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This is 2019: 7 topics that will shape the new year

2 January 2019 | By Bart ter Steege

Happy New Year everybody!

Now that 2018 is officially part of the past it’s time to look forward. There’s nothing like a good ‘ol tradition, so with a fresh new year ahead of us we dusted off our crystal ball to see what the future holds for us. From strategy and brand design to start-ups and tech: these are the topics that will shape the digital world in 2019! Enjoy!

1. Strategy: Digital frontrunners it’s time to harvest

Not to start the new year on a bad note, but according to some the first signs are here: after years of growth, our economy is said to cool down in 2019. No reason to panic, but it’s a good time to ask the question: what will it bring? Our prediction: in lesser times we will see the true impact of digitalization. And with that, the true winners of digitalization will arise (and sadly: also the losers).

This is, in short, because there is no space for mediocracy in highly digitalized industries. As industries become more digital we see the same effects appear again and again:

  1. New players on the market: digitalization virtually always means the rise of new players. And new players mean more competition and that leads to, yes you guessed it: a decrease in margin and profit.
  2. Winner takes it all: a phenomenon we see in all leading industries: digitalization creates a few heroes and leaves behind a mediocre middle that does not make the cut.
  3. Pressure on margins: Big players and more competition will lead to a fiercer fight for a piece of the pie. In strongly digitalized industries, margins become tight and only truly efficient companies survive.

Looking at industries that already moved through the rounds of digitalization (for example, the media & entertainment industry) we find proof: digitalization rewards the first movers. And the other way around it is also true: digitalization punishes those who wait. These effects have somewhat been compensated by the economic growth of the past few years, but now we’ve (possibly) set in the move downhill chances are these effects will become more clear. And so those who’ve prioritized in digital over the last couple of years will prepare for a fruitful harvest, leaving the leftovers for those who’ve missed the boat.

2. Method: Design-everything - for better, or for worse

From design thinking workshops to organizational design: the word ‘design’ has become the fairy dust for practically any issue. We all like the sound of it: but what is the actual business value of applying design principles to your organization? Is it smart to tackle strategic issues with an approach that is creative, user-centered and tangible?

Mckinsey provides us with an answer: Yes, yes: design makes sense and creates measurable business impact. For 5 years they monitored the design habits of 300 companies and validated what designers have known for years: design methods stimulate a cooperative, solution-oriented approach, which practically always leads to financial benefits.

Now the value of design has been proven for once and for all, we can ask the question: what to expect in 2019? Boards and managers who’ve been snoozing will finally put full effort on design in the hope to receive results. This scramble for design will lead to an even broader interpretation of the word, and with that, the cult will keep on growing. So expect more misconceptions, confusions and an even longer list of LinkedIn job titles spiced up with the word ‘Design’. There’s also an upside to it all: with a better understanding of the benefits of design, we also foresee magnificent opportunities for designers to make an impact in a new variety of industries.

3. Start-up: the new gold rush called Synthetic Biology

The capital cowboys of Silicon Valley and their most recent investments are always an interesting way to predict the future. And an interesting year it was: venture capitial funds invested a new high of 100 billion USD in the start-up industry. So where did their trust (and money) go to?

Investments in early-stage startups reveal a new kid on the block: the Synthetic Biology start-ups. Synthetic what? Synthetic Biology is a relatively young research area where engineering meets biology: the design and construction of new biological entities or the redesign of existing biological systems. And that, potentially, leads to endless opportunities, disrupting fields as varied as medicine, oil, healthcare, agriculture, and consumer products.

Where some see Synthetic Biology as the key to a bright & shiny future, others focus on the ethical issues surrounding the topic and the potential threat to humanity. Whoever is right: we’ll remain neutral, but will keep an eye on the rise these start-ups are making. In 2016 investments passed 1 billion USD for the first time and in 2018 it reached 4 billion. Safe to say we’ll hear more about this in 2019, stay tuned!

* Disclaimer: the writer of this article does not feign any knowledge on the subject of “Synthetic Biology”. In fact, it took us a comprehensive Google search to be sure that we understood properly.

