Human and Feasible: How Continuum Designs the Future

product experience

Human and Feasible

How Continuum Designs the Future

August 30, 2016
by Sophie Spiers

Everyone is talking about “the future.” Everyone has always been talking about the future–it’s human nature. But what’s different about today’s “future” is technology’s increasingly present role in our lives. With rapid technological advancement, there is a tendency to want to churn out futuristic visions and ideas. The idea of “The Future of __” is a media constant. The Wall Street Journal has an entire magazine dedicated to highlighting experts’ futuristic visions and trend predictions: will the “jetpack movement” finally “take off”? Will we eventually eat 3D-printed food? In a 2015 Huffington Post article, futurist Dr. Michio Kaku stated that in the next 10 years, thoughts, emotions, feelings, and memories might be transmitted instantly across the planet. The same article prophesized a drastic increase in virtual realities, avatars of people who have passed away, and 3D-printed organs.

These visions may one day become realities. But how much stock can be put into every theory? How can we train ourselves to differentiate between fantastical futures and feasible ones, when technology is forcing us to adapt so quickly? The excitement and intrigue that spurs futuristic visions must also be supported by an understanding of trends and human values.

At Continuum, we think a lot about the future, and have been doing so for a while. The future of individual products, yes. But more than envisioning the new iPhone’s capabilities, we’re interested in thinking holistically about the future, and about how technological advancements will affect individuals and businesses. Planning for the future, especially for businesses, is crucial. Without a road map to help navigate the long-term, businesses risk being left in the dust of a rapidly evolving world.

The excitement and intrigue that spurs futuristic visions must also be supported by an understanding of trends and human values.

More and more, Continuum is asked to help clients imagine the world 10 to 15 years in the future, so they can stay relevant to their consumers and continue to build strong businesses. We’ve worked with a variety of clients, spanning from an 85-year-old toy company, to a national research laboratory, to one of the world’s largest banks. The future won’t–and shouldn’t–look the same across all businesses and industries. But we believe that every future experience should be a human experience, where technological innovation is meaningful, and not driven by fantastical novelty. We suggest a framework for envisioning futures that is idealistic yet feasible, and for helping our clients align around the changes these futures inevitably entail.

Here are the guiding pillars we’ve identified as crucial to helping any organization define its future.

Consider Human Values

How do you protect values in an uncertain future?

When they approached us, Fisher-Price was well aware of changing consumer expectations, and the role of technology in building the future. They saw an opportunity to embrace a modern creative challenge: using technological advancements to create adaptive toys that would resonate with both parents and children. Fisher-Price wanted to help inspire transformational innovation, as well as the evolution of their business.

Any future vision for Fisher-Price would need to have parental values at its core. We encouraged Fisher-Price to look further out and to ask: What will be important to consumers in the future? What will they want? Where will they live? How will they live? Identifying these unchanging values is the first step to really understanding future consumer habits.

Every future experience should be a human experience, where technological innovation is meaningful, and not driven by fantastical novelty.

What matters to parents today will still matter to parents 15 years down the road: the safety and well-being of their children, and the maintenance of their homes and personal spaces. Parents will want to be connected to their children, in environments where both they and their children feel safe and comfortable. We envisioned a suite of inter-connected products for the smart home of the future. E-Textile pajamas (one of the products we envisioned), get to the heart of these values. Imagine this scenario: baby is sleeping in clothing that measures her vitals during sleep. Her parents are also wearing e-textile clothing, which measures their sleep patterns and aligns the baby’s feeding schedule with the parent whose cycle will be least disturbed by a feeding. Baby sleeps soundly, and her parents know she is safe: core values met and made easier with future technology.
Fisher_Price future of parenting e-textile

Set the Future Context

Core human values won’t change, but the context in which we live changes and evolves with each day. Envisioning the future experience means understanding how the world might change, and then inserting people’s values into this new context.

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) wanted to imagine how they could help first responders be safer in the future, they came to Continuum to develop a vision for the future of first response.

Laying the groundwork for this project meant understanding which aspects or values are crucial to first response as it stands now. We conducted ride-alongs with first responders to understand what challenges they face every day. As far as values are concerned, one thing was clear: First response is a human response, completely dependent on the experience of individuals and interactions between people. Our goal was then to figure out how we could separate this human craft of first response–the skills and intuitions that are unique to humans–and all of the other “stuff” that can detract from the craft (paperwork, passwords, and struggling with communications devices). Our job was to use technology to eliminate distractions and difficulties, to support first responders so they can focus entirely on their craft and help people.

With our values firmly defined and understood, we could envision the future context. We conducted a technology scan to understand the current technology landscape–what technologies exist, which are in development, and which are relegated to academic concept projects. We then held workshops, where we invited first responders to share real-life experience stories. We also invited technology companies and experts to share their visions for the future. These attendees were tasked with working in multi-disciplinary teams to invent creative responses to potential future scenarios. How would they respond to self-driving cars attacking people? Or a swarm of drones threatening a major city? Or a world where 3D-printed guns are rampant? We wanted far-out responses, free of current constraints, from which we could work back toward more realistic possibilities.

As David Rose, futurist, and a subject-matter expert during our collaboration with Fisher-Price, explained: “The world doesn’t need more stuff, it needs smarter stuff.” At the intersection of human values and a realistic future context is where “smarter stuff” resides.

