Bull Session

The Future of UX

June 23, 2016          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week we discuss the future of UX as envisioned in Dirk Knemeyer’s article “Understanding Us: A New Frontier for User Experience” which was published in the recent UXmatters relaunch.

It seems like today is a good time to be a UX professional, but what does the landscape look like professionally, and how is it going to change in the future? In the article, Dirk considers neuroscience, in particular, as an area that UX will both influence and be influenced by, as it converges with the world of science and biotech.

Understanding Us: A New Frontier for User Experience

Welcome to episode 161 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights on the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Hey Jon.

Dirk, today we’re going to discuss neuroscience, user experience, and your article in UXmatters recently published called “Understanding Us: A New Frontier for User Experience.” First, I think it’s worth mentioning that long-time UX publication, UXmatters has had a relaunch, which both you and I were a part of, and UXmatters has been such an important part of our community for about a decade now and has had millions of readers across the entire world and has published very consistently across what has been a developing industry, a sometimes tumultuous industry, and they’ve really been a consistent presence. It’s great to see them with this new redesign. I’m really happy for them, and it was a fun project to be a part of. Dirk, what are your thoughts on the UXmatters relaunch?

Well, it’s a testament to Pabini, the founder, and to the publication. There’s three things in life that are certainties: Death, taxes, and Uxmatters is going to publish bi-monthly. There have been a lot of great UX publications over the years. Boxes and Arrows Magazine is a wonderful example. Digital Web Magazine, which has been gone for a long time, but was fantastic in the early days of the coalescence of user experience. They’ve all either ceased to exist or publish infrequently at best, so of the early user experience publications, Uxmatters is the last one standing, and the fact they they continue to publish twice a month, multiple articles every time, and now are going through a redesign, which is sort of an expensive reinvestment in infrastructure indicates there’s no signs of slowing down. I’m really in awe of the work that Pabini has done to keep it going for almost eleven years now. It’s pretty amazing, Jon.

Yes. Just putting the podcast together on a regular basis, I know how difficult it can be to have that editorial regular drumbeat, so I can only imagine what it’s like to be managing a whole wide variety of writers and making sure that everything makes sense and that it’s going up on time. On time, right? That’s the other hard part of this editorial mandate is that you have to release, you have to ship.

What I find interesting is as UX has become more prevalent, more important, has developed a seat at the corporate table. There are a lot of new UX publications, which I think probably have taken some inspiration from, you named some of the founding fathers and mothers of the UX professional publications, but there’s a whole new wave of publications now. It’s interesting to see that UXmatters has a lot of audience share and interest and followers on social media, for instance. I think that’s heartening that a publication that’s been around for so long can still be relevant.

I think that’s right, and you and I have both intellectually moved on to different frontiers over the years. Once upon a time, ten years ago, I would read the UX articles, but now it’s been a long time for me since then. I think for you, as well. Going back into UXmatters around the relaunch, just again inculcating myself into the type of content it’s putting out, the quality is really good. There’s not just high quality, but interesting things being said, as well.

I was surprised, if we look at the launch issues over two different releases of the publication, but some of those that were released in the first tranche, multiple of those had to do with emerging technologies, with artificial intelligence, and my contribution did as well, but contributions beyond just mine or yours. It’s not just us in a vacuum anymore. Even UXmatters, on the user experience side, is showing, at least in these celebratory issues, that evolutionary shift, so I thought that was kind of cool, too.

Yes. Let’s shift gears now and talk a little bit about your article, “Understanding Us: A New Frontier for User Experience.” I think you lay out the argument for the evolution of user experience into other areas of emerging technologies, meaning moving from the pure digital experiences where UX has become prominent and moving into these other areas. I found it interesting that you started off with a statement that it was a good time to be a seasoned UX professional. Could you tell me a little bit about that in more detail?

