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The Future of UX Design

Ask UXmatters

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A column by Janet M. Six
July 19, 2021

In this special sesquicentennial (150th) edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel ponders the future of UX design. Our panelists discuss the sustainability of the discipline of User Experience, specialization in the UX professions, required skills for UX designers, the value of T-Shaped people; merging the best practices of Product Management, User Experience, and Engineering; sharing the ownership of User Experience, the growing importance of design as strategy, user experiences of future technologies—including interacting with our environments—and how all of this can help us create a better world.

I want to thank the many UX experts who have contributed to Ask UXmatters since its first edition, “Choosing the Language for a User Interface,” in November 2008. We have covered a wide variety of UX topics since then, including strategy, user research, design validation, working with stakeholders, agile and Lean methodologies, systems engineering and interrelated systems, and artificial intelligence. We’ve seen tremendous growth in the field of User Experience since 2008. This column would not be a success without the time and efforts of our more than 100 expert-panel members, from six of the world’s seven continents. Thanks to the many readers of Ask UXmatters as well. I sincerely hope that this column helps you to advance and grow in our field.

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers 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].

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

  • Leo Frishberg—Director of User Experience at athenahealth and Principal at Phase II
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist at UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Jordan Julien—Founder and Design Strategist at Hostile Sheep
  • Michael Lai—Senior Vice President & Dean of X Thinking Institute at TANG UX
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook
  • Gavin Lew—Managing Partner at Bold Insight
  • Christian Rohrer—Principal and Founder of xdStrategy
  • Janet Six—Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software and UXmatters columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Andrew Wirtanen—Principal Product Designer at Citrix
  • Josephine Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: Where do you see the future of the field of UX design heading?—from a UXmatters reader

“The future of UX design? I believe predicting the future is a fool’s errand,” replies Leo. “But, funnily enough, I gave a presentation ‘Artifacts from the Future: The Impact of Time Travel on Design’ at Interact London 2016, which focused entirely on the future of interaction design. In that keynote, I began by suggesting that the best way to predict the future is to invent it—exactly the same thing Alan Kay and Dennis Gabor have suggested. But really, no crystal ball is necessary. Based on my personal career trajectory, I can say that little has changed over the past 40 years with respect to the design process itself. That’s not too surprising since relatively little has changed regarding the design process over the past 4,000 years. So one way to answer the reader’s question with fairly high confidence is: nothing in design would likely change over the next 30–50 years.

“However, that might not be the intention of our reader’s prompt. It’s possible that the prompt’s focus is more on the role of UX design within the product design and development process. Certainly, much has changed over the past 30 years in the field of User Experience—including the emergence of the acronym UX itself.

“One of the major changes I’ve experienced is the growing appreciation and embracing of design as a strategic advantage. Will this trend continue? I certainly hope so—and not just because of my prejudice in favor of design. Companies that embrace a robust discover, define, design, and deliver (4D) cycle demonstrate clear and differentiated advantage over those that do not. The uncertainty about the future is how we’ll execute that cycle in the coming years.

“Will business and engineering programs continue to expand their curriculum to include 4D design thinking? If so, the activities in which UX teams engage today may come to be shared by folks in other parts of the organization—a trend we’re already beginning to see. Will the world expand its appreciation for design and, in doing so, expand opportunities for UX designers? Here, William Gibson’s perspective applies: ‘The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed,’ by which I mean that much of the world already appreciates the power and value of design. However, my experience in the US suggests that we’re far behind the rest of the world. For whatever reason, the US has a cultural bias against design that doesn’t exist in much of Europe, for example. So, if we narrow our lens to the US, we can look across our borders to get a sense of how design already plays a stronger role in for-profit organizations, nonprofits, and government.

“Or, perhaps the prompt has more to do with the impact of changing technologies on product user experiences, and here’s where things get a little foolish,” continues Leo. “Most of us working in Research and Development (R&D) have a slight advantage over those working on more near-term endeavors. I defer to Bill Buxton’s oft-stated idea that all we need to do to see the future is look inside the R&D labs of forward-leaning companies. The work they’re doing in those labs looks about ten years into the future. But Buxton’s more recent writings about design are perhaps a little more breathtaking: the idea that even forward-leaning technology is either a refinement or a recreation of existing technologies, which are perhaps hundreds of years old. Read Buxton’s article ‘The Long Nose of Innovation’ for a compelling—and humbling—argument for design forensics as a key tool in any UX designer’s toolkit. I’ll leave prognostication about future technologies—brain interfaces?—and their impact on the human experience to braver souls.”

The Origin and Future of User Experience Design

“When I launched UXmatters back in November 2005,” responds Pabini, “I wrote an article to welcome the UX community to the magazine, ‘Welcome to UXmatters.’ In that article, I described my early adoption of the term User Experience and described its meaning, as follows:

“‘At Apple Computer in the early ’90s, I worked in what was then called human interface design. When Don Norman came to Apple, in 1993, as Vice President of Research and head of the Advanced Technology Group (ATG), he brought with him the new term user experience design. Shortly after joining Apple, he spoke to employees about user experience design. I [came] away from his talk a convert to the idea of user experience design. What he said resonated with me.

