There have been quite a few articles recently bemoaning the decline or even ‘death’ of UX design as we know it. And while the reasons brought forward to explain the perceived demise vary, there is, not surprisingly, a general sense of sadness to these obituaries. But instead of being a reason for grief, the changes we witness in UX design as a profession are actually a good thing.
A golden decade is coming to an end
UX design, broadly defined as the vocational area that defines how users interact with digital services, has had a terrific decade. Some see the last ten years as a sort of ‘Golden Age’ of UX during which the field blossomed both in importance and recognition. UX designers were in high demand and developed rigorous standards that turned it into a serious and properly defined discipline.
This golden era seems to come to an end and requires that UX designers find their role in a changed environment. The main forces driving this need for adaptation are commodification and automation.
The increasing commodification of many UX design aspects is actually the result of its own success and level of maturity as a discipline: standardisation both in design and functionality. With the rise of templates, patterns and design systems such as Google’s Material Design, many of the tasks that traditionally kept UX designers busy are becoming obsolete. The same is happening with frameworks such as Facebook’s ReactJS that equally reduce the need for a lot of the former frontend grunt work.
AI-powered automation is taking this a step further. While not a mature approach yet, it is clear that automatically generated interfaces and functionalities are the future. Services such as The Grid, Wix ADI or Appy Pie are early signposts of a future where a lot of the work of today’s UX designers will be taken over by machines. With rapid advances in AI, it is only a matter of time when this approach will be in full bloom and forever changing how digital interfaces are designed.
The rise of eco-systems and the resulting API economy additionally change how user experiences are composed. A lot of application or service design today is about configuring existing functionalities into a useful new experience. UX design becomes less about actually ‘designing’ and more about a meaningful orchestration of existing components. (So some might call that design.)
Don’t worry, be happy!
With these developments well under way it is no wonder that UX designers are engaged in a debate about the future of their profession. What does surprise is the morose, a times even angry undertones shaping this discussion. Automation and commodification of many aspects of today’s UX design are actually a good thing.
UX designers should be thankful for the liberation brought about by this change. Automating mundane tasks will free them from having to re-create simple interactions or interfaces over and over again. This is most apparent in already highly commoditised contexts such as ecommerce. There is little to be gained from trying to one-up Amazon’s 1-click checkout process benchmark. Instead, UX design should focus on creating truly amazing and inspiring experiences.
Paradoxically, higher levels of standardisation in many areas of digital life lead to a growing need for digital experiences that truly stand out. And for brands this increasingly means deciding between two different guiding principles. In the attention economy, brands have to deliver experiences that either save or seize attention.
Experiences that focus on saving attention — today’s scarcest resource — will strive to maximise utility and streamline interactions. This is the logic from which 1-click checkout processes originate. Experiences driven by the ambition to save the user time — and thus attention — will soon zero in on an optimal state. It’s hard to imagine a purchase being done with less then one click — or a comparable indication of confirmation.
Experiences that are designed to seize attention need to inspire and engage users. Such interactions are fuelled by creativity, big ideas and the ability to take the user on a meaningful journey. And experiences that live up to this expectation are in ever higher demand. In a digital world full of slick and seamless interactions, brands need to deliver differentiating experiences that convey their identity and value proposition in novel and engaging ways. And for most brands this won’t be an optimized checkout process, but rather digital offers and services that delight users with unique and immersive stories and encounters. VR and AR will certainly help to push the bar higher here and create user demands to which current UX design is only beginning to cater.
So, there is life after death for UX design. And it will bring about more meaningful work for UX designers. The changes we are currently witnessing in this profession are actually a cause for celebration, not grief.