It’s Time To Blow Up UX Design

UX design is expanding far past “make it work better”

I recently built my first bot.

It’s a permutation of a project that has been incubating in my “to-do” list for a few years. It has been started and aborted and re-started and abandoned a half dozen times. I’ve worked on it as a website, as a data visualization, as a mobile application for iPhone, Android, Windows / Windows Phone.

The bot is fairly simple: ask a question about US employment data and, informed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the bot delivers the data. It works for several employment metrics, delivering national and state-level employment data.

You can try it out here.

BLS data is very hard to get to, even using the API. Building a web app or a mobile app was an enormous amount of work because I knew that 80% of the users would want just the basic information (current information on the unemployment rate, labor force participation, private sector job growth, state employment statistics) but the people who would really use the app would want more. Historical data (possibly going back a decade or more) demographic data, job growth in specific industries, raw numbers vs percentage changes, the ability to download the data, chart the data… the project, done properly, was a massive undertaking.

The bot, however, is stupid. Ask a question. Either the bot knows the answer or it does not. This limited the time to build in part because I was able to manage user expectations around what the bot can actually accomplish.

The architecture and possibilities of bots are several posts unto themselves, but exploring bots has made me think very hard about the future of user experience design.

We Need UX To Tell Us What To Make

Though I’ve worked as a developer, I’m frequently thought of as a “UX Designer” which is a terrible job title that people misinterpret anywhere from “visual designer” to “user researcher” to “makes graphical user interfaces work”. It has frequently put me in the position of trying to take an existing project and make it more user friendly.

This is fine if you already know what your product is. If the company makes mobile apps, let’s make that mobile app have the best user experience possible. The app will have a screen, push notifications, deep-linking, search integration, photo library integration. Ultimately most of this user design is to get the user into the app to experience the primary graphical interface.

But we’re moving rapidly out of that world. Unless your business is “making mobile apps” you are locking yourself into an increasingly narrow platform for reaching your users.

The practice of user experience needs to move away from creating compelling experiences for existing apps or implementations and shift into asking the early question: Which experiences make sense for which platforms?

There are a plethora of platforms to choose from. Email remains a powerful tool for marketing and user acquisition. Web apps are ubiquitous, but incredibly difficult to maintain across every device type. Bots are great for forms and quick information but require approval and live at the mercy of your deployed platforms. Virtual and augmented reality have enormous potential, but present so many UX questions I could fill a book with them.

Your business may have use cases across one or all of these platforms. Users are going to want certain interactions and certain information across certain channels. What the user needs, how the users want to interact, what platforms to pursue, and what functionality to even include in a given platform… these are discussions that are well served with input from your UX designer as the internal user advocate.

A Mountain Of Devices, A Sea of Input

Users are moving quickly from the view that a single website or application will contain their complete experience with a brand. Experiences as a whole are shifting from the locked-in forms that a publisher might prefer to the freedom of ubiquitous interaction.

Users may have compelling reasons to interact with a company or brand through:

  • Mobile Applications
  • Desktop Applications
  • Wearable Devices
  • Social Platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest)
  • Messaging Platforms (Facebook, Slack, Kik, Telegram)
  • Virtual Reality / Augmented Reality
  • Game Consoles
  • Headless devices (IoT)
  • Alexa / Cortana / Siri (or other voice interface implementations)

The practice of compelling user experiences can’t simply be something embedded inside each of these platforms and interfaces. It needs to live above them, helping choose which interactions make the most sense and narrowing the interaction patterns to fit the appropriate medium.

Bringing this back to bots: Creating a bot with a fully formed natural language interface is an immense amount of work and having them ready for every possible question or scenario is a massive undertaking. But perhaps there is a quick piece of information your users could benefit from (movie times, weather or traffic status, simple forms) where embedding that experience into a bot gives your users a quick alternative to downloading yet another app or remembering a website on their mobile device.

Users have peculiar and unique ways of using these different platforms and harnessing these interaction styles. Understanding the use patterns helps us decide what we even want to build and the scope of these projects. (An excellent example of bot-specific UX practices can be found here.)

Each platform has strengths and weaknesses in interaction methods and styles. Mobile applications are used more frequently, desktop experience for greater periods of time and using greater options. People expect different levels of privacy with a bot on Kik vs the same bot on Slack. Virtual and augmented experiences are intensely visceral and personal experiences, requiring a cautious UX touch when it comes to the comfort of the user. Shareability of content or an experience may be an essential component on a social platform but a low priority (or even a hindrance) in a bot experience. Data exploration may find a natural home in VR while it remains a mediocre experience on a phone.

The practice of UX needs to be addressing these issues not in the bubble of a single project, but with a holistic understanding of what the user intends before they even open an app or navigate to a website. It’s time to step back and remember that the experience is not a software experience but a human one.