Designing Digital Experiences for Equity
At the start of the digital era, the role of design was to provide one interface, one experience, and a consistent way of controlling the technology. Like a panel of switches, learning that system might be complex, but it was a single system.
The idea of a single experience was abandoned long ago. As the digitization of public and private life continues to accelerate, individuals are overwhelmed by the range of apps, websites, and channels required across every organization they interact with.
While these new channels and technologies create major new business opportunities and productivity gains, a radical shift is required to simplify digital relationships with both public and private organizations
The onus to improve digital experiences lies with organizations, which must evolve their approach and move toward creating highly personalized digital ecosystems that are uniquely tailored to individual users.
In thinking through this problem, we’ve convened a small group to explore the complexity of self-directed digital experiences (e.g., websites, social media, chatbots, smartphone applications, etc.) that organizations provide to their customers and what is required in the future to address this through machine learning, automation, and artificial intelligence.
As we begin to look ahead to how organizations will take on the next generation of digital experience through automation and AI, a maturity model emerges that can help business leaders, technologists, and designers conceptualize their path forward. This model examines the progression for both individual users and for organizations.
The maturity model defined in our whitepaper (summarized below) is based on consumer adoption trends and the efforts happening today in multiple organizations with four distinct steps－Baseline, Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced－each with observable characteristics.
Maturity phases as experienced by the individual
At the beginner phase, individual customers experience a high degree of complexity for most digital tasks. Barriers (i.e., walled gardens) between organizations force the customer to navigate, manage, and drive integration across organizations. Tools like Google’s Password Manager or Apple’s Keychain attempt to solve complexity yet are only addressing specific elements of the customer experience (password management in this case).
In the intermediate phase, users continue to encounter digital experience complexity across multiple organizations; they become aware that the lack of interoperability amounts to wasted effort and frustration. This leads customers to migrate toward organizations that partner to simplify self-directed digital experiences (e.g., Mint to manage budgets; PolicyGenius to shop for and manage insurance policies; purchasing only with Amex to leverage points across multiple organizations, etc.). While digital tools and ecosystems work together better, each one is trying to contain the user within their walled garden.
In the advanced phase, users have a high degree of control and AI tools at their disposal to consolidate their digital ecosystem based on the individual’s preferences and aggregated data. Individuals become less and less aware of the brands or individual companies that are component parts of their overall experience. In tasks like managing finances, users may not be entirely clear which organizations are involved but clearly understand what is happening on their behalf while interacting with a single AI tool that acts on their behalf.
Maturity phases within organizations
In the beginner phase, organizations begin to focus on the intersection of digital experience creation across its own departments by deploying IT, data, and design systems. However, the governance of these systems is largely siloed, often contested, and typically oriented around cost and risk reduction. Leadership focuses on basic design consistency and key performance indicators like Net Promoter Score and app ratings. Experience design and technology departments introduce various methods (e.g., design thinking, journey-mapping, Agile, etc.) to bring diverse experts together and deploy technologies capable of automation, but most, if not all, efforts to transform experience for the end user are manually created, generating enormous cost. Formal efforts to accommodate edge users at the organizational level (e.g., ADA compliance) emerge to only reduce liability, but there are no formal bias protections or ethical considerations present during experience design.
In the intermediate phase, organizations begin to leverage front-end automation as a differentiator for how users' needs are met, but this is limited to select features and still within a walled garden experience. A higher degree of organizational management with cross-functional teams allows for initiatives to be orchestrated around the customer rather than happen in silos. Design systems are integrated into technology platforms so any new deployment renders the right design across all applications for all users. While a great degree of user data is collected by the organization, it is still considered proprietary and not shared across the user’s ecosystem to help them better solve tasks that span multiple organizations. There is no data sharing across organizations at the experience layer. The desire to compete on the basis of customer experience outweighs the user’s desire for self-directed digital ecosystems that take into account the user’s needs first. Even as organizations at this level remain competitive among their industry peers, they fail to consider ethical and bias-conscious considerations around systems that aren’t flexible around user needs.
In the advanced phase, organizations have oriented their digital tools around the individual journey and the aim to create walled gardens is replaced by integration into AI tools controlled by users. Organizations’ experience automation is guided by open standards that simplify end-to-end user experiences, customized based on user preferences and data. Artificial intelligence manages all digital experiences; there is little to no management or experience creation by humans. Platforms like Adobe Sensei and IBM’s Watson become commonplace in orchestrating self-directed digital experiences for the user across organizations. Data sharing is normalized across organizations along the user’s journey through technologies like blockchain that protect proprietary information while allowing pertinent data (such as experience preferences, etc.) to follow the user as they go from enterprise to enterprise to complete their life tasks.
A call to act
Envisioning a future tailored to individual needs means a radical shift in a number of areas that haven’t been realized. AI tools need to be accessible and configurable to non-technical experience managers. Data that helps drive a user's management and consumption of information needs to be shared in a safe and reliable way across organizations through technologies like blockchain or other distributed ledgers. Brands and marketing organizations must reorient themselves to have clear value to the customer even if they don’t understand what services are being provided. Design functions must be able to create products and a wide variation of assets that allow for each user’s experience to be configurable by the AI layer that the user, not the organization, controls.
Data and AI ethics will also need to have a formal role in organizations that heavily rely on automation. This will lead to new practices and standards that will be adopted broadly across organizations, rather than having each organization define its own ethical standards. This is important, as it will provide transparency to the individual about how organizations maintain their ethical standards.
Taking steps toward reorienting digital experiences around users where individuals control AI that govern how organizations interact with them may seem like science fiction. However, in the coming years, organizations that double down on proprietary standards for digital ecosystems will find themselves chasing an ever-dwindling marketplace as customers rebel in the same way they reject being marketed to online.