The Year of Trustworthy Design”

tl;dr version:

  • There are eight experience design trends that will affect the successful adoption of digital products in 2023 – and they are affected by an underlying societal and market force.
  • Users have been repeatedly blindsided personally, professionally, financially, emotionally, and spiritually; they are consciously and unconsciously choosing products and services that deliver feelings of deep trust.
  • Organizations that recognize this and honor their users by providing interactions and experiences that provide reliability and a “chance to relax and exhale” will prosper.

By Dave LaFontaine

There are 8 top-level experience design trends that will dominate 2023 – and one deeper force that will ultimately drive organizational success … or failure.

The eight trends are:

  1. Design in Big Data: Insights and action
  2. Deep Ux Research: Getting clarity
  3. Sustainable Design: Design for environmental good
  4. Emerging Interact Modalities: Diverse ways to control digital experiences
  5. Intentional Personalization: Enhance experiences, create affinity
  6. AI & Machine Learning: Design force multiplier and informer
  7. Mixed Realities: Expanding the world, creating opportunities
  8. Diversity, Equity & Inclusions: Empowering users

We will address each in turn, and in the weeks and months to come, I will do a deep dive into each of these trends, to provide guidance on how organizations can adopt them into their products and services.

However, there is also a hidden, powerful force that weaves its way through all these trends; a force that needs to be taken into consideration when doing project ideation and strategic planning: trust.

a mountain climber extends a hand to help a fellow climber to the peak at sunrise

Our users have been buffeted over the past 3 years by societal, economic, technological, and epidemiological forces that have left many feeling like their entire worlds are coming apart at the seams.

Just to focus on the financial sector, a year ago, cryptocurrency was seen as a safe haven for anxious investors. That has obviously not held true, as billions of dollars evaporated seemingly overnight, and “Crypto Kings” were exposed as running shoddy Ponzi schemes.

Meanwhile, conventional stocks and bonds both melted down in a way that has never been seen before, leading investment analysts to declare, “There is no safe space to run and hide anymore.” These market gyrations have caused a global loss of trust in institutions and governments – effects that have trickled down into user demands for their technological interfaces to keep pace with these upheavals. MIT’s Technology Review has identified “Industry 4.0” as a necessary process for companies to continue to innovate just to keep pace, even as industries like auto manufacturing have cut their design-to-production cycles from 54 months to as little as 14.

What the Pandemic Did to Our Users

Previous Force: Distract us from reality

Previous Condition: During the pandemic, we were anxious – but we had a LOT of free time on our hands. Unfortunately, promises made that the pandemic would be over in a few weeks turned out to be false, and digital platforms were soon flooded with misinformation and a succession of quack cures.

We wanted things to distract us & comfort us, as we sat at home, wondering if and how we could get our hands on paper products in supermarkets.

Digital Design Reaction: Site and App Design trended towards soothing colors and cheerful, friendly experiences that started to become more complex and weighed down.

It didn’t matter if the load time was slow, because hey, we had tons of time on our hands. We wanted to laugh, and feel like things were going to be better one day – anything to keep us from endlessly “doomscrolling.”

Just to focus on the financial sector, a year ago, cryptocurrency was seen as a safe haven for anxious investors. That has obviously not held true, as billions of dollars evaporated seemingly overnight, and “Crypto Kings” were exposed as running shoddy Ponzi schemes.

Meanwhile, conventional stocks and bonds both melted down in a way that has never been seen before, leading investment analysts to declare, “There is no safe space to run and hide anymore.” These market gyrations have caused a global loss of trust in institutions and governments – effects that have trickled down into user demands for their technological interfaces to keep pace with these upheavals. MIT’s Technology Review has identified “Industry 4.0” as a necessary process for companies to continue to innovate just to keep pace, even as industries like auto manufacturing have cut their design-to-production cycles from 54 months to as little as 14.

Demand for Functionality Rather Than Distraction

Current Force: Nothing fancy, just functional

Condition now:  We have (more or less) emerged from the pandemic. For real, this time. We think. So, we all must return to work again, and there is a primal need to try to “get back to normal,” and leave the disruptions behind.

Users are focused now on doing all the things we didn’t do during the pandemic. Commuting back to offices. Eating indoors in restaurants. Going to concerts and sporting events, where we mingle in large crowds. “Revenge Traveling” to take vacations or business trips that had been canceled.

The thing is, at the same time, we carry with us the traumas of the last few years, and the parade of bad news is keeping people in a state of anxiety.

Digital design reaction: Pastel colors and quirky animations are fast disappearing from digital apps and sites, in favor of functionality and reliability. Users are seeking apps that they can rely on to just do the job – fast, because they still have a lot of other things to worry about.

In this context, trust is not just “I need to verify that this email isn’t just more phishing?” but “What happens when I click on this button? Is the content & context around it such that I can trust that it’s going to take me where I want, and do the thing I want? Was this digital product built to serve my needs, or is it just another trick to track me?”

Designers and organizations that offer a feeling of solidity, of reliability, will appeal to users in 2023.

8 Experience Design Trends for 2023

Each of these eight trends is going to influence designs and digital products in 2023 and beyond. We will list each again, with a short description of how we see each trend expressing itself.

1. Design in Big Data

The push to develop and produce “Big Data” did not pause in the past three years; if anything, it took on even greater importance in our lives, as we made wrenching changes to how we lived in the hopes of “flattening the curve” (remember that?). 

