Trends in User Experience

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A column by Janet M. Six
December 17, 2012

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss emerging trends in user experience. As 2012 ends, it’s a good time to consider what the future of user experience might bring—in terms of both cultural shifts that impact UX professionals and UX design trends.

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

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

  • Paul Bryan—Lead UX Consultant at UX Strategy Partners
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; UX Strategy and Design Consultant; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • David Kozatch—Principal at DIG
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director of Human Factors Design at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Q: What do you believe are the coming trends in user experience?—from a UXmatters reader

Cultural Shifts

Our experts have identified a number of shifts in corporate culture that may change the role of user experience within organizations and the way we work with our peers in other disciplines.

The Emergence of UX Strategy

“One of the biggest trends currently unfolding is the emergence of UX strategy as a specialty in the field of user experience. For about the last dozen years, UX strategy has been a big part of my work, but I hadn’t always referred to it as such. In 2006, attending two conferences—both of which I reviewed for UXmatters—prompted me to start consistently using the term UX strategy to describe the strategic aspects of my work:

“As a UX specialty, UX strategy is now getting traction in both the UX community and the organizations for whom UX professionals work. In January 2011, Paul Bryan established the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn, which now boasts 4,276 members. In January 2012, Paul began writing his UX Strategy column for UXmatters. In 2013, Paul will launch the first UX Strategy Conference, which will take place in Atlanta.

“Over the years, UXmatters has published a lot of great content on UX strategy. Here is a list of the most popular UXmatters articles on UX strategy topics, from the UXmatters Top 100 in our Google Analytics rankings:

  1. Design Is a Process, Not a Methodology,’ by Pabini Gabriel-Petit
  2. Great User Experiences Require Great Front-End Development,’ by Jim Nieters, Amit Pande, and Uday M. Shankar
  3. Integrating UX into Agile Development,’ an Ask UXmatters column, by Janet M. Six
  4. 7 Ingredients of a Successful UX Strategy,’ by Paul Bryan
  5. Audience Segmentation Models,’ by Steve Baty
  6. Sharing Ownership of UX,’ by Pabini Gabriel-Petit
  7. Selling UX,’ by By Daniel Szuc, Paul J. Sherman, and John S. Rhodes
  8. Communicating Customer and Business Value with a Value Matrix,’ by Richard F. Cecil
  9. UX Roles in Organizations,’ part of an Ask UXmatters column, by Janet M. Six
  10. Design Thinking,’ part of an Ask UXmatters column, by Janet M. Six
  11. Strategy06: A UX Professional's Experience of the Conference,’ by Pabini Gabriel-Petit
  12. The Rise of Cross-Channel UX Design,’ by Tyler Tate
  13. What Does a UX Strategist Do?’ by Paul Bryan”

“For the past decade, user experience has been primarily a design and development process led by talented individuals who bring best practices to bear on design problems,” says Paul. “As user experience matures, it will become more closely aligned with business strategy—so the same priorities that drive the business will guide UX design. Instead of producing designs and deliverables to meet business requirements, UX professionals will collaborate with business strategists to co-create solutions that successfully engage customers and exceed competitive offerings. This expansion will require some learning on the part of UX professionals, who must gain literacy in the business drivers that cause their companies to succeed or fail in the marketplace.

“The days of the UX team dreaming up new designs and churning out creative deliverables within its own walls are over. It started with the transformation from waterfall development processes to agile development, which took UX professionals from the comfy confines of a creative UX team and transplanted them in cross-functional teams that are driven by an IT-centric development process.

“If the membership of the UX Strategy and Planning group on LinkedIn is any indication, product development, research, and even marketing professionals will be reaching out to UX teams for support, guidance, and collaboration. At first, this may seem threatening, because there will be a need to trim back redundant processes, and we’ll need to resolve conflicts of ownership. But UX teams will also have the benefit of being exposed to very different, yet complementary views of the problem spaces they’re dealing with, along with new approaches and tools for finding innovative solutions.”

Our Role As UX Professionals

“I think the biggest trend will be the dropping of the U from UX,” replies Jordan. “The term user is getting old. It made sense ten years ago, when everyone thought UX would never move beyond HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), IxD (Interaction Design), IA (Information Architecture), and usability. But UX professionals are now dealing with experiences that span multiple screens—sometimes even invisible interfaces—for users who are constantly connected and have massive social networks. Experience design already extends beyond the computer and the Internet, so it’s just a matter of time before we stop thinking of everyone as a user and start thinking about framing UX roles to speak to what UX professionals actually do. I think there will be a rise in experience strategists, experience architects, experience designers, and so on.”

