Image of the interface for an app Patricia Reiners is creating for the Alexa assistant Image of the interface for an app Patricia Reiners is creating for the Alexa assistant

Into the Future with Patricia Reiners

By Brendan Seibel

Adobe Creative Resident Patricia Reiners is a UX/UI designer living in Berlin. She calls her residency focus "Future Cities," and it includes new technologies like augmented reality, voice control, and  artificial intelligence, and how they might change interfaces and the way we design. She focuses on the areas of smart living, new work, and mobility.

However, technology is not the driving force behind her work. “What I find so inspiring and interesting about UX design is that the human being is in the center,” Reiners says. “You’re trying to find the perfect solution for the human.”

Image of Patricia Reiners

Click above to watch a video of Patricia Reiners. She is imagining how people will live in the future and designing conceptual apps to meet those needs. She’s also taking advantage of the residency to research emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and voice interaction.

The residency gives Reiners the time and space to hunt for patterns and some fundamental rules that underpin good interactive design. She wants to find ways to streamline the app-building process and share her research with the UX/UI world. Ultimately, her work is about solving problems to help people. Design is and always will be about problem-solving.

“If you’re not solving a problem, then the design is not that good,” she says.

The concept apps that Reiners is creating during her residency envision a world of fully integrated technology; for example, in the future, apartments may have mobile interior walls that people can arrange and control through her Fluent Floor Plans app. The apartment adjusts to the occasion, which could be a dinner with friends, work, or weekend guests.

When Veggies Fly

For her first Future Cities project, Reiners thought about increasing urbanization and how already limited space will become rarer. She thought about the ecological and systemic impact of population shifts from the countryside to the cities. She thought about lifestyle trends and how they might evolve. She thought about food, and then she looked up.

For the Flying Veggies app concept, Reiners analyzed the ecological and systemic impact of population shifts from the countryside to the cities. "Urban gardening is not only as a lifestyle trend, but a way to feel more connected to your environment," she notes. "Combining both trends opens new possibilities and ways to shape the future."

Flying Veggies is a concept app designed in Adobe XD that turns the wasted space of rooftops into fully automated urban farms tended by drones. The whole process is automated, and users can decide what and when they want to grow. They can check their phones to see which vegetables are ready to harvest, what’s ripening soon, and ways to share their bounty.

"If you think about rooftops, it’s kind of dangerous to go up and garden there yourself,” she says. “You need spaces where people can walk, where they get water, where they can climb up and down. But if everything is automated by drones or some kind of robotics, then you have space to grow even more things, and the work can be done during the night because robotics don't require light.”

After sketching out early interface ideas, Reiners wanted to learn what people would need from an app like Flying Veggies, and how she might fulfill those needs. She found out by conducting research: asking potential users open-ended questions. “I was talking to people about what they think about urban farming, if they already did urban farming,” she says. “Where are they buying their fruits and vegetables? Is it important for them to grow it themselves, where it comes from? Do they have different routines? Then I was thinking about the features, the requirements, and what should be important in integrating those apps.”

Using her original sketches as a guide, Reiners incorporated what she had learned through subsequent research and feedback to build wireframes of the Flying Veggies structure. Every artboard would become a screen, each connected by pathways dictating the next screen users would see when clicking through for more information. “After I think about the information architecture, then I think about the home screen, and what screens I can go to from the home screen," she says. "That overview is especially helpful when you have a really big app.”

Flying Veggies prioritizes information based on what users want. On the home screen, you see what you can eat right now and what will be ready for eating tomorrow. Another interesting feature is the ability to track growth and water-usage rates. “It's important to think about the whole structure from the very beginning,” Reiners says.

Adobe XD allows Reiners to easily share prototypes and design specs with other stakeholders, and to tailor what she shares to suit a client, a developer, or a tester. “It's awesome if you’re working with clients or you’re working remotely,” she says. “You can send links to different versions, some for clients, some for people who are reviewing it. They can write little notes on it: 'What does this button mean; I don’t understand this.' It’s super important.”

