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Five Global Megatrends Reshaping Product Design: What Will Consumer Behavior Look Like in 2023? How About 2028?

The typical consumer can tell us what they like and dislike now, but they can’t predict what they’ll want ten years from now.

Five to ten years is a long time — over that period, consumer values are certain to change. So will the competitive landscape. Doing user research now won’t help you design for 2028. Trend analysis will. Design strategists like myself turn to it to predict consumers’ future behavior.

Below is a snapshot of five of the socio-cultural megatrends (trends that will continue to play out over the next five to ten years) we’re tracking at Bresslergroup. Taken together, the trends paint a coherent picture.

It’s a world where we own fewer, smarter, more thoughtful things, and expect more from them — except for the things we’ve abandoned entirely in favor of a service that replaces it. We potentially live richer, healthier lives with fewer distractions, and although we’re getting more out of our technology, we actually interact with it less.

It’s an exciting future, and also a demanding one, since it relies on products and services that haven’t been invented yet, but which customers have already come to expect. If you’re planning on being a part of this future, it’s worth putting some serious thought into how these trends will change the things you design, and how your customers are going to use them:

1: Pursuit of Exclusivity

Brands have always offered mass-market and premium offerings, but never has the line dividing them been so blurred. Today’s luxury customers are often comfortable with lower-cost products if they’re perceived as unique or timeless (witness Sharon Stone’s then jaw-dropping decision to wear Gap to the 1998 Oscars), while mainstream consumers accessorize their lives with occasional high-end purchases, whether it’s a smartphone, a pair of shoes, or a yoga retreat.

But where hi-brow/low-brow blending was once a DIY effort, now companies themselves are embracing the trend. Increasingly, their product ranges offer broad, overlapping levels of luxury within a single, all-embracing brand. “Affordable luxury” is a common refrain, as is high-end inconspicuous consumption, where organic produce and designer bags can demand significant markups despite being almost indistinguishable from their mainstream peers. The data back up this observation, too, with premium and entry-to-luxury now the fastest growing segments in many categories.

What’s driving this trend?

  • Sustained economic growth means more consumers with the financial means to seek out premium offerings.
  • At the same time, traditional displays of ostentatious wealth are becoming less socially acceptable.
  • More product offerings in every price range means that finding something “exclusive” is no longer just an option for the very rich.
  • Social media provides more windows into the range of what’s available, making connoisseurs of us all.

What does this imply for design?

  • Differentiation & uniqueness are now a huge part of “premium.” So seek opportunities to create unique experiences at scale — as Airbnb did with its “Airbnb Plus” initiative, leveraging the creativity of its hosts to offer well-vetted alternatives to luxury hotels, with far more variety.
  • When expanding a product line, consider adding a higher-end offering or variant on a familiar product, especially if it can offer some sense of a luxury experience at relatively low cost.
  • Present higher-end options in terms of personal benefit: less “impress the neighbors” and more “do something kind for yourself.”

2: Experience More

Services are now seen as indispensable, in a way few physical goods are. In the last economic downturn, people often did without a new car or a bigger house, but hung on to their mobile service, broadband, gym membership, and Netflix subscriptions. In part, this is because services are more durable: they can’t be lost, they automatically update, and they can be modified and expanded to fit changing life circumstances.

But it’s also because services offer multi-dimensional experiences that can be ultimately more fulfilling than owning something physical. Given the choice, many consumers (especially Millennials) will opt to spend on a trip, a class, or a professional consultation over splurging on a car or piece of furniture. In daily life, they’ll often seek out a service first, only settling on a physical product if there’s no other option. And if a product comes with a service component bundled in, so much the better.

What’s driving this trend ?

  • The constant connectivity afforded by mobile devices, social media, and ubiquitous wireless often makes services more accessible and convenient than goods.
  • The Access (or Sharing) Economy has introduced innumerable services that replace products with an interface that makes existing resources more accessible: Uber, Car2Go, Airbnb, Amazon, etc.
  • People are more likely to share experiences (travel, dining, physical activity, etc.) on social media than physical goods, leading to greater awareness of what’s out there, and a certain amount of FOMO.
  • Consumers are recognizing that experiences often deliver more happiness and satisfaction than physical products.

What does this imply for design?

  • Look for the root causes of consumer desires. Do people really want better lamps, or just better light?
  • Seek opportunities for adding a service component to an existing product: an app that enhances it, a subscription service that keeps it in optimal condition, etc. Design physical and service elements hand-in-hand, so they combine to offer a seamless, more satisfying experience.
  • Build on the brand equity of physical products with a service offering.

3: Quest for Convenience

Time: it’s the only thing you can’t earn more of. In the past decade, more and more consumers are answering “yes” to the question of whether it’s worth spending money to free up time. In part, it’s not just because we seem to be more time-strapped than ever, but it’s also because of technology, which has created a rich ecosystem of services and devices ready to take on time-consuming tasks for a reasonable cost.

