UX Futures is a one-day virtual conference that will take place November 5. Hosted by Rosenfeld Media and Environments for Humans, the event features six inspiring speakers—Steve Krug, Jesse James Garrett, Margot Bloomstein, Andy Polaine, Nathan Shedroff and Abby Covert—all focusing on what’s next for user experience.

To give you a taste of what to expect, we’ve asked three of them—Margot, Andy, and Jesse—to answer a few questions on the future of UX. Be sure to use discount code UXMAGAZINE for 20% off when registering.

It's 2024. You've just finished your UX education and you're at the graduation party your parents have thrown for you. An old friend of theirs tells you that he has one word for you as you consider your future. What is it and why?

Andy Polaine: Relationships. This isn’t a futuristic answer, but it is essential to remember as technology continues to play a bigger part in our lives. All relationships are mediated in some form, via language, culture, and technology. All activities involve tending to some kind of relationship, even if it is just with ourselves. Understanding how people relate to technology and systems–including organizations and platforms–is fundamental to UX at a broader level. It means designing for more human and humane experiences as opposed to focusing on efficiencies, tasks, screens, devices, and profit. The soft, messy, chaotic factors of all that are the things future graduates will need to grapple with and bring into organizational environments that have been dominated by 150 years of industrial thinking.

Margot Bloomstein: Simplify. Well, maybe it’s “simplify, simplify, simplify,” but in this scenario you’re a recent college grad, so you’re down with both Thoreau and skimming for the important parts. Both the past and future of good UX are about simplifying things: whether to embrace Loewy’s idea of “most advanced yet acceptable” or removing extraneous detail to focus the user’s attention, our work isn’t changing. We filter, focus, and teach by clarifying and sweeping away the extraneous stuff. That’s just becoming more difficult with the increasing proliferation of information and channels, seemingly without curation. It’s our job to create experiences from all that and to continue to make tough choices about what’s important and what’s not.

Jesse James Garrett: Science. There is so much science out there—psychology, neurobiology, anthropology, sociology—that we can leverage much more than we have historically. We’ve gotten comfortable with qualitative product testing, but each of these other fields has honed its own set of tools, each optimized to answer a particular kind of question. But we place so much emphasis on the creative, generative part of the design process, we neglect the ways in which we can enrich that process with new kinds of insights.

It's 2029. Which design materials will UX folks be working with the most: macro (i.e., organizations, institutions, and ecosystems), or micro (organisms, cells, and thoughts)?

Andy: Macro and micro. In an ecosystem, all the parts are dependent on and react to one another. Change the temperature of a rock pool by one degree and algae starts to dominate and some creatures die out. Remove the algae and something else dies. The best UX in the world at the micro or macro level doesn’t help much if the organizational or institutional ecosystem is broken, and changing the ecosystem does not work if you do not take care of the details, especially the invisible links and connections of transitions over time and across channels.


Image of algae courtesy Shutterstock.

Margot Bloomstein: Andy raises good points about the impact of our work: we have to address the forest and the trees, or both the algae and the pool (or the fish) if we want it to be successful. Of course, that means we have to explore the role of UX in the boardroom. We have to carve out a place there to have an impact on the seemingly intractable issues of our time. Jonathon Colman addresses these challenges in his excellent talk, "Wicked Ambiguity." While the devil’s in the details, and much of the impact of UX is in execution, we won’t have the opportunity to effect change without evangelizing and securing budget at more macro and strategic levels. UX practitioners need to be effective at both levels: we need to be able to manage the details as well as the big-picture conversations that garner time and money to address those details.

Jesse: Okay, I’ll pick a side: As UX becomes more macro, more systems-oriented, it becomes more strategic and more valuable. As practiced at the micro end, UX is less a particular set of practices than it is a way of thinking about performing a more tactical kind of design activity. So at the micro end, you have people shaping experiences, but not necessarily spending all their time thinking about these problems, so they may not even think of themselves as doing UX. But at the macro end, dealing with organizations and systems, the experiential nature of the work is inescapable.

What do you hope or imagine will have happened for UX by the year 2034?

Andy: I am fairly certain that there will have been some major UX wins in our work lives and our personal lives, whether that’s transportation, media consumption, or ways of collaborating with others. I’m almost certain that governments and public services, monopolies, and established giants will still be struggling to get their heads around why they should think about any of this, all while alternative models are starting to infiltrate the cracks those lumbering dinosaurs have left in their broken systems.

Margot: UX wins will come when we serve a broader group of users by working with and learning from a broader group of practitioners. Right now, it’s still the purview of a largely white, Western group of designers, many of whom offer similar worldviews and life experiences. We admonish each other to remember that “we are not the user,” which is an important step in designing for others—but it pales in comparison to a future when there is no “other.” We’ll get to that point when design education and agencies cultivate students and practitioners with more diverse backgrounds and mentor them to bring their voices to the publishers, stages, and audiences that need to hear from them.

Jesse: I think the real high-water marks for UX are when we create experiences that get consumers–not just internal stakeholders–to think about the product category or offering in a fundamentally new way. When we are able to put forward a better, alternative model for an experience, and have that model embraced and adopted by a large audience, we’re really making the kind of change in the world that we’re capable of.

Thanks for your thoughts, all!

Want more UX Futures? You got it—the virtual conference takes place November 5, 2014, and discount code UXMAGAZINE is good for 20% off when registering.

Lead image originally appeared in Galaxy magazine, December, 1961