When Apple finally released the Apple Watch this past spring, they launched a series of commercials touting how useful the device could be in our lives. One of the commercials depicted a young tourist on a trip to Berlin. While dancing at a club, she glances at her Apple Watch to read lyrics to a song that the DJ is playing. The use case was such a stretch that if I had significant cash reserves, I would be compelled to short sell Apple stock. This was the clearest evidence yet that despite the very strong importance of and interest in great experience design, the UX industry is about to endure a thorough shakedown.

The Era of Obvious UX Design Needs Is Over

So if the era of obvious UX design needs is over, you ask, when did it begin? Although the concept and practice of UX in relation to interface design has been around for a few decades, this bonanza I speak of didn’t really kick in until Web 2.0 arrived around 2004. The convergence of web design standards (W3C!), front-end development techniques (ajax!), user-generated content (reviews!), and an understanding of the need for usability led redesign efforts across the web. Additionally, startups and big business alike began to truly see the importance of good design as a key differentiator thanks in large part to Apple’s resurgence through design leadership. It’s hard to imagine now, but before this time, most websites looked like this:

Yahoo Web 2.0

Compared to other design disciplines with conceptually similar skill sets (ahem, architecture) UX was quite lucrative, even for folks who were new to the field. Universities began to beef up UX programs to supply a stream of young “design thinkers” eager to make their marks and cash in. Traditional advertising and IT companies began to transition to interactive agencies to capitalize on the gold rush by redefining themselves and hiring like mad or acquiring smaller design firms to get talent.

Along Came the Smartphone in 2007 and Apps in 2008

Holy Aladdin. Quite literally a whole new world to design for and a form factor that had clear projections to be more important in the global context than even desktop experiences.

In 2010, Throw in Mobile Web Versions of Websites beyond Apps, and How about a Frickin' Tablet Too?

Just Shamwow. The juices of the fruits are literally streaming down our collective faces. But it’s beginning to dry on our ruby cheeks and get sticky fast. Tablets aren’t nearly as important or contextually useful in most cases as smartphones. Mobile website design should generally be as consistent as possible with the app that was designed by us the year before. Heck, it should even be as consistent as possible with the website we designed even earlier.

I Swear I Saw You Coming All along, Responsive Design

Sorry client, all that stuff we designed or redesigned for you over the past several years should basically be scrapped. There’s a new design approach that will lead to true consistency across all these devices through which you interact with your customers. It’s really in your best interest not only from a customer experience perspective but also in terms of reducing ongoing digital management costs and complexity. Cha-ching.

Hey Look up in the Sky! It's a Wearable! This Is Going to Be Great Right? Riiiiight?

Cue the graph.

Yahoo Web 2.0

So Where Does This Leave Us? Here Are Five Realities Facing Our Field

We’re rapidly running out of compelling form factors to design for

We’re simply over-deviced, over-connected, and over-contented. Yes wearables are here to stay, but their ubiquity is long off and true usefulness seems quite limited at this point. There’s a reason my Fitbit is in a drawer somewhere. And let’s not get started with gestural or virtual Minority Report interfaces. Designing for these experiences is generally still fantasy at best and dystopian at worst. Either way, the inherent usability of gestural and virtual interfaces is in the dumps.

Standardization and templatization is here to stay

Although there will always be a need for bespoke experiences, UI standardization and templatization with OOTB usability is happening across all digital channels, and rightly so. It’s frankly essential to establish conventions that breed interactive familiarity and speed. Hamburger menu, check. Product details page with suggestive pairings, check. Large agencies are particularly vulnerable to this reality. Designs that agencies once charged clients tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for only a short time ago can now be realized with a $69 Wordpress template.

Brand “digital storytelling” or whatever every agency wants to call it is an overhyped wonder pill to realize market differentiation

I wish it weren’t true. After all, who doesn’t love a good story? The concept of brand storytelling is indeed critical, but the notion that digital/UX plays a significant lead role is exceedingly rare. And deploying a parallax effect for long scroll narrative pages is the hipster beard of web design. Which brings me to the next point.

It’s the content, stupid

We’ve been drinking our own Kool-Aid for so long that we’ve actually come to believe that great UX is something people want in and of itself. Great UX is actually the art of invisibility. UX has always simply been about the seamless delivery of great content or functionality.

Big data isn’t going to save us

The convergence of data and design is overhyped in terms of needing new UX. Say your client is a credit card company that wants to roll out a new app that suggests enticing products and services to users of its card, based on an analysis of a user’s purchase history, combined with merchant data. Is there a need for new UX significantly beyond what we’ve already solved for e-commerce? Another assumption I would like to question is the notion that more data visualization will automatically lead to more meaningful and enjoyable experiences. Sorry, Tufte fans, the story data tells is way more often a novelty than we’d like to admit.

So there you have a few realities to mull over. But before I’m labeled a heretic, a cynic or just a good ol’ fashioned hater, I have some great news to share.

We’re rapidly running out of compelling form factors to design for

Non-Obvious Design Challenges Are Here to Stay

The bonanza may be over but I say good riddance. Unless you worked at a startup, the work during this period was often way too much about applying a layer of UX to existing products and services to simply get to designs that were decent enough, even when there was solid user research. This simply didn’t work the full spectrum of our skill set and passions, nor did it drive true innovation. But the realization that great design is not only a competitive differentiator but also essential to the DNA of any product or service means that we’ve won C-suite hearts and minds across companies around the globe. And because of this, experience design will increasingly lead the conversation.