“As might seem natural for the Editor in Chief of UXmatters, I care passionately about using optimal language to describe who we are and what we do as UX professionals,” counters Pabini. “For more than ten years now, I’ve heard the same argument that Jordan had just made regarding the use of the term user experience, or UX. Yet, the term is still in prevalent use. We’ve even expanded its application—for example, to UX strategy. Considering the name of this magazine, you might guess that I’m pretty committed to the term UX. Without the U for users, there is no UX. As UX professionals, we have enough difficulty communicating our role without changing the terminology we use to describe what we do and causing unnecessary confusion in people’s minds. Consistency matters.

“In the context of describing our role, neither experience nor X stands on its own in any meaningful way. So, if we were to drop the term user, we’d need to either come up with another adjective to precede experience, or the X that represents it in UX, or use it to modify some other noun. Can you think of a word that would even approach universal applicability?

“In my mind, the differentiation between the terms user experience, customer experience, and experience design is all about domain. If we’re designing applications—regardless of platform—or hardware user interfaces, we’re doing it for users. If we’re designing corporate Web sites and, especially, ecommerce sites, we’re doing it for customers. I’ve always used the term experience design only when referring to real-world experiences like museum experiences or theme-park experiences or dining experiences.

In recent years, there is a change afoot, and that’s the evolution of the design of cross-channel experiences—for which the term experience design seems a decent fit. But I’m uncomfortable with taking user or customer out of the terms we use to describe what we do, because our users and customers are where our focus belongs. So, I prefer the term customer experience design when referring to the design of cross-channel experiences across all of an organization’s touchpoints with its customers.”

“The most exciting and liberating trend that will impact the world of UX professionals—other than rapidly evolving technology—will be the opportunity to expand integration points with other professional disciplines and usage contexts,” answers Paul. “One specific area of integration that comes to mind is with Customer Experience. Over 2011 and 2012, Customer Experience was elevated to the C-suite, as many large companies appointed a Chief Customer Officer or Customer Experience Officer. In a lot of these companies, such appointments occurred independently from or tangentially to the User Experience teams within a company. But it won’t take long for companies with a significant digital footprint to realize that they can address many customer experience issues using processes with which User Experience teams are already very familiar. After a few success stories, they will realize that UX leaders not only have the tools to solve customer experience problems, they also have rational approaches for developing vision and establishing priorities at the front-end of any program.”

“Unfortunately, many organizations have Customer Experience groups that are completely separate from the UX groups to which UX professionals belong,” responds Pabini. “Like Paul, I hope this unnatural bifurcation will cease to exist. To develop truly user-centered or customer-centered experiences, an entire organization needs to be aligned behind that goal. UX professionals have highly developed customer-centric sensibilities and the skills necessary to design great cross-channel customer experiences. Excluding them from Customer Experience is madness. As more UX professionals broaden their purview to comprehend or even focus on UX strategy, enabling their organizations to advance their business goals by fulfilling customer needs, I hope that the integration of user experience and customer experience will become inevitable.”

Global Collaboration Across Design and Development

“Another big trend will be the rise of global collaboration,” asserts Jordan. “The field of user experiences has grown really fast over the last five years. This meant there was a vacuum of qualified UX professionals for a couple years, which attracted many under-qualified people from related fields who are burning through job after job, trying to learn as they go. The saddest part of this is that, because user experience is still new to many people, companies rely on under-qualified people to hire UX talent, and they don't have the skills to separate qualified UX professionals from those who are unqualified. Unfortunately, many won’t figure out that they have unqualified UX professionals on their team until something big goes wrong, or they ask UX professionals to explain their rationale for their design recommendations.

“Since over the past few years, many companies have been victimized by unqualified UX professionals, they are making big investments in collaboration tools. People have started realizing that to get the best talent, they have to look outside their neighborhood and expand their search to include anyone, anywhere. With tools like Notable, Google Hangouts, Skype, Dropbox, and Basecamp in the collaboration space, qualified UX professionals no longer need to be in physical proximity to their teams to have close collaboration. I predict that having a remote UX expert or a pool of remote experts, who can jump in on projects at the drop of a hat, will become the norm over the next five years.”

Design Trends

Our experts also see some emerging design trends.

