Words are the new pixels: Why designers must become storytellers

Screens are disappearing.

There’s a delicious irony in that sentence, right? I mean, you’re probably reading this article on a screen right now, (unless you make a habit of printing out your morning reading). But look around: human-computer interactions no longer exclusively occur through the keyholes of our smartphones, smartwatches and TV screens – something that Bill Gates predicted would happen back in 2002:

“…computers themselves will gradually “disappear” into the fabric of our lives. We are still a long way from a world full of disembodied intelligent machines, but the computing experience of the coming decade will be so seamless and intuitive that–increasingly–we will barely notice it.” ~ Bill Gates, The Disappearing Computer

Granted, he guessed this transition would happen by 2010 – but he was only off by a few years, so give the guy some credit.

As voice recognition and chatbot technology improves, these “invisible” user interfaces will replace screens as the default medium of interaction. Just as many modern websites & applications today tout themselves as “Mobile-First”, it won’t be long before those same innovators are applying the “Voice-First” label to their new offerings. Indeed there’s a non-zero chance that the next killer app may launch with no visual UI at all! Thus, today’s UX designers face a stark choice – evolve beyond the pixel, or look for a new career.

In this post, I’m going to explore some of the reasons behind the sunset of visual-first design, and explain why designers must learn to wield their prose and stories as fluently as they do their imagery, in order to remain relevant in the age of invisible computing.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Why visual-first design will soon decline

Words are the new pixels

What designers can do to keep their jobs

Why visual-first design will soon decline

If we’re to understand why designers must learn to tell stories without relying on visual aids, we must first grasp the drivers behind the decline of visual-first design.

It’s getting old

In short, predominantly visual design as a source of innovation is approaching the maturity phase of its life-cycle.

Just like any product or service, visual-first design is reaching its maturity

Take a look around – aren’t websites all starting to look kind of samey these days? This is no accident. As new design best practices have been shared, and higher conversion rates achieved, this standardized knowledge has propagated to businesses and website owners all across the web. But this wasn’t always the case. 

In its heyday in the early 2000’s, flashy web design was THE competitive differentiator for any business that wanted to make waves online. The arrival of Macromedia Flash (that’s Adobe Flash, to you kids), brought rich interactivity and visuals to the previously dull and static World Wide Web, and boutique rich media design studios like 2Advanced and Big Spaceship blew people’s minds by pushing the envelope of what we all thought was possible with web design and motion graphics. And fancy pre-loaders (ugh).

With unique and eye-catching design prioritized over everything else, it used to be a generally accepted workflow to have your web designer simply create visual “buckets”, (stuffed with Lorem Ipsum, of course), for the copywriter/client to fill with content after the fact.

We now know this is no longer an appropriate workflow for truly effective web design – in such circumstances, the actual content becomes subservient to the design, which diminishes the effectiveness of both.

It’s being commoditized by economic pressures

Visual design is cheaper, more accessible and more standardized than at any time in the history of the internet. Sites like Upwork, 99Designs and Envato have democratized (some might say commoditized) visual design, while free access to blog tutorials, website themes, and drag & drop tools like Canva, mean that anyone can invest a little time or money, and walk away with a presentable design.

Automated design is coming

Meanwhile, procedural design engines like The Grid and Act-On, can automatically generate entire layouts based solely on the content you feed them, and simultaneously A/B test like 8 gajillion different page variations to find the ultimate killer converting layout. While the output of these tools may not currently match human visual designers at the top of their game, there’s been more than enough interest around them to validate the existence of significant demand for cheaper, automated delivery of good visual design. It’s only a matter of time before the technology catches up – and it’s a problem that need only be solved successfully once to greatly reduce the need for human involvement in the visual design process.

“In 2010 only 2 per cent of Americans worked in agriculture and 20 per cent worked in industry, while 78 per cent worked as teachers, doctors, webpage designers and so forth. When mindless algorithms are able to teach, diagnose and design better than humans, what will we do?” ~ Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Voice & text recognition technology has reached a tipping point

Following a powerhouse showing at CES2017, Amazon’s Alexa is the first application of voice interaction to have reached mainstream adoption, with almost 8 million Echo units sold since it debuted in 2015 – and more than two thirds of those sales happened last year.

One stunning stat in particular is that Echo owners have also increased their spending on Amazon by 10% in the last year. Consider all the effort that’s gone into optimizing Amazon to be the best-converting e-commerce store on the internet – and now consider that one of its biggest leaps forward came from removing the visual interface altogether!

It’s also worth noting that voice and chat interfaces are only just getting started, and haptic, gesture-driven interactions aren’t far behind.