In other words, work is about to get a whole lot more exciting. At least for those that survive the Great Interactive Agency Layoff of 2016-2018.

Image of old wood courtesy Shutterstock.

Article No. 1 363 | December 22, 2014
Article No. 1 448 | June 8, 2015
Article No. 1 504 | July 13, 2015


Winning the hearts and minds of the C-Suite has been this UX practioner's goal for the past 10 years, and it's nice to see that we've (basically, sorta) achieved it.  A little more on that in my presentation "How User Experience Got a Seat in the Boardroom"


<p>Some interesting points but this article is pretty fluffy and not substantial ux reading material for me. Where are the actionable steps to correct these ux errors you speak of and what are some new ways to adopt new processes/methodologies...if there are any?&nbsp;</p>

Being out of ideas is not the same as having no challenges left to solve.

"Well, in the modern world of today, there's nothing to invent. Everything that can be done, has been done."– Words uttered by an old friend of mine a few weeks ago.

This article offers a lot of valid points, but wrong contextualisation.

Yes, in the field of  "traditional" web development a lot of standardisation is happen. Certain forms of content presentation work better than others. We're not in the Wild West of the early days of the commercialised Internet. Blogs, eCommerce platforms, "Social Networks" have created a visual vocabulary that is understood by most people. It's no coincidence libraries and frameworks like Bootstrap, Foundation, Skeleton have taken the web by storm and will reign supreme for the near future. In addition to providing a consistent experience across devices, they also provide a shared UI vocabulary.

However, claiming that "obvious UX" is over illustrates a clear case of hindsight bias. Looking at the Yahoo landing page now and understanding how it wasn't optimal by today's standard is like comparing cars over the course of their century-long evolution. Of course airbags and turning signals make sense today. Yet companies like Google and Telsa question our existing notions of what cars should be and how we operate them. They want to make cars even safer, cleaner... oh, and they should not be steered by humans at all.

When I got introduced to the web in 2000 I found it to be perfectly usable. There were things I considered worthy of optimisation, but that didn't hinder me from doing anything I was expecting to do be able to do. Touch devices offer a plethora of interaction methods, from swiping over pinching to Apple's forcetouch–yet users have barely embrassed tapping.

There is no "2004 to 2016 UX bonanza". You even said it yourself: "It's the content stupid". Content evolves, and, in contrast to paperbooks, humans on the Internet come up with fantastic new ways to make it more accessible. Thus, for as long as we will come up with ways to use technology to meet existing or future user expectations, there will be obvious and not-so-obvious cases where UX optimisation are required.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”― Kurt Vonnegut

And continous wing-making, in my holy opinion, is the future of UX.

Everything that can be done, has been done.

Lots of people have said that over the years. Those are usually the people that end up working on an assembly line because they are not creative thinkers. They go through life doing what everyone else tells them to do. Truly great design (for anything) comes from people looking at what HAS been done, taking it apart, rethinking it, and putting it back together differently.

some I agree some not. surprisingly, if you read the latest statistics or listen to interviews with 'template-tools' founders, most of the sites and apps are still designed 'by hand'. People and decision makers still prefer to work with designers over getting a DIY $69 template. Differentiation is the name of the game in all aspects, from Data Visualization to mobile apps. The challenges were facing just got bigger but hey, thats what makes it  so exciting.

"deploying a parallax effect for long scroll narrative pages is the hipster beard of web design". Love it! I also agree that great UX is the art of invisibility and not an end in itself.  How does that get forgotten? Or was it never learned.

Do you guys have a full stime staffer to create click-bait titles? Just curious.

The Yahoo image you posted looks pre-millenium. There were some beautiful sites being produced well before 2004. 

"Non-Obvious Design Challenges Are Here to Stay"

There will always be the gifted designer who will make the non-obvious challenge an opportunity.  The trick is letting go of dated trends and shaping the next one.

This is the same reason I swore off agency work / employment in the first place. Too often personal bias, time sheets and the need to bill clients got in the way of building a great product — reducing the effort to building a great looking product. In this day and age that is not enough as what we need to do is allow people to solve problems with the least amount of friction possible. Since swearing off agency work, I've worked for a tech giant and am currently on my 3rd start-up where the full focus is on how do we make our product increasingly better, easier to use and more intuitive. In many ways, that means less chrome, less UI and more contextual cues.

"Great UX is actually the art of invisibility" - reminds me of old Seymour Papert's words from 1990, regarding use of computers in education:

"... In our experiments at the Hennigan School, we ask children questions about what they are doing. These simple questions have yielded some results that illustrate appropriation. Some of our graduate students asked the children, "What are you doing?" In the first few months, if we asked this when they were working with the computers, they would say, "computer" or "Logo" or "programming." But six months later, when we came to the children and asked what they were doing, no one said anything like that. They said, "I'm making a skeleton. Can't you see?" or "I'm writing a story." No one talked about the computer anymore.

The computer had been absorbed; it had become part of the culture. This is not surprising. If you went up to a poet who was busy writing his poem and asked what he was doing, you would be very surprised if he said, "I'm using a pencil." Of course he is using a pencil, but the pencil has become invisible. It's not there as a separate thing; it's part of his life. It's part of the world. You don't think about it. And so, too, the computer. We have only succeeded when it becomes invisible..."

quoted from http://www.papert.org/articles/ACritiqueofTechnocentrism.html