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A column by Janet M. Six
August 23, 2016

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses some UX trends that have surprised them—because of either their success or failure—or trends they find just plain silly. Read on for their thoughts on personalization, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, skeuomorphism, and more. The panel also considers whether it’s a good idea to follow UX trends.

Every month in my column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, or research or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Gazelle; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist
  • Scott Weisman—Co-founder of LaunchPad Lab

Surprising UX Trends in 2016

Q: Now that we’re in the middle of 2016, what UX trends did you think were going to be popular this year, but fizzled? What new trends surprised you?—from a UXmatters reader

“I love this question because it lets me go back and look at predications for 2016 and chuckle a bit,” replies Baruch. “One big prediction that has not yet materialized for those of us working in the enterprise space is personalization. While personalization is very appropriate for the consumer world, it’s less so in the enterprise space because companies need a design that is consistent and contextually relevant. Being able to report on and get metrics from your user base is important. Plus, providing a consistent experience within an enterprise is deemed a big factor in an application’s success.

“While the single-page application is not a new trend, the success of this concept continually surprises me. Not the technical aspects—for which there are pros and cons, but the user experience. Even when it’s done well, the experience of a single-page application is rather jarring and unnatural because the steps necessary to complete a process are less obvious. In my experience, users seem to feel this way about single-page applications, but this approach is very much in favor with UX designers.”

Artificial Intelligence

“In the past year or so, user interfaces based on artificial intelligence have become not only much more prevalent in consumer applications, they’re also becoming more and more effective and useful for the public,” answers Cory. “Just a year ago, my youngest daughter—who was nine at the time—said Hello to her computer and was stunned to get back this eschatological response: ‘Okay. Here are some pictures of hell.’ Sure, this capability is still experiencing some growing pains, but we’ve really begun to see some significant leaps.”

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Virtual Reality

“The other trend I’ve been rather stunned by is how augmented reality has gone from something that, at best, we thought about only theoretically to what is now the norm,” continues Cory. “With the advent and recent success of Pokémon Go, I suspect we’ll soon see more augmented-reality applications—especially beyond the gaming realm.”

“Like many people, I thought virtual reality would be a big trend in 2016,” responds Scott. “I’ve had some great conversations with companies looking to build VR experiences. But the technology is still new, and it’s expensive. Mass adoption will probably take a number of years. I have been surprised by how quickly Pok√©mon Go has spread. Such surprises show just how hard it is to predict trends accurately. But I think we’ll see a lot more of these VR-like experiences in the future that don’t necessarily use actual VR technology.”

Silly UX Design Trends

Q: Have there been some UX trends that you think are just plain silly?—from a UXmatters reader

“One example of a silly trend is automatically playing the full-screen, hero videos some sites have taken to putting at the top of their home pages,” answers Adrian. “Whenever these have figured in usability tests, the reactions I’ve seen from participants have varied from apathy to annoyance. I’ve organized A/B tests, pitting such video versions of home pages against home pages that present relevant copy and calls to action, and the video versions have always performed much, much worse. I have no idea why people think these videos are a good idea.”

Hiding Key Menu Options on Mobile Phones

“When the design priority is to fit all necessary functions onto smaller mobile screens, so many designers hide key menu options on mobile Web sites and apps—often behind the mysterious hamburger icon,” replies Cory. “It’s certainly true that some savvy users always or at least often notice hamburger icons. But, during usability testing, I’ve pretty consistently seen that a large number of frequent mobile users still miss these hidden options. Maybe it’s true that, one day, everyone will get used to the hamburger icon, but for the moment, making sure key options are readily visible is a very good idea!”

Nagging Users

“There’s a trend to nag users that has really gotten out of hand,” remarks Scott. “You know, those annoying messages or popups that seem to appear on every site. They often use some silly language for opting out—for example, ‘No, I don’t want to save money today.’ There’s a clear line between offering a helpful user experience and annoying users. These messages remind me of the all-too-eager sales clerk at a department store. Of course, I want someone to be close-by if I have a question, but I don’t need someone to ask whether I need help every two minutes.”

Skeuomorphism

“I was so happy when skeuomorphism went away,” answers Warren. “But I wouldn’t necessarily say this design trend was silly. If you look at skeuomorphism from the perspective of its place in time, having widgets look like things in the real world could help users feel comfortable and orient them when they are first using a system. However, giving everything bevels, shading, texture, and drop shadows or making something look like what it’s not is kind of silly. I have always been a big fan of flat design—and have struggled in deflecting many requests to ‘Put some shading on it.’ Go flat or go home!”

“I think the flat-2.0 concept—the gussied up war between advocates of flat design and not-so-flat design and all-out defenders of skeuomorphism—is just plain silly and really detracts from the core of user experience,” asserts Baruch. “Visual design is very important, but there is no right or wrong here. Context is what is most important—and the process supporting that context. No one is going to care if you build a form that looks cool if they still have to submit it and wait a while to get an answer because the submission has to be routed. No one will care if your site looks slick visually, but users can’t actually cancel something so have to call. Those are the elements of user experience that we need to spend our energy on fixing—and doing so requires real business acumen. Spending time and energy on arguments about visual design relegates us to making things pretty—and that’s not what we want to focus on.”

Do Trends Even Matter?

“To be honest, I try not to pay attention to trends,” states Adrian. “Things that make an app or site superficially more attractive and are easy to copy tend to drive trends. Not what works well for users. Trends that come and go in a few months rather than years are ephemeral changes. So I try to steer clear!

“When the ice-hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was asked about his success, he famously said, ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.’

“Popular trends are—by definition—where the puck has been.”

What UX trends have surprised you? Please add your thoughts to the comments. 

Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixAs Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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