For More Impactful UX Strategy, Use Futures Thinking
– By Ainsleigh Burelle
User research is a powerful tool in any innovator’s toolkit. Done well, it can unearth new insights to help product and marketing teams create winning strategies that build loyalty and satisfaction. It can help engineering teams gain new empathy for users, and direct efforts to fix their most burning pain points, or create moments of delight. It can also help solve user problems upstream and remove strain from overloaded CS teams, opening up bandwidth to provide a higher quality user experience across the board.
But the practice of UX research is evolving. Traditional user research is great at evaluating what’s already been done, it is terrible at helping us imagine what future opportunities or possibilities could be. Hindsight becomes 20/20, and foresight becomes blurry at best. The last few years have taught us (among other things) that rapid change and complexity are here to stay, and that for organisations to thrive, they need to be able to envision, validate, and test those possibilities more clearly, and earlier on. Enter: Futures thinking.
As a researcher, innovator or UX strategist, leveraging this mindset is a way to help your organisation see not only what has worked in the past, but what the future might look like, and how to best position themselves to be ready for it. More than that, it’s actually a (proven!) way to bring more profitability, proactivity, and passion for change into your organisation.
Below I’ll share some key reasons why orgs can benefit (read: profit) from incorporating Futures Thinking into their UX strategy, and share some practical ways this mindset can be incorporated into your work.
Futures Thinking has serious ROI
If evaluative research is about understanding what worked and why, and generative research is about more deeply understanding the users’ context and needs in order to build for them, Futures thinking takes UX research a step further by considering both internal & external trends and factors that may impact the future of the user experience in a meaningful way.
Drawing from the field of Strategic Foresight, Futures Thinking is a term that can be more loosely applied to describe a proactive vs. a reactive approach to change and innovation.
I like this quote from Maree Conway's Foresight-Infused Strategy: "Thinking systematically about the future is not about trying to get it right through prediction, but rather ensuring you don't get it wrong."
There are four BIG reasons why Futures thinking is an important part of any organisation’s UX strategy toolkit:
Organisations that practice Futures thinking are more profitable.
According to research, ‘Companies that recognize that the future might change the very foundation of their business, that prepare for it and change their course of action accordingly, are 33% more profitable than companies on average. In addition, these vigilant companies have achieved a 200% higher growth rate than the average company.’ (Rohrbeck and Kum, 2018)
Orgs that practice Futures thinking are proactive about opportunities rather than reactionary to problems. Uncover insights that shape the future of your product, service or even industry, rather than playing catch up or being forced to respond to other internal / external changes.
Orgs that practice Futures thinking make decisions from leading indicators, rather than just lagging ones. Evaluating or validating what’s already been done is like looking through the rearview mirror while driving; Futures thinking allows you to keep your eyes on the road ahead to determine what’s coming up and gives you time to consider how you might respond.
Orgs that practice Futures thinking thrive in complexity & ambiguity.
Complexity is here to stay; a Futures mindset can help us to consistently understand a shifting problem space, and be agile enough to build the right solutions. Even better, collaborating and building alignment in this area across stakeholders or teams builds our immunity to and capacity for change over time.
When it comes to UX, the more that researchers can be focused on unearthing not only human needs, but business needs and future trends, the more your insights will drive impact – they will be grounded not only in what the business is prioritising resources towards, but what will help them to best orient themselves to thrive in a range of possible futures.
Good news: we are all futurists!
At this point you might be thinking, “I care about improving our customers’ UX, but I’m not a sci-fi buff or fortune teller. What business do I have practising Futures thinking?”. The reality is that we are all futurists in our own lives. You’ve probably invested in stocks based on what trusted experts say will perform well, or booked a vacation months in advance to time it when the weather was best, or because of a fun event you were looking forward to. You’ve probably written down some 2023 goals, and in the process maybe revisited your 3, 5, or 10 year plan.
We all regularly imagine different ways our lives might play out (for good or for bad) — we run through scenarios in our head, and we make decisions today to get us to our ideal vision of that future. We all have the capacity to be Futures thinkers.
To apply this mindset to UX research, all it takes is a little bit of curiosity, optimism, and the right toolkit.
What Futures thinking lens looks like in UX
Rather than a single step in a process, you can think of Futures thinking as a lens through which to approach UX challenges — it’s a way to open up the conversation and breathe new life into the full cycle of of a project through a cornucopia of methods and approaches.
For now, I won’t dive deep into methods (that will be in the next article, and feel free to comment down below with anything in particular you’d like to see).
To keep it simple, let's look at a scenario -- say we're leveraging the double diamond process to run a qualitative research study with a product team. How might applying a Futures mindset manifest in the Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver phases? Take a look below:
A range of Futures methods can be layered in throughout the Discover phase. For instance, you might conduct a trend scan to uncover signals of change in customer expectations or behaviour, or visioning workshops with product leads to understand how technical dependancies or business objectives might inform the short & long term roadmap.
Let's look at Define, Develop & Deliver:
While there are lots of ways to apply Futures thinking in UX strategy, you can see how layering in questions that take traditional research approaches a level deeper can yield outsized outcomes when it comes to providing actionable direction and strategic partnership to the teams you’re working with (in this case, Product).
Upcoming articles will dive deeper into the methods & building blocks of Futures & Foresight thinking, as well as share some more tactical examples of how we have practically applied these methods to UX challenges at PH1 Research Inc. with clients like The Weather Network, Spotify, Mozilla, and others.
Ainsleigh Burelle is a Strategic Foresight & Design Research Consultant at PH1 Research, working with clients to solve their biggest challenges through a human-centered lens. If you want to learn more about working with PH1 Research on your Strategic Futures work, please contact us at email@example.com.
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