Designing the Future

What UX will look like 50 years from now


What is “UX Futures?”

Hosted by Rosenfeld Media and Environments for Humans, UX Futures is a one-day virtual summit where industry veterans share thoughts and perspectives on the future of the design world — and what it might look like 50 years from now.

The lineup was awesome, with speakers from different corners of the UX universe — from usability to information architecture and service design.

Here’s some highlights I took away from 6 design leaders at UX Futures. Hope their thoughts are as fascinating to you as they were to me.

Six Lessons

1. “We will be begin focusing more on designing for the in between — the invisible.” — Andy Polaine, Interaction and Service Design Consultant

Can seemingly minuscule UX decisions change the world? Andy Polaine explores the future of UX in the terms of The Powers of Ten, a 70's film that examines the world from the most micro levels — a person’s skin — and zooms out by powers of ten (0 meters, 10 meters, 100 meters, etc), eventually arriving at the most macro level: a view of Earth from outer space.

Bridging into the design world, Andy Polaine argues that designers must be able to switch back and forth between different levels of magnitude. The transitions between these levels represent not only the relationship between screens and interfaces, but also systems, cultures, and beliefs. Can a product or service’s design choices impact every level of the power of ten?

2. “Carefully choose the language you use. If you can’t communicate your design, you have no design.” — Abby Covert, President of IA Institute

In her presentation, Abby Covert discusses the practice of information architecture to navigate through a “minefield” of change we will face in the future. We will use IA to bring together understanding and clarity as a foundation for a new world — a world of information.

The most eye-opening thing she focused on — among her other lessons — was the role of language in information architecture. Abby points out that many of the issues we face today arise through miscommunication, where people share different perspectives on the meaning of a word. To overcome this, a particular vocabulary must be agreed upon — instead of relying on a dictionary’s multitude of meanings for each word. Abby urges us to carefully choose the language we use in order to communicate our designs.

3. “Usability will continue to be important, with it’s underlying principles unchanged.” — Steve Krug, Author of Don’t Make Me Think

Just as in his book Don’t Make Me Think!, he prefaces the presentation by saying that (a) most predictions he hears are wrong and (b) the things that will turn out to be important will come as a surprise, even though in hindsight they’ll seem perfectly obvious.

As for the future, Steve argues that usability’s underlying principles will remain unchanged — as its principles are based on deep-rooted human behaviors and abilities. He also believes that usability will continue to be important, and shift more towards a quantitative emphasis in the not too distant future.

Wrapping up his presentation, Steve fears that usability will be drawn to the dark side — that usability may be stripped of its original and sole goal of advocating for the user. Will our intentions of “desirability” and “pleasure” steer the user experience field closer towards marketing?

4. “Imagining technology of the future inspires us with what’s possible, what’s ideal, and what would be awesome.” — Nathan Shedroff, Serial Entrepreneur and Author of Design is the Problem

At the core of Nathan Shedroff’s presentation are interaction design lessons literally from the future. He brings a fun and innovative approach to his take on the future of UX design, and highlights the reoccurring trend of technology portrayed in science fiction movies turning into reality anywhere from 10 to 30 years later. Nathan lists off a handful of movies that showcase this trend, such as the “Communicator” featured in Star Trek, which a decade later was exactly what Nokia released as the first flip mobile phone.

In his examples, he believes that science fiction is a prototyping tool. The future is just around the corner, and as designers, we have many visions of possible futures. As we work our way tackling new challenges in interaction design, these visions can offer us insight not only on where we are headed, but also lessons that we can use today in our work.

5. “We must consider what future — and who — will we let in.” — Margot Bloomstein, Author of Content Strategy at Work

Margot Bloomstein takes us into her investigation on the future of content strategy and publishing. With traditional, centralized news publishing on a decline, how will newer platforms and collaborative tools reframe content strategy? How do we understand the distribution of content now, when almost everyone is able to be a journalist by sharing content through social media?

When it comes to content, Margot points out that as designers, we are able to amplify the voices of the others. In turn, we are responsible for making both the creation and distribution of content more accessible. Margot urges us to give these users guidance (in the form of features such as tool tips) and provide them a positive experience in order to encouraging the creation of high quality content. Making accessible tools has the power to reduce barriers to quality.

6. “The world will better understand the value of experience.” — Jesse James Garret, Co-Founder of Adaptive Path

In Jesse’s presentation, we take a trip into the future — 50 years, in fact. What will the past 50 years of UX have looked like? Jesse explains the evolution of the practice and the industry in terms of a diverse range of spectrums. Here are a handful that stuck out to me:

  • Hard science and analytics vs Soft science and humanities (Concerning the practice of UX, there will be a polarization of methods we use to gain user insight)
  • “Cowboys” vs Graduates (Regarding the composition of practitioners in the industry, we will see a decrease in the number of self-taught “Cowboys” that lay the groundwork for the original methodologies, in exchange for a rise in students from new, structured UX programs)
  • Collaborative vs Team-of-one (The role of UX will shift to a more team-oriented practice, yet the team-of-one will continue to be the best solution for the small organizations and start-ups that can’t onboard a full team)

Jesse is wishful for a world in which people will understand the value behind experiences. This will all be a result of having been immersed in products, services, and environments — created in a lens that will have (hopefully) been made with the best possible experience in mind.


My favorite slide, from @jjg.

Final Thoughts

The future of user experience is more exciting than ever. As Andy Polaine presented on the powers of ten, it’s amazing how much it can impact both individual people and the world.

What are your thoughts and perspectives on the future of UX? Tweet me at @_chrisachan to share your ideas! I’m always down to learn more from others.