The Next Big Thing in User Experience, Part 1

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A column by Janet M. Six
June 27, 2016

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, members of our expert panel begin their discussion on what they see as the next big thing in User Experience. Of course, our experts have divergent viewpoints and their vision for the future of User Experience varies, so we’ll discuss quite a few different future-focused topics across two parts. In Part 1, the topics under discussion include putting people first, customer experience and service design, and UX strategy. In Part 2, our experts will discuss several other leading-edge topics, including UX training, integrating new technologies into user experiences, and looking at the future of design for the Internet of Things, mobile, motion, and physical environments.

Every month in 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, user 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:

  • Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; Past President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Gazelle; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Caroline Jarrett—Owner and Director at Effortmark Limited; UXmatters columnist
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • David Kozatch—Principal at DIG
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook
  • Gavin Lew—Executive Vice President of User Experience at GfK
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience, at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist
  • Amanda Stockwell—VP of UX at 352 Inc.
  • Yury Vetrov—Head of UX at Mail.Ru
  • Jeremy Wilt—Lead Experience Architect at EffectiveUI

Q: What do you think will be the next big thing in User Experience?—from a UXmatters reader

“I love this question,” responds Jeremy. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about this one. I’ve been considering our movement away from screen-based thinking—I’m a huge fan of #NoUI—and I’m also looking at non-traditional problem-solving methods. These are more around culture change and how we approach complex, dynamic systems in the world today. The way we’ve been thinking about problems for the last few hundred years needs to change.”

“As technology advances, there is always going to be a next big technological thing,” answers Cory. “Over two decades, I’ve gotten to see the next big thing become the current hot technology a number of times. But ultimately, for our careers, it doesn’t really matter what the next big thing is. As a profession, User Experience will always have to stay on top of both gradual technological advances and not-so-gradual leaps. However, our UX methods will remain valuable. Sure, we always have to iterate and adapt and add new dimensions to what we do. This is what makes our UX careers so exciting! But I’d describe this more as a continual, ongoing process that lets us stay on top of our profession, as opposed to a leap into the next big thing.”

“One of the beauties of being in the field of User Experience is that we get to grow with whatever is new in the world and technology,” replies Amanda. “At one time, we focused on Web sites, then evolved to serve smartphones and tablets, then wearables and IoT, and on and on. But we’ve always used the same basic tool sets and techniques. I can’t even begin to guess what the world has in store for us next, but I’m sure that, whatever it is, those of us in User Experience will adapt our methods to accommodate whatever new challenges get thrown our way.”

“I see a new golden age for UX designers,” adds Yury. “But we have to understand that the commoditization of UX design for screens will require new, richer expertise from us. You have to learn, experiment, and get ready for a paradigm shift.”

Putting People First

“User Experience seems to go in cycles,” responds Caroline. “When I first started working in what we now call User Experience, we tended to focus mostly on systems for the workplace. If you look at the System Usability Scale (SUS), which is probably the most widely used questionnaire in User Experience, you’ll see that the questions are all couched in terms of the system—and some of the questions really make sense only in that context. For example, ‘I found the various functions in this system were well integrated.’

“At that time, I struggled to get clients to consider the usability of their paper forms—even though that was how most data arrived in organizations. The idea was that, if you made the systems usable for staff, the way the data arrived didn’t really matter—yet, the dominant costs in many organizations were around dealing with the problems poorly designed paper forms caused. Then, along came the Web, and our focus changed. Paper? Who cared? It was all about making Web sites easy to use. Now we started to ignore the needs of staff, too—after all, if the customers on the Web were self-serving, surely we wouldn’t need staff any more would we?

“It’s taken the best part of a couple of decades, but at last, we seem to have gotten used to the idea of the Internet. It’s a very useful technology, but it’s just technology. I’m lucky enough to work mostly with the Government Digital Service in the UK. Our Executive Director, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, recently published ”Where We’re At, and Where We’re Going,’ which included this statement: ‘It’s not about computers. The important thing that’s changing here isn’t the IT, it’s the people.’

“So what does that mean for our future?” continues Caroline. “It means

  • relentlessly focusing on users and their needs
  • understanding that users includes people in workplaces, as well as customers and citizens
  • bringing in all aspects of User Experience, including good old paper

“If users want to use it, let’s design it to work well—irrespective of whether it’s a new or old technology or whether it’s within or outside the workplace.”

“Hopefully—and this is just a wish—UX designers will be more sensitive to creating and testing polite user interfaces,” says David. “These are user interfaces that not only help the user accomplish a specific task, but strive for natural communication and interaction throughout. Our current test methods—for example, the SUS score—may not be up to the task, so they will need to change as well, so we can better understand how user interfaces make people feel and how they fit within their everyday lives.”

Customer Experience and Service Design

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I see a lot of us contributing to and leading Customer Experience (CX) efforts,” answers Baruch. “User Experience is really a subset of CX in my mind, and we are uniquely positioned to apply what we do to the broader CX world. For some of us, that may be uncomfortable, but I definitely see a trend toward our becoming a very important part of the overall CX world.”

“An interesting trend emerging in experience design is the rise of invisible design,” says Jordan. “Everyone is familiar with material design. Even information design relies on patterns that can be considered materials of sorts. Designing user experiences is more abstract. Experience design may include the use of—or be influenced by—materials, but isn’t material itself. Experiences must be perceived to exist. In other words, people experience things. They don’t interact with an experience like they would a product. This is a nuanced concept and hasn’t yet made much of an impact on the user experience.