Alexa, Nest, and Apple (among many others) have made great strides in recent years at building a coherent network of devices that share data and draw on deep wells of processing power and predictive capability. They’ve gotten so good at it, in fact, that many consumers barely notice them, working them seamlessly into their daily routines. Just a few years ago, connecting a device to the internet or giving it rudimentary sensory and predictive capabilities was a novelty — something to delight users and stand out in a crowded field. Today this kind of intelligence is seen as utilitarian.

At every income level, people no longer feel obligated to do boring or unpleasant tasks, and the idea of paying for help is no longer limited to those wealthy enough to hire servants. Companies like Framebridge and Warby-Parker have built huge followings by taking inconvenient, expensive tasks and making them faster, cheaper, and more enjoyable. Apps, subscription services, home delivery — even in-house robots — are allowing us to reduce the time spent on the mundane, and focus more on the meaningful and delightful.

What’s driving this trend?

  • We increasingly understand that reducing stress and freeing up time are crucial to quality of life.
  • High quality apps and services are reducing people’s tolerance for complicated processes with numerous steps.
  • AI and predictive algorithms are improving, offering more ways to “skip to the end” of an interaction and making instant personalization far more effective.
  • Technology is making it far easier to add intelligence to almost any product or interaction: smart buttons, smart cameras, smart thermostats, etc. As connected intelligence stops being remarkable, their real impact is ready to be felt.

What does this imply for design?

  • Look for opportunities to automate. What common, mundane task could be simplified or taken over completely by a smarter product or service?
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify. A pared-down aesthetic implies lower effort, less fuss, less wasted time.
  • If you add intelligence to a product, do it in a way that demands less effort on the part of the user, not more. Take advantage of the improved standardization in IoT and connectivity, to create intelligent devices that plug into customers’ existing ecosystems and work with their expectations.

4: Everyday Wellness

“Wellness” is the new watchword. Where our relationship to our bodies used to be primarily reactive and corrective, today a growing fraction of people see health as something that happens every day, through the decisions we make and the things we eat, think, and do. Affluent consumers in particular are more likely than ever to put self-care at the top of their list of priorities — a marked shift from a decade or two ago.

For companies, this opens up opportunities from two directions. Products and services that were once the sole domain of health professionals are becoming available to consumers — 23andMe offers genetic analysis, FitBit tracks your physical activity, numerous apps help monitor and improve your sleep, nutrition, and even behavior and mood. At the same time, consumer offerings are being enhanced with wellness-enhancing features, from copper-infused sheets to fight bacteria, to hotel rooms and bathrooms with fine-tuned lighting, sound, and furnishings — all oriented toward enabling and improving well-being.

What’s driving this trend?

  • A steady stream of research points to the importance lifestyle choices have in maintaining good health — from physical activity and diet to stress management.
  • Online research and personal health tracking provide consumers with far more information about their own health than ever before.
  • A backlash to the traditional, paternalistic view of medicine has convinced many consumers to take health into their own hands.
  • The rise of “inconspicuous consumption” makes wellness-oriented purchases and experiences a key marker of exclusivity and sophistication.

What does this imply for design?

  • Many companies already have an existing product or service that enhances wellness in some way: stress reduction, self-tracking, time savings, etc. Look at the user experience through that lens and find ways to build on it.
  • Partnerships between consumer product manufacturers and wellness-focused companies can bring benefits for both.
  • For medical device companies in particular, there’s abundant opportunity in simplifying existing products in order to expand their audience into either consumer or parallel professional markets.

5: Ethical Living

It’s no longer enough for a company to talk about doing good; today you have to actually be good. Even more than governments and nonprofits, today’s consumers see companies as the ones responsible for protecting the environment and human rights, and it’s never been easier to find out when their actions don’t match their rhetoric.

This is all part of a larger trend, of trying to live more in harmony with the world, and it takes many forms. Companies like Tom’s, Everlane, and LuckyNelly have seen rapid growth by being overtly ethical and transparent about their business practices, and major brands like Whirlpool and Salesforce are rolling out new products and buildings specifically designed to make sustainable living easier.

On a personal level, many consumers are embracing a “less is more” philosophy, opting to live with fewer possessions, but perhaps spending more on an individual purchase if it holds the promise of greater longevity or utility.

What’s driving this trend?

  • Constant global media coverage is making us more aware than ever of issues of inequality and environmental damage — and consumerism’s role in them.
  • A wide range of ethically driven companies and products exist in almost any category imaginable, from sustainable shoes and dishsoap to energy neutral hotels and culturally sensitive vacations.
  • Many of these options are relatively affordable, giving everyday consumers the ability to feel like philanthropists.

What does this imply for design?

  • Design for longevity, repairability and multi-functionality. Consumers are increasingly looking for the last [insert word here] they’ll ever need, and are willing to pay a premium for it.
  • Lean toward aesthetic cues that imply simplicity and honesty.
  • Look for ways to be better as a company, in terms of energy use, environmental impact, ethical sourcing, worker treatment, and overall transparency. Giving consumers a clear glimpse into your actions is more convincing than a PR campaign.

For more on socio-cultural megatrends, check out the slides from Ryan Chen’s recent DesignPhilly talk, How Trends Drive Innovation in Product Design, on the ten megatrends we’re tracking + how these insights lead to product innovation.