Sure. Software continues to grow and explode, and there’s a lot of jobs out there. There’s a lot of opportunity. A lot of leadership opportunity, as well. I don’t know if we’ve talked about on the podcast as much, but certainly in things that we’ve written and talked about here as a leadership team at Involution Studios. There’s also the move to creating more in-house UX teams, so not only is that creating more jobs as well, but it’s opening up real leadership positions of management and vision and strategy, which is pretty fantastic. Without even getting into the things around emerging technologies and some of the areas that I was introducing in the article, just in old school blocking and tackling UX, there’s so much out there for people right now. It’s pretty cool.

Yes. It’s definitely a change. The industry has had its ups and downs, of course, sometimes tied to the national economy and sometimes not, of course, but now is a great time, especially if you’re helping to say, build up a team of corporate UX, that’s a great place for that. There’s hundreds of digital products of course being released each year by start-ups, as well, so there’s a huge spectrum of areas where if you’re a young UX professional or a seasoned veteran, you can find work.

That’s the state as of today, and there’s a host of emerging technologies from Internet of Things to synthetic biology to robotics that are definitely on the rise. This is true of most professions today, there’s no doubt that you’ll have to continue learning in order to keep up with technology.

In this particular piece, Dirk, you dig into one area of science and humanity, and that in particular is neuroscience. You give some recommendations about how user experience professionals can start to pivot a little bit to take in more of that science and information. What is it that made you turn in this direction yourself, and then what were some of the recommendations that you made in the piece?

Turning this direction myself, that goes back to 2010. As you know, the recession was really hard on Involution Studios. I was not only financially wiped out by the recession, but I was really beaten up in making this company survive, but in the process it was very difficult in so many ways. I felt I needed a new direction to go in instead of just running this firm.

I went back to when I was an undergraduate and I set my life goal as measurably increasing the happiness and well-being of the human species, which is audacious to the point of arrogance, but I went back to that touch point. I said, “If that’s really what I want to do, how do I do it? I’m certainly not accomplishing it in the embers of this software agency,” and I decided to do it through human understanding, to go back and really understand the human animal as well as I could. I think that was also subconsciously influenced by the fact that the trends were headed this way, as well. I tend to be ahead of where things are going. For me, it was very personal. It was very personal, and happened quite a while ago.

I started just from a very exploratory perspective, so I wasn’t looking at neuroscience specifically or psychology specifically or sociology specifically, all of which are fields that I got to know to varying degrees. I just tried to answer the question for myself, “How can I best understand the human animal in order to create knowledge base for myself that can be used as a level to achieve the life goal I set as 20-year-old?” That’s my genesis here.

Getting into the topic itself, the reality is that we’re reaching a point of terminal velocity on software as the media for which user experience primarily exerts itself. UX as a field has aspirationally said, “Well, we’re not just about software. We’re about creating in anything,” and it’s just nonsense. Show me ten people who have jobs that are called user experience, that are considered user experience, that aren’t related to software in some way large or small. It just ain’t out there, and so UX is software and software is UX in a certain way.

Now with all of these emerging technologies, that’s going to start flipping a little bit, and there’s going to need to be design professionals who are digital natives and who are solving digital design problems that are going to need to move into them. UX people are the obvious people to make that move, but the asterisk is it’s going to require meaningful knowledge in science and engineering, and we’ve seen over the last ten to fifteen years how difficult it’s been for UX professionals to evolve from the standpoint of just understanding code, learning to code, and incorporate that into the things that they’re creating, at least from a design perspective within the world of UX.

If I were a practicing UXer still, I would find it quite daunting that my future in the industry may have to do with understanding artificial intelligence on an engineering level with understanding synthetic biology on a science level. I came to UX because I’m not a science guy. I’m not an engineering guy. I’m a big picture thinker. What the article was doing was saying, “Hey, this is coming, and you should get ready and gird yourself to get into the hard sciences and engineering,” or, “Here’s an alternate path,” and the alternate path is the understanding of people, the understanding of humanity.

