Data, fake news and AI: the tech trends changing the way designers work

Can designers reconcile the advancement of technology with the impact it is having on our humanity and ability to feel empathy? Sarah Johnson, co-founder at The Akin, went to tech festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas to find out.

South by Southwest — SXSW — is arguably the world’s most influential tech festival. It’s a hotbed for product launches, emerging talent and future-gazing. With topics such as cross reality (XR), drones and politics dominating conversations and keynote talks, we were there to observe the up-and-coming trends from the festival.

These are the most important things we observed.

Empathy — “togetherness” through creativity

As tech advances, are we losing human connectivity? Image courtesy of MStudioImages

Tech was, as usual, at the forefront of SXSW 2019. However, the overarching message from most of the talks was not around tech itself, but about its human and social impact. The industry has begun to be more introspective on the negative effect tech can have.

It seems many of us are conflicted between the physical and digital worlds, and there is growing concern that we are losing our humanity. Our reality has changed beyond imagination over the last 50 years, and this has come at a cost to empathy and human connection. In The Akin’s latest Changemakers Report, which looks at social trends and changes in consumer behaviour, 85% of 1,800 respondents said that the more advanced tech becomes, the more they want to interact with real people. Jamil Zaki, professor of psychology at Stanford University, is championing new ways we can expand our circle of care in his forthcoming book, The War for Kindness.

At SXSW, it was clear that brands are waking up to this, looking at ways of facilitating togetherness through design. This presents an exciting challenge for experience design; we believe creatives should be asking themselves how to optimise interactions with others. How can we shift mindsets from creating something purely transactional, to something that also stimulates emotion? Setting key performance indicators (KPIs) for design projects, such as kindness or societal impact, will help to foster and exercise empathy.

Trust — no one knows how to gain it

Digital consumers are becoming increasingly discerning. Image courtesy of ViewApart

It isn’t new information that we are increasingly distrustful. Year-on-year, Edelmen’s trust studies show an increase in our wariness. The information we consume isn’t always reliable, our data isn’t ours, and our social networks are vulnerable to bad actors. While many speakers at SXSW acknowledged this, few had any advice on how to stop it. Someone who did was US Senator Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. In her session, she proposed dismantling the monopolies of the internet to promote trust.

What was clear is how distrust is affecting consumerism. Brands need to acknowledge that this is the main barrier to them winning new customers. Investments need to be made to become more trustworthy to gain competitive advantage. As a creative, one of the best ways to instil trust is to be transparent and vulnerable. No person, product, design or tool is perfect. We must learn to accept this and provide context.

Evolution of work — “soft skills”

The rise in driverless cars is one way in which artificial intelligence could take people’s jobs in future. Image courtesy of MetaMorworks

In the workplace, topics associated with the next wave of tech innovation like automation and artificial intelligence (AI) have become trigger words. The fact that hardware is now capable of accomplishing tasks without human intervention has led to growing concerns that it could make human skills redundant. This year many speakers highlighted shifts and opportunities that will enable brands to compete in the future workforce. One of which could be to lean into our emotional intelligence or “soft skills”.

Relational intelligence will be a valued skill in the workplace, particularly in collaborative, design environments. It means shifting the focus from ‘me’ to ‘we’ and understanding how colleagues work on a deeper level, much like a personal relationship. It’s about finding the balance between getting an idea or a point across but also understanding who we are talking to.

In her keynote session, Belgian psychotherapist and author Ester Perell gave an interesting example. She pointed out that, in many workplaces, colleagues have different first languages. For those who think in a different language to the one widely spoken, expressing things like empathy can be much harder and they can often be misunderstood. Appreciating these differences will be essential in the future workplace, and brands need to start recognising this in their recruiting and training processes.

Technology — not hardware or software, it’s data

Who really owns our data? Image courtesy of Peter Howell

When it comes to tech, it’s still all about data. Some speakers even suggested the end of the smartphone could be in sight, as voice tech proliferates and makes interfaces redundant. The problem here is that we don’t own our data. Allegations have been made about retail giant Amazon selling our shopping habits, while weather app Weather Channel was charged with selling people’s locations earlier this year, and Facebook has been found to share users’ data to other tech giants, including Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Spotify. We have a huge privacy issue on our hands and no rules or understanding of how to solve it. While there may be some start-up disruptors that aim to take back control of data, the likelihood is that data will be owned by one of a few big players, like Amazon or Google.

The Future Today Institute presented a future scenario where smart homes would be making decisions for us and become our data stewards. There was also discussion around how there could be a potential class divide through data, as the rich pay to be “dark” while those from disadvantaged backgrounds are forced to share data, thanks to the high costs of being private.

However, where are all the positive data stories? Until laws around personal data are implemented, designers can work with what is available and highlight bias when it happens.

The above trends carry a common thread; we are at a crossroads between tech and humanity. Our understanding of the system is becoming erroneous and directly contradicts the reality we’re in. Considering the above trends will be essential for brands and companies who want to thrive as we continue to navigate this fascinating binary. They should be embedded in design thinking, from brand messaging and creative strategy to graphics, packaging, advertising, marketing and digital campaigns.

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