The result has been that users are even more accustomed to making decisions based on data. Unfortunately, the design of these data visualizations has lagged, and designers struggle to apply the insights from all that data to strategic decision-making.

  1. Deep UX Research

If uncertainty is the constant background noise, user experience (UX) research is a tool that helps bring out the valuable signal from that noise.  

Decision-makers have become even more tentative recently, because of widespread talk of economic downturns. The insights generated by new UX Research tactics developed during the pandemic lockdowns will help savvy organizations obtain the clarity and conviction they can use to steal a march on the competition.

  1. Sustainable Experience Design

Users had ample time over the last three years to hear about wildfires, more powerful hurricanes, deeper droughts, and other indications that sustainability is a crucial consideration. This has only increased the pressure on organizations to prove that they are being good corporate citizens, and care about the planet.

However, there have also been notable examples of “greenwashing” – a phenomenon where organizations attempt to use deceptive design patterns to hide their true behavior. Users have reacted poorly to this, and are increasingly demanding transparency into sustainability.

  1. Emerging Interactive Modalities

Advances in voice recognition (and the chance to have a verbal conversation with someone other than your cat) led users to start to rely on voice commands in situations where they previously would require keyboards or buttons to push.

We are also seeing users engaging with other hands-free technologies, like the sensors under the bumpers of SUVs that allow people to swipe their feet under a trailer hitch to open up the tailgate when their hands are laden down with groceries (or squirming toddlers).

“Spatial Audio” is acclimating users to music that changes, depending on how they tilt or turn their heads when wearing the ubiquitous earbuds. Experiments are underway that will allow head nods or shakes during video calls to serve as the equivalent of mouse clicks or Escape keys.

Cumulatively, what this means for digital designs is that we are able to design for circumstances where users were previously unable to interact.

  1. Intentional Personalization

Users came to rely on Netflix and Spotify suggestions that were tailored to their interests, and that didn’t surface things that had already been seen/listened to multiple times. They also got used to scanning QR codes that served as shortcuts to proving their vaccination status, board airplanes, enter concerts, or log into digital experiences.

The key will be to offer digital experiences that make users feel cared for – without raising hackles and making people stop in their tracks to ask “Wait. How do you know that about me?”

  1. AI & Machine Learning

Related to designing personalization into digital products, AI/ML technology is a key driver in constructing bespoke interfaces that conform to user needs and habits. And yes, there is still work to be done to design chats and voicemail trees so users don’t resort to just smashing the “Operator” button over and over.

However, when AI uses predictive and prescriptive analytics to surface a shortcut to getting the task at hand done quicker (and cheaper), users are going to value that tradeoff … as long as that trust is rewarded with better experiences.

  1. Mixed Reality (AR, VR, XR)

Yes, the VR technology that always seems to be “five years into the future” is actually gathering force, if for no other reason than Meta has poured billions into designing and constructing some very sophisticated building blocks.

Creating an engaging, useful experience is key to extending organizations’ value onto these emerging platforms, and getting a head start on incorporating what is shaping up to be a transformative technology into business processes.

What we see emerging in the next year will be a couple of practical AR applications that will start to address complex problems that festered over the past few years (such as unsnarling supply chains and logistics workflows). It is particularly powerful when designers can connect the Advanced Micro Interactions noted above to AR experiences, in ways that allow users to shortcut the keyboard-and-mouse paradigm (although Snapchat’s AR direct-plug-to-the-brain is a bit much).

  1. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

If words matter when it comes to DE&I issues, then experience design is an even more important (but often overlooked) factor in empowering organizations to be more welcoming and inclusive. A prime factor is the growing need to address accessibility (also known by the digital shorthand “A11y”) issues in digital products and website.  

More women are entering the tech workforce, because remote work is making it increasingly possible to juggle work and family responsibilities. Many of these women have relocated from Silicon Valley to smaller cities, and are highly skilled (and quite demanding). A recent Zapier remote work study found that 44% of women prefer remote work because of family and childcare concerns, while 57% say that the lack of work-life balance has them expecting to leave their jobs within two years.  

However, as tech becomes more gender-inclusive, some changes are going to take place to interfaces, language, and even color schemes and fonts.  

Organizations who work to adapt their digital products to answer questions like “What would a woman supply-chain manager who oversees a team of 500 people want to see? What is different about that implementation than what currently exists for a man-centric design experience?” will see increased adoption.

The Future Is Speaking To Us …

2023 and beyond…

As supply chains and manufacturing have spun back up, users are no longer content with experiences that are “good enough.” What we are finding is that users are less willing to cut organizations slack, as the “well, it’s a pandemic, so of course it doesn’t work” excuse has worn thin.

And while it is true that “the only constant is change,” the overarching societal and market conditions are demanding an emphasis on functionality and reliability.

Organizations have a responsibility to respond to their users’ needs & habits; when the userbase clearly signals that they want a ground-up refinement to the way they interact with digital products, the path forward is clear.

As a Lead UX Designer, I try to keep my eyes focused not just on solutions to existing pain points and challenges, but on where user habits and societal forces are leading us all. I like the quote from hockey legend Wayne Gretzy about what made him great, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

While it’s unlikely that each of these experience design trends will affect your organization, it IS likely that at least one of them will – and that those effects will reach far beyond what most people think of when they envision what “design” means.

Adopting a more proactive approach to existing digital solutions can be a tough sell, particularly when there is so much uncertainty stemming from anticipated economic downturns – but we are seeing already that organizations that have invested in addressing these experience design trends have set themselves up to be more resilient in tough times.

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