The Next Big Thing in User Experience, Part 2

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A column by Janet M. Six
July 26, 2016

Last month in Part 1 of this Ask UXmatters two-part series, our experts shared some of their thoughts on what might be the next big thing in user experience. The discussion covered putting people first, customer experience and service design, UX strategy, and UX training. Now, in Part 2, members of our expert panel continue their discussion about what they think the future of user experience holds. The topics they’ll explore include integrating new technologies and user experience, the Internet of Things, the future of mobile design, motion design, designing physical environments, and considering the rhythm of life.

In my monthly 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:

  • Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; Past President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Gazelle; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Robert Hotard—Lead eCommerce Web Design Architect at; Technology & Production Chair at TEDxSanAntonio
  • Gavin Lew—Executive Vice President of User Experience at GfK
  • Ritch Macefield—CEO of Ax-Stream; Head of Research and Development at Infocentric Research
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist
  • Yury Vetrov—Head of UX at Mail.Ru
  • Simon White—Independent UX Strategy and Delivery Consultant at Caperet

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

Leveraging Artificial Intelligence

“Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be a reality soon, and it represents a big challenge for UX design!” exclaims Ritch. “Most of the articles I read on this topic are about how to improve the user experience though existing user-interface paradigms—for example, a better predictive text feature for a text box or pushing more relevant ads on a Web site through real AI rather than just a clever algorithm. However, we may have to fundamentally rethink some types of user interfaces to fully exploit AI.

“One challenge might well be how we could integrate multiple, simultaneous input streams into a user interface, so we could, for example, talk at the same time we’re gesturing and interact with a device through both types of inputs. Generally, AIs have to be taught—at least until they’ve built up enough knowledge to be useful. So another question is: how might UX professionals help subject-matter experts (SMEs) teach AIs? We might also enable user interfaces to design themselves as a system evolves and gathers usage data. At this point, we simply don’t know what types of challenges AI will bring to UX design!”

“Designing with—and for—algorithms that enhance both the design process and the user experience is another clear trend,” adds Steve. “Machine learning and AI capabilities have the potential to transform the way we engage with technology, as well as the way we design.”

“Algorithm-based design, or meta design, in which algorithms design user-interface screens is an important industry trend,” responds Yury. “Designers and developers define logic that considers content, context, and user data; then the platform compiles a design based on principles and patterns. For some great examples, see Netflix’s “Extracting Image Metadata at Scale,” “Automating Layouts Bring Clipboard’s Magazine Style to Web and Windows,” and the AI-built Web sites of The Grid CMS. This approach will enable us to fine tune the tiniest details for specific usage scenarios, without drawing and coding dozens of screen states by hand. Designers will have to do less routine work, and a product can evolve faster.”

“Where I see the next big thing is around a convergence of data that a user can easily master,” replies Gavin. “Big data presents some challenges, and we have more data than we know what to do with—and that just might be my point. We, as users, and businesses have immense amounts of data, but it is not easy to master that data. I don’t mean merely understanding big-data analytics. What I’m talking about is synthesizing our data just enough so we can set course changes to get at what would be useful, then apply big-data analytics again. This is not about solving big data, but about big-data interactions.

“Think about personalization that is based on users’ habits. Analytics can uncover trends, but which ones really are important? Or more interestingly, which trends could we enhance with more insights—things that computers do really well like counting and remembering things. This is where user interactions could course correct and shape a desired user experience. Big data does not need to bear the burden of getting the right answer, but it can help us to sift through all that data. It can enable us to master or manage what we do so we can shape a better user experience.”

The Internet of Things

“My answer is integrating the Internet of Things (IoT) into our UX design arsenal,” answers Bob. “It’s already happening. How does a user experience translate from wearable technology to a smartphone to a desktop and even larger screens. I also think designing the Web for flat screens and delivering over-the-top media really are in their infancy. Will users need more portable keyboards or just better-designed remotes? Or will either matter because remotes will just become our iPhones and iPads?”

“The design of connected environments,” replies Steve. “The user experience of the Internet of Things. People are dedicating a lot of column inches to this topic, but IoT practices and principles are still very much an emergent space. The applications are many—from smart buildings and smart homes to connected cities, and all the way down to individual smart devices.”

