What are we talking about when we talk about UX? That question has been central to user experience since its inception, some 25 years ago, when Don Norman popularized the term by giving himself the title of User Experience Architect at Apple.
Over that same span of time, UX Magazine has been exploring, promoting, and discussing the realm of user experience design (pre-dating wikipedia’s first mention of “UX” by roughly 5 years). Where the focus of UX was initially on improving the overall experience people had with computers, which were then rather obtuse in most ways, the idea of user experience has now grown to encompass not just the experiences people have with computers and computer programs, but also the experiences customers and employees have with organizations and, as digital interactions have become ubiquitous, how we experience the world at large.
In some ways, UX has become so broad that it’s returned to core principles of ergonomics, arguably dating back 25 centuries to Hippocrates describing the optimal conditions for performing surgery in familiar terms: “[the surgeon] should attend to the patient’s position and the surgical instruments … the surgeon’s clothes must be neither too wide nor too tight … [tools] must be positioned in such a way as to not obstruct the surgeon, and also be within easy reach when required.”
These are the kinds of considerations that feed into the same need for practicality and ease-of-use that we find ourselves addressing today, and will likely continue to design for in the future.
When I stepped in as Managing Editor of UXM in 2012, great strides had been made toward creating digital products that were pleasant to use. Apple in particular boasted hardware and software products that were built with human experiences at the core, but UX was still something of a niche concern.
At the time, many experience designers felt like broken records, repeatedly pointing out the higher adoption rates attributed to well-designed products as they made bids for companies to invest more time and money in UX. As is true of many nascent fields, there was also a lot of discourse surrounding the definition of roles and the articulation of best practices, but the chief concern seemed to be with UX making its way to the C-suite—of UX earning the respect it deserved.
As I was leaving my post a few years later, vanguard San Francisco-based experience design firm Adaptive Path had been acquired by Capital One. The merger was a hotpoint for discussion in the UX community, as it both validated the business case of user-centered design and raised fears that the discipline would become diluted in enterprise settings. This acquisition and others like it set the tone for the years to follow.
What’s happened since then is that the X has taken over. User experience has in many ways merged with customer experience management, employee experience, and the broader management of business and technology—you could even argue that UX is now the intersection of all of the above.
Interactions with customers and employees are increasingly happening through software interfaces, to the point where, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies without ample software interfaces were the exception to the rule. For that reason, in many companies, UX largely defines CX.
Things like responsive design, once the source of fevered coding sessions and internal hand-wringing, have been baked into ready-to-use web design templates that render flawlessly across every imaginable device. Entrenched practitioners are still no doubt engaging in blooded discourse over the ethics surrounding persuasive design, but the audience for information on all aspects of experience design has grown significantly.
As the dreams of many old-guard UXers have come true—there are few organizations left that don’t have some form of experience design at the core of their operations—many of these practitioners have moved into new roles, bringing user awareness to all aspects of business.
UX now encompasses customer experience (CX) and employee experience (EX). The big X is now something that everyone has a vested interest in.
This is something Gartner has been following as well. In 2019, the research giant introduced “multiexperience” as a top strategic technology trend, noting that digital experiences had shifted from being web-based to mobile, and were continuing to move beyond to include chat, voice, augmented reality, and wearable experiences.
This year, they’ve taken that thinking a step further with total experience (TX): “a strategy that connects multiexperience with customer, employee, and user experience disciplines,” says research vice president Brian Burke. “Gartner expects organizations that provide a TX to outperform competitors across key satisfaction metrics over the next three years.”
UX Magazine continues to extend and deepen our coverage as we move into this new phase of experience design where the convergence of COVID19, advanced hyper-automation, and AI-powered conversational interfaces are, in essence, gasoline being poured onto an already blazing 20-year-old fire.
We’ve reached a point where siloed approaches to the integration of technology should be laid to rest. Innovations come too quickly for organizations to saddle themselves with the technical, process and data debt that piles up when different parts of a company are dealing with tech in different ways. To succeed in the future economy, successful digital experiences will be part of ecosystems where shared libraries of data inform all human interactions with technology, whether those humans are customers or employees. This will require a strategic shift.
As conversational AI in particular becomes more and more sophisticated, we’re getting closer to realizing another coveted experience design milestone: a truly invisible interface. Before long, users will be interacting with machines using a skill set that takes no time to learn, because they already have it (in fact, it’s the primary way that humans interact): conversation. This doesn’t mean our work is done, however. It means that a whole new era of experience design has begun. Despite the levels of sophistication that will go into creating these new experiences, their very nature will require a holistic approach that takes us back to our all-encompassing origins.
“It’s everything that touches upon your experience with a product,” Donald Norman reminds us. “It may not even be near the product—it may be when you’re telling somebody else about it—that’s what we meant.”
As we head into these uncharted waters, look to UX Magazine to bring you perspective from the front lines of this shift, drawing on the knowledge of a community of over 500,000 leaders, thinkers, and doers. We’ll continue sharing stories from experience design pioneers like Don Norman, Jesse James Garret, Jared Spool, and Alan Cooper, as well as many of today’s lead innovators.
There’s virtually no aspect of daily life remaining that UX doesn’t affect, and here you’ll find information that keeps you current with this ongoing conversation.