How I’ve Used Future Thinking To Work With Global Brands And Develop Near-Future Experiences

By Matthew Cockerill, independent design consultant, explains…

Thinking about and designing for the future requires a different design process to that traditionally used for the iterative development of existing products and services. This is not about future visions from the mind of a fortune-telling guru. But the pragmatic application of research, imagination, and craft to help businesses think and act differently.

It can be hard to know where to start when you must think about the future. Data and techniques like user research and journey mapping only give you a snapshot of now and are framed in the context of problems and solutions. And what you see from the competition is often what they were thinking 2-4 years ago.

So, a different design process is needed to understand where future human and business value might lie. Where it can help you understand the potential of new experiences with future users and gain strategic lessons; to take advantage of today’s disruptive technologies.

When we think about the future, we often think about science fiction. But films like Blade Runner, Minority Report or Her are not often very inspirational. The stories tend to come from the minds of a singular author, are too far ahead and use imagined technologies. But the pre-production and production techniques of film can be very useful to help create, explore, envision, and test possible future experiences. Taking on the key stages of film production – from world building, script writing, improv and table reads, through to set and production design and rehearsal can all be used in building future tech experiences.

During a film or stage play development process, one of the first thing that gets created is concept art. To paint a picture of this future world for the people involved in the production. To understand how it looks, what it feels like and what’s going on. It helps the actors to immerse themselves in the roles that they’re going to play and how they’re going to behave. But it also inspires the production crew to fully understand lighting, locations needed and the kind of props they are going to need to create.

When we brainstorm new ideas, even when we are thinking about the future, they tend to be shaped by our lived realities. So, to escape the gravitational pull of today, before designing future products and services, we need to create credible future realities. Establishing the shifts in human values, enabling technologies or suitable everyday contexts and artifacts, or even the regulatory framework that will shape this world could allow us to think, design and test future ideas.

To achieve this, technology companies need to think in scenes that can bring to life this world. Small windows into a potential future experience, which are familiar enough to connect with people, but distinctive enough to help us think differently. What you are trying to do is enable your team to walk through the experience physically without building a neat journey map of every aspect of it, to really understand how these scenes might feel to inhabit.

This process will help them to find out what works, what’s totally unrealistic and more importantly discover what can inspire even more new ideas. At the beginning you don’t need to be sure where it will lead or even that it can be validated. You just need to know it can ignite the imagination of you and your team. Rehearsing these future experiences, often with prototypes, some real to understand technical capability, some faked as “wizard of Oz” to allow you to quickly experience an idea without the expense or timelines of prototyping final product solutions.

With context, script, set design and prototypes, businesses can begin to put on production rehearsals. In the studio, set up real locations like a rented house or factory floor, so the experience team can learn, validate ideas with potential future users and to socialise these possible futures within the other business units. By doing this, you can achieve credible future visions built on foundational research and road tested to make sure it’s a believable fit with future users, understandable and technically credible. To inspire people in the business to have more imagination in their work as they make the final decisions that shape the future products and services that eventually will build.

So, when challenged to think about the future, save the Sci-Fi for the weekend and lean into the world building and the production techniques of rehearsal to help you explore and really experience real possible futures.