What is the Future of Open-Ended Design?

Designers all aspire to create an application without limitations.

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How we communicate is constantly changing. Cultural factors, as well technological ones, mold how we exchange ideas and information. Linguistic shifts happen as people trend towards saying something differently than the old way. So do our non-verbal means of communication. Hand-written words gave way to the printing press just as the printing press is making room for modern computing. But it isn't just the distribution model that is changing how we share information.

As technology evolves and becomes more ubiquitous, it becomes easier to use, which allows more people to become authors. What was one reserved for a privileged few can now be done by nearly anyone with a computer (even with their phone). Even the very nature of what it means to be an author is changing.

Traditionally, the dissemination of information has been unidirectional. An author prints something and the readers consume it. Roles in this system are very defined: authors create and readers consume. This also means that readers/users are limited by what information an author chooses to share and how they choose to share it. This model is slowly being replaced.

The future of data design is in shared authorship - user autonomy. We as consumers become partial authors, choosing what we want to see and how we want to see it. The existing model is to see data presented a certain way, but the future is in allowing you to change that visualization on your own without having to involve the original author. Change the type of visualization, change what is being expressed, and even add additional data sources. Your pursuit for knowledge and understanding shouldn't be limited to the original vision of the original author.

What this evolution in data design calls for is a change in how original authors design applications. Creators of applications need to design great solutions that meet the needs of passive consumers of information, but are also open-ended & flexible enough to allow more active users to mold the solution to fit their own specific needs. To create an application without limitations is the goal.

So how is open-ended design accomplished?

While the right software certainly makes application design easier, what's more important is in how you approach the problem. Applications should, by default, meet the needs of most users. In order to do this you need to know what the audience needs - interview stakeholders and/or future users to gather requirements and learn what they need to see and on where they need to see it.

Despite knowing what users say they want, you need to avoid designing yourself into a corner. What people say they want now may not be what they actually need once they start using an application. It can be easy to prescriptively design an app to tell the exact story you want to tell. Open-ended design means allowing room for the user to customize an application to their needs. Don't design one-off visualizations that cease to show data once selections in other objects are made. Leave space on the page for users to add their own visualizations that will work with yours. Create pages that don't tell just one story but have the flexibility to tell many stories and allow users a variety of ways to learn from the data.

User autonomy is the future of technology and especially business intelligence. Open-ended design is the way to allow users to make the most of technology.

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