With 3D printing, fridges that tell when you're out of milk, and self-driving cars now a reality, it would seem the future of sci-fi fantasy is upon us. However, for a growing number of people in the digital and tech world it is the ancient past that's providing the inspiration.
Feng shui, the ancient Chinese philosophical system that deals with harmonising people with their surroundings, is experiencing something of a resurgence.
Big global financial institutions such as HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank are incorporating the principles of feng shui into their online services for customers.
Feng shui, used for everything from architecture to urban planning in China for thousands of years, is now being applied to the realms of user experience. User experience, or UX for short, loosely translates as a person's perception of and response to a brand's product or service online, such as a website or app.
Boz Zou, the head of UX at HeathWallace Asia, the JWT-owned user experience design company, which has HSBC and Standard Chartered among its global clients, systematically uses the principles of feng shui to design and enhance banks' online properties for customers.
There are six elements of feng shui that should be applied in digital design, according to Zou. A key component is the notion of harmony, which involves basing design on customer need. Context, or putting people's particular circumstances, such as if they are using a mobile, at the centre of design is another. Having a sense of flow, or chi, which translates online as being dynamic and continually innovating, is the third element. The other key principles include being seamlessly connected, aesthetically pleasing and sustainable.
You could argue that, from a digital design perspective, much of this seems like common sense. Zou would not disagree: "It sounds obvious because it resonates, but many people haven't really incorporated it into their businesses."
Many big brands already use some feng shui principles, whether they know it or not. Digital design experts cite Apple, Amazon, Nike, and Starbucks among them.
Anthony Long, principal technology and marketing practice lead at Harrison Group Ventures, a consulting firm in Chicago, is another proponent and practitioner of feng shui in digital design. He says: "As a large company, Apple presents itself consistently online and in its stores in a way that seems to employ many elements of feng shui. The Apple brand seems to embody clarity and precision, ease and abundance."
Zou maintains that PC brands lagged behind Apple because they didn't understand the importance of the connected experience, a key principle in feng shui.
Nonetheless, feng shui is rarely referenced in the context of the digital or tech world. "There is that sense of misperception and myth around feng shui, so that even though brands are applying its principles, they are not explicit about it," Zou says.
It doesn't help that feng shui is often dismissed as unsubstantiated and superstitious and still suffers from its association in the west with 1990s interior design trends. Also, in the digital world it could be seen as just another way to describe user-centric design, an approach grounded in information about the people who use a product.
"People don't understand the underlying principles, philosophy and science of feng shui," Boz Zou says, adding: "Feng shui is actually way beyond user-centric design. It's holistic design … blending ancient wisdom with modern design thinking."
Neel Banerjee, a Singapore-based customer experience and loyalty specialist, believes the digital community should work to change perceptions of feng shui. "Feng shui certainly needs the support of trained, experienced designers, those in the creative arts, as well as brand marketers and consumers," he says.
Perceptions improve markedly when the approach is backed up with numbers, according to Matt Dooley, the managing director at digital agency Connected Thinking and former head of digital experience for HSBC's global commercial banking division.
"Everything can be measured with digital," Dooley says. "There are many examples of an increase in visitors, registrations, downloads, completed tasks and sales. At HSBC we simply moved the location of a 'buy' button to increase sales by 300 per cent."
And the benefits of feng shui in the digital world are not limited to big corporations – we can all use some elements of feng shui to declutter our lives online, apparently.
You can start by decluttering your social media presence, only sharing information with people you trust, using cleaner designs in your blogs and tools that aggregate content that matters to you, Banerjee advises, adding: "This will help make us productive and positive, our lives more meaningful, and perhaps even encourage us to spend more time in the real world with real people who matter."
Anne Cassidy is a freelance journalist.
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