Every new year brings new challenges for UX Designers. Culture evolves, new technologies arise, the way people engage with digital services changes, and so do the expectations they have about the products they use everyday.
Part of our job as experience designers is to always be one step ahead of those transformations, in a process of constantly challenging our thinking and the things we make. This approach is called synchronous design, and it helps us stay ahead in a world of proliferating innovations in mobile, social, and connected devices. What are the some of the evolving behaviors and needs of the consumers we’re designing for?
What have designers written about this year? What are the biggest challenges, concerns, and expectations crossing their minds in 2017?
The trends you see below are the result of looking through more than 500 UX-related articles published over the course of 2016 – written by designers with very diverse backgrounds, from companies of varying sizes and ambitions, published in many different design publications out there.
#1 Every interface is a conversation
“Chatbot” is one of the hottest terms in our industry right now, and we are pretty confident you are going to be building one quite soon — if you haven’t already. But what does the future of Conversational Interfaces look like?
Essentially, a Conversational Interface is any user interface that mimics speaking with a real human.
But stepping back for a moment: isn’t every interface a conversation between the user and the machine?
Think of the most common apps you use everyday. Like hailing a cab.
First, you tell Uber that you need a ride. Then, it asks you where you are, and once it has found a driver, it tells you the time estimate. When the ride is over, it asks you how it went. And you tell it your opinion by clicking on the stars and rating the ride.
Traditional interfaces (the ones we design every day) are quite similar to a conversation — that just happens to manifest as buttons, menus and other interaction patterns. With Conversational UI, the structure is the same. But instead of buttons, menus, and stars, you tell the machine what you want using words. And emojis 😘.
Conversations will only get louder
“Chatbot” is the next big buzzword in design — and our industry is seeing a lot of interest from companies looking to explore that space. Automated, conversational experiences allow brands to inspire, communicate with and serve their customers right where they are, in a much more scalable way.
Order pizza from Facebook Messenger with Pizza Hut’s new chatbot
Apps like WeChat have become the central destination for a plethora of services in China. Over half a billion people use WeChat, and it touches everything — from consumers communicating with friends, to sharing their daily moments, to buying everything from food to paying credit card bills. It’s IM, ecommerce, banking, dating, gaming and marketing rolled into one platform, where you can shop, order food, book doctor appointments, find parking spots nearby, book hotels, hire maid/nanny/babysitter, hail a taxi, and so on. All through conversations — and mini-apps that run within those conversations.
Messenger, Kik, Slack, and many other messaging platforms have been working hard in 2016 to expand their capabilities and allow for similar experiences through conversations.
Not to mention voice interfaces — Siri, Alexa, Google Home, and so many others —are a natural next step for chatbots, and a business opportunity that will inevitably affect the way you, as a designer, think about products and services in the near future.
The interactions of the future are not made of buttons.
Will 2017 be the year where companies shift some of their primary experiences to a chat format? Have we found real use cases for it, or are we just following the hype?
#2 Virtual Reality: a body and space puzzle
From The Matrix to Her and Black Mirror, humans have always fantasized about living in a world of virtual reality — the only thing that varies is the opacity of the virtual layer. As these digital worlds become more real, so do the actions we need to take to enable these experiences.
The first idea about Virtual Reality that needs to be demystified is the paradox of “Virtual Reality” itself. It is a great name that has been around for a while, but we know that it goes beyond that: immersive experiences are about expanding the reality that we live in.
But if designing two-dimensional interfaces already require so much work, knowledge and effort — what does it mean to design an entire new world that is able to augment our own?
“Designing for VR should not mean transferring 2D practices to 3D, but finding a new paradigm.” — Jonathan Ravaz
Well, let’s break that down.
A new lexicon of interactions
The first and most obvious challenge is designing a new type of interface. Google, Facebook and other players are already defining new interaction standards for virtual spaces — natural gestures with similar meanings from the real world will help translating emotions and actions in the virtual space.
Conversational interfaces also play a big role here — after all, that’s how we mainly interact with other people and businesses in the world outside screens.
A new spatial paradigm
The second challenge is a physical one. Beyond interfaces, immersive experiences are defined by the interaction of our bodies with the space they are in. What is the relationship between our physical and virtual bodies?
Sound design, architecture, lighting, physics are just a few examples of things to be considered.
Are people expecting the virtual experience to be as realistic as the physical one? How far can we push those boundaries? Are humans ready for a more elastic reality?
A new relationship with the self
The last piece might be the most important — yet the one we know the least about. It’s impossible to talk about the relationship of body and space without considering social, psychological and cultural factors. A virtual reality can redefine one’s personal space, personal image (think avatars), and social interactions.
Before designing for Virtual Reality, we need to consider our own bias and the user’s side effects of such immersive experiences. It will require clear guidelines and an ongoing ethic discussion as we introduce new social paradigms.
2017 won’t be the Virtual Reality year — yet. It might take another year or so before immersive experiences have a real impact beyond our tech bubble. But it will be the year where we’ll decide what should and should not be designed for VR. [R/GA’s latest FutureVision issue offers advice for brands looking to get their feet wet.]
#3 Not your fault, but your responsibility
Diversity and ethics were two of the most important topics in UX this year. Many Designers started in UX to be able to have meaningful impact on people’s lives. Are we finally at a point where we can do that?
The products and apps we design are used by millions — sometimes billions — of people, creating new markets, improving the economy, and shaping how people interact with each other. While delightful animations and novelty technologies can put a smile on someone’s face, we have the tools and responsibility to impact much more than that with our work.
Companies are starting to realize they are not only responsible for their impact on society, but also that transformations in society can impact their product design. Airbnb hired a Director of Diversity not only to lead specific initiatives, but also to help shape their products and features with diversity in mind. Nextdoor learned that they could play a role in fighting racism by making some small improvements on the flow to post a message in their platform.
Design can’t be just incidental. Our work has impact on people’s lives.
We, as designers, also have responsibilities of our own. Every design decision carries some opinion or perspective about the world. Unfortunately, some of those decisions are solely based on the designer’s assumptions. From a simple ethnicity question in a form to the way we will design a complete world in Virtual Reality, we could be missing the opportunity of breaking stereotypes and misconceptions.
It’s not easy.
First, we need to understand our bias to question the design solutions we are creating and be as impartial as possible. Even when we do that, the end product can still be failing in some way. When that happens, the underlying question becomes how intentional the error was, and what has been done to fix it.
A design can fail, designers shouldn’t.
Second, we need to consider the impact of our work and how it can give something positive back to society. We’re not in the game just to make stakeholders happy, and nothing is going to change if we don’t proactively act on it.
“If your company is just in it for the money, maybe you should look for a better company. It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility” — Alan Cooper, Ranch Stories talk
Design automation, a new type of generalist, connected ecosystems, and more
There’s much more to expect from 2017 when it comes to Experience Design: from the design processes we will be able to automate, to the challenge of connecting fragmented brand ecosystems through a customer-centric lens.