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What is the future of product design in the 2020s?

Design leaders from Facebook, Intercom, Dropbox, Animoodles, and more share predictions about the coming sea change that is product design.
What is the future of product design in the 2020s?

From the rise of design systems to the dwindling of celebrity designers, in the last decade, the product design industry drove significant shifts and changes. So what’s in store for the 2020s? Will designer-PMs become the new designer unicorns? Will mobile apps and websites become old school, replaced largely by augmented reality? Will AI and machine learning–powered software make design even easier?

The answers to these questions are a resounding “most likely.” At least, that’s what we’ve surmised after collecting insights from folks in the know at Facebook, Dropbox, Abstract, Grab, and more. Let’s dive into their predictions about the future of innovation, business thinking, tools, and processes.

Jasmine Friedl

Director of Design, Intercom, and co-host of the New Layer podcast

I don't usually engage in predictions; I'm far better at reflection! One thing that surfaced in 2019 — again, like, are we over this yet? — was the whole "should designers code?" debate. I remember a few years back, we were wondering if product designers should master content strategy.

Product designers have a huge opportunity to become better business people.

One thing that's become pretty evident in the past few years is that product designers have a huge opportunity to become better business people. For quite some time, we've had a healthy tension (OK, sometimes unhealthy) between product managers and designers, in that designers want to be as much a part of what we design and build in addition to how we design and build. But I haven't seen as many designers grounded in great business and business-growth thinking. As in, how to drive revenue through product, how to minimize cost (or risk), and even things like understanding how their own allocation, process, and time drives not only user impact, but business results. In the best situations, this means better results, funding, and products for customers and users. In the past few years, we've seen a bit of a surge of “growth designers” — designers who tend to geek out on experimental processes: pulling small levers to learn how to drive business results — and I see that as an indicator of where we're headed.

Another thing that's on my mind is how we balance our levels and create career paths for senior designers. There's definitely more folks coming into the UX and product design world as universities are getting more in tune with the roles of designers today, and bootcamps are quickly delivering new grads. Many companies prefer to hire senior folks, and we've got bottlenecks to what happens after senior, and yet tons of more junior folks just trying to get their foot in the door. There's no shortage of problems to be uncovered and solved through design, so I'd hope in the future we have more clarity on how to create senior paths, for non-managers particularly, in order to better utilize our community.

Jamal Nichols

Senior Product Designer, Facebook, and Principal at Truth About Design

I don’t think anyone can predict what will happen in 10 years in product design. The field changes too quickly. In the next five years, though, there are a few emerging threads that will continue to grow stronger:

  • Much more money and people flowing into the industry
  • Tools and skillsets merging
  • Emerging technologies

So what does this mean for the future of product design?

Designers will know more about engineering, and engineers will know more about design

I’m already seeing this happen. Some of the younger designers on my team at Facebook have computer science degrees and write their own classes in Framer. Engineers are setting a higher bar for themselves with regards to design because they see so many other apps out there.

Mobile apps and websites will be like vinyl records and inkjet printers — they will still be around, but the innovation will be elsewhere.

The mobile and desktop design space are mature industries that are now 15 to 25 years old. There will be a need for these apps and tools for a long time to come, especially in the enterprise space. But the most innovative, challenging work will be happening elsewhere.

The most innovative, challenging work will happen outside of mobile apps and websites.

Augmented reality will start displacing mobile apps and websites

Apple has laid the foundation for this shift. ARkit and the lessons learned from AirPods and Apple Watch with regards to miniaturizing technology will play into new form factors in the future — most likely glasses. When the shift happens, mobile apps and websites will play a much smaller role, and everyone in the design industry will feel like noobs again, trying to figure out the best tools and workflows to design for this new form factor.

Wes O’Haire

Product Designer, Dropbox

This will be quite a decade for product design. While no one knows the future, I'd place bets on two trends:

  1. Product designers will become "nimble thinkers."
  2. Product designers will start to focus more on Agentive Design.

Product designers will become nimble thinkers

Parts of design are being commoditized (e.g., free design resources, design systems, more powerful design tooling). This is leading designers to move up the value chain by leveling up their business thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills.

Good designers will successfully learn these new skills. However, great designers will develop systems to learn these new skills. This will make them "nimble thinkers" — able to continually adapt to the changing landscape and operate across many different functions.

