Abandoned and Stuck in the Future

Balancing Futurism And Product Realization

6 min readMar 27, 2024

by Jarrett Webb

There is a psychological condition called transoptimiafuturostrandufication, which is when hopeful clarity of the future turns to errant feelings of discombobulation and directionlessness. I know this, having read a white paper (from a near possible future) where researchers studied product development during the era spanning the early .com boom to the sixth AI winter but just before the release of the first giga-qubit micro-quantum computer. In this period, digital computers and software practices domesticated product development and spawned the aforementioned malaise among companies hoping to transform their business or invent the next big thing.

Back in the present, I assert that the short history of digital products is littered with duds. Product development is hard; failure is common. The best aspirations of startups with disruptive ideas and enterprises keen to transform and innovate more often lead only to burnt cookies. Thankfully, we are not forced to taste (most of) them, nor do they consume space.

Digital products fail to reach their potential for several reasons, many of which are avoidable, especially those caused by self-induced negligence. An enormous hazard-filled space exists between a product vision based on futurism and delivering products to users.

Ideas are fragile and ephemeral and are tested, tarnished, bullied, and transformed during the product realization process.

I want to focus on the step right after vision concept design because it is easy for products to become trapped in a futurism neverland and for product managers (you have one, yes?), designers, and developers not even to realize it.

Vision concepts take you to a probable future, showing what a product could be. But without a path back to the present, the concept is stranded in futurism and dies in the black hole of could-have-been. Speculative ideas are faint apparitions and are difficult to communicate to others. It is necessary to create artifacts (e.g., images, videos, prototypes) to give physicality to conceptual ideas. These futurism expressions provide gravity and shape the storytelling needed for communicating ideas.

Concepts and visions frequently forecast beyond today’s technology capabilities — all good futurism should do this! Futurism is a form of science fiction. It is good storytelling; it seduces by looking beyond or masking present constraints. Unfortunately, an often overlooked challenge with futurism is aligning the vision with the reality of today’s technology — the technology’s capabilities and limitations, team skillsets, and timeline expectations. Inserting a checkpoint (a speed bump — of sorts) between concepting and implementation to validate technological feasibility and align today’s reality with tomorrow’s possibilities is necessary to mitigate risk.

Imagine you are a CPO, CTO, or even a CEO, and you need a future vision for your current product’s next iteration or the next “big thing.” You hire a big consultancy, a marketing firm, or a design studio to create a concept of the future. After workshops, stakeholder interviews, months of concepting, and lots of money, they return a deck. The imagery is beautiful, and the messaging is aspirational. Some decks will speculate market potential and illustrate roadmaps. The bold ones exude confidence that this future vision is easily a near-term reality and have an SOW ready for signature.

Euphoria follows. You evangelize the future visions internally. Everyone gets excited. It is a no-brainer. Success is virtually assured. Just imagine the impact of marketing campaigns and the revenue this project will generate. The project gets budget. Design and development teams form and start building the product from the concept vision. The future is within reach!

But then, during the implementation (hopefully sooner than later), the CTO or a technology director raises concerns and outcries — the timeline is unrealistic, we don’t have the skills to do this, or the technology is not yet ready to make this real. Futurism evaporates away — euphoria crashes.

Any product vision based on Artificial Intelligence epitomizes this point. Design concepts have employed the specter of “AI” for decades to create magical futurisms. For example, when the concept calls for the product to understand natural language to carry out a user’s commands. While a hopeful user experience, it is only recently that natural language processing (NLP) algorithms reached a practical usability scale. Even now (2024), NLP has limitations restraining the band of possible functional use cases.

Another contemporary and hyped technology space is spatial computing. It is an amazing technology that causes your imagination to explode with wondrous ideas. However, spatial computing has stumbled along for years because designers and developers fail to acknowledge the present capabilities of the technology and instead insist on creating spatial computing experiences from the future — where the hardware is smaller and more powerful, the algorithms more effective and commoditized, and the tooling more specialized.

These are just two possible examples, but commonalities can be abstracted to describe futurism pitfalls. Three common and prominent causes of failure are gaps in the technology assessment, technical skills, and scale assessment.

A technology gap, in the context of failed futurism, is when vision concepts call for a technology that does not exist or is not production-ready. Concepts can be inspired by science fiction (literature or film) or videos shared on social media, but this does not mean they are ready for productization. The refrain, “I saw a video on <insert social media here>, and they did it. Why can’t you build it?” strongly indicates a technology gap. These interaction demo videos are cool but rarely production-ready.

Skill gaps occur when a product concept calls for technology skills your team does not have. This gap class is more complex than a need to upskill. Software development is a combination of technical skills and disposition (softer non-technical skills like cognitive fluidity and compartmentalization) — the latter is not so obvious and is often the primary cause of the gap.

I classify technologies into three evolutionary stages: frontier, emerging, and established. As a technology matures, it progresses through the stages. Along the way, the technology’s capabilities, enablers, dependencies, and constraints change. Each stage demands a unique disposition and approach from the people working with the technology. How you develop algorithms, the robustness of the code, workflow complexity, and team size are different depending on the technology’s evolutionary stage.

People working with a technology must have a unique mindset at each stage. It is helpful to give names to each persona disposition per stage: pioneers (frontier), explorers (emerging), and settlers or operators (established). Only some people can or want to move fluidly across this spectrum, while others only fit a single persona type. Sometimes, the solution is to upskill your current team; in other instances, the solution is to expand the team or build a new one.

A scale gap is when the concept designs call for the technology to scale in a way that is beyond the technology’s current evolutionary stage, the project’s resources, or the project’s timeline. If the technology or dependency technologies cannot scale, the only solution is to scale back the product concept. For example, if the concept calls for processing gigabytes of data in real-time on an eyewear device, there is a scale problem. Or, if the need is for a 5000 qubit post-NISQ quantum computer to provide back-end calculations to the experience, there is a scale problem.

Thinking about the future can be inspiring and uplifting. Most people imagine optimistic futures where balance and prosperity are the natural order and wrongs, failures, and scarcity challenges are resolved positively. And, yes, even the most pessimistic occasionally relent and indulge in romanticizing constructive future possibilities.

Relishing in futurism is good and exciting, even when irrational and improbable. Futurism warrants scrutiny and validation when ambitions emerge to turn a possible future into a real one. The future can seem impossible and irrational, while the present has a stifling rational and pragmatic constraint. It is necessary to find a balance.

When turning an idea into a product, you must accept that the original vision will break. There is always a dissonance between a vision and reality. Accepting constraints, making difficult decisions, and scaling to fit today’s technology — even if you must stretch the technology a little — is a pragmatic approach to turning futurism into successful products. However, futures do not manifest without impossible and irrational dreams. Please do dream.

Jarrett Webb is a technology director at argodesign, where he ​​leads a cross-discipline team to design and build digital products and experiences.




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