Sorry UX, the party’s over.
For the past nine years, I’ve been writing trading bots and scripts in Ninjascript (C#) while studying technical analysis of the stock market.
Most of this work involves understanding market dynamics, trends, indicators and algorithms. The rest of it is silent cursing, looking for that one semicolon in my code that stops my entire script from compiling properly. It’s truly a love-hate relationship.
Lately, I’ve been getting some warning signs that the market for UX’ers is in trouble. The macro view for the short to medium term seems viable enough. It’s the longer view into 2019 where I worry.
Take these unconventional indicators I’ve seen lately:
- Surprising layoffs of senior and principal UX leadership in both agencies and enterprise companies due to cost cutting measures.
- An uptick of both UX’ers trying to find jobs, and existing UX’ers who are feeling more isolated from the businesses and/or work tapering off.
- The slowing of the bull market for UX jobs in the early spring, coupled with a new emphasis for remote UX talent outside the US. Normally this is seasonal in nature with freelancers, contractors and full time employees (FTE’s), so I’m discounting this a bit.
Now I could chalk the whole thing up to confirmation bias. I was let go from my own position as a UX Manager back in May (which was a fantastic blessing given that I was thinking about starting a business). I could be walking around with a chip on my shoulder, grumbling that the world is against me.
Also, one could easily argue that all signs point to UX being a very vibrant discipline with a bright future. Active user groups, strong community support and a whole lot of unfilled UX positions across the United States. What’s not to love about this if you’re in the UX field? It’s awesome!
If you’re one of those individuals that believes UX is doing fine, fantastic. You do you and be happy. You can stop reading now. Everything will be fine.
I think there’s going to be a huge correction in the market this time next year for UX. The discipline as a whole will be under attack on a variety of fronts. It’s likely going to replay the same thing that happened with IA and IxD when they peaked and regressed in the last decade.
Here’s what I think will happen, or is already happening:
- Specialized roles for advanced technology are eating UX’s lunch
Whether it’s machine learning, voice design, blockchain, AR/VR, etc., more and more companies will be venturing and exploring emerging tech. The market will start asking and demanding skills that UX can’t bridge. Not even the recent revival of the design/developer role in UX will suffice.
I also think user/customer researchers (the majority of which were lumped into UX by default) will be peeling away the UX label to accommodate different market realities related to emerging tech. Researchers in general will have to undergo a fundamental realignment towards understanding neurosciences, psychology and business dynamics.
- ‘Product Designers’ are the new hotness
Product Design, by definition, is a major aspect of new product development. The discipline incorporates strategic and tactical activities (from idea generation to commercialization) to produce artifacts and supporting processes in achieving business-related outcomes and goals.
With the maturation of product strategy, growth hacking and social marketing in today’s business world, the new emphasis is on speed and convenance. It’s less about how good the experience is, and more about how fast you can get an ‘acceptable’ product in front of customers and iterate from there.
Behold, the emergence (and rising relevance) of the Product Designer.
Ideally, a ‘good’ Product Designer should know a bit of animation, prototyping, coding, research, visual and interaction design. They are there to help you identify, investigate, and validate the problem. Once that’s established, they ultimately craft, design, test and ship a solution.
As more companies realize these advantages of having a skilled Product Designer on their team, even the most principled UX Designer will seem dated in comparison.
- Most UX Designers are reduced to what they can produce
Many UX’ers are educated to think that they’ll work with users and customers to create amazing products and experiences. They’ll coordinate with different departments to understand any given problem space and produce amazing concepts that deliver on the promise of the brand. They’ll become the voice of the user, following established UX best practices to champion the customer voice.
It’s complete and utter bullshit.
The modern day user experience designer is a production-line jockey hired to either create prototypes, wireframes, front-end code or flow documents. Those artifacts are typically consumed by Development and Architects to match either project requirements or underlying system architectures.
While User Researchers (UXR) arguably deliver real value in validating design approach and giving user perspective, UX designers are regulated to what they can generate in a given time period. Any perceived ability to innovate or represent the user/customer is a talking point with no bearing on reality.
