Hedgehogs, Foxes, and the Future of UX

Posted by Taylor Haney on Mon, Oct 20, 2014

Lots more UX and Design posts coming your way this week and next so stay tuned! Today we have a post my Jon Follett, Principal at Involution Studios. Jon discusses how one-track thinking can hinder design skills and strategies. 

Jonathan FollettJon Follett (@jonfollett) is a principal at Involution Studios where he is a designer, business lead, and an internationally published author on the topics of user experience and information design. Jon is the lead author and editor for "Designing for Emerging Technologies: UX for Genomics, Robotics, and the Internet of Things", which will be published by O'Reilly Media in December, 2014. He is a father of two boys, and a classically trained pianist who dreams of one day having a family rock band.

In his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” writer and philosopher Isaiah Berlin describes two types of thinkers. Those people who excel in a multivariate environment, looking at many different things and approaching each situation in a new way, Berlin refers to as “foxes”. Those who want to focus on only one thing, who seek orderly specialization, he calls “hedgehogs”.

The future of UX design is likely to favor the fox. Designers are beginning to look beyond the screen, to the rich world of interactions and user experiences to be created for technologies ranging from the Internet of Things to robotics to additive fabrication to synthetic biology. We can imagine new areas of design practice, emerging from a multi-disciplinary brew of biology, computer science, and human factors.

It's worth considering that when the World Wide Web first began to become mainstream in the mid-1990s, there was little agreement around how design should intersect with it, the emerging technology of the time. Today, we have interaction designers, usability experts, visual designers, and front-end coders — a wide array of sub-practices that cater to very specific areas of digital creation, and more hedgehog-like specialization.

Involution blog 2We are currently undergoing a period of advancement that will alter the way we live our lives in nearly every way, similar to the Second Industrial Revolution in America — when inventions from electric power to the automobile first became prominent, helping to shape our modern existence. Over the coming decades, there is little that humans can imagine that we won't be able to do — from printing replacement organs to hacking our DNA, to embedding computers in our bodies. The fantastic vision of science fiction today will become the reality of tomorrow.

We need experience design to help frame our interactions with emerging technologies that are already racing ahead of our ability to process and manage them on an emotional, ethical, and societal level. Experience design will be a critical to tie the technology to human use. For those asking "How can we do this?" designers must counter, "Why and for whose benefit?".

Whether we're struggling with our fear and loathing in reaction to genetically altered foods, the moral issues of changing a child's traits to suit a parent's preferences, the ethics guiding battlefield robots, or the societal implications of a 150-year extended lifetime, it's abundantly clear that the future of experience design will be to envision humanity's relationship to technology and each other.

To compete in the future then, designers must draw our inspiration from technological fields we’ve never before considered, and break down boundaries to create experiences that are beautiful and humane. If you’re a designer interested in a multi-disciplinary practice, are flexible in your outlook, and accepting of complexity and dissonant ideas, you will do well in the coming technological sea change — perhaps as a human-robot interaction designer or a system biologist for artificial organisms or whatever cross-pollinated mix of careers comes about.

It's time to start thinking like a fox.