The past year was one of change for the digital experience. Thanks to the rising availability of machine learning, contextual experiences are finding their footing in every industry, the use of personal content is giving new vigor to ecommerce, and vendors are evolving their classic content management systems (CMS) into more powerful digital experience platforms (DXP). This transformation is just starting. 2018 will see the role and expectations of digital experience continue to expand.

Like every other year, 2018 will be about moving forward with (and, for the first-movers, ahead of) the demands of the digital world. Here’s a look at what I believe will be the five biggest developments in digital experience in 2018. My views are based on where customers are now, the technologies that are on the rise and my more than 20 years of experience seeing patterns in this industry.

1. Voice Will Shake Up (but not Overturn) User Interfaces

Voice will continue to play an increasingly dominant role in user interfaces (UI). That prediction probably isn’t going to blindside anyone. We’ve all seen Google Home and Amazon Echo devices find their way onto our bookshelves, and using “instant chat” makes us all Turing testers. However, as is the case with any new interface, just because voice is available doesn’t mean that it is good — yet.

I’ll admit that I mostly use my Google Home system for playing music and asking about the weather. The complicated questions that I’d ask a human being are a bit out of its reach. Of course, this is where the opportunity lies. If your brand can be one of the first to master voice, you gain access to a whole new market, one with 35.6 million users and counting.

Mastering new forms of interaction is more than a matter of “We have this text and now a robot can read it out loud.” It requires looking at the types of situations where your customers would actually want voice-assisted interactions and determining how you can make that a superior experience. Voice searches are often used with mobile systems, so one step might be to ensure your top mobile searches are optimized for voice. Another step is to create content that caters to human speech patterns, because while people might type, “Portland furniture store opening hours” they would be more likely to say, “Where can I find wooden kitchen chairs right now?” Tapping into this new window of search by writing content in a more personal tone, and then jumping on conversational long-tail keywords, could be a huge win.

While voice will shake up UI design, it won’t flip it completely. Voice is a preference, like anything else, and it should be placed where it makes sense for your business. The key is to design your content structure to quickly adapt to new touchpoints. You should be able to write your FAQ document once and have it used on the desktop, on mobile apps and in portals via chat, voice and any other new interface that pops up. As you will see with many of the other trends and developments I’ll be discussing, an open structure that enables this type of sharing across touchpoints and technologies is at the heart of a future-focused digital experience.

2. Intelligence Gets a New Starting Point

You’re familiar with using data insights to determine your next move or to ensure that you are on track with your current path. You look at what has happened, make a decision, measure and compare the before and after. This is business intelligence (BI) — making decisions based on what has already happened in the metrics you have decided are important to track. Artificial intelligence (AI), on the other hand, gives insight into what will happen next and what important metrics are yet undiscovered.

Getting value out of AI requires a complete paradigm shift in the way companies think about analytics. It changes the starting point from “Here is our gut and here are the rules on how to measure results” to “Here is our massive amount of raw data, here are the spaces AI identifies as the most impactful and here is our plan on how to go forward.” It’s a significant change, and it requires you to put a lot of trust in AI.

The benefits of going AI-first are well worth the friction of making this change. It means you wouldn’t be making strategic decisions from stale data, the amount of data analyzed can scale astronomically without an increase in staffing, and your analytic experts can spend less time running reports and more time exploring what could be the next profitable venture. It’s a balance of people and machines that lets the machines do all the grunt work so that the people have the insights and time to execute creative solutions.

Changing the mindset of an entire company to go AI-first is not an easy task, but there are steps along the way that prove just how much day-to-day life improves for both customers and employees when you let AI do the tedious tasks. We have already seen algorithms take over SEO and large search engines (imagine if Google had to index every web page manually), and using intelligence that plays to those search engines — by, for example, automatically creating landing pages that grab long-tail searches — increases traffic without humans having to guess and cater to every one-off search term. The increasing accessibility of AI also means that brands can add intelligent search to their own sites, freeing employees from the need to create a spaghetti string of rule-based logic. Freeing your personalization efforts from rule-based logic will also drive more contextual experiences. AI can identify not just what specific customers tend to like, but what information they need at particular moments, thus ensuring that they don’t leave the site before finding the right information.

