What do the world’s best have to say about the future of digital?

Digital Thinkers

When I heard the ‘Digital Thinkers’ Awwwards conference was happening at Amsterdam’s De Le Mar, I thought I’d stop by.

And I’m glad I did.

Kicking off with a childhood anecdote from Pablo Stanley, exploring insecurities that were oh so real, we instantly felt at ease that these designers on stage endured struggles just like us. We heard from leading agencies like LocomotiveBuild in Amsterdam and Active Theory. Speakers chatted around machine learning, new realities, ethical and cultural impacts of design – to name a few, and independent animator Louis Ansa dropped some tips.

With 20+ talented, influential speakers jammed into two days, there’s only so much I can distil into a short article, but here are a few highlights:


Adobe Meetup


As well as the chance to hear first-hand what the Adobe team has been up to since the beta release of XD – a key topic of discussion was Voice User Interface (VUI). If you’re looking for the segue here, it’s that XD can now handle voice triggered prototyping.

No presentation on VUI would be complete without a virtual assistant to serve some fast facts, and Alexa had it covered.

VUI is gaining traction, and we’ll likely see a shift from GUI in web browsing. But designers, don’t fret! We won’t be made redundant, not in this lifetime, anyway. Stripping out cognitive visual load and focussing purely on language poses an additional set of UX problems, but doesn’t eradicate the existing ones. Just like the rise of mobile didn’t replace desktop – it’s another layer to consider and we need to adapt.

Raisa Cuevas, Google

Designing for speed perception

In a test of stress responses, apparently invoking more anxiety than a horror film or standing at the edge of a virtual cliff is: drumroll please . . . ‘experiencing mobile delays’. In fact, the only thing that ranked higher was ‘solving a maths problem’.*

Rumour has it that our attention span has degraded to a mere eight seconds – shorter than a goldfish – but even still, we have only three seconds to engage a user before 54% of them will swiftly move on.* Admittedly, I’ve left sites in less.

Cuevas emphasises performance as an essential design feature.

When it comes to speed, there are obvious limitations. Speed perception, on the other hand, is a realm where designers have a little more sway. Affected by two factors – age and state of mind – we can’t impact a users’ laps around the sun, but we can use design to positively influence the latter.

One suggestion: animated loading sequences need to be considered in prototypes. The goal should be crafting a full experience where the user feels engaged, delighted and at ease; designing flows, not screens.

Peter Smart, Fantasy

Making magic

Smart instructed us to take out our phones, swap them with our neighbour, and put their phone in our pocket. Ummm, OK I’ll play along.

’How does it make you feel?’

Good question, Smart. Well, my heart rate has notably increased. I’m suddenly very aware of the price tag of my latest Apple acquisition that’s just been slipped into a stranger’s pocket.

Smart’s next question, ‘Why is this so disconcerting?’

We all leaned in. One eye on Smart, the other still fixed on our neighbour.

’Because our phones are an extension of us!’

And he’s right.

41% of our life is spent in front of a screen . . .  this equates to 21 years.*

And we – creatives, designers and developers – are responsible for creating those experiences.


Smart delivered an inspiring talk showcasing the design of the Royal Caribbean Cruise app. And if you’re willing to give away your details to create an account, I recommend checking it out.

Motion should be at the core of everything we do as designers.

Backing Cuevas point on speed perception; a key insight to take from Smart was giving users value in exchange for load time. For example, serving data on the weather, while the list of daily activities loads. This information doesn’t just fill a gap, it adds value to help shape the next decision. Smart.

Marie Van Driessche

Designing for the deaf (and everyone, really)

‘I don’t have a disability; society imposes a disability on me.’ Driessche is deaf, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to accessing the same information as someone who isn’t. She describes disability, not as a health condition, but as mismatched interactions.

We see a screenshot of her call history after being required to enter her mobile number in a form – a mismatched interaction.

We need to recognise exclusion.

Our lives have become integrated with digital experiences. Accessibility of these experiences can not be an afterthought. Our role is to advocate for the user. If not us, who will?

So, in summary

A wrap of the Awwwards conference

Patience as a virtue doesn’t apply in the digital world, where instant gratification has become the norm.

With the rate technology is evolving and shaping our lives, the pressure on designers is higher than ever to deliver experiences that are not only accessible, but meaningful and memorable.

And to loosely quote Smart:

‘We are taking soulless exchanges and have the opportunity to make them into magic.’

So let’s make magic!


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