Shifting UX into 5th Gear in 2019

Designing for the Brain

By Jon Fukuda

The time between the Holidays and New Year is always a ripe time of reflection. As we gear up for UX in 2019, it’s good to look back…  in my case, twenty years when I started my career as a user interface (UI) designer. There’s been a lot of progress, and we’ve come a long way as an industry…  and looking forward, our work isn’t done yet, there’s a lot more to do.

UX design as it was thought of in the past has been commoditized. I think we can all agree that the days of sketching designs on paper and creating UI elements like buttons are over. Today, folks can download UI kits, component libraries, and theme-rollers. These UI kits enable us to leverage UI frameworks, modify them to suit our needs, and plan our design’s structure in more scalable and stable ways – freeing us up to focus on more complex problem-solving.

So as we move into 2019, we shouldn’t waste our time drawing or designing UI elements. This job has been done. We should focus on designing for brains.

Designing for brains of true digital natives

A young child interacts with a tablet device.
A young child interacts with a tablet device.

Today’s true digital natives are today’s 1 to 11-year-olds. From a very young age, they have had smartphones or tablets in their tiny hands and they know how to use it. They consume digital content, and they are quick to grasp concepts and quick to move on. The pace of their brain has moved in lockstep with the immediacy of their access to all the information they have at their fingertips. With this new baseline for the human experience, the reality of Ready Player One’s fully immersive digital universe is not as far off as we might think. We’re quickly approaching increasingly complex and infinite possibilities for working, learning, and socializing in a new digital era.

As designers, we need to take this into account and stop designing for yesterday’s internet. Movies and amusement rides that incorporate VR are sparking new interest in emerging technologies, making them part of our new normal. This is an amazing opportunity enabling us to construct entirely new experiences that can change behavior and change lives by deepening our connection to the information we have at our disposal and providing new pathways for discovery. To achieve this in meaningful and lasting ways, we need to immerse ourselves in human factors—applying psychological principles to the design of products, processes, and systems.

3 Tips to Shift UX into 5 Gear in 2019

Buckle up. The New Year will be full of great adventures that require real strategic problem-solving in UX design. Here are three ways your organization can prime the UX engine to shift into high gear.

  1. Cognitive Research as a Pathway to Empathy

    Add a new dimension to your UX practices and approach to design for complex problems. As designers, we have an opportunity to use new and emerging technologies to solve hard problems and create useful and engaging products. In our continually evolving technical world, it is essential to have a core understanding of the fundamentals of human perception, cognition, and behavior, especially as they apply to how people use devices, apps, intranets, and websites (particularly concerning the complex and domain-specific systems). Incorporating cognitive research as part of your design practice will help your UX team better tap into users—what motivates them, what their needs are, how they complete tasks, and how they think. The observed human need should drive the empirical experience-design direction.

    As Donald Norman, the cognitive psychologist who originally coined the term UX, puts it in his must-read design bible, The Design of Everyday Things: “The one thing I can predict with certainty is that the principles of human psychology remain the same, which means that the design principles here, based on psychology, on the nature of human cognition, emotion, action, and interaction with the world, will remain unchanged.”

    As designers, it’s our job to leverage this understanding to fundamentally design systems that can anticipate and meet the human need in contextually relevant and responsive ways, thus elevating the human-computer experience.

  2. Invest in your UX

    Having a strategist on your UX team is essential. UX strategists are great thinkers who have a firm grasp of human factors, cognitive psychology, and understand how the human brain thinks and perceives an experience. Our brains are heavily influenced by what we see.  They have limited short-term memory capacity and focus, are swayed by emotion and make decisions quickly. With this knowledge, UX strategists take into account scan, navigation, and interaction patterns to engineer experiences that are responsive not only to form factor, but also to the audience, and their contextual relevance. They can factor in emerging market and technology forces, enabling them to envision opportunities that loom at the outer limits. It’s their high laser beam focus at the nexus of technology, information, and design with the human consumer at the center of it all that allows them to grapple with complex problems to create elegant, simple, and usable solutions.

    Continuing to take experience design to the next level in their organizations requires ongoing education and continuous improvement. Plan and budget for your UX strategist to attend conferences such as the UX STRAT conference. This event brings together experience design leaders, strategists, researchers, and senior professionals to hear about and discuss the latest trends in strategic user experience, customer experience, product design, and service design. Conferences also provide a strong sense of community and ample networking opportunities to fuel ongoing professional development.

  3. Be Responsible for the Experiences Produced

    Design ethics are intended to guide how designers work with clients, colleagues, and the end users of products and services. Design ethics is more important now than ever before given the fast pace of our lives where everyone is expected to multi-task and use technology to be more productive. The onus is on the UX design community to design in the appropriate context and to release software responsibly. People are increasingly aware of the unintended consequence of our actions as designers for individuals, societies, and cultures.

    Moore’s Law dictates that we’re operating in ever increasing rates beyond both society’s capacity to fully harness and utilize all that our technology can offer, but also that this speed of advancement operates outside the bounds of regulatory space.  This leaves us in a constant condition where technology governance is reactive, and not proactive.

    In some instances, design can be a matter of life and death. As an extreme example, you could be designing aeronautical interfaces where lives could be at stake if the wrong switch is flipped. Other times, a design’s lack of cultural sensitivity can be outright offensive. Remember the backlash from the Snapchat filter that promoted racist stereotypes of Asians?  Many times design is forgiving where the worst thing that happens is you send an email you didn’t mean to send. With the right eye on design ethics and governance models, design leaders can anticipate and design for broken patterns giving some users more control and help avoid private/personal errors, publicly embarrassing errors, or even errors and experiences that can cause operational and revenue disaster.

To kick UX into high gear this year, I recommend that your organization gears up for the impact the digital natives will have on the demand for more immersive digital experiences, drive a heavy emphasis on cognitive research related to information and technology design, level up and invest in your UX practitioners, and consider heavily the unintended consequences of unmoderated and unregulated digital experiences.