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Understanding Us: A New Frontier for User Experience

June 14, 2016

It’s a good time to be a seasoned UX professional. Software, the epicenter of User Experience practice, continues to expand into every nook and cranny of business. Salaries for senior UX people are competitive with those of our business colleagues, and most of the roles within the galaxy of User Experience are intellectually challenging and—in the right organization—are generally rewarding and contribute to a fine quality of life.

However, this comfortable state of affairs is going to change more quickly than we realize. Already, training programs such as General Assembly and Treehouse are flooding the job market with newly minted practitioners of User Experience. This influx of low-priced, albeit inexperienced, talent that is eager to take an entry-level position and get their career started, slows and even reverses wage growth for senior talent, while making jobs increasingly harder to come by.

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And, while software, the medium for User Experience, will continue to grow for the time being, the software user interface is ultimately on a terminal path. While software will continue to proliferate, user interfaces as we know them today will begin to fade away and eventually represent a minority of the total software experience. Voice interfaces, gestural interfaces, virtual interfaces, and even direct mind-to-machine interfaces will replace the screen as the dominant intermediary. While some of these new user-interface technologies will require a designed user experience, many others either won’t or their creation will require specialists in an explicit medium.


The net-net is that there is already downward pressure against near-term opportunities for UX professionals, a trend that will gain momentum as alternative and more natural computing interfaces replace the relatively static interaction models of the last 30 plus years. While thought leaders in User Experience espouse the discipline as being a holistic practice that operates well beyond the user interface, those of us on the front lines know that these ideals are sadly inconsistent with the realities of UX practice. User Experience is a discipline born from the software user interface, which has dominated our professional practice. As a result, the opportunities available to UX professionals are indeed under threat.


Emerging Technologies: The Next Frontier



However, the enterprising UX professional can benefit from this sturm und drang. We are in the nascent stages of the next big revolution in consumer technology. User Experience was a child of the personal computing revolution, the sprouts of which appeared in the 1970s, blossomed in the 1990s, and finally became a veritable jungle some 40 years later.


Today’s equivalent is a more complicated convergence of diverse technologies, encompassing such far-flung manifestations as cyborgism, robotics, synthetic biology, and custom manufacturing. What these have in common is some combination of complex domains such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, materials science, and life science. Crucially, they all require hardware, many require software, and—while the technology behind the software user interface is largely outside the user’s experience—in the new paradigm, the technology itself very often is the user interface.


This is truly a new frontier. As User Experience has matured in software, notably, it has not managed to cross over to hardware in any significant way. The design of hardware—traditionally the domain of industrial design, a profession with a head start of decades over the practice of User Experience—has long remained beyond the purview of User Experience.

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However, more recently, with the rise of the Internet of Things, the essential role of data and software in consumer hardware devices has enabled User Experience to make the crossover to hardware products. As the digital technology of the near future emerges, as we move into a world where machines go beyond being mere tools to become true actors alongside humans, User Experience appears poised to enjoy a more significant role in designing this very different reality.


Just as User Experience has struggled in trying to cross over into the design of hardware, which is the realm of industrial design, so industrial designers have failed to expand meaningfully into the design of software. Indeed, while UX professionals are digital natives, industrial designers more often focus on analog forms of technology.


Still, there is a catch: the upcoming wave of emerging technologies represents an unprecedented manifestation of cutting-edge science and engineering. Historically, design professions have coalesced around technologies when they have reached a certain stage of maturity, not in their earliest stages. The reason for this is simple: it is the inventors, scientists, and engineers who themselves design the early expressions of their vision. This has been equally true for early automobiles, early logo designs, and early software. For example, Photoshop’s engineering team was solely responsible for its design from 1988 until Adobe hired their first UX designer, Andrei Herasimchuk, in 1995. There is little reason to believe this emergent renaissance of technological achievement will be any different. In fact, it is doubly likely that the efforts of scientists and engineers will predominate because these new products require such a dizzying array of science and engineering.


In any event, the future of User Experience lies firmly in wondrous technology that has arisen from the minds of science-fiction writers. Our participation in the process of creating this magic will likely demand increased scientific or engineering knowledge. This may be exciting to you, or it may be terrifying. But the complex, integrated nature of these technologies will demand that we stretch our knowledge base into their complex foundations.