- Design commoditization is making things cheaper and easier to build
You’d like to think that being a UX/UI Designer has a market advantage with applying various principles of design and usability to one’s work. The experiences crafted by senior and principal practitioners set the standard for others to follow.
It’s just not true anymore.
High-quality UX and UI design are now commodities in the market place. The market assumes you’ll deliver a great user experience by default, and will blame your company if they don’t get it.
Even if you’re not the most amazing designer on earth, it’s not a deal breaker. Anyone can start with robust design systems and patterns without a huge amount of effort. Google’s Material Design, Wordpress templates (free and paid) and do-it-yourself plugins (Elementor, Beaver Builder and Divi being the most popular) are all good examples of how easy it is to craft something unique for your audience.
- UX’s growing irrelevance to the bottom line
There was a fantastic presentation given this year at UX London by Paul Adams called “The End of Navel Gazing”. In his career, Paul’s worked as a researcher, product designer, manager and leader for companies like Facebook, Google and Dyson.
In his presentation, Paul showed the following diagram to illustrate the general makeup of typical business, and how leadership (at the center) influenced each of the departments (and sub-departments therein).
Each department talks with various other departments while working on their projects or conducting the day-to-day business of things. Sales engages leadership, HR, Finance, Marketing and Biz Ops. Engineering talks to Marketing, PM and Analytics. Design talks to arguably half of the diagram at any given point, and so on.
Meanwhile, UX is surfing the outside of the circle somewhere between research and design. It may come in contact periodically with some or all of these departments in the above diagram, but it doesn’t collaborate with them regularly. UX spends all it’s time and energy focused on just two areas of the larger organization.
Because of this dynamic, Paul argues that UX doesn’t fundamentally understand and respect the other roles in a typical organization, nor is it challenged to do so. There’s no regular interchange with other departments like sales and customer service that speak with customers and users regularly.
Let’s elaborate on that last point for a second.
Sales will likely know their product and customers better than the folks building the product. They engage clients to learn what they care about and alert the business to what they might be interested in buying. They have their fingers on the pulse of the market.
Customer Service will talk to your customers *every single day*, and will know the company’s product failings better than anyone. They discover patterns in what customers ask for and where the issues are. They’ll reinforce what the Sales department thinks customers are looking for next.
The best (and most innovative) companies encourage Sales, Customer Service, and Product Teams to talk to one another and exchange information. Coupled with analytics and Marketing, you have the proper foundation for true collaboration and innovation. If you’re versed in how to run a design sprint, you’ll really be off to the races.
Ironically, this dynamic exposes the biggest lie UX practitioners tell themselves: “We are the voice of the user”.
Most practitioners will believe that the user is at the center of everything a business does. Therefore, as a user experience person, they should also be at the center.
Unfortunately, it’s a naive, biased, ignorant and prejudiced view of the UX role in an organization.
UX may represent one voice of the customer, but it’s only one voice. Customers and users interact with a company in multiple ways. Sales, marketing (social media in particular) and customer service all engage users and customers far more than UX does.
To stay relevant, UX practitioners will need to reframe their engagement to understand the business, talk with other departments and learn what the market wants and demands.
Start working on Plan B
Just like the seasons that come and go, most UX practitioners will have their annual existential crisis about who they are and what they are meant to do.
The worse cases materialize in something called the ‘Imposter Syndrome’, a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
For most though, it’s the status quo irregardless of internal retrospection. As long as that paycheck, health insurance coverage, deferred retirement savings and that one work-from-home day are there and you can provide for yourself and your family, all is good.
For those of you wanting a plan B, I would strongly encourage you to read the latter part of Jonathan Courtney’s ‘The Golden Age of UX is Over’ article posted over a year ago.
Head straight to “It’s not enough to understand the user, you need to understand the business”, and you’ll find plenty of great suggestions on how to get ready for the new world of product design that’ll emerge in 2019.
He covers the following:
- Understanding product strategy
- Understanding growth
- Understanding marketing and awareness
Until then, I wish you all the best, no matter what path you end up choosing in the future.