2020

5G will disrupt product design. Here’s what you need to know

4 min read
Tom Lucido  •  Feb 19, 2020
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Getting separated from friends at music festivals is as common as the scene’s flower crowns and dudes with too many bracelets. Maybe your friend was too embarrassed to admit they just had to catch the end of the Calvin Harris set, and simply slipped away through the crowd. Or perhaps you didn’t hear them say they were leaving over Big Sean’s bass. Either way, it’s getting dark now and you’d love to make sure they’ll soon be back to the safety of your five-star luxury tent from Walmart, without them slipping in the mud and shattering an ulna. You could text them—if it weren’t for 30,000 attendees updating their Instagram stories, gobbling up those precious service bars.

While this may just be a fun festival anecdote, at its core is a story about our current technology’s limitations. At present, cellular data service needs often exceed the technical capabilities available to users. If you look at your phone right now, there’s a good chance that you’ll see you’re connected to 3G or 4G LTE, today’s standard with a constricted bandwidth.

But pretty soon that’s going to be a thing of the past. Enter 5G, the fifth-generation mobile network. While hailed as a faster and more reliable cell service, it will also catapult us into the next generation of mobile technology, revolutionizing the way the world connects yet again. But on the backend, it will also require designers to rethink how products are built and offer opportunities for innovation.

5G is the next step in the evolution of connectivity

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s lay down the groundwork (and level our expectations.)

Its precursors include…

1G: Voice-only analog connections, first available to the public in the 1980s. It’s the technology that enabled some of Zach Morris’ more famous hijinx.

2G: Added data services to the mix, including SMS on 9 keys, and later, some basic pre-installed apps. Gr8 stuff. ILY T9!

3G: Increased bandwidth paved the way for much more advanced features, products, and devices. There’s an app for that.

4G: A network that, by definition, provides really fast speeds (100mbps.) Since most providers can’t actually reach that speed, they usually offer “4G LTE.” This essentially means “we’re faster than 3G, but can’t quite hit 100mbps.”

And that brings us to 5G. While a few networks launched tests in 2019 (including T-Mobile’s technically-true-but-not-fully-baked “nationwide 5G coverage”), it’s still under development and likely won’t be released until later in 2020 at least. While we won’t be able to play with and fully unlock its potential until then, we can start planning for it in the meantime.

Why is 5G so badass?

For one thing, it leverages three different radio spectrums to optimize for speed and reliability. At the highest spectrum is the millimeter-wave, the frequency catching most of the headlines. You can think of it like WiFi, but like WoahFi: super-fast data transmission limited to a small radius from the antennae. For greater range, the network piggybacks mid- and low-band frequencies, trading speed for coverage, even into remote areas.

In the years to come, service providers will expand their networks across each of these to pack a mean punch into performance.

#allofthespeed

The millimeter-wave is predicted to provide between 1.8Gb and 20 Gb of data per second. That’s somewhere between 5-30x faster than the average connection your phone probably has right now.

#allofthepower

If you think of bandwidth like a car’s top speed, then “latency” is its 0-60 time. 5G latency times are expected to be 10-100x lower (faster) than today.

#alloftheconnections

By leveraging all three spectrums, more devices will be able to connect to a single antenna simultaneously—as many as 100x more.

In short, it has the potential to be more powerful by orders of magnitude.

So what does this mean for design?

“Once you have a network this sophisticated and advanced, all that storage, boost, high gear – you don’t need a big, bulky device. When you have this fast speed, no latency, you begin to think differently about the entire architecture of what kind of devices (and products) you design.” – Randall Stephenson, CEO AT&T

We can expect incredible new experiences with 5G, but it’s hard to predict what they’ll be until its full power has been unleashed. So, to start, let’s imagine a world where designers, developers, and product managers have some of their biggest limitations removed.

Starting small, there are times today when designers need to consider, say, how much an animated transition will slow down a product. At the higher ends of 5G, this wouldn’t even be a problem.

As richer user flows become more commonplace, our interaction with products and the stories they tell will evolve. Think about how dialog changed when we added emojis to our messages, or directions to nearly any place on earth were made instantly available. Consider how our lives have changed each decade since 1G’s inception.

For instance, the gargantuan bandwidth limits of 5G enable extraordinarily rich experiences. If our devices easily stream YouTube today, what might we stream when we have 100x (or 500x or 1000x) more bandwidth? Might music festivals become obsolete altogether? Why crowd together in the rain or heat, when we can all experience a “front row” 360-degree view from our living rooms? Your friend could “leave” to see Calvin Harris without getting off the couch.

The network’s near-zero latency can truly connect across time and space. The good news for your friend who, it turns out, did in fact shatter their ulna (ouch), is not only might they be able to receive medical advice through a Teladoc service, the remote doctor may be able to even leverage 3D scanning and AI to determine details about the injury before leaving the festival grounds. It might even be possible for a doctor to control a surgical robot in real time a continent away, reacting and critically adjusting as if they were at the operating table.

The possibilities are endless. 

There is still time before we see 5G at full throttle. Infrastructure will have to be built, devices upgraded, concerns about cancer quashed. But make no mistake, many of the regions that enjoy 3G and 4G today will have their service supercharged in the years to come. And it will redefine digital experiences, perhaps more than anything since its inception. Thus teams can—and must—start to innovate in new ways.

With that in mind, we’ll need to examine how accessibility will factor into its benefits, too. With radical technological changes, of course, comes a risk of ostracising communities and individuals without the means to adopt due to financial, geographical, or other limitations. This will be a key consideration in 5G innovations: How can we use this technology to improve the lives of everyone? What are some conversations we can have now so DEI considerations make it into the infrastructure rather than having to be retrofitted? A small, but poignant example: Consider how the Iowa caucus might have played out differently if not for the debacle with unreliable mobile connections in rural areas. This was a case where innovative thinking ran ahead of the actual technical realities of its users. While we won’t have any answers to “How?” at this point, it should be top of mind as we explore our options of what is even possible.

And again, I’m getting ahead of myself: For now, at least, while we still live in a 4G world make sure you and your friends have a meetup plan before the show starts.

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