Responsive Web Design

“Responsive Web design is one of the most exciting trends in application and site design today,” replies Pabini. “The power of responsive Web design lets us design and deliver optimal user experiences for a range of specific devices, as well as different screen resolutions and browser viewport sizes, and display information that is appropriate to different devices, contexts, and states. Thus, can tailor our UX designs to specific devices, while at the same time achieving economies of scale.”

“Most UX teams design and develop digital interfaces for use on computers and mobile devices,” states Paul. “Increasingly, we’ll need to integrate users’ real-world situations into user interfaces. For example, user interfaces will need to track conditions to provide the correct options to users, which will change when conditions change. Today, we’re challenged by the need to achieve responsive design across devices, but we’ll also need to create responsive designs that change according to states.”

Designing for Touchscreens

“Touchscreen user interfaces will continue to influence non-touchscreen user experiences,” answers David. “In Windows 8, Microsoft made a bold move by releasing the same OS for both mouse and touchscreen interactions. Apple’s most recent iPad runs iOS, which they developed specifically for touchscreens. Not only does Windows 8 look like it’s running on a touchscreen device, it behaves like it is, rejecting a number of familiar mouse-driven conventions. For example, right-click menu options no longer appear close to the area a user has clicked, and what were single-click operations now require several clicks. What this means won’t become clear until next year: Will Microsoft force users to change years-long habits and expectations for their mouse-driven user experiences? Or will Microsoft have to create a PC-based version of the new OS to simplify mouse-driven tasks?

“This new OS represents a major shift in how most of the world will interact with notebook and desktop computers. Apple gets the hype, but not the market share. Whatever happens, the design of touchscreen interfaces will continue to drive the design and development of mouse-driven user interfaces. The challenge for UX professionals will be to create user experiences that work seamlessly across all platforms. But it’s looking like the starting point will be to design for touchscreens, then build out from there.”

Designing for Multiple Platforms

“An increased focus on making user experience a key part of an organization’s 360-degree customer experience” is another evolving trend that David sees. “With virtually all major companies relying on customer interactions across multiple platforms—smartphone, PC, tablet—they’re focusing more attention and spending more money on delivering online user experiences. The growth of mobile especially has made senior executives appreciate the importance of user experience in delivering an all-around customer experience—for marketing, branding, and sales interactions. This trend will continue with the growth of mobile.”

The Impacts of a Demographic Shift on Design

“A significant demographic shift is occurring, with young, tech-savvy customers maturing and beginning to represent the majority of dollars spent on goods and services across all consumer categories,” says David.

As younger and more-tech savvy customers represent an increasing market share, I strongly agree that this demographic shift will greatly affect user experience. This new generation has grown up with very progressive and fast-changing technology:

  • iPods to carry their music anywhere—and customize the order and combination of tracks on their playlists
  • texting to say anything to anyone, at any time
  • Facebook and other social media sites to connect with whomever they want and share a multitude of information
  • and—maybe most important—an expectation of customizable user experiences

Members of this market segment know exactly what they want, and they expect to get it. Increasingly, what one customer wants will be different from the next. The challenge for UX professionals is to give a highly customizable experience to each user, while at the same time providing a highly branded experience.

Moving to the Cloud

CDs and maybe even flash drives will soon become technological oddities as data moves inexorably to the cloud. Data will become more centralized, while individual experiences will be ever more distributed and different for each customer. This is quite a change from the previous trends in which data was distributed and customer experiences were virtually the same worldwide.


“Whenever I see questions about UX trends these days, I just know that people are going to think about things like mobile and social,” replies Baruch. “Then, you have to throw in responsive design as well. But I don’t view these things as trends per se. I view them as new opportunities and platforms for delivering user experiences that truly enable and excite people.

The trend in user experience design, as I see it, is a return to the simple. For so long, designers have fought against the growing tide of information that users supposedly need on a screen and have had to come up with ingenious ways of massaging that information so it doesn’t look so complicated.

When I look at the much-touted, new Windows 8 user interface and all of its ever-changing tiles, I don’t see UX genius. I see yet another attempt to simplify. The amount of information we must present is not going to go down; it is only going to increase. But, as UX professionals, we are having more of a say in what is truly important to display and how to display it. We have an incredible opportunity to shape the way people interact with and disseminate information. It is our background in user experience that allows us to be successful in achieving this. We certainly have to be aware of and consider new trends in display platforms, but most of all, we need to ensure that we are shaping our designs to deliver good user experiences, not allowing our designs to be shaped by them.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. 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.  Read More

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