Over the past couple of months I've had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking about how various companies conceptualize, design, produce, market & support their products and services. I've being doing this as part of the preparation for my presentation at ozIA 2008, but also as a more general exercise in my work as a user experience strategist and architect.
I've taken time to look at how companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Nokia shape their strategies and what the future looks like for these companies. I've also looked at the different ways in which these companies position themselves with respect to that future. And it's been interesting to note that a lot of these companies use scenarios as a planning device.
The Nokia Morph concept, which I showed at ozIA 2008, is a good example. The video shows off a concept of what a consumer electronics device might look like in 10 years time, when nanotechnology has been commercialised; gestural interfaces and direct manipulation are the norm; and the physical world is overlaid constantly with the information shadow of the objects that make it up.
Nokia use this concept in several different ways:
- as a means of galvanising efforts within the organization towards enabling the future as it is envisioned in the concept;
- as a means of communicating in concrete terms the skills, technologies and capabilities staff and departments will need to master in the coming years - both singularly and collectively - to bring that vision to fruition; and
- as a means of communicating to us, the public, a possible future in which Nokia plays a more central role in our day-to-day lives.
We were fortunate enough to see August de los Reyos from Microsoft's Surface team provide us with similar insights into the way Microsoft envisions the future of computing. It shares many of the same traits as Nokia's vision, although it takes place at that intersection between business and intelligence.
It isn't necessary to buy in to every aspect of these futuristic concepts - either in the detail or the trajectory - in order to appreciate the fact that these organizations are plotting a course towards a brighter future and asking us to come along for the ride.
But then there's Apple: a company standing apart who's not only leading the way at the present, but demonstrating - through it's new products being released each day - that the future may not be what we expect. That futuristic concepts give us a glimpse of something ultimately unsatisfying on their own.
No, rather than espouse or articulate a vision for the future Apple sets about changing our present. We are not given any insight behind the process; no sneak peaks; no road maps. Instead we are presented with a seemingly endless stream of hand-crafted, unique experiences, that change the way we interact with the world. Steve Jobs has turned Apple into Willy Wonka's Cholocate Factory, and we are left peering through the locked gates of 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino waiting for the next piece of magic to be released.
Apple product releases are anticipated, discussed, debated, dissected and anticipated some more. Like Willy Wonka's "Ever-lasting Gob-stoppers" we never quite learn the secret of how they're made, but we know we want them, and so does the rest of the world. In the meantime, Mr Wonka (aka Steve) has moved on to the next surprise.
The role of the 'future concept' is not invalidated by the success of Apple's genius design approach; nor has the use of such concepts guaranteed the deliverable of ground-breaking products for the likes of Microsoft or Nokia. However, since not all companies have a Steve Jobs at the helm, it's nice to know they're using the tools at their disposal to work towards designing a better future for us regardless.