The video above was posted in 2015, so who knows how far this technology has come since then?

Visual design is struggling to keep up with consumers’ needs

How many screens exist in the average urban-dweller’s life? Smartphone, TV, laptop, tablet, car, (maybe even the fridge, if they’re painfully early adopter). Effective visual designs today must solve for an ever-growing variety of contexts & circumstances – but the kicker is that each time there’s a new breakthrough in our display technologies and devices, we’re having to almost completely rethink our approach to creating visual interfaces that effectively capitalize on these new capabilities.

This is becoming unsustainable – we can’t keep redesigning our entire visual methodologies with each new innovation, so there’s an immediate need for an intuitive interface medium that works in almost any context, and has enough future-proofing built into it to stick around for a while.

Words are the new pixels

So, I’m just gonna throw this out there: humans have been communicating with words for about 70,000 years. We all know how to use them and interpret them, and I’d argue that [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”null”]words are the only truly responsive UI element for all computing devices, past, present and future.[/inlinetweet]

Words: they worked back then, and they still work now

Words work at all screen resolutions, on all devices, across all global cultures, and in almost any context. This is an indispensable trait, since your responsibility as a designer is to guide users as they hop between individual interfaces within an overall guided experience.

Words are built for sharing experiences, ideas & stories

No matter how well-designed your website & mobile app are individually, if the transition between them is disjointed, it’s still a bad experience for the user.

As a result, customer preferences are shifting from favoring individually well-designed interfaces – Brand X’s mobile app, Brand Y’s website, and so on – to expecting a seamless overall experience within a single brand, regardless of the context. Businesses are discovering that this seamlessness is essential for driving repeat purchases from customers in a recurring cycle, nicknamed the Loyalty Loop.

In short, users need compelling narratives to guide them through the entire experience – not more infinitely-reconfigurable visual interfaces.

Wall-E is a masterclass in visual storytelling – but few can reach that bar consistently

Thing is though, unless you’re Pixar, it’s really hard to tell a compelling, understandable story without words. Thus, the shift towards designing cohesive narratives for customers across multiple channels is opening the door to competition with visual designers on their own turf. Copywriters, authors, linguists, voice actors, casting directors, screenwriters, hell even songwriters – are all about to get into the user experience game.

These folks are already familiar with creating engaging non-visual content – and demand for their expertise is about to explode. Although voice interaction has penetrated the mainstream, there’s still a dire need to build & maintain customer engagement. Alexa’s total library of almost 7,000 Skills (that’s Amazon-lish for “Apps”) currently averages only 3% retention after 2 weeks – ouch!

What designers can do to keep their jobs

LUKE: “With the blast shield down, I can’t even see! How am I supposed to fight?” OBI WAN: “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.”

Effective storytelling is as big a differentiator for today’s UX designers as the “unicorn” status of designers who could also code in the ‘00’s and early ‘10’s – so here’s what visual designers should be doing to prepare for this shift.

Lorem Ipsum must die – Content IS the design, so it should be factored into your workflow from the outset of the project. No more punting consideration of content down the road (although Samuel L Ipsum is always welcome entertainment ?

Understand the structure of a good story – There are tons of ways to do this – learn from storytelling masters like Pixar, read a “Choose your own adventure” book, study Joseph Campbell’s timeless classic “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, or even play a text-based adventure game like Zork.

Tease apart and deconstruct these examples to learn how words alone can guide and compel users through an experience.

Learn the art of persuasive writing – Don’t fear the encroachment of writers on “your design turf” – embrace them, learn from them. They may know this new, invisible medium better than you do, but you know how to incorporate their work, and harness it to create compelling user experiences.

The legendary Zig Ziglar’s “5 obstacles to a sale”, and the Persuasive Triangle are great frameworks with which to start learning how to write persuasive, compelling copy.

In summary: Learn to use your words

Visual-first design is in decline, so designers must become familiar with telling stories via the invisible media of voice and text. There are a number of drivers behind this decline:

  • Good visual design is no longer a competitive advantage for online businesses – it’s expected
  • Economic competition & automation are making visual design cheaper and more accessible
  • Voice and text recognition technology are enabling viable alternatives to traditional visual interfaces
  • Visual design can’t keep up with the pace of innovations in consumer devices

Words are the ideal medium for accommodating this next phase of human-computer interaction. They’re universally used and understood globally, and are easily woven into stories that can fit into any user context.

Designers who embrace the power of storytelling will be better positioned to navigate the transition from visible to invisible computing – and I, for one, can’t wait to see what kinds of stories you guys start telling.