One thing I think we’ve done very poorly in user experience is understand people. We’ve gotten very good at knowing what a usability test should look like, what an AB test should look like, what some upfront user research random interview should look like, but we know very little, I’ll say almost nothing, as a field. There’s some individuals within it who have much deeper knowledge, but as a field, we have virtually no body of knowledge that gets into the science of the self, whether that be from a more hard biology perspective, a neuroscience perspective, psychology, sociology, endocrinology, whatever vector you want to take. It just isn’t part of how we do business, and that’s stupid. We’re trying to design things for people, and in the future, in these contexts that are going to be changing really rapidly and are going to be inhuman in ways compared to how we thought of what human spaces and lives should look like in the past.

We’ve got to know ourselves. We’ve got to know this animal really, really well, and so the article was making the case to do that, to start and be one of the pioneers in taking a lead on that future for user experience, and then I just recommended neuroscience as a good place to start and maybe 20 to 30 different resources that people can [crosstalk] to.

That’s right. Yes, that was a very rich list, which you can find at UXmatters.com and check out Dirk’s article there. There’s a ton of reading there, so it’s like the syllabus for neuroscience plus UX 101.

One of the things that I enjoyed about your article, Dirk, was the fact that you emphasized very much how early in the process this is. I think that’s important for two reasons. One is it means it’s harder because there’s no frameworks to draw upon, no path that’s been laid, and secondly, it’s important because of the exponential nature of the technologies that are advancing so quickly. It’s going to go from being early to being prime time for designers to be involved very shortly, and you can see the inklings of that in some of the, for instance, Internet of Things instantiations now where the technology is there, but there’s no humanity to it.

There’s no way to interface with these huge machine networks right now, and some of that of course can be handled by smart algorithms and things like that, but it feels very much like the early to mid-nineties as far as the internet is concerned, that kind of experimental space, but with more invasive and powerful technology that maybe needs a hand from a human aspect more than the internet did.

You’re talking about Internet of Things with tendrils into all aspects of our lives, and you think about the interaction with the network or the interaction with the data or how that data gets used. These are all human touch points that we’re talking about that really require some consideration, and ultimately, when we’re looking at this surface of the Internet of Things, they talk about the attack surface for security. There’s a human surface where we’re interacting with these pieces, and I don’t know that we have adequately evaluated all of those places where there’s a human touch point.

I think we’re only beginning to understand what it means to have these automated and connected sensor systems everywhere, whether it be socially or it be for business or for politics of what have you. I’m just talking about the Internet of Things. There’s a lot more technologies there that are coming to the floor at the same time, so it’s a point well-taken, Dirk, that I think if you have interest in any of these science areas, it may seem like you’re being a little premature in taking on these learning tasks, but that’s going to change very, very quickly I think.

I think that’s right. I don’t mention this in the article, but to inspire our listeners a little bit, there’s an opportunity to be a pioneer here, to be a leader, to define a field and where it goes. Imagine if we were in the early 1990s and the web was in the very nascent stages and just getting started. Who could have predicted that Jeffrey Zeldman, through the use of just smart engineering choices in terms of how web sites would be laid out, would be come this massive superstar, the first person inducted into the SXSW Hall of Fame, probably the most famous web design professional in the world, and it’s because he was ahead.

Jeffrey is a wonderful man, very intelligent, but there are other people who can rival Jeffrey in talent and intelligence out there. In all of those fields, there are many of us who were approximately in the same place, and the ones who really succeed the most, the ones who change history, to be a little melodramatic about it, are the ones who are early and lucky. That can be you, because there are not many people who are going in this direction yet. It’s the correct direction. It’s the direction that the world is going, and maybe you can be the Jeffrey Zeldman for the UX of genomics or synthetic biology. That role is there to be taken. Why not by you?

Yes. That’s a great way to put it, Dirk, and of course, check out that piece on UXmatters. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one “L” in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, and of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out GoInvo.com. Dirk?

Folks, you can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. Thanks so much for listening.

That’s it for episode 161 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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