The path to becoming an AI-first company will take time, but luckily the steps to get there are each beneficial on their own. Which makes it a continually rewarding (and profitable) journey.

3. Trust Is Golden

The way you handle customer privacy will have to change. That reality can be attributed to several factors, including the onset of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), fear of global data breaches, and the fact that more people are paying attention to the way companies use their personal data.

It’s important to note that this change isn’t just a concern for marketing: It will be felt in every department. From lead generation, to sales funnels, to customer metrics, to handling of job applicants, a change in your data policy will have a cascading impact throughout the organization. That prospect may be a bit daunting, but the brands that are proactive about changing the way they handle data are going to get a head start in creating the most valuable asset: customer trust.

Trust isn’t just based on the way you use (or misuse) personal data. Trust stems from the public’s general opinion of your brand. The quality of your products and services, the availability of support, the nature of one-on-one interactions, and the transparency of how you do business all play into customer trust. New privacy regulations will make every company look at how they use data, but the winners here will be the ones that embrace a more holistic view of trust.

Ultimately, trusted brands will be granted access to customers’ data and, in the age of privacy, being one of the elite few organizations that are able to leverage that data will be the biggest advantage you can have.

Learning Opportunities

4. Some Things Are Here to Stay — and Improve

If every year involved a complete revamp of what businesses need to do, then nothing would ever make an impact. But every year technology advances, processes run smoother, barriers to entry decline, and new windows open up.

The focus on making businesses more flexible and future-proof will continue. The difference in 2018 is that it is easier for any company to make this happen than ever before. Two drivers of flexibility that really found their footing the last year were cloud platforms and microservices. In 2017, we saw a lot of large enterprises in all sectors jumping on these, especially in the digital experience space. They reaped the benefits of cloud computing, such as rapid development and global rollouts, and experimented with the latest touchpoints, such as voice, thanks to microservices.

Of course, these first-movers were also the guinea pigs. They were the first to tackle new touchpoints and integrations, and in doing so they laid out the best practices for the next wave of adopters. The corporate world now has more experience under its collective belt when it comes to the cloud and microservices, which makes 2018 the perfect year to grab the benefits of agile, scalable development.

5. Your Business Is Already Digital, Now Connect It

I remember the days when digital tools where exclusively held by the marketing department, and I saw how digital rapidly spread to every department. That happened so quickly that many companies never had the chance to tie all of their departments together, leaving data scattered in internal siloes.

This is a problem, because with all the trends I have discussed so far — from using voice cohesively with traditional interactions to adopting companywide privacy policies and letting AI find the hidden gems in your data — the key is connected data.

Luckily, IT vendors are well aware of the need for systems to connect, and the best-of-breed tools are simplifying integrations via APIs and providing data, content and experience elements as a service that talks to the other tools in your digital kit. This push for open connections means workflows and businesses processes are applicable across departments, and across the tools each one chooses to use.

The rising focus on creating an open technology stack is also one of the ways businesses are preparing themselves for a flexible future. There will always be new customer touchpoints that pop up, new tools that your team wants to use, or new elements like single page applications that you’ll want to experiment with. Keeping your tech stack open and API-first means you can quickly bring new initiatives into the fold, power them with your current pool of data, and let them give power back to the experience as a whole.

Digital business is now simply businesses. The connected, modular approach to technology gives all departments more visibility into how their work impacts the company, creates a more cohesive experience for your customers across every touchpoint, and allows you to pop tools and elements in (and out) as quickly as demands change.

For years, we have talked about personalizing the user experience, but 2018 is the year to take advantage of the rise of open best-of-breed systems across every industry to personalize your internal experience, create a solutions recipe that fits the unique needs of your business, and reap the rewards of a competitive advantage that’s tailored to you.

It’s going to be another wild year in digital experience, let’s dive in.

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