Emerging Technologies and User Experience

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A column by Janet M. Six
August 26, 2019

In this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts discusses some of their preferred ways of discovering and exploring emergent technologies. Our experts emphasize the need to look at emerging technologies through the eyes of their customers and focus on solving customers’ problems. Then, they share some of their favorite online resources for learning about new technologies and how they think about emerging technologies. Finally, they tell us some stories about their early life experiences with new technologies, reflecting their natural curiosity about technology in general.

Every month, in my column Ask UXmatters, a 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 month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Richard Alvarez—UX Practice Manager at Saggezza
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook
  • Janet Six—Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Q: How do you prefer to study emerging technologies? How do you choose which ones to explore?—from a UXmatters reader

Focusing on Customers’ Problems

“At Saggezza UX, our team focuses on understanding our users and the problems we are trying to solve ,” replies Richard. “We strive to make our users comfortable, remove frustrations, and work toward solutions that are simple and easy to grasp.

“Sometimes user frustrations surface because people need to adapt to new technologies in ways that might not be natural to them. Unfamiliar technologies often force us to adapt—for example, by teaching us how to navigate a desktop computer with a mouse or a mobile phone using gestures. To make sense of new, digital experiences, we apply our own mental models of our human experiences in the real world to digital contexts.

“However, working with today’s emerging technologies often lets us create solutions that adapt to our users’ natural modes of interaction. For example, in the case of voice user interfaces (VUIs), we design solutions that use a mode of interaction with which people are already very familiar—conversation!”

Considering New Technologies to Explore

When looking for new technologies to explore, I watch what types of businesses are growing and what problems those businesses are solving for people.

For example, several years ago, small gyms became very popular. People wanted to work out, but without the hassle and expense of going to a large gym. These businesses made it easier for people to work out and many joined them. Numerous new gyms opened in both urban and rural settings. Then, technology businesses sought to serve this established market better through the introduction of fitness watches and apps. It became even easier to get enough exercise because you could constantly track your fitness goals wherever you were. You could even track the quality of your sleep!

So, in choosing what emerging technologies to pursue, I first observe what business markets are emerging, then consider what technologies could serve them.

Exploring Online Resources

“I find that the most valuable way of keeping up with broader trends in technology is by regularly reading technology blogs and using news aggregators that compile technology articles from multiple sources across the Internet,” answers Cory.

To learn about emerging technologies, I listen to podcasts and watch YouTube videos. I have found that YouTube’s artificial intelligence enables the service to make some great recommendations on what to watch.

Early Experiences with Technology

“I’ve always been a geek for new technologies,” replies Richard. “My childhood predates the Internet and mobile phones. I remember getting my first video-game console, the Magnavox Odyssey II, in the late ’70s, and having my mind completely blown.

“Around the same time, I was really into choose-your-own-adventure books. I loved how, each time I made new choices, I’d get a new story. Of course, eventually, I’d exhaust all the choices and run out of new stories.

“On the other hand, interacting with video games offered endless possibilities. I was amazed that I could control these virtual worlds and at how the characters in the games responded to my interactions with them.

“My amazement and curiosity about new technologies continues unabated today—with virtual and augmented reality, the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and more. What I find so fascinating is the ability of technology to help me adapt how I might naturally interact with the real world, but in ways that are faster, smarter, and, in many ways, better.”

Like Richard, my family also had a Magnavox Odyssey 2, shown in Figure 1. It brought a new world into our home. Not only was it fun to play the games using a joystick, there was also a certain magic about having a computer in the house. Before then, claims that “every home will have a computer someday” had seemed far-fetched, but then we had one. Technology was accessible. Sure, we used the Odyssey mostly for playing games, but it also included the “Computer Intro” assembly-language cartridge, which gave everyone the potential power to program the computer. I found it fascinating that knowing how to type some special words into the computer could let me create of a fun game myself. Having access to this technology at home was very special because, at that time, computers were either huge mainframes in big corporations or were extremely expensive.

Figure 1—Magnavox Odyssey 2
Magnavox Odyssey 2

Image source: Wikimedia Commons. (Licensed by Evan-Amos under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.)

When cell-phone minutes were still expensive, I was surprised to hear a coworker tell this story: He saw a person at a store, holding up two shirts, speaking to another person on a mobile phone, and asking, “Do you want the red one or the blue one?” It seemed outlandish that someone would spend so much money to get an answer to such a simple question.

Fast forward to today, and we have a sometimes overwhelming supply of technology at our fingertips: smartphones, fitness watches, tablets, smart appliances, and notebook computers—to name just a few. Most homes now have at least one computer. We are connected to others constantly by smartphone—whether to ask what color shirt someone wants, where friends want to meet for dinner, or how a friend’s day is going. Now, there are apps for practically everything—whether to find a ride to the airport, order food from a restaurant, get recommendations for just about anything, or search for real estate. Sometimes it seems like there are too many choices. 

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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