“‘UX design takes a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to the design of user interfaces for digital products. Depending on the product, it can integrate interaction design, industrial design, information architecture, visual interface design, instructional design, and user-centered design, ensuring coherence and consistency across all of these design dimensions. UX design defines a product’s form, behavior, and content.’

“The field of User Experience has gone through many evolutions since then, but the expansiveness of the term has easily accommodated its various permutations. I feel confident that User Experience will continue to be a serviceable term far into the future of digital product design. It places our focus on the experience of the user, which is exactly where it belongs.”

Creating the Future of User Experience

UXmatters has published many forward-looking articles about the discipline of User Experience,” notes Pabini. “Here are links to some of them:

“We’ve also published several columns whose entire focus was the future of User Experience, as follows:

“Plus, D. Ben Woods has reviewed Cecily Sommers book Think Like a Futurist.

UX Specialists and T-Shaped People

User Experience has become a buzz word and is becoming less of a field and more of a mindset,” answers Jordan. “User Experience has given organizations something to rally around: the user. It was a way to make design more objective: ‘We’re designing it for the user.’ UX research methods and data science have better informed our UX design decisions. Ultimately, some discovered that User Experience shouldn’t be delegated to a single UX designer, which gave rise to other UX professions such as UX writing, UX development, and UX strategy. Syndrome, from The Incredibles, said ‘When everyone’s super, no one will be.’ This is the future of UX design: everyone needs to represent the user and everyone is responsible for certain aspects of the user experience.

“Today, UX design seems to be one of the most in-demand product-design jobs. But, when you really look at the job postings, you’ll notice something troubling: completely inconsistent required skills and job requirements. Some organizations want UX designers with a design degree, others want a psychology degree, still others want a marketing or business degree. Some organizations want UX designers to conduct research, some to analyze data, some to collect business requirements, some to define a product vision, some want them to design user interfaces, and some want them to define taxonomies. There are so many different things a UX designer could do that some organizations have accidentally hired UX designers who have completely different capabilities from those that they wanted. Over the years, this has given rise to UX specialties such as user research, information architecture, interface design, and content strategy. This specialization already exists in many large organizations and even small organizations are moving toward hiring more specialists—people with T-shaped skillsets—rather than a bunch of UX designers who are generalists with diverse skillsets.”

“In February 2009, I wrote an article titled ‘Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy?’” replies Pabini. “In that article, I described the value of hiring T-shaped UX professionals, as follows:

“‘The ideal UX professional combines many of the best attributes of both specialists and generalists. At some point in his or her career, this person has specialized in one of the essential disciplines of User Experience for an extended period of time and is an adept in that specialty. If this person has had a long career in User Experience, he or she might even have focused on more than one UX specialty at different times. This ideal UX professional has also worked in contexts that required him or her to function as a generalist, so has broad knowledge of most UX disciplines and finely honed skills in many of them. Most importantly, this person can integrate diverse viewpoints and takes a holistic approach to solving problems.’

“I’m still a great believer in the exceptional value of T-shaped people. These are the people who can envision the future,” concludes Pabini.

Merging Best Practices Across Disciplines

"If the field of User Experience has any future opportunity to make a real difference, it will merge with the best practices of product management and engineering,” says Christian. “Today, these three functions come together from different traditions and points of view. Product Management tends to be well educated in business and often understands the use of synthesis and quantitative data as a way of leveraging insights in making decisions. However, because Product Management ignores the power of qualitative research, their approach is inadequate when it comes to building a good user experience. Similarly, Engineering comes to the table with a tradition of using agile methodologies that are more developer centered and product-owner centered than user centered. User Experience often comes from a perspective that doesn’t seem to understand the way product managers and engineers do their job, despite their being trained in empathy.

“To achieve a major breakthrough, all three fields need to come together and acknowledge what each of them provides. They need to find a way to work more effectively together under a new framework that incorporates the best of all three. It probably wouldn’t be called the field of User Experience after that, which might sound sad. But, if we can improve the lives of users and customers by helping the world create better services and technologies that meet human needs, I’m all for it.”

“I totally agree with Christian’s main point: that the three key disciplines of product development—Product Management, User Experience, and Engineering—need to integrate the best practices of all three disciplines and work collaboratively to create great products that meet the needs of users,” responds Pabini. “This has always been the case. In May 2007, I published my article “Sharing Ownership of UX,” which describes my vision for how we can accomplish this goal—and I’ve worked on a few teams that have actually achieved this goal.

