Digital dieting: what it means for brands and designers

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Published:  October 7, 2015
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There’s a shift in digital consumption. ‘Digital dieting’ is where people disconnect from the online world to reconnect ‘irl’ (in real life).

If this trend were to take off and soar, how can brands now deliver that offline experience while remaining relevant online? And what do designers have to remember when creating that experience online that transcends to the offline realm?
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We ask these questions and more in our chat with Ali de Kruiff, the program director of design at Swinburne Online and a digital media design lecturer in the School of Design at Swinburne University of Technology.

When it comes to designing websites and apps, designers have to strike a balance between the aesthetics of the interface but also the user experience. What factors must they consider to ensure that the balance is achieved? Can you give us some examples of apps or projects you have seen that achieved this balance?

When it comes to digital interfaces, designers have to weigh up usability, user experience and aesthetics. These issues are often interdependent, but sometimes there are conflicts.  A design must be easy to understand, easy to use and a pleasure to use. User testing is important in ensuring that all of these needs are met.

A company that has achieved a great balance between these is Pinterest. In a time when social bookmarking tools were common, Pinterest created a point of difference in using images and infinite scrolling.

The images would fit together despite a wide range of image sizes, and users didn’t have to click through to a new page and wait for it to load. This resulted in a visually pleasing layout and an enjoyable user experience.

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Digital dieting is forming up to be a trend now. Is this a cause of concern for the industry? What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t see digital dieting as a concern for the industry, in fact I embrace it. Digital dieting isn’t about rejecting technology, it’s about using it smarter. And that means more mindful audiences for our designs. I see a digital diet as the difference between us using our technology and our technology using us.

The Amish have an interesting way of dealing with this. They don’t reject technology entirely, instead they investigate it to see what impact it will have on the things they value most. If there are benefits to the technology they will adopt it, but they will put rules in place to minimise harm.

For example, they started using telephones in the 1950s when it became apparent that they needed them to conduct business with the outside world, however they keep the telephone in a small, communal building a little like an outhouse.

That way they can call out when it is important to contact people (like doctors), but people can’t call in. For them this preserves face-to-face communication, it limits outside influence on their traditional lifestyle, and it ensures no interruptions during time with their family.

A digital detox is something like this: It’s looking at how we can use technology to augment our life, not take it over.

What can brands do to redesign that online experience so that it translates offline? Do you know of brands who do this effectively?

Rather than see online experiences in isolation brands are now looking at the complete customer experience, viewing digital design as just one part of the overall service design. A website is no longer a stand-alone design, its one touch-point in the customer’s journey that needs to fit in with every other digital and analogue touch-point.

Like all other aspects of branding and identity design this calls for an overall branding strategy that looks at everything holistically, from how they answer the phone to the boxes they send their products out in. They key is consistency in doing what you do well.

A great example in Australia is The Iconic, an online fashion retailer that has grown astronomically. Their point of different is their flexible and fast delivery options and extended return policy, but they have experimented with pop-up shops as a way of enhancing their brand.

In addition, The Iconic has launched a 100,000 print run high-quality fashion magazine as a way of continuing their brand offline. They’re even considering drone delivery in the future!

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What does this trend mean for digital designers? What other new factors do they have to consider in designing a website or an app?

The two trends of digital dieting and omni-channel customer experiences mean that digital designers have to look at the big picture of the brand and the service, not just the website, and gain a greater understanding of what the user wants and needs.

Digital dieting means that users can be more selective, engaging mindfully with your digital product when it is needed and using it purposefully. The key now is to look at the overall service design to ensure a smooth transition between this possibly brief interaction and the offline touch-points.

Understanding the user has never been more important in digital design.

The digital landscape is constantly evolving and there are new technologies introduced at every turn and corner. How can digital designers keep up with the ever changing trends?

Digital designers have always had to keep up with changing technology, the pace has increased but so has access to resources to keep us on top of our game. I’d recommend subscribing to email newsletters that focus on your area of interest and accessing the great resources available online. For example, Adobe puts out training videos with every update of its software so it doesn’t take long to update your skills with each release.

Your primary area of research is the 3D digitisation of cultural heritage sites and objects. Tell us more about this research and why you embarked on it.

I find virtual heritage (the 3D digitisation of cultural heritage) really exciting, especially as VR is becoming so popular through Google Cardboard and other affordable, readily available VR headsets.

There are many ways in which 3D digital cultural heritage can improve our interactions with and understandings of culture. With 3D scanning it’s possible to document fragile objects and places to ensure they are recorded for future generations, it’s easy to disseminate the files online so that people can access them remotely, and it can create an immersive user experience to really engage the audience with history in a way that is entertaining and informative.

I’m currently working on a couple of projects, but they are in the early stages so there’s nothing much to report yet.

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A 3D digital model of the Vitthala Temple in Southern India, a part of Ali de Kruiff’s virtual heritage research project.

What advice do you have for budding digital designers? What can they expect from the industry (besides the constant changes) and what can they do to prepare themselves for a career?

If you have a passion and you are excited by technology, people and design then this is a great career for you! I think the key is to keep an open mind. Everything that is true and vital today in digital design may be completely different in a few years, so it’s really important to be flexible not just in skills but with your mindset.

It’s really important to be able to work with other people, either in teams, in collaboration with clients or in doing user research. Meet-ups and industry events are great opportunities to start networking and getting to know the different facets and opportunities in digital design.

There are many ways into the industry. You could do a formal design course for a qualification at TAFE, university or through a private college. There are great online courses too, such as Codecademy and Free Code Camp for developing technical skills. Always be willing to learn more and be humble.

In your opinion, how will digital design as an industry evolve in the next few years? What changes and trends can we expect? 

While digital designers often need to be very specialised due to constant technological changes, I think design in general will start seeing walls break down in how we approach design problems.

Digital design will be seen as one component in service design, or overall customer experiences, and we will need to work closely with other design specialisations to ensure seamless experiences across multiple channels.

Tim Brown from IDEO coined the concept of the ‘T-shaped person’ – a person with in-depth, specialist knowledge, but with an overlying general understanding of broader areas to enable collaboration. This is already common in creative agencies and will become more important as more communication media become available to us.

We’re also going to have to integrate our designs more with Big Data, either to gather the data or use the data to the benefit of our audiences. Users and designers will be able to access this data to enhance the creative process, so an understanding of how to respectfully collect and use this data for good will be vital to anyone working in the digital realm.

In the long term the Internet of Things is going to make a huge change in digital design. Currently digital designers have to consider mobile devices as well as traditional desktop and laptop computers and design accordingly.

Wearable technology will become more prevalent and require new design paradigms – as well as a seamless integration of user experience across the different channels. When you start to factor in that there will be an estimated 50 billion objects connected to the internet by 2020 – gathering information, automating tasks and enabling remote interactivity – we are going to see a huge shift in how we engage with digital design.

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Ali de Kruiff is the Program Director of Design at Swinburne Online and a Digital Media Design lecturer in the School of Design at Swinburne University of Technology.

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