology itself is not enough to wow an audience, the really great apps have to have a solid purpose, focused on the end user. To that end, we’ve seen a plethora of great apps which combine people, places and technology in new, interesting ways – not least our own work with Battersea Power Station, Háblame Bebé and Yachting Pages.
On the bad side, we’ve seen app technology drive some questionable social schemes: in China, the IoT and AI, driven by app tech, are being used to drive a social credit scheme which essentially puts a value on individual citizens based on their everyday actions.
And for ugly, look no further than some of the clunky UX app designs in every industry from banking to branding and back again.
So what does 2019 hold? We caught up with our team to get their thoughts.
Last year, augmented reality made the headlines after the meteoric landing of Pokémon Go; we predict next year will be all about mixed reality, an immersive blend of the physical and the digital.
Earlier this year, the Science and Media Museum in Bradford hosted Thresholds – an exhibition that encapsulates the idea of “mixed reality”. Visitors explore a digital reconstruction of the world’s first major photography exhibition, as hosted by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839. Unlike typical virtual reality (VR) experiences – where the environment is all digital – the exhibition has physical counterparts. Visitors get the dual experience of a beautifully crafted digital environment, and the tactility of physical furniture.
As visitors move closer to the virtual fire, they feel the heat on their skin. As they make their way to the ‘window’ (a blocked grill in a plain white room) they can peer down to the scene below. This kind of blending is a step beyond layering virtual elements on top of physical ones; here, the two are in genuine partnership, combining to create an experience that looks and feels more real.
Brain to computer interfaces
Direct brain-to-computer interfacing has been a hot topic since 2017, with some of the biggest names in tech – Elon Musk, Bryan Johnson and Mark Zuckerberg – embracing the idea. It’s almost the stuff of science fiction – controlling computers through a wearable device that reads electrical impulses from your brain and ‘translates’ them into commands for the technology.
Right now, brain-to-computer interfaces are still in their infancy, so don’t expect them to be on the market in the next 12 months. Cursors and virtual keyboards can now be operated with the power of the mind, but the interfaces themselves need tuning to particular users. The leading edge of this technology is in clinical care, where bespoke interfaces support and enable users with physical disabilities to engage with technology and the world.
However, 2018 saw increasing interest in nanotechnology – highly sophisticated and much faster interfaces which rely on extremely precise ‘connections’ between device and user. If nano-interfaces become more viable and affordable, a broader range of creative and consumer applications are bound to appear.
As the late Stan Lee so memorably put it: “with great power comes great responsibility.” The most modern innovations in data science and artificial intelligence are joining a continuous conversation about ethics and progress that has been running for centuries.
Innovations have to balance the raw excitement and potential of new technology with the practical application of that technology to human lives – and where human users will draw the line. This year has seen a louder and more public conversation about digital privacy, leading to a backlash against Facebook and Google in the wake of privacy scandals – and the political battlefield of Twitter has shifted, as the platform takes action against “suspicious accounts”.
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The year has also seen widespread adoption of voice-activated, voice-controlled apps and hardware like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, despite concerns that they never stop listening. Surveillance, it turns out, is an acceptable price for convenience, as long as the device has personality.
This cynicism aside, there’s a real point about technology and society to be made here. At consumer level, technology has to offer value commensurate with its impact. Tasteful, restrained, open and honest personalisation may justify the collection and storage of personal data, but the decision should be with the end user. After GDPR this year, 2019 will see further legislation like e-Privacy come into play, plus ongoing discussions around the ethics of AI with a view to defining an internationally agreed regulatory framework around its use.
We predict companies getting ahead of the curve, building more of this nuance in digital design projects – more honesty, integrity and disclosure around what data is collected and why.
Resisting the “attention based economy”
The phrase “attention economy” was coined by Herbert A. Simon way back in 1971 when he stated: “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”
His comments came before the internet went mainstream, and before smartphones and social media become the phenomena they are today. Apps of all guises are built to grab and keep our attention, sometimes even building in functionality designed to create addiction. The reasons are obvious, but there are questions facing technology companies moving into 2019.
What role do they play, ethically, in creating addiction? Is it responsible for designers to focus solely on easy, alluring ways to get customers on board? Can tech companies afford to consider their work as a neutral, self-contained project that succeed if they meets its own KPIs? These questions are becoming louder and more frequent than ever before.
Taking care of users, and encouraging them to take care of themselves, will be an increasingly important factor in app design as 2019 unfolds.
Accessible, universal designs
We’ve touched on how nano-interfaces can enable users with physical impairments to interact with technology – and maybe, one day, virtual environments. We’ve highlighted voice activation as another way to make hardware accessible and responsive. We’ve talked about design responsibility – and the same research which explores the consequences of addiction and attention-economy design has also established guidelines on how to make mobile apps more accessible for children. (In case you were wondering: design for broad movements and non-precise interactions. Think swiping, rather than tapping small buttons.)
Across the board, accessibility will become a bigger conversation in app tech next year. Microsoft for one, has committed to accessibility on a grand scale, supporting development of the Smart City Digital Inclusion Maturity Model in Chicago. Essentially, the Maturity Model brings questions of access and ability into the smart city movement, focusing on communications, procurement, training and technology standards to ensure smart cities are as inclusive as they can be. Even smaller projects owe it to their user base to devise simple, accessible interfaces, to make their standard experience as universal as possible.
As technology becomes even further ingrained in our lives, we hope that more groundbreaking projects and programmes like these make headlines in 2019.
So there we have it, our big app and app tech predictions for the coming year. While we can never be certain what’s going to make headlines next year, one thing is for certain, there won’t be a dull moment.
What do you think? What have we missed? What will apps look like in 2019? Let us know!
Image credit: NASA