Every January, the Priority Designs team draws straws for who gets to trade the dead Ohio sky for the endless sun of Nevada and spend 3 days at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. For a product development company such as Priority Designs, CES embodies one of the most influential tech events of the year. It entices consumers with what to expect in the coming year, gives competitors insight into how they can differentiate or catch up, and confirms where our clients have identified value and are placing their bets. Our team always returns informed, inspired, and ready to shake things up.
Our UX/UI team drew the long straws this year and sent several people to the desert. The following is a brief introduction to the team, and a Q&A to allow each of them to share their unique Points of View on this year’s show.
As a Senior Industrial Designer, I apply research, strategy and an ergonomics expertise in the categories of medical, industrial and consumer products. My focus entering CES was to oberserve the confluence of digital health, connected wearables, and experience design. Additionally, I was excited to gain new insights and to engage with vendors met in years past.
Sr. Industrial Designer
In my role, I build product experiences that help users gain efficiency, giving their time back or making their jobs and lives easier with the ultimate goal of allowing these tasks to be pleasant and engaging. With this in mind, I attended CES with an eye for solutions that exude utility and practicality, not strictly immersion or engagement.
Sr. UX/UI Designer
As a UX designer, I aim to design and build experiences for users that are pleasant to use and help solve a specific problem. Whether the problem is finding a piece of information or performing a distinct task, the goal is to make the experience seamless and enjoyable. I approached CES with an open mind and a wide-open schedule, looking to absorb anything and everything to see how it may help, change, or influence physical and digital experiences we develop.
Q: As designers specializing in different areas, what area intrigued you most at CES?
- Jeff: Capturing more real estate on the body. Smartwatch manufacturers are thinking about the 60% of unused space around the wrist not being occupied by the watch itself. They’re developing connections from the watch to the band for powering lights, haptics, supplemental power, and other benefits. This is an exciting new product opportunity to expand the already profitable wrist space.
- JR: The Fringe. I went in expecting to mostly focus on healthcare, smart home, and automotive tech areas. However, I was really surprised by the breadth of concepts on display in the Eureka Park Hall, where smaller startups exhibited. It was a random, intriguing mix of fringe ideas, insulated from the more commercial booths of the other halls. It’s certainly rough around the edges, but there’s something appealing about the energy of those ideas as they differ from the polished, scripted, and risk-mitigated concepts elsewhere.
- Kevin: Everything! Having never been to CES, I only had a vague idea of what to expect from previous years. I went in expecting a lot of automotive tech and flashy designs from the bigger names in consumer tech. What stood out to me the most was the sheer amount of smart home products and the creative ways that they can interact with each other, the user, and smartphones. It was very evident that everyone is leaning into smart homes and there is still a lot of room for creativity and innovation in this space.
Q: What concepts stood out to you?
- Jeff: Partnerships. In addition to merger and acquisition trends, companies are choosing to share strengths, costs, and risks by forming unexpected partnerships. For example, Sony and Honda’s collaboration on the new Afeela electric vehicle (EV) marries compelling media with reliable mobility.
- JR: Personalized Medicine. There were a few concepts coming from overseas that were customizing vitamin supplements based on lifestyle objectives and health measurements. I’m not sure how viable this would be in the US, but this level of integration made acting on health advice seamless. It made it so there were fewer thresholds to being better, all while requiring less interaction from the user.
- JR: Healthcare in the home. There were a few concepts in the digital health space that I felt were successful in providing a seamless and supportive experience. Both urinalysis-from-home solutions from Withings and Vivoo that demonstrated feedback on your body’s needs in 2 minutes or less. Converting that data into actionable suggestions was seamless through their product and app, and the value was obvious. It’s a taboo subject in a juvenile sense, but their solutions have a sincerity that moves the conversation immediately onto the value of the product.
- Kevin: Agreed! Withings and Vivoo really stood out to me for not only their beautiful product design but the immersive, impactful, and helpful experience. Users only need the app and to use the restroom as they normally would to get real-time data and actionable steps on regarding their diet and exercise habits. Another innovation from Asleep created a simple, easy-to-use solution to aid with sleep health. Users just needed to sleep with their phone near them, as we all already do, to get: data-driven feedback, usable steps to improve their sleeping habits, and to even be awoken at the optimal time in their sleep cycle. With plans to expand the app to talk to smart home products by adjusting lighting and room temperatures, Asleep is making massive strides to easily and effectively improve sleep for users.
- Kevin: Expanding ecosystems. Smart homes and, probably more accurately, “smart ecosystems” were all the rage at CES. The concepts from Amazon are what amazed me the most in this department. Lucid is designing a car with Amazon’s Alexa at the forefront of the user experience in and out of the car. There was a brief demonstration of a user adding tasks to their calendars, switching their navigation, changing the song, then arriving home all just by talking to the car. Upon arriving home, the user could then request their outdoor flood lights be turned on and the temperature in the home be adjusted. While none of this is groundbreaking technology, I felt it was a powerful story of how device connectivity can help and impact a user’s life and just scratching the surface of the potential and power of smart homes, smart ecosystems, and “smart lives.”
- Kevin: Augmented everything. Samsung showed a fascinating story of how augmented reality can impact everyday life, specifically while driving. The user was in a car and navigating to a grocery store. While driving the route, using augmented reality, the road and route the user was taking were highlighted in reality without the user needing to look down at a screen. Safety features like outlining other vehicles and potential obstacles also showed how this technology could improve the driving experience. Lastly, there was facial recognition tracking the user’s eyes and facial expressions to notify them with audio and visual cues that they were distracted and needed to refocus on the road. Augmented reality clearly has a ton of potential and ways to elevate the driving experience and I am excited to see where this technology goes.