Products will do things on our behalves, acting as an agent for us. That's agentive design.

Two skills that will become popular for designers will be finance and selling

Finance, because it's the language of business. Not knowing how to speak this language means it's harder to get things done.

Selling is about being able to articulate why your solution solves someone’s problem. This could be in writing, one-to-one conversations, or presentations. When you can sell, you can ensure your solutions actually land with people.

Product designers will focus more on Agentive Design

The last few decades of interaction design have relied on manual user input. Buttons. Inputs. Forms. Someone needs to continually interact with your product to extract its value.

But with the rise of automated technologies (AI/ML/etc.), much of that manual input can (and should) be automated. Set it and forget it. Products will do things on our behalves, acting as an agent for us. That's agentive design.

Designers of the future will focus on creating products that are mostly automated, while giving people the ability to tune and monitor the product.

Marissa Louie

CEO and Chief Designer, Animoodles

I’m excited to see product design continue to evolve. Here are some things I anticipate for 2020–2030:

Designer-PMs will be the new designer unicorns

The line between product designers and product managers will continue to blur as more designer-PM hybrids uncover new value for both users and organizations.

Business-savvy product designers who are adept at product thinking, data analysis, data science, strategy, and user research will be increasingly sought after as design metrics gain a larger seat at the table. More designers will get MBAs, and more product managers will create higher-fidelity wireframes and mockups thanks to democratized design tools.

The increased cross-pollination of design disciplines will unlock new innovation.

Learning will increase across design disciplines

There will be a lower barrier to learning design disciplines that are slightly outside of digital product design. Fields like animation and industrial design will be accessible in shorter formats than university courses, on platforms such as LinkedIn Learning and Skillshare. The increased cross-pollination of design disciplines will unlock new innovation.

AI and Machine Learning simplify the product design workflow

AI and ML-powered software will reduce the steps it takes to mock up and spec full user experiences. They could anticipate a designer’s gaps of thinking and correct errors such as inconsistent alignment. They should be able to pull from design systems and design libraries in a seamless way, making design across platforms and browsers easier.

Voice UI becomes more advanced

Voice UI will be more aligned with how humans think, such as processing multiple data sources in order to come up with answers in real time. The technology should evolve beyond merely understanding text and become able to gather insights and information from images, songs, and other multimedia content formats.

Heather Phillips

Director of Design, Abstract

Design-thinking methodologies will be applied more broadly

In the 2020s, we’ll see more companies apply design-thinking methodologies to broader business and operational challenges. As more organizations evolve to incorporate design into other processes, designers will need to evolve as well. We’ll need to equip ourselves with a better understanding of our businesses’ needs and how we’re uniquely suited to drive impact.

We’ll see designers step outside of their design teams to work cross-functionally on identifying and optimizing inefficient processes across their companies.

I’ve seen this approach be effective at design-led companies, including here at Abstract. We led a design sprint in collaboration with our support team to examine their end-to-end workflow and identify key areas to improve efficiency. This process led to us to designing a way for users to submit a ticket directly from our app. Our proposed solution would not only be easier for designers using our product and keep them in-flow, it also eliminated multiple steps for the support team to capture all the information required to solve a ticket.

The value of design thinking is well understood and explored as it applies to brand experiences or product flows. In the next decade, we’ll see more mainstream companies deploy designers to apply this methodology to their sales teams, recruiting processes, and everything in between.

Randy Hunt

Head of Design, Grab, and author of Product Design For the Web

Designers will take ownership for the consequences of their choices

Design and responsibility have been intertwined in academics, theory, criticism, and practice for decades, but we’ve never before seen the intensity that designers will apply that responsibility to their own work. 2020 will be a tipping point.

2020 will be a tipping point for designers taking responsibility for their work.

In 2020 we will see designers take responsibility for the consequences of their design choices on the world at large. Why now? We’re seeing the effects of design consequences in our daily lives: the rapid spread of misinformation, the climate crisis affecting our daily lives, anxiety about surveillance.

And yet, by many measures, the human population is in the best position it has ever been. Designers see the risks, but designers also see the potential. If we’re waiting for designers who, in the last decade, gained “a seat at the table” to drive change, this is the change I hope they drive toward. This is both a prediction and a call to action.