She tests prototypes early and often, preferably with real users. “Give a prototype to someone, assign them a task, and then watch them do it,” she says. “You find out super interesting things, and the earlier you do this the more insights you’ll have.”

When she’s designing for clients, Reiners usually relies on brand-specific typographies and color schemes for the user interface. But for her own creations, such Flying Veggies, she usually starts with a mood board that helps her maintain a consistent look and feel. On the mood board, she says, “I think about how the app should feel, how it should behave,” she says. “For Flying Veggies, I knew it should feel like I’m growing a garden myself. The whole automation thing is not something people want to feel in the app, so I put the focus on the vegetables and get this natural look.”

Once the aesthetic is nailed down, it’s time to begin to design the user interface in Adobe XD. “I use the wireframes I designed earlier as guidelines, and then I think about how the screen will look with the design,” she says. Reiners uses Adobe XD's Assets Panel to create a design library, where she arranges and stores her components. “You build your own library and you already have the background, the buttons, those kind of things,” she says. “So even UX people who don’t have a visual design background can use those libraries.”

Balancing an app's look and function can be a challenge. Some basic rules of thumb apply to almost every app. “Users understand color coding, so we generally have rules for different colors," she says. “For example, things that are clickable are always one color, and the user will understand the rule immediately. It doesn’t have to be blue—it could be orange or red—although of course, you have to take into account existing color conventions; for example, red usually means something went wrong, and green means something went well.”

Sometimes the best graphic is one that moves. Users can’t see the incremental growth happening in their garden by looking at a picture, but a simple animation expresses change easily and immediately. “A user wouldn't see the difference between a carrot that is thirty days old and thirty-one days old,” says Reiners. “But when the user clicks on the vegetable within the app and the detail view of the vegetable opens, then the vegetable grows.”

Let's Talk Technology

Befitting someone who envisions a future where drones tend rooftop gardens, Reiners is also delving into emerging voice interaction technology. She brainstormed scenarios where voice interaction could help people with occupied hands, such as talking someone through a guitar lesson or offering sewing instruction. She began to focus on cooking.

“There's an Adobe XD feature that lets you prototype things on Alexa devices,” Reiners says.

“I did a lot of research,” she says. “I watched people cook. I divided the process into stages: recipe selection, preparation, beginning to cook, mid-cooking, end of cooking, eating, and cleaning up. Then I looked at the specific needs in each of those stages. What are people feeling? What are the failures? What are people thinking and doing at those specific times? I was looking for app requirements and what information users would need. Then I thought about features.”

Voice interaction is still a relatively new technology that poses many unresolved questions. Reiners wonders how integrating voice commands will impact the way that apps are designed and how designers will adjust UIs to suit this new way of interacting with devices. But she knows there’s great potential that stands to benefit so many people.

“Many people have not been included in the digital revolution at all,” she says. “The visually impaired, the older generations. Voice interaction includes almost everyone, which is why I’m so interested in it. It is the next revolution.”

App design and development is usually a group effort. Reiners believes that the interplay of ideas makes for a better app. It’s also more fun than working alone.

“I especially enjoy presenting ideas to clients and colleagues. You get feedback, you ping-pong ideas.”

Giving Future Designers a Helping Hand

Reiners hasn't always been focused on UX/UI. She originally studied graphic design at university and only decided to change paths after an internship with an advertising agency soured her on the industry. “I had to learn a lot of things myself,” she says. “I started with challenges, hackathons, teaching myself how to do things by watching tutorials, creating my own projects.” Today she’s paying it forward with tutorials and instructional Instagram videos, and she’s started a podcast interviewing cutting-edge UX designers.

Click to watch this sample of Reiners' helpful videos.

“I really had a tough time getting started in UX, getting my first job,” she says. “I learned everything the hard way, and I know that there are people out there struggling still. I get a lot of messages from people asking me how to get started in UX, what kind of resources they should use. And yeah, I think it could’ve been easier for me as well so I want to give something back to people who are just starting out.”