In a wide-ranging essay for Figma, Carmel DeAmicis chronicles the rise of design in the last decade of product and business: The Decade of Design: How the last 10 years transformed design’s role in tech. She asked a dozen people, including me, about the themes that raised design’s profile and shifted its focus since 2010.

“Mobile normalized the idea of computing beyond the screen” is a tidbit I offered. Not only did mobile make touch mainstream as an input alternative to keyboard and mouse, it also made sensor-based computing utterly normal. The camera, the microphone, the accelerometer, GPS—all became expected, everyday surfaces for interaction in the first full decade of the smartphone. For that matter, “invisible” interactions became commonplace, too, with notification-based interfaces driven by data-backed predictive services.

At an even more fundamental level, mobile changed consumer expectations of what software should be—in quality, ease of use, and even personality. “Applications used to be gray, bland, functional affairs imposed upon us to do the mundane tasks of the day,” I suggested to Carmel. “Mobile really blew that up.”

Carmel’s central theme is not only that mobile was the key driver for digital product design in the last decade, but that this sea change also had several follow-on (and follow-on-follow-on effects). “Mobile sped up the pace of everything, design included,” she writes. A few of her call-outs:

  • The collection, storage, and use of personal data exploded.
  • Data-driven design and A/B testing became part of the standard toolkit for designers (for better and for worse).
  • As more companies built on top of identical infrastructure (AWS, cloud services, open source software), design became the distinguishing factor for products, not the code.
  • Big companies started hiring big design staffs, instead of outsourcing design work to agencies.
  • Educational programs, bootcamps, and self-serve courses about design have proliferated to meet the need for more designers.
  • Design tools exploded to meet the growing, varied, and dynamic needs of interaction design.

What comes next?

Carmel closes her essay by noting that designers are now charged with figuring out how to use their new and growing influence to focus tech on meaningful opportunities—and limit tech’s potential and demonstrated dangers. “Many people we interviewed mentioned the moral responsibilities that lie ahead,” she writes.

For me, that will be all about how we choose to feed the algorithms, present their results, and limit their risks. Carmel and I talked about this in our interview for the article, though it didn’t make the final cut. Here are a few of my comments from that conversation:

If mobile defined the last decade of digital product design, machine learning is already defining the next.

Algorithmic interfaces already drive so many of the digital products all of us use every day. For better and for worse, algorithms determine the news we see, the movies we watch, the products that are surfaced, even the way we drive home from work. For designers, the next decade is all about understanding our roles and responsibilities in using and shaping the algorithm as a design material. How do we use data and sensors and machine learning in ways that are meaningful, personal, useful—and most of all, respectful and responsible? That’s the opportunity and challenge that will be mobile’s legacy—and the work of design in the coming years.

Are you or your team wrestling with how to adopt and design for machine learning and AI? Big Medium can help—with executive sessions, workshops, or full-blown engagements for product design and development. Get in touch.

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