Hockey-stick moments

Trends that really change the world often follow a common pattern: the hockey-stick graph. Let's look at a few of them.

Countless start-ups have braced themselves for this peculiar moment when growth finally kicks in. Their main KPI chart – be it monthly active users or revenues – suddenly takes the shape of a hockey stick, indicating success. In 2020, the world underwent such a hockey-stick moment for a lot of megatrends. Some of them had been in the making for years or even decades. Such is the nature of trends: we can spot them early on, but they appear tiny for a while until they finally take off (or disappear).

Online commerce has been growing for 25 years, and it was already a great success before this year arrived. But in 2020, digital retail got a huge boost, to the detriment of physical retail. The question is: Will things return to anything like the old normal (which was already bad for physical retail), or will e-commerce finally go through the roof? Did we just see the hockey-stick moment? What will happen to shopping malls and urban centres? All this is now up in the air.

The same is true for many parts of our lives: as well as shopping, there’s also working, learning, socialising, parenting, healthcare – everything has changed, “leaving us with a shared sense of displacement”, as Fjord Trends 2021 puts it. (Fjord is part of Accenture Interactive which hosts this blog.) Work from home, or remote working, saw a hockey-stick moment similar to shopping. “Working from home has become living in the office”. We’ll continue to see a lot of experimentation and prototyping over the next few years.

The future of work is unclear.

A desperate need to catch up

Unlike online retail and working from home, education and healthcare in Germany struggled a lot this year, because their lack of digital maturity was put into the bright spotlight. There is a desperate need to catch up in both sectors so they don’t fall further behind. Collective displacement can go both ways: moving into the future fast, or being stuck in the past, while the circumstances change dramatically.

In Germany, we’ve put a lot of weight behind our collective will to keep schools open and avoid distance learning at almost any price. This happened just because the tools, the hardware, the products, and the know-how simply aren’t there. Or, at least, not evenly distributed. Meanwhile, healthcare practitioners still do a lot of paperwork on real paper, slowing down the flow of information and critical processes, while keeping costs higher than necessary.

Patients need a lot of patience (hence the name). Will the forthcoming vaccination campaign be any better? Can we access digital platforms where we can easily sign up for an appointment or get on a waitlist? Will my general practitioner know whether I already got my corona shot or still need one? And will Germany finally move towards digital healthcare?

UI design needs to move forward

Education and healthcare are two obvious examples of industries where “liquid expectations” have been shaped by excellent customer experiences elsewhere. The best of the pack, companies like Apple or Google, have set the benchmark for education and healthcare providers, like it or not. This makes it a tough catch-up play. Meanwhile, the standards of good customer experience already make it hard to differentiate a product or service.

This year, our interaction with screens has seen yet another hockey-stick moment. This increased usage has highlighted the sea of sameness that makes it hard for products to stand out. Again, this trend has been developing for years. To escape this pitfall, UI design needs to move forward, beyond current standards. In the words of the Fjord Trends 2021 report:

People may want to be challenged and inspired by what they see on screen, and brands wanting to meet this demand will need to rethink their approach. They should revise their design, content, audience, the interactions between these three, and the experiences they create. If they can deliver new screen interactions that offer people greater excitement, joy and serendipity, they can leave people feeling replenished and enriched.

This could well be a design revolution in the making. Design has an important role to play when it comes to shaping our collective futures. Every experience we talked about so far in this post (and on this blog) – shopping, working, learning, socialising, parenting, healthcare, or screen interaction – can be improved by a redesign. And, as Fjord also asserts, designers must care about the data they deal with, the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of their designs. This is, of course, a responsibility designers share with fellow disciplines like engineers and product managers.

Solutions follow hockey-stick patterns as well

Let’s not forget the first hockey stick graph that was published in 1999, during the time of the dotcom craze. Climatologist Jerry Mahlmann coined the term to describe the pattern of the northern hemisphere’s mean temperature record of the past 500 to 2,000 years. According to these reconstructions, there was a slow long-term cooling trend (the shaft) until 1900, followed by a sharp increase (the blade) during the 20th century. Climate change is a huge design problem.

But it’s encouraging that not only challenges, like climate change or the coronavirus pandemic, follow hockey-stick patterns, but also solutions. Max Roser just published more data on the learning curves of renewable energy, which implies that renewable energy gets cheaper as we scale it up. Ramez Naam predicts that solar energy will become insanely cheap if current trends continue. (You can find his prediction in our latest book.)

It’s always tempting to get a glimpse of the near future. We can easily mistake trend reports like Fjord’s excellent piece as predictions. In reality, they are observations of current trends, extrapolating them into the future. But the future is something we need to design, as Fjord’s Thomas Müller never tires of reminding us.

Photo by Peter Ivey-Hansen on Unsplash