“What is truly regrettable is that the industry as a whole still has not accomplished this goal. Why is this the case when our not working in concert is to everyone’s detriment, including that of the businesses for which we work? Politics! Power struggles. Initially, Engineering had most of the power, and the unenlightened among their discipline are still trying to hold onto that power. Then, Ken Schwaber, one of the inventors of Scrum, came up with the bright idea of calling one person on a product team the Product Owner, usually the product manager. Unless the person in that role happens to have a mindset that is similar to the one I expressed in “Sharing Ownership of UX,” this can create all sorts of mischief. The Product Owner role sometimes manifests itself as one person’s seeking dominant power over an entire product team, preventing the collaborative approach we need.

“There have always been some people in all three of these professions who have endeavored to understand the approaches of their colleagues working in other disciplines. For example, I have studied both product-management and engineering best practices throughout my entire career. At this point, whether a product team can achieve the ideal to which Christian suggests we should all aspire depends entirely on the quality of the people on the team and their willingness to collaborate. We need to establish industry best practices that would ensure all products team can achieve this ideal. And, yes, I’d still call this User Experience because, as I mentioned earlier, the goal is still to create great experiences for users.”

“When looking at current trends, it’s hard not to imagine more organizations’ realizing that UX strategy and product strategy go hand in hand,” replies Andrew. “Successful product managers need to have a solid understanding of UX strategy or need to collaborate with people who do. So I hope that more organizations will view User Experience as a shared responsibility.”

Design as Business Strategy

“While looking at the future of the field of UX design, I want to take a moment to reflect on how my consultancy TANG UX has evolved in this field in China,” replies Mike. “We founded TANG in 2007 as a UX consultancy and throughout our 14-year history, we have evolved from initially providing UI and UX design services, to product innovation, to service planning, and to now business strategy. Today, we don’t just consider ourselves a UX consultancy. We are an eXperience consultancy.

“As an eXperience consultancy, we have constantly pushed the boundaries on the value that eXperiences contribute to business. In the process, we have developed X Thinking—short for eXperience Thinking—our business philosophy for the age of the experience economy. There are three fundamental principles that drive the work we do and on which we believe enterprises should focus: people, value, and sustainability.

“These three principles provide the foundation for the three areas of work in which we find ourselves today: eXperience strategy, eXperience Design, and eXperience Management. eXperience strategy is a competitive differentiation strategy that helps enterprises by leveraging eXperiences. eXperience design brings eXperience strategies to life by going beyond designing digital experiences to designing holistic brand eXperiences that include product and service offerings, digital and physical environments, communications, and employee behaviors. By implementing eXperience management systems, we actively manage and measure these brand eXperiences in real-time.

“The future of the field of UX design is not limited to just design,” concludes Mike. “It breaks out of the boundaries of design to create value for businesses in new and different ways, by focusing on users and leveraging the concept of eXperiences.”

User Experience and Future Technologies

“User Experience follows wherever new technologies lead,” remarks Cory. “Artificial intelligence will likely be integral to the future of User Experience, as well as new, innovative products that are based on augmented and virtual reality.”

“Looking further into the future, I think designing for augmented-reality (AR) and virtual-reality (VR) experiences will become more common,” says Andrew. “I’ve been impressed by some breaking research such as Facebook Reality Labs’ wrist-based interactions. It’s becoming easier to imagine how human-computer interaction will continue to become more invisible and ubiquitous.”

As the world experiences even more digital transformation and the amount of complexity increases, we’ll need to create better ways of interacting with dynamically evolving, complex systems so people can meaningfully work in these environments. In the future, more UX design solutions will need to be self-adapting as systems and environments change while people are working with them.

“If you’re interested in reading more about the impact of future technologies on the user experience,” suggests Pabini, “check out these articles on UXmatters:

Interacting with Our Environments

“Moving beyond interactions with things to environments,” answers Gavin. “Consider this a macro view of User Experience, in which we go beyond devices and the field of User Experience has greater influence on urban planning. For example, transportation would not simply focus on the means—that is, vehicles and roads for them, paths for pedestrians, and other types of vehicles and objects. Consider how sidewalks and streets could evolve beyond historic constructs toward a future design concept. How offices and homes could evolve, with voice-enabled devices that go beyond turning on lights and checking the weather. The potential is vast and the future of ecosystem experience design—EcoX Design—is coming. Well, at least it is in my head.”

Creating a Better World

“Our priority and urgency in creating the future of User Experience must now reside in health, education, and sustainability,” answer Dan and Jo. “This implies that any role that is involved in designing what we wish for work and life to be must operate on the basis of principles that speak to healthier outcomes for people and the planet and new economic, political, and social models that support them. Combining our soft and hard skills as practices impacts our ability to learn and facilitate conversations that enable us achieve more meaningful outcomes together. We need to increase our courage and reject models that are having toxic, disastrous, cancerous impacts on our living planet.

“Would this mean a move away from consumer products—or anything that encourages unnecessary consumption—to designing systems, programs, and policies that have positive impacts on our communities? What would our roles be in this new context? New leadership practices are imperative, as are the principles, values, beliefs, and motivations that underpin them. We need to challenge our own biases and find methods of expanding our perspectives to perceive impacts on both ourselves and everyone else. We cannot afford not to achieve this.” 

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. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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