By Chanetsa Mukahanana, UI Designer at Freethinking
As digital design trends continue to detach us from the physical world, what does this mean in a uniquely South African context?
For some of us, our first teetering steps into the digital world were in the revolutionary ‘PC era’ of the 1990s. As these computers arrived into homes and offices for the very first time, the designers and engineers needed to explain many of the new ‘digital world’ principles in a very tactile, physical manner.
So our computers featured some familiar office references: ‘desktops’, ‘files and folders’, ‘paper clips’, ‘waste paper baskets’…. Oh and the computer even made that satisfying crunching sound when we discarded a piece of paper!
With familiar terms and icons, we gently moved from letters, envelopes and stamps, and into the new era of email. Our encyclopedias moved online. So did our newspapers. Our banks then moved online and our money became digital. Before we knew it, almost everything was online.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and we find ourselves at a very different point – where even email is often replaced by real-time streams of instant messaging and collaboration channels, or by high-definition video conferencing.
Now, virtual-reality and wearable interfaces give us new ways of immersing ourselves into the digital realm. Now we can access anything across the vast breadth of the internet, with just a couple of taps or voice commands on our cellphone.
So, what do these changes mean for user interface design? And, more specifically, what does it mean for South African UX and Design professionals that are tasked with developing solutions for many people that were never exposed to the transition from the PC revolution all the way to the current era?
Digital design trends have seen a gradual shift from these skeuomorphic principles (where digital design closely reflects the physical world), towards flatter and simpler designs that have little reference point in the real-world. On mobile interfaces, often for the sake of speed and scale, we’ve simplified and abstracted the designs.
But what is the experience like for the average 60 year old, in rural South Africa, who is using a smartphone for the very first time? Let’s say for the sake of argument that they haven’t benefitted from this gentle transition over the past two or three decades?
“Over the coming years, this challenge will only get greater – as we move away from digitising existing products and services, and towards building more ‘truly digital’ services.”
The ‘truly digital’
These are the challenges for digital professionals: finding a way to appeal to the 6-year old digital native and the 60-year old using smartphones for the first time.
Over the coming years, this challenge will only get greater – as we move away from digitising existing products and services, and towards building more ‘truly digital’ services.
In many ways, the physical seems to be evaporating, replaced by a better, digital version of itself. When was the last time you used a CD or a DVD? The postal service? Glossy photographs? This ‘dematerialisation’ is taking place all around us, as everything from physical alarm clocks to books are replaced by a digital service.
In the industry in which we specialise (Financial Services), consider the example of a ‘virtual bank card’ (which has a card number, a PIN, a CVV, the ability to link to apps and websites and payment gateways… but doesn’t ‘exist’ in physical plastic form).
The big opportunity
With intelligent design and presentation to users, we have the opportunity to use digital to extend the reach of our services to entirely new markets (in the same way that Uber is used by some people which never took a traditional taxi service, or that Whatsapp is used by some people who’ve never sent an email).
Could the same principle be possible with our virtual card? Could it appeal to people who’ve perhaps never owned a physical bank card? What could this mean for our nation’s vision of financial literacy/inclusion?
But if we get it wrong, we’ll risk alienating our users, presenting them with abstract digital services, too far a conceptual leap for them to trust, too divorced from their understanding of reality.
Digital UX, Design and Product Development will be fascinating fields over the coming years, as we grapple with these issues and continue to evolve the way that we interact with the digital realm.