UX Week 18: State of the UX Union

By Kathrine Becker

From escape rooms to podcasts to open-source robot pasta, UX Week ’18 provided an annual glimpse into design developments from around the world.

Taken individually, each speaker offered valuable tools and insights you can implement with your own teams. (If you couldn’t join us, check out the videos below.) With a gestalt lens, however, we’re treated to an unofficial State of the UX Union. What’s trending? What new challenges do designers face in the workplace, and what problems in the world are designers newly equipped to fight?

Over the course of 16 talks, three themes emerged:

  • Milieu is having a moment. Physical and digital spaces (and experiences) are merging.
  • Design’s narrative has shifted. It’s now less about earning a seat at the table, and more about taking a stand.
  • People make a place. When scaling, when collaborating, when desiging the future, the key to UX is (duh) the users, the humans, the people.
A UX Week tradition: Attendees get notebooks with some creative space, and vote for their favorites in the cover art competition.

Space Design: Blending the Physical and Digital

Early on, Jorge Arango and Claudio Guglieri both clearly advocated for creating digital spaces which register in our brains as physical ones. Essentially, we needn’t wait for ubiquitous VR headsets to fuse the computerized with the corporeal.

Conversely, Hannah Beachler and Laura E. Hall described how they drew on design principles often applied to digital experiences to create physical worlds. While both of these examples are notably built on fictional stories (designing Black Panther’s Wakanda, and creating physical-puzzle-narratives in Escape Rooms), their end results feel strikingly real and fully immersive.

Other stories were deeply rooted in a specific social environment: Bryan Lee Jr. described his experiences in New Orleans, enabling justice design and helping his community tell its story, and Vahid Jahangiri detailed the process of creating a new type of stove that would serve an entire population in Uganda. Both outcomes — a community finding a voice, and a community making a meal — are wholly reflective of their users because they were designed not only for the people, but with the residents of each place.

On the periphery of the space-and-place theme were Lining Yao and Roman Mars who offered peeks into a few design decisions made in distant, or at least seemingly remote, pockets of the world.

Lining’s Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon is currently focused on 3D-printing the pasta of the future, which sounds like what happens in the kitchenette corner of Tony Stark’s basement. If you like self-chopping macaroni, and/or making an O.O face, Lining’s video definitely deserves a viewing.

Roman’s talk — or more accurately, his live recording of a 99% Invisible podcast episode — highlighted the brilliant design of Australian currency before hopping to the world of basketball circa 1955, and then skipped off to the microcosm of phone books, paying specific attention to area codes. (What?!) As usual, Roman’s stories take you to foreign terrain where he points out the minute intentionality hiding in plain sight which — once the story is over and you’re back in the now — makes you see your own world differently.

Hannah Beachler chatting with UX Week host, Jesse James Garrett. (Though we don’t have permission to share the video of her talk, check out our pre-event interview for more from Hannah!)

Changing the Conversation: Design’s New Message

Beyond fighting for a seat at the proverbial table, these speakers sounded the alarm for sounding alarms.

If you see something, say something. Be the voice for fair and ethical business practices. Fight the good fight.

The overarching message sounded like this: When a company is aware of harm coming to its customers as a byproduct of their business intent but fails to change anything, that bad behavior transforms from passive neglect to an explicit dismissal of a user’s needs. Oof. These designers showed up to say: there is no “explicit dismissal of a user’s needs” in “User Experience.”

  • Kat Lo on helping digital platforms and communities manage trolls: “If the treatment doesn’t violate a policy, it doesn’t even qualify as harassment, which is basically gaslighting the [victim].” “If you don’t work to manage and deal with it, you ERASE the harassment from your platform. And not in a good way.”
  • Lisa Gelobter on bringing UX design to the federal government, and therefore, to the people: “I can order a vegan burrito from my phone and have it delivered to my apartment in 10 minutes, but ordering SNAP vouchers online takes… ages.” “If we can send a Tesla to outer space, we can use those same tech skills to help people on our home planet — in a myriad of ways.”
  • Sara Wachter-Boettcher on leaders advocating for diversity in design:“Your responsibility correlates to how much power and security you have in your own role. [If you’re not a POC or in a minority], you can’t leave it to the one 23-year-old black junior designer to bring up bias. You need to lead with an intention of, ‘I’m going to normalize talking about hard things.’”
  • Liz Jackson on designing with disabled people: “This idea that we are recipients has taken over.” “Sometimes empathy interviews look less like empathy and more like stealing, rebranding, and selling our own life hacks back to us.” “[Companies] need to design WITH, not for, disability.”
  • Dr. Julie Carpenter on the culture of robotics design: “Don’t be negligent. Anticipate ethical risks.” On digital literacy: “We have a cultural and individual responsibility to understand robots […] Even if you don’t have a policy, have the ongoing conversation.”

In fact, hearing these talks and between-talk-chatter in such a short span revealed a curious note on the nomenclature of bad behavior. When online users treat each other poorly we refer to it as “trolling,” and when employees treat each other poorly we call it “harassment,” but when companies treat their own customers poorly, we softly euphemize the behavior as “lacking ethics”. Hmm.

We’re hoping that, if trends continue, the momentum behind fighting for fair and equitable treatment for users everywhere will allow for an evolution in language, a.k.a., more straight talk.

UX Week attendees in a workshop.

Humans: Why we’re doing any of this UX stuff in the first place

Catt Small, Peter Merholz, and Monika Bielskyte spoke to the heart of user experience design. If you’re looking for a primer on UX as a practice (skill-wise, applications in leadership, for the overall mindset) these talks will keep you centered. They’re all about organizing, connecting, and inspiring the people we work with and design for, because brilliant design doesn’t matter if we aren’t treating each other with the fullest respect that their humanity demands.


Until ‘19…

Put these ideas to the test. Sketchnote one of the videos below. Teach your teams back at home what you learned. Don’t be stingy! Share the wisdoms. If you joined us, we’re glad you came — and if you didn’t, we hope to see you next year.



Kathrine Becker uses storycraft to clarify and elevate the work of ONE Design at Capital One. She can sometimes be found on the couch eating paprika popcorn while playing with cats.