From tangible, to digital, to virtual and beyond
Over the last couple of decades, we have seen the maturity and integration of design practices in organizations across industries. From the creation of leadership roles, such as chief design officer, to the shift toward more creative corporate cultures, design has influenced not just what is created, but how.
During this span, many organizations shifted from creating primarily physical products to digital experiences. Whether integrating digital interfaces within existing products or creating supporting apps for emerging smartphones, it was essential to expand user experience capabilities to remain relevant, let alone competitive.
Adapting to digital design required not only hiring and training for new skills but also a reconsideration of the design organization itself. For example, traditional product development teams consisting of industrial designers and engineers use different tools, methods and workflows than interactive digital designers.
Early on, projects were often pragmatically viewed from the lens of either physical or digital to determine how to staff and plan them. But it became clear that this was a false dichotomy — all projects needed to be experience led, driven by user needs and enabled by the respective design capabilities. As a result, design teams became organized in service of user experience, regardless of what would be delivered.
The growing interest and evolving technologies of the nascent metaverse brings a further blurring and mixing of physical and digital design and beyond. Objects and environments initially created with tangible materials can be realized virtually, while the virtual can interact with the tangible via augmented reality. Consider the following forward-looking scenarios:
- A medical device company that primarily develops physical surgical instruments wants to provide virtual training, requiring the design of both the virtual experience and the specialized hardware to enable these interactions.
- A retailer with traditional physical and online shopping experiences wishes to provide its customers a virtual shopping offering and an augmented reality experience for in-store patrons.
- An education provider is striving to improve collaboration between in-person and online students and is creating a mixed AR/VR solution for both types of students to interact in real time.
Each of these examples presents a different set of design opportunities and challenges. The medical device company requires synergistic virtual and physical instruments. The retailer wants to provide comparable commerce functionality and continuity across contexts while maximizing the unique benefits of each experience’s modality. The education scenario aims to offer engaging interactions for all students without negatively impacting the respective advantages of live and remote learning formats.
These scenarios collectively illustrate the exponential growth and complexity that the metaverse will bring to experience ecosystems, with varying combinations and interdependencies across physical, digital, virtual and mixed touch points. Consequently, organizations must rethink how their design teams operate and collaborate under these new regimes.