Backcast from the Ideal

Any future experience vision is a departure from the present reality, which means an inevitable re-direction in the thinking of the business or industry involved. An ideal future experience aligns with their goals, while propelling it to evolve with its customers and the rest of the world.

Continuum has a strategic approach when it comes to building an aligned future vision. Instead of forecasting ahead one, two, or three years at a time, we take a broader approach. We consider what business, cultural, and technological trends might evolve to define the next five to 10 years, and then analyze them alongside consumer values. We cast our line far into the future, and then backcast along this trajectory, filling in the pipeline with near-term and long-term products and services that adhere to our visions. In considering consumer trends and business trajectories side-by-side, our backcasting model sets the foundation for future-focused, yet pragmatic experiences.

Backcasting image_grey

One vision we integrated into Fisher-Price’s trajectory was a digitally-enhanced version of one of the company’s classic toys. The future-state Rock-a-Stack we designed offers the same developmental benefits as the original (the toy helps children to master certain skills, such as the fine motor ability that’s required to stack and align each ring on its base). The digitally-enhanced version signals the achievement of this milestone, to reward and encourage the child. The tech inside the product technology enhances the child’s experience, without interfering with his or her development. With backcasting, valuable innovations come about organically because long-term human-values are at their core.

While our work with Fisher-Price may have focused on a specific company, this approach can also work in complex situations demanding industry change. Such was the case with PNNL. The PNNL project involved all of the partners involved in first response, and was more a question of change within the entire industry than change within a business. First response is an essential industry. PNNL needed to build awareness, demand, and excitement around the industry’s need for better tools, especially because it relies on external partners to obtain support and funding. To encourage support for this initiative, we used digitally-enhanced physical prototypes and let real first responders test our concepts. One these models was a pair of augmented reality glasses. To demonstrate our vision—the exact technology for which is not yet accessible—we put an iPad in front of a firefighter’s visor. The iPad played a video to demonstrate the experience of an augmented reality display.

AR testing diff modes iamge

Our work with one of the world’s largest banking groups, BBVA, changed a major bank’s approach to customer service, while also inspiring change within the entire banking industry. The BBVA opportunity came to us at a time when banks and customers were beginning to question the banking status quo. With the concept of “the branch” threatening to become a distant memory, BBVA came to Continuum asking: What is the future of the bank branch? With the availability of mobile applications and online banking, consumers were wanting more hands-on banking experiences. For BBVA, this meant a redistribution of services that were once centralized at a single branch or location across a complex, customer-centric ecosystem.

As is always our foundational consideration, we began by identifying what values were–and will remain–important to people when managing their finances. We divided the concept of banking into two categories: “My Money” and “My Life.” My Money is composed of all of those transactions we conduct on a regular basis, like depositing or withdrawing money and making payments. My Life deals with those lofty, often long-term concerns, such as college planning and saving for retirement. Consistently necessary within both categories is trust; people want to trust their banks and feel secure. We envisioned what elements could promote trust within the branch. The Customer-Centric Bank model that we developed included layouts that allow customers to work alongside their bankers, as well as a developed digital presence. An avatar-based banking assistant named Lola helps customers navigate the bank’s digital ecosystem and configure their online banking profiles. BBVA’s newfound customer-centric approach positioned it as a leader in the retail banking industry.

Again, thinking about the future of the branch required an understanding of what customers want and need from their banking experiences. From these insights, we could backcast specific services to appeal to customer values. With our help, BBVA evolved its business to meet the needs of digital-savvy customers, while also gaining recognition within the industry–an example of the extensive impact that results from a future experience project.

Make It Real

Envisioning feasible future technologies is just part of the process of building a long-term business trajectory. The other part–which is the backbone of Continuum’s approach to innovation–is making visions into realities. A business with great ideas but no way to create great realities cannot be a leader in its industry.

Education is crucial to creating realities. Both with Fisher-Price and PNNL, we created videos to educate and align the businesses behind our high fidelity prototypes. The day-in-the-life-style Future of Parenting video we created used real actors and digital post-production to demonstrate how technology could be seamlessly integrated into everyday life. Having a video to support our vision was an asset when it came to helping Fisher-Price see their own future, in addition to providing them with a powerful tool to share with potential technology partners—and the world.

To share the overall vision for PNNL, we again relied on video, creating a series of five pieces, which showed real responders using and engaging with our prototypes—and speaking about the process we undertook to arrive at these ideas. Ideally, the high fidelity of our videos, along with the physical prototypes, will inspire potential partners to work with DHS and PNNL to develop these technologies.

An educational tool–such as a video–that can show how a business thinks about the future, gives that organization an established voice in the increasingly noisy “Future of __” conversation. These tools also align the business around its approach to the future; a common understanding will boost motivation and transcend silos, and influence both short- and long-term product development. Focusing on “making it real” is also what attracts and motivates potential partners who can support a company’s necessary growth and development.

No one knows for sure what the future has in store, but preparing for it requires more than simply thinking about the future. With our human-centered approach to “The Future of __,” we help businesses begin to uncover their future realities right now, in the present.

Make it feasible, make it human, make it real, and the rest will follow.

filed in: product experience, financial services, innovation