- JR: Marketing teams Co-Opting the term “AI.” AI was being used as a branding element in so many places. Products left and right were screaming “I have AI” while implying that it was therefore better. As a person with a thesis in machine learning and AI, this doesn’t land for me. While I appreciate everyone trying to unearth value by applying AI to all the nooks and crannies of life, this market has a tendency to treat AI as a magical black box. While it’s obvious that AI and ML techniques are powerful, I’m not so sure that we’ve crossed over into the land of “practical” and “useful,” never mind “safe.” Considering the human-in-the-loop is essential to get the interaction right, and the overwhelming number of these concepts are underwhelming in how they handle user interaction. I feel that companies could build greater trust with their customers if they admitted “we have a lot more to figure out here, but it’s promising”
- JR: Useful screens, finally…Mobile devices and screens took a turn towards the practical this year. There were still bendy/twisty/roll-up screens galore, but we finally saw dual-screen laptops that were actually useful. I appreciated the move away from “look, we can do it” and push toward “look how this can help you.”
- KG: 3D without the glasses. In addition to beautiful displays and captivating gaming experiences, Sony unveiled an amazingly immersive 3d screen that circumnavigated the need for any type of glasses or wearable. There was a central main display, like any normal display, with two additional side panels protruding toward the user. After briefly identifying where your face and eyes are, like Face ID, the user could move freely in front of the screen without losing the 3D effect. The screen would adapt the image to the user’s eyes and distance from the screen to create a seamless, compelling, and natural viewing experience.
Q: What are your biggest takeaways?
- JB: Immersion. While virtual reality (VR) headgear enables shared experiences at a distance, ironically, it can also disconnect people that are side-by-side.
- JR: Playing it Safe. I think CES is a showcase of “safer bets” that can technically be done. Thus, I think it’s a little dangerous to treat these trends as “this is what users want.” These insights are therefore more limited to “this is what companies are choosing to do.” I think a major trend is trying to satisfy customers searching for calm. They are betting on personal spaces – so seamless it goes beyond “made for you.” It’s an extension of you. Whether it’s vehicle cabins, smart homes, or telehealth apps, companies are building connections so customers can get their time and brain space back. If I were a betting man (I mean being in Vegas and all…) I’d guess users also want clear boundaries on those spaces, both physical and mental. I just hope companies will find value in offering boundaries.
- JR: Clever branding, but not much else (yet). Companies are trying to brand themselves as having a solution to “how is this all possibly going to work?” They’re confronting the questions of how we can manage to realize the future we desire in a very child-friendly sort of way. But dealing with resource scarcity and promoting sustainability may require more exact answers for customers to truly buy in. Never mind the more (equally?) serious questions regarding privacy and security in our digital world. Personally, I’d love to see these promises converted from a brand identity into true and measurable action, but at the least, it’s becoming table stakes for anyone trying to make a splash at the show.
- KG: Connectivity is still King. One of the main takeaways from CES is that full connectivity is not going anywhere. Companies and brands are doing everything they can to be involved in every part of your life. Companies are trying to create completely immersive experiences that have no start or stop. You wake up to a smart alarm that knows your sleeping habits. Your car automatically navigates you to work. Your home automatically adjusts to your perfect temperature when it knows you’re getting home from work. Your phone turns on some white noise to put you to sleep. The boundaries for physical and digital are already fuzzy and blurred and will only continue to do so if not completely disappear altogether.
Q: How will these takeaways impact your work at Priority Designs?
- JR: I don’t fully know how to answer this right now… I think there is still a lot of value to come from CES in the form of the public’s reaction to stuff presented at CES. What is presented at the show is what companies are betting on. A measure of whether these bets are meaningful comes later. My insight at this point is in the realm of “what was missing from CES” – it’s the user. CES shows off the tech “that companies think you want,” and of course, a lot of that tech was motivated by user feedback. But public reception hasn’t been measured yet.
- JR: I think the tone of this year’s CES means a couple of things for our clients:
- If you’re in the consumer market, sustainability can present value for your brand. Its impact on individual products is still undetermined.
- Playing nice with other products and ecosystems is becoming the norm. Companies have been dinged in the past few years for lacking compatibility, and seemingly have made the choice to abandon several arms races and instead focus on compatibility. Consumers see this as a win for them, and I see it quickly becoming table stakes in the automotive and smart home categories.
- KG: For myself: The most immediate impact I gleaned from CES was just to think about UX opportunities and capabilities differently.
- There were tons of powerful examples of things like AI, smart devices, AR, VR, MR, voice, and gestures, all of which present new and different ways to accomplish a goal. While some of the capabilities are still young and need time to prove themselves, all of them present incredible opportunities for innovation, unique ways to improve a user’s experience, and new ways of thinking.
- KG: From a client’s perspective: I would say the impact is the same as it is for us.
- It will be beneficial for clients to be aware of the capabilities that are out there and being used by other companies to try and improve user experience. While these things being possible is truly amazing, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are right for the user or the best solution to a problem. It’ll be great to keep these things in mind when designing in the future and a reminder to be diligent to consider whether it’s being done because it’s cool or because it’s truly the highest impact for the user.
CES is always an eye opener, and an incredible place to spend time immersing ourselves in the latest technology. This year was no exception, but comes with a healthy dose of realism. Many of the technologies we saw were incremental innovations, smartly branded and cautiously advancing the market in new ways. However, there were a few outliers who are truly pushing the envelope and we are excited to see what comes next.