4. Brand: Design systems - friend or foe?

Forever a hot topic within product development: design systems. Guided by clear standards a design system groups elements in reusable components to guarantee speed and uniformity from designer to developer. You could compare it to building a modular house: by documenting all the building blocks, from doorknob to roof panel, the construction is easy to replicate in any type of application. A church, store, or a shed: no problem, after a while it is just a cut & paste job. The result is a uniform city. Sounds great on paper, but does it work?

With these easily reusable components, a design system should prove its worth. However, it’s never that easy. When building a design system, it takes time and effort to bring it to a level where it truly becomes a functional and efficient system. It feels like a time-consuming business for local teams, but eventually, it brings efficiency in bigger numbers & in various applications. So when looking at the value of a design system you have to consider the importance of uniformity, creativity and speed.

Conclusion: design systems are more than just a fad, and actually solve an existing problem. But they also pose restrictions. So if you are not working with a design system yet: set one up in 2019. If you already have one, 2019 will be the year in which you will ask yourself: did I ever really want one?

5. Teams: Integrated user insights, the holy grail

Listing user-centricity as a trend in 2019 sounds ridiculous. However, especially now the concept of agile product teams has landed within mainstream businesses, more and more struggle with the integration of UX research.

The need to be user-centric is more important than ever. But also the need for speed: building fast, testing faster and improving on user feedback. Add the huge amounts of available data and endless research methods to the mix and we present you a paradox: the killer speed of short iterations leaving no space for good research. And bad research is worse than no research at all. So better do it right.

Many have seen the light: the integration of quality research in product development and how to do it has become a hot topic on the work floor. First of all, we see the divide between data and traditional research slowly disappearing. Resulting in a faster process in which qualitative and quantitative research can run parallel to each other, with a creative approach and new hybrid methods as a cherry on top. Spotify is an example of a company that is investing in the proper integration of research with the appointment of a staff position of Research Operations. Its job description is to streamline all research, take on time-costly tasks and coordinate the communication between data crunchers and researchers.

In short, 2019 will be the year of seamless integration of research in speedy product development process, hopefully resulting in timeless and useful user insights.

6. Tech: The Super-human developer, thanks to the programming assistant

It’s nothing new that AI algorithms are fast learners and able to complete complex tasks (from recognizing your doodling to planning your appointment at the hairdresser). It’s also not new that artificial intelligence has left the realm of specialists: various AI-powered services (from voice recognition to image interpretation) allow mainstream developers to apply this technology as a module in all kinds of applications.

Although AI is applied in what developers build, it does not play a role in how they build. Everybody who works with developers knows how crucial but time-consuming testing, debugging and refactoring are: lost hours that are not spent on creating and writing new functionalities. Now there’s light at the end of the long and dark debugging tunnel: the promising rise of the AI-powered developer assistants.

Testing, debugging & refactoring are - in theory - tasks that a computer can do better and faster than humans. Just like you can teach a computer how to recognize cats in images, you can teach computers how to recognize patterns in how developers work. This way you can assist developers in recognizing mistakes, making suggestions and finding solutions. This is the domain of the AI-powered Developer Assistant: artificially intelligent tools that help developers during their work with examples, testing, error notifications and even automatic code refactoring.

This almost sounds too good to be true. We’ll find out soon, as the first tools are now available. If anything, according to visionaries, the AI-powered assistant is just a step in the direction of Software 2.0. This is developer heaven where not people, but computers write the code. We’ll save that prediction for 2020.

7. Agencies: Cross-functional consolidation, Changing the landscape

For decades the landscape of agencies has been shaped by consolidation cycles (in normal words: every few years a few big players buy up smaller creative agencies). The pattern is clear. In times of economic growth, specialized players arise. After they have proven their worth they are annexed by big networks. Where this used to be the big ad networks taking over younger agencies, since the mainstream breakthrough of service design, big strategical consultants have been active in the field, eagerly buying up creative expertise. So far, nothing new.

Especially since the client-side has invested in building in-house digital teams, creative and digital agencies are vigorously searching for new relevance. This, in combination with a stagnation in the economic growth, will lead to some interesting moves. An acceleration in acquisitions will form new, cross-functional agencies that mix disciplines to shape themselves into the ultimate one-stop shop. The past year has already proven interesting, with examples such as the acquisition of MediaMonks and MightHive by S4 Capital. Time will tell if these types of acquisitions will work or not. For now, we predict that many will follow in 2019.