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The Profession of UX Won’t Disappear, but Adapt

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
August 7, 2017

There have been a lot of articles recently that discuss the idea of whether User Experience has staying power as a profession. I’ve read about ten of these—most of them discussing how automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics will decimate the need for almost all professions as we know them today. Even the articles that were positive and upbeat about the future of User Experience made seemingly dire predictions about the need for all UX professionals to adapt to new technologies to survive. That actually sounds very reasonable to me. In fact, it’s what UX professionals have always done.

Before User experience, there was Human Factors. In some ways, that might be a better term to describe what UX professionals do. Now, it’s not a hip or edgy term, but it does encapsulate the fact that as long as there is a human factor in anything that people create, our profession has its place. We still live in a human world. Our job will still be to create products, services, and things that people interact with. Whether a user interface is on a screen or is a mechanical manifestation of our human selves, someone still has to ensure that people can work with it efficiently. I don’t really see that fundamental changing—certainly, not as much as the types of interactions people may have with products. UX professionals absolutely must adapt and learn—and that’s a really good thing.

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Particularly in technology, it seems that just when a profession becomes mature and attains popularity, people start proselytizing about its inevitable demise. The famous British poet John Dryden once said, “First we make our habits, and then our habits make us.” This is likely one of the reasons people look at User Experience as a potential victim of change. However, it does not have to be that way. As UX professionals, we must ensure that our current UX habits do not define—or constrain—the future of our profession.

After 17 years in the profession of User Experience—the past 10 in consulting with enterprise customers over a wide range of industries—amidst all these swirling pontifications about the demise of User Experience, I can confidently add my resounding support for the continuation of the profession of User Experience. Organizations will always need people who focus on how other people interact with technology and products. Of course, there is no doubt that we will have to adapt, but to what do we need to adapt?

Get Smart About Future Interaction Styles

We need to get smart about what artificial intelligence and robotics are—and what they are not. We need to be able to look not just at what they are today, but consider what they will be in the future. Today, robotic process automation focuses on taking repetitive, low-data tasks that people perform countless times a day and automating them. The goal of automation is to improve task efficiency and allow people to focus on higher-end tasks, boosting innovation and creativity. To me, this sounds like something that would help demonstrate the value of User Experience even more. For instance, how much more time would we need to spend designing data-entry forms? Most forms now pretty much follow standardized templates. However, if Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can do away with the need for most forms to begin with, we, as UX professionals, can finally shift our focus wholly to the larger design tasks of integrating the disparate systems within an enterprise and providing a more cohesive and efficient user experience.

But the habit of just getting educated on these new technologies, instead of having a proactive impact on their design, needs to stop. Right now, there is a lot of noise about robotics in technology. We need to take the time to understand how robotics will be valuable—from a business aspect, as well as from a user experience perspective. We can take this opportunity to reduce the number of repetitive tasks many users deal with on a daily basis. Incorporating robotics into products in smart ways will allow us to design systems that address complex, underlying business problems that have not been solved before. However, this will take extra effort on our part and the desire to fully engage in creating the future, not be on the sidelines.

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Radically Rethink Data Models

We need to stop merely taking input from users and making designs that work just with a particular set of data. Instead, we need to focus on the intent of the user and design systems that support the user’s tasks much more proactively. We need to interactively provide just the data users need rather than giving them all the data they might ever need and trying to make it look good.

Continuing down a less helpful path only perpetuates bad habits and fails to take advantage of better ways to do things. Listening to a customer or user and trying to have empathy is one thing. However, we are not doing them—or ourselves—any favors if we fail to move people toward interacting with systems and data in new and different ways—better ways. If taking the human factor into account simply means ensuring a business group is comfortable with a system—instead of taking the opportunity to expose them to a different and quite possibly better way of doing their work—is a missed opportunity to show the value of what UX professionals can do.

As UX professionals, we must transcend the bad habit of believing we are doing right by our users just by listening to their needs and distilling them into a system that, in the end, does not fully realize the potential of what we could deliver. Doing less than our best undermines the strength of our profession and contributes to the notion that UX design can be commoditized—or, eventually, be done away with. We need to get better at seeing and demonstrating the business value of what we do by both influencing and shaping the systems for which we provide design solutions.

Break Down the CX/UX Barrier

We’ve heard a lot lately about Customer Experience (CX) and digital transformation. Too often, User Experience gets left out of this discussion. In many cases, this happens because of the bad UX habits I mentioned earlier. Plus, most UX professionals don’t focus nearly enough on marketing, NPS (Net Promoter Scores), customer loyalty and retention, or the actual business value of an investment in improving the user experience. Certainly, not enough to properly articulate the value of User Experience to executives and others who could give us the time and money that would enable us to do what we do best.

Some of this happens because of how our organizations are structured and where User Experience sits within them. A lot of this happens because of gaps in our skillset. There is a natural professional tension between User Experience and our CX colleagues—and, in some respects, that is okay. Tension is a good thing in the workplace if it fosters innovation and pushes people in new, challenging directions. However, if UX professionals follow the bad habit of just putting our heads down and doing what we’re asked to do, we will miss opportunities to create great experience outcomes. More importantly, we’ll also miss the tremendous opportunity to create a cohesive, end-to-end design culture within our organizations. Aligning with CX and learning more about their methods so we can blend User Experience and CX approaches would ultimately provide the most business value.

Conclusion

Of course, bad habits are hard to break. We all know this. Those articles that predict gloom and doom for User Experience also know and exploit that. However, the future of User Experience is very bright, and it will continue to be so—as long as we remain open and adapt to different approaches and embrace the coming technology challenges. In the end, the human factor remains the same. 

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Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsWith over 12 years of experience leading and participating in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries, Baruch has a developed a wide range of skills in the areas of interaction design, user interface development, and product management. For the past 5 years, he has developed and led the global user experience team at Pegasystems and serves as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in the delivery of user interface design and user experience to customers and partners.  Read More

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