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Ten years from now, if not sooner, you will expect each space that you enter to explicitly and elegantly respond to your presence in a personalized manner. These responses will engender a warm feeling of welcome and a kind of subliminal guidance that’s been algorithmically refined to reflect both your general interests and tastes, as well as the specific needs of the moment as it fits into your day. The experience will be as substantially different from your current experience of space as using Google to find answers is different from research in the pre-Internet era.

Any space that fails to respond in this manner will evoke that sinking feeling of brokenness, like a car that won’t start or a phone that rings without being answered and doesn’t go to voicemail.

If you’re finding this hard to believe, consider that just a short decade ago there were no smartphones, Facebook was known only by a handful of college students, and YouTube had yet to be launched. The extent to which these three tools alone have transformed the way we live and communicate—and move through space—is profound. With the emergence of virtual reality (VR), holographic technology, mass-market wearables and Internet-connected everything already well underway, it seems certain that the next 10 years will bring even greater shifts than the last 10.

Although we can’t know exactly how things will unfold, we can confidently expect several current trends to dominate:

  • The merging of the digital and physical worlds;
  • Ubiquitous connectivity of everyone and everything; and
  • Algorithmically delivered services and experiences informed by continuous real-time collection, processing and sharing of behavioral data.

What does this mean for the next 10 years of design? How will our work as designers of spaces and services for human use need to evolve in order to stay relevant?

Perhaps the simplest way to answer this question is that we must let go of what we think we know about what objects, spaces and people are capable of. We must allow a kind of beginner’s mind to take us over. Imagine that everything that makes up a space, as well as everything that happens within it, can be continually known and modified at a very detailed level. What does this afford us as practitioners whose intent is to create environments that elegantly serve the needs and desires of end users?

While it will take years to reach this “everything” point, a lot of progress has already been made. Retailers are using increasingly sophisticated behavioral analytics systems to glean insight into where store visitors spend the most time, where flow problems exist, and how the relative performance of different merchandising approaches and store layouts can be improved. Workplaces are providing dynamic wayfinding via mobile apps, as well as automatic configuration of conference room AV equipment—making it easier to find your way to your meeting as well as removing the pain of presentation setup once you arrive. And hotels are starting to experiment with rich personalization of that most private of public spaces.

Someday soon, you will enter your hotel room securely without removing any device from your pocket or bag. You will find the lighting, audio playlist, temperature, aroma, and food and beverage all welcomingly aligned with your recent activity, preferences, and physiological state as indicated by your biometrics, the time of day and what’s next on your calendar.

Most of the technology to support this experience exists today, and as this highly attentive level of service becomes familiar it will quickly become de rigeur. Early adopters have been enjoying automatic temperature adjustment for maximum sleep quality for over a year, thanks to the partnership of Jawbone and Nest. And it won’t be long before hotels provide this same service by integrating with their visitors’ devices.

Up to this point, designers of spaces have primarily thought of the digital spatial experience as audiovisual broadcasting via wall-mounted displays. This paradigm essentially delivers brand impressions and informational content focused on products and services. The problem with this is that people in our spaces aren’t paying attention to these displays; they’re continually interacting with their own devices.

To meet people where they are—in the digital world—the natural next step is to connect this visitor focus on personal devices with the purpose and functionality of the physical space. By doing so, we can leverage people’s existing behavior to enhance the value of each visit. But so far surprisingly few brands have provided mobile functionality that enhances the experience of being in a space, retail or otherwise.

A crucial report by Deloitte elucidates why this is: It’s hard to do, and it requires that we move beyond thinking of digital as one channel in an omnichannel strategy:

    “In a world where nearly everyone is always online, there is no offline. So it is not about the digital business, it is just business. It’s not about ecommerce, it is simply commerce. While many are starting to give this concept lip service, in our observations few have fundamentally embraced this in terms of their retail strategy and operations.”

This report also demonstrates that the retail shopper’s focus on their personal device is actually correlated with longer stays and higher purchase volume. This is because more generally, people are learning how to use these devices to enhance and optimize their experience in spaces. If we want to influence how and when they engage with spaces and the brands that provide them, we need to create digitally connected ecosystems that seamlessly integrate these spaces with the digital world people are living in.

To do this, we must develop a nuanced and thorough understanding of the people who visit our spaces: their motives, their needs and desires, and the rhythm of their lives. And we must bring an equally deep knowledge of the emerging capabilities of digitally enabled materials, furnishings, structural components, media-ready surfaces, and all connectable devices.

We will bring all of this continually evolving expertise to a design process that is sharply focused on the human experience—an approach that carefully considers the thoughts, inspiration, research, planning, behaviors and biometrics of our target visitor, and incorporates the ability to respond to these in real time. Fully understanding each individual end user will be paramount to designing spaces that work elegantly and effectively, fulfilling the intentions of each one and delivering an experience that’s both rewarding and personal.

Neil Redding is a seasoned creative technologist, business and experience strategist, software architect and developer with two decades of work across industries, regions and cultures. He currently leads Gensler’s Digital Experience Design efforts from its NY office. Contact him at neil_redding@gensler.com.

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