“With the rise of complex product ecosystems that rely on wearable technology, sensors, and mobile devices, it’s becoming harder and harder to produce sense-making documents and design artifacts. For instance, in software development, the use of wireframes and prototypes has been extensive for UX planning and team alignment. These tools won’t work for planning complex experiences that span long periods of time and touchpoints on many different technological devices. How could we build a completely auditory experience or one that relies on physical gestures? New tools are making it easier to map, model, and storyboard complex transmedia experiences. In the near term, our design documentation will evolve. In the longer term, I think it’s going to become easier to produce high-fidelity prototypes. Today, prototyping tools like 3D printing and RaspberryPi are in their infancy. When it becomes easy to prototype what’s in your imagination, experience design will likely become more consultative and less focused on deliverables.”

“The field of User Experience has evolved so much in the past couple of decades that the battle of integrating User Experience into design has changed from why to how,” asserts Gavin. “We now have a wealth of techniques and metrics, so we can attempt to discover what goes on in the human brain and learn how we can better shape experiences.

“The last decade has brought forth more attainable neurological and biological measurements, but their applicability and use are still limited. More recently, UX practice has sped up and become Lean, so we’re using faster methods to acquire user feedback and create experiences. Yet all of these advances require new data to help us understand how people would like their world to be. I would argue that we have a lot of this data already, but we need a new approach with a UX lens.”

“In talking about User Experience in general,” comments Warren, “I’d like to see the UX community start to think more broadly about its role being more about service design—meaning the experience not just for a Web site or app, but outside the system as well. How are we communicating with our customers? What does the post-sale experience look and feel like? Those kinds of things. If we think about all the touchpoints, not just the system, our role becomes bigger and even more interesting.”

“If you look at where the mainstream of User Experience is at the moment,” says Steve, “and look at where the more progressive agencies and organizations have headed, one of the clear trends is the design of service experiences in a holistic, end-to-end manner, under the label of service design, customer experience, or strategic User Experience—ignoring the nuance in those three domains. The basic aim is the same: don’t design just one channel. Understand and deliberately design for the journey.

“We also need to design experiences that are integrated across channels. Omni-channel and multi-channel user experiences have been on the agenda for a while, but we’re seeing these become necessary considerations.”

“I think we are going to see more combined testing of desktop and mobile user interfaces with the same sample,” says David. “Depending on the company, these platforms are often represented by different teams—even different design-and-build vendors. Creating a seamless, consistent experience across platforms and making sure to test for this will be critical.”

UX Strategy

“Another big thing is design systems for product companies and design agencies,” points out Yury. “They help to unify designs for groups of products, allow a systematic approach to developing and supporting them, help us to get new products and features to market faster, and allow us to implement high-quality designs faster and cheaper. You can read more about this topic in my UXmatters article ‘Applied UX Strategy, Part 3: Platform Thinking.’

“The design systems movement started to emerge in 2011–2012. Now, even the Nielsen/Norman Group has written about it in ‘Front-End Style Guides: Definition, Requirements, Component Checklist.’ These systems have a huge influence on designers and companies, so we can consider this a milestone in the popularization of this approach. A couple of weeks ago, Clarity: A Conference about Design Systems took place in San Francisco. This was the first conference on design systems. Even articles about traditional visual and UX design now include design systems.

“Last year, we had a smartwatch boom, now the craze is about chat bots. Unfortunately, people love to drink the Kool-Aid and say fantastic, unrealistic things like ‘Chat-based user interfaces will kill GUIs’ (Graphic User Interfaces). I doubt that. With the exponential growth of chat bots, we’ll drown in an ocean of them, just like we’re drowning in mobile apps now. Their UX language is limited—the small screens of wearables, and they allow only text input in chats—plus, feature and interaction discoverability is low. However, they teach us important things that are applicable to other user interfaces.

“Applications for wearables and messengers get simplified to their bare essentials. As a result, users can perform key interactions faster, get important bits of information more quickly, and act on incoming notifications using standard workflows. We already have this in search suggestions and quick answers in Google and other search engines. Millions of people have used this text-based user interface for many years now. GUIs have the richest UX language and good feature discoverability, but they’re prone to getting overloaded. Learning to solve the limitations of smartwatches and chat bots will help us to improve GUIs, too. Plus, it will help IoT devices to work together at last.”

“While I don’t have a good guess about what global technology we’ll all soon be adapting to,” answers Amanda, “there is one trend I’ve seen within the industry that I think is likely to grow: a more strategic product- or business-oriented role for UX professionals. Traditionally, UX professionals have focused on researching and designing a specific feature set or user interface. However, given our ability to understand and empathize with users and to understand their underlying goals and motivations, many of us have been pushing toward having a greater influence on product and business directions. For instance, rather than just designing the best version of a particular feature, we’ll research what problems our user base is really facing and investigate the best solutions, whether they be in the form of a new set of features or a whole new product line or whatever. This is not new to a lot of us in User Experience, but more and more companies are recognizing the powerful role User Experience can play in their overall business. This merging of research, design, and product strategy enables companies to ensure they are providing solutions their users truly need and setting their business up for optimal success.”

What else do you foresee happening in User Experience? Please add your thoughts to the comments. 

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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