Of course, there is also another path…


Understanding Human Beings: The Higher Ground



To far less fanfare, we are in the midst of a modern, scientific revolution. In the last ten years, scientists have learned more about how human beings function than they had learned in the entire previous history of humanity. This recent research offers unprecedented clarity into how we think, why we behave the way we do, and the ways in which we can assist, influence, and optimize human behavior.


User Experience has its roots in a strong tradition of human factors, or ergonomics, a centuries-old field that, at the dawn of User Experience, emerged as human-computer interaction (HCI). While HCI dominated the early evolution of User Experience, it was later eclipsed by disciplines of creation such as various flavors of design and user-interface engineering, as opposed to academic research.


To be clear, research is one of the core pillars of User Experience, but it has taken a largely practical bent. Research techniques that are similar to those I learned in graduate-school sociology classes have combined with usability testing and other artifact-review methods, going far beyond the ergonomic origins of HCI. In contrast with the radically new, scientific learnings of the last decade, it is fair to say that User Experience is significantly behind where it should be in understanding the human animal. After all, the discipline is User Experience. However, as good as we’ve gotten at understanding how users interact with screen-based software, our broader understanding of human beings has remained frustratingly inert. The practicality and refinement of User Experience–related research efforts exist largely in the spheres of applied methods such as social science and product testing. To some extent, they miss the point, because the most valuable knowledge of all lies firmly in understanding ourselves.



So isn’t it convenient for UX professionals that, just as software is creeping toward a transition point, science is now understanding the human animal more deeply, learning more quickly and more accessibly than ever? Right here, right now, UX professionals have the opportunity to evolve into experts on the most fundamental context of all: ourselves, as human beings. Regardless of the products, experiences, and domains that people inhabit, they themselves are the one common denominator.


Even—and perhaps particularly—from the perspective of practical business applications, we need to build and exercise this knowledge. The fountainhead for our understanding of the human animal is a natural focus for UX research, and we can apply these insights across all of the touchpoints employees, customers, and shareholders encounter.


Okay, I’m Interested, But Where Do I Start?



In a word, with neuroscience, the scientific study of the nervous system. Neuroscience has emerged as the gravity well for the entire web of sciences that are concerned with the human brain. As goes the brain, so goes human behavior. As goes human behavior, so goes the user experience. Modern neuroscience tantalizingly offers new insights into how we think and why we behave as we do. It is far more than a static body of knowledge. The advances in neuroscience continue rapidly, seemingly in real time. These learnings are exciting, and the pace of advances in our understanding is positively exhilarating.


But, now, let’s slow down for a moment. Maybe we found our place in UX design for a reason. If you’re like me, one of the reasons might have been that you don’t particularly like learning science. Indeed, science was consistently one of my worst subjects in school. I was only too happy to focus on the humanities and take the bare minimum of science courses at university. So, on the surface, the idea of going deeply into neuroscience may appear wholly incompatible with who I am as both a person and a UX professional. But, in actual fact, this did not turn out to be the case.



When, in 2010, I made the commitment to make this decade a personal quest to understand the nature of human beings, I was energized by the trend toward popularizing science—that is, taking the key advances of science and presenting them in easily understandable and digestible forms for the non-scientist. This trend has manifested in books—the most traditional and still the most content-rich form of learning media—as well as more easily accessible short forms of content such as blogs and podcasts. There is a wealth of knowledge that, while it may not confer a degree, can give you a foundation in the knowledge that is necessary to become one of the pioneers who transform a modern understanding of science into a coherent, future practice of User Experience.


With this in mind—and keeping neuroscience firmly at the starting point—here are some recommended resources to get your education started.


Books



  • Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, by Mark F. Bear, Barry W. Connors, and Michael A. Paradiso. This trio of leading minds in neuroscience from MIT and Brown University have established this book as the standard, foundational overview of neuroscience. This is definitely the place to begin if you want to take a dive into the deep end. Fair warning: this is a big, thick textbook—although it was thoughtfully designed for accessibility and usability. 1,008 pages.

  • Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts, by Stanislas Dehaene. This book uses experimentation and modeling to bring to life theories and insights from two decades of neuroscience research. The book’s emphasis on experiments and their conclusions grounds its ideas. 352 pages.