Looking Beyond Mobile Design

“Mobile-app design is a solved problem.” answers Yury. “We already have great OS guidelines for a well-defined user experience, information architecture, and visual language. There is now less work for UX designers to do because the design teams at Google, Apple, and Microsoft have already done half the job. As the latest stats show, smartphone owners spend 75% of their time in just their four top apps, as described in ‘Chart of the Day: Most People Use Only 4 Apps’ and app downloads are declining. This is sad news for app developers. It’s hard to predict whether the evolution of mobile apps will stall—as has happened with desktop applications. If you still want to work on interesting products, you should consider these areas:

  • screen-based designs for other types of devices, especially in-car user interfaces—This industry was lagging for a long time, and many manufacturers are still far behind. But there are already some great examples in Audi, Ford, and Tesla cars. I don’t believe in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Manufacturers limit their features. We don’t want these user interfaces to be commoditized as has happened with smartphones and PCs. For further discussion, see ‘Ford CEO: We Won’t Take a Back Seat to Google and Apple.’ Look at new initiatives by Ford, as described in ‘Ford Service Helps You Get Around Town, Whatever You Drive.’ Toyota and GM want to be more than just manufacturers of cars and are thinking about a car as a service. ‘GM Quietly Buys Failed Uber Rival Sidecar’ discusses GM’s approach.
  • new platforms and paradigms—These include virtual assistants and bots in messengers and virtual and augmented-reality helmets. I think these will merge someday. The UX-design language for such platforms is still young. You can be one of the designers who create it.
  • better cross-channel interactions on more platforms—The idea of cross-channel, omnichannel, or multi-screen user experiences is not new. However, many companies still don’t approach such projects systematically. There are also complex, socio-technical systems that do this on a larger scale. Don Norman is pushing the new term DesignX to describe challenges where designers are working on constantly changing systems, not just objects.”
  • anti-design—Visual design on the Web has become monotonous, with many Web sites built on similar templates. There is a lot of criticism about this—for example, in ‘Design Machines’ and on Twitter. In part, we can blame simple Web-site constructors and publishing platforms for this. However, similar to what happened to typography in the ’90s with David Carson’s grunge rebellion, there are now punks designing digital products, too. Web brutalism, subcultures like sea punk, and vaporwave break traditional patterns and inject a bit of trashy spice into homogenous Web design. While I doubt that ’90s desktop OS styling, CD encyclopedia–visual language, ASCII graphics, and intentionally ugly designs will form the foundation of products designed for the masses, they definitely bring a stream of fresh air to the modern Web.”

Motion Design

“From an interaction-design perspective, motion design is really exciting to me,” says Warren. “I’ve always had a love for animation and, with mobile, we have opportunities to really enhance the user experience through the use of motion. Obviously, the challenge is to avoid the gratuitous use of animation. But using animation judiciously always serves to make the experience better.”

“Interaction design has already started to mature,” replies Simon. “Though there’s still a long way to go on motion design. I guess the next thing after that would be haptic and sonic feedback. Some apps such as games already use vibration and sound to great effect. I think we could subtly enhance standard user experiences in other contexts through the use of sound and vibration.

“Of course, the need to get the basics right first still applies. But imagine getting physical feedback from your phone when it validates your input or processes your payment. I’m sure this would be more satisfying to users than our just displaying a confirmation message on the screen.”

Designing Physical Environments

“Another clear trend is the design of the user experience of physical environments,” offers Steve. “We’re seeing collaborations between architects and UX designers at various phases of the design process. A heavy focus of that work is around identifying the digital/technological landscape that is necessary to support the intended experience. However, a body of work is developing that directs our attention more squarely to the physical domain itself. Right now, there is a group of Italian-trained architects who are railing against the page, and that is justified. ‘But we’ve always worked like that!!’ you might say. However, this trend just hasn’t made it to the mainstream in the way we’re projecting on the horizon.”

Fitting User Experience into the Rhythm of Life

I think user experience is now at a similar point as the automobile industry when it started to make cars in colors other than basic black. Remember how Henry Ford said, “You can have any color car that you like, as long as it is black.” That was great when people needed basic, reliable transportation at a reasonable price. The innovations in automation that Ford and his team created were highly important to the industry. But once they had solved those problems, it was time to create a greater variety of cars for diverse customers.

User experience had meager beginnings—just make sure the product does what it is supposed to do and make it look pretty. But, as we all know, making a product that works reliably and is pretty is now the norm—well, at least for many product realms it is. Now, we need to make products work really well for the user. Remember that we have many users: the ones who actually use the system, the ones who create the input for that system, the ones who use the results of that system, the ones who manage the system, and the ones who decide to buy the system in the first place—among others.

Expecting users to put their personal style and needs aside just to use a pretty, reliable system is no longer enough. Products need to fit into the rhythm of the user’s life. I enjoyed my recent conversation with Greg Nudelman that I captured in “Lean UX for Wearables: An Interview with Greg Nudelman.” We discussed the idea that, if we understood the rhythm of our interaction with our devices as if they were music, we could better design the interaction between man and machine. You can read more about understanding the rhythm of our interaction with devices in “What Does Your Wearable UX Sound Like?” We dance with our devices every day in the artful production that is our life. Let us make it a more enjoyable and beautiful dance.

In the future, will your users fit their lives into your UX design solutions? Or will your UX designs accommodate their lives?

What do you foresee happening in user experience in the years to come? 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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