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Designing for Platforms and Devices

Over the last two decades the world of product design and its potential applications has exploded. Previously, desktop computers, slow connections, and basic-feature phones used to dominate the digital landscape. Now with more powerful computers and ubiquitous connectivity, new platforms have emerged on the scene. Mobile is no longer the hot new trend but is a mainstream, mature platform with guidelines that have been refined over time. Emerging platforms like virtual or augmented reality are not brand-new either, but the best practices for them are still evolving.

So what does this all mean for design? In part, it depends on where you want to take your career. Working on a mature platform will offer you a safe space to leverage existing patterns and to quickly shape new features that can help solve user and business problems. Emerging platforms, on the other hand, offer an exciting opportunity to define and pioneer the space since there are no set best practices and standards yet.

Table: Mature versus Emerging Platforms

Mature platformsEmerging platforms
ExamplesWeb, mobile.Virtual reality, augmented reality, wearables, autonomous vehicles.
Design patternsEstablished and concrete, evolving slowly.Fluid and changing, opportunity to pioneer and set the precent.
Risk levelNone, these platforms are here to stay.High, these platforms may not be the right solution or may not be economically feasible.
AdoptionHigh across enterprise and consumer markets.Varies, for example, the use of autonomous vehicles is restricted to certain regions.

Mature Platforms

Mature platforms have been around for a long time and offer designers the ultimate safety net. These are the devices and platforms that we use in our daily lives, such as:

  • Desktop applications and operating systems, like Windows, Mac, or Linux.

  • Mobile and tablet apps, such as those running on iOS or Android.

  • Web, usually running inside a browser and utilizing a common practice today such as responsive web design to present the experience differently depending on the device.

One advantage of working in this space is near-term job security. Say you were working for a company that was doing native design but this company went out of business, it would be easy to transfer over the native design acumen to another company.

The interaction patterns for mature platforms are well defined, but there’s still room for some innovation and optimization as platforms continue to evolve. As an example, new ways of interacting in iOS 14 offer designers new ways to present their content. However, the innovation here is incremental as opposed to groundbreaking when iOS was first launched during the era of feature phones.

Emerging Platforms

I consider emerging platforms to be those that are not yet fully mainstream and where the best practices are still in flux. Some examples include:

  • Wearables devices. Smartwatches and fitness devices.

  • Augmented reality. These could be dedicated headsets, like Microsoft’s Hololens, or technologies that you can run on your phone, such as Apple’s AR Kit.

  • Virtual reality. Headsets such as Oculus and HTC.

  • Voice Interfaces. Google’s home, Amazon’s Alexa, Siri, and many others.

  • Autonomous vehicles. Companies like Tesla, Cruise, Uber, and Nuro.

For designers who are interested in exploring new territories and pioneering new interactions, the emerging platforms may offer a safe haven to play with conceptual, blue-sky ideas. By definition, there are usually fewer opportunities available to work in this space; usually these opportunities are found in larger, mature companies that can sustain investment into unproven technologies that may not pan out. For design, this also means many conceptual directions and ideas may never get implemented.

important Not sure if you’re passionate about one platform or another? One way you can get a sense of these technologies is by joining an agency that does work across these platforms.

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The hardware of these emerging platforms may also be a limiting factor. Since the technology is experimental, you may encounter glitches and issues along the way—the hardware may not work as you expect it to and the platform itself may be rife with problems. However, this is also an opportunity. By experimenting with concepts and patching together workarounds, you may be able to pioneer a new standard not just for a product but for the industry as a whole.

story During my stint designing healthcare experiences for Google Glass, I quickly ramped up to speed by leaning in on my traditional design skills. When I was interviewing for companies doing work on more mainstream platforms, I was able to show how much of the design and process is easily transferable between the platforms. So if you’re worried about boxing yourself in by going the emerging platform route—don’t be. At the end of the day, it’s how you tell your story that matters.

A few years ago I connected with a well-known designer who was a voice expert in his field. He started before voice interface became a thing, and because there were so few people operating in the space, he quickly made a name for himself as a recognized expert in the field.

Which Platform Is the Best?

In the end, deciding between emerging or mature platforms is largely a personal choice. Emerging platforms can be high risk but also carry a high reward. Mature platforms have established practices that are important to study and become adept on. Ultimately, at some point emerging platforms cross over the new threshold and become mainstream. By at least having some knowledge of them and keeping track of where these technologies are headed, as designers we can stay ahead of the curve and jump into the new opportunity where it presents itself.

Company Location and Surrounding Ecosystem

In today’s largely digitized world, the physical environment still matters to a degree. Living in a city that has a vibrant tech ecosystem confers a number of advantages. Take for example the San Francisco Bay Area. The venture capital industry creates an opportunity for many new companies to kick start growing. A few of these companies go public and become your regular big high-tech company like Google or Facebook, thus creating even more opportunity. Even in the case for startups that don’t make it, and that’s usually the case for many of them, the ecosystem makes it easier for employees to transition to another company. Because tech opportunities are abundant, the risk of being unemployed for a long period of time is significantly less compared to places that don’t have a tech ecosystem.

Aside from employment opportunities, there’s a higher chance to run into other like-minded folks and to strike new connections. San Francisco, for instance, has no shortage of tech- and design-related events happening every day. Every summer, San Francisco Design Week allows companies to open up their doors, giving eager designers a sneak peek into the space. Aside from connecting with other designers, there are courses and training for product managers, bootcamps for new engineers, and overall a vibrant ecosystem that supports professional development.

story When I first moved to San Francisco, I found one of my jobs by waiting in line for a product management event. Outside the venue, in the uncharacteristic San Francisco rain, I struck up a conversation with a couple of folks behind me. One of them happened to be a data scientist who was looking for a designer for her startup. I applied and a few months later got the job. This is the power of serendipitous connections and being in the right place at the right time.

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