  • Tales from Both Sides of the Brain, by Michael S. Gazzaniga. An important contributor to the growth of neuroscience during its nascent stages, Gazzaniga has written a book that is technically an autobiography, but one that communicates both maximal insights and lessons from the sciences and learnings that have made up his career, as well as from the patients and the contexts within which he made those connections. Designers and researchers will appreciate the book’s style and content. 448 pages.

  • The Future of the Mind, by Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist who has written a variety of books popularizing aspects of physics and modern science. This book explores recent research on the human brain and the ways in which that research translates into the development of realized or emergent technologies that evoke what, until recently, we’ve considered science fiction. 400 pages.

  • Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. A self-help book that synthesizes cutting-edge research with ancient wisdom, Buddha’s Brain offers insights into modern advances in neuroscience while also providing a playbook for applying these methods to become better people. 251 pages.

  • Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfield. Acting as a counterbalance to the other neuroscience books on this list, this is a critique of popular, modern neuroscience that attacks some specific methods and conclusions, while generally pleading for research and the interpretation and application of that research to slow down and be more circumspect. 256 pages.


Blogs



  • BrainBlogger.com—A treasure trove of content from a mix of scientists and medical doctors, offering original analysis and content with the feel of a more formal publication.

  • mindblog.DericBownds.net—This has a somewhat small-potatoes-blog feel, but its frequent posts are interesting. The author is a retired professor of brain science who weaves the content into active life and culture in a conversational way.

  • Mindhacks.com—Robust, regular updates include both original content and smart roundups of relevant links. At least some of the contributors are scientists, including those who authored the book Mind Hacks back in 2004.

  • Neuroskeptic blog at Discover Magazine—This blog gets multiple updates each week, almost all of them including original commentary—even when the main thrust of a post is to provide a pointer to other publications.

  • Neurologica blog on theness.com—This blog describes the application of neuroscience to popular topics and frequently delves into controversial topics such as politics.

  • PsyBlog at spring.org.uk—With more of a psychology focus, this blog overlaps massively with neuroscience at this point in the evolution of the fields. Updates are frequently on topics that pertain to daily life.


Podcasts



  • Human Tech—Co-hosted by Dr. Susan Weinschenk, who applies brain science to user experience and design, this show focuses on the relationship between science, technology, and the impact technology has on our brains.

  • Brain Matters—This podcast has a particularly scientific take on neuroscience that frames interviews with notable scientists.

  • The Psychology Podcast—Scott Barry Kaufman, who studied under Herb Simon, interviews a different expert on brain science and behavior in each episode.

  • All in the Mind—This podcast examines far-flung topics relating to the mind and consistently gets updated weekly.

  • Smart Drug Smarts—Each show looks at a different take on getting smarter, ranging from early childhood development to a variety of adult contexts. The podcasts periodically include expert interviews.

  • You Are Not So Smart—Focusing on fallacies and biases, the host interviews brain scientists to explore diverse, specific topics.

  • Neuroscientists Talk Shop—Interviews of neuroscientists, by neuroscientists. The shoptalk can sometimes get a little bit insider oriented, but the content is strong. Unfortunately, it seems to be on hiatus.


Videos


Braincraft.tv—A light, entertaining, but educational video series from PBS that is hosted by the charismatic Vanessa Hill.


Courses


Fundamentals of Neuroscience Course, HarvardX Program—A really slick, well-done course, this attains the level of real—albeit lightweight—education. For a free resource, this is an incredible course. Taking it is a no-brainer for those willing to invest the time and effort.


Enjoy the ride! 

Founder and CEO of Involution Studios LLC

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Dirk KnemeyerSince 2004, Dirk has led Involution Studios, a software design consultancy whose clients include Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, McAfee, and Yahoo! Dirk’s leadership contributions to the business and design community are prolific. He has authored more than 100 articles, delivered more than 50 speeches and presentation around the world, and participated on 10 Boards of Directors for corporations and non-profit organizations, including the International Institute for Information Design (IIID), American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Center for Brand Experience, and User Experience Network (UXnet). Prior to founding Involution, Dirk was Chief Design Officer at Thread Inc. His diverse professional background also includes time as a management consultant, specializing in change management; an advertising executive, leading brand strategy and marketing for international corporations; and a design director. His work has won myriad awards for creative excellence, crossing various media, including the Web, television, print, and multimedia. Dirk earned a Master of Arts from the prestigious Popular Culture program at Bowling Green.  Read More

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