Is the time running out for UX Design?

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Zachary Owen UX, UI, Digital Design...

There have been many articles about the death of UX recently. They speak of the end of a golden age in which the UX designer was king, reigning over an internet landscape that companies were woefully uninformed about. Agencies specialising in the field would pick up new business relatively easily as there was very little competition in the market.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the picture is drastically different. Advancements in technology has meant that excellent UX has become something that customers expect as the bare minimum from online services rather than viewing it as an added bonus. On top of this is the fact that competition amongst a growing number of designers has become increasingly fierce.

UX has slowly but surely fought its way into the mainstream after many years of struggling to get its message across but it is its own success that is providing the biggest challenge for those operating in this area. Shining examples such as AirBnB and Spotify have meant that everyone wants a slice of the pie. The hardcore of the UX world have been forced into protecting industry standards as Art Directors and other Visual Designers have begun to include it in their skillset.

Placing UX at the heart of many websites has been a revelation for many companies but it is quickly becoming a throwaway tagline on the CVs of many who lack the expertise rather than it being truly respected as hard skill in its own right.

The time has arrived for UX to redefine the boundaries and set about differentiating itself from the work of visual designers. New technologies such as AI and wearables offer the perfect opportunity to do so but UX designers will have to adapt their skills to ensure that they are fit for the challenge posed by this emerging technology.

We sat down with three experts to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing designers in a sector that is undergoing a transition period, and to discover the changes they believe are necessary for the sector to make in order to cement its position at the forefront of innovation.

Chris O’Kennon– Freelance UX/UI Designer in Los Angeles and author of The Death of UX 

Chris is the person who caused a storm amongst the digital community with this article on LinkedIn Pulse which raised many problems which he believes are facing the industry such as hiring biases resulting in a loss of talent and under qualified people from other fields attempting to cash in on the recent success of UX.

Chris argues that UX is undergoing a slump in terms of the way that it presents itself to the world of business. He sees the need for UX designers to take a far more active role in educating people about the work that they do and the value that they can bring to a company. He proposes that with each placement that an expert gains, it must be their duty to “go full out on the evangelising aspect” to ensure that the companies they are working with truly understand how UX is helping them to improve their profit margins.

He goes on to say that one of the main problems in the field of UX is its ability to prove its own value in terms of the fact that it saves a company money through making existing infrastructure more efficient rather than actively making more money in the way that an aggressive sales campaign might. The data more than supports his argument in this area. It is estimated that over a trillion dollars a year is lost in the e-commerce industry due to bad UX causing customers to abandon their purchases.

Chris further states that one of the key areas in which UX must improve is with regards to the clear hiring biases that he sees at leading companies in the California marketplace. “The bias is against anyone over 35. To a lesser but still significant extent, it’s also against women. Maybe not so much at the junior levels, but at the higher ranks. You lose a great amount of experience and talent that way”. Companies are losing out out on hugely qualified talent that could be of great value to their business model, something that could be easily remedied if hiring managers were better informed about the field and type of expertise required to carry out the projects that they require.

The obvious concern here is that the field of UX will suffer if it is not able to project itself in the correct way and show just how valuable it is to modern digital economy. There are huge pools of untapped resources within the area of UX that must be utilised in order to maintain the vast progress that it has made. There is the danger that the field could become a victim of its own success. Chris views this identity crisis as a temporary blip but concludes by saying that “IT years are like dog years. A two year long blip can end a lot of careers”, the danger being that if UX designers are not valued in the way they should be, they will seek different opportunities and a huge amount of expertise could be lost.

Iain Short– UX Consultant at the European Commission 

UX design is finding its uses employed in new areas that it has not traditionally been associated with. Iain Short is a consultant with a wide range of experience having worked at companies such as Philips and Amadeus to government departments like the UK Ministry of Defence. His current role as a UX Consultant at the European Commission makes him a clear example of the new innovative ways in which UX is being used as all manner of organisations seek to reap the benefits of better online design.

Short explains how the European Commission is investing in UX as well as other elements of its online architecture in order to forge a stronger relationship with a population that has often suffered from political apathy. “Brexit has been a major wake up call to engage locally with people and communicate what is going on”. Creating the framework to allow citizens to feel more connected with the European Union is key its long term success and this is a trend that we can increasingly expect to see as governmental institutions attempt to engage on a more meaningful level with the citizens that they represent.

The challenge of using the digital revolution as an opportunity to tackle the political malaise that has swept across many parts of the world is a clear sign of the new ways in which UX is establishing itself as a highly effective tool in building stronger relationships with an audience. This is a trend that should only flourish as the benefits of this practice become increasingly clear.

However, that is not to say that Short does not see challenges that lie ahead for UX Designers in an industry that is constantly evolving. He highlights the need to constantly be developing new skills as the role of a designer is in a permanent state of transition which is shown by the varying nature of each placement.

He states that UX is a field in which a designer must “adapt or face being left behind” as the industry becomes more competitive. UX is expanding its reach and has become increasingly prominent in areas where it previously had little to no role as is shown by the placement of Short at the EC.

Short concludes by saying that the value of a UX designer ultimately comes down to the quality of the ideas they have and how clearly they are able tom communicate a concept to an audience. It is this that determines how effectively they are able to do their job. This type of thinking lies at the heart of what will make a company interested in the field. The ability to build software that both looks good and is easy to use is essential in a crowded online marketplace. Short no longer sees UX as a niche, he concludes by saying that “we’re no longer seen as the icing on the cake, its very much taken seriously, I don’t feel as much of a pickle anymore when I tell people what I do for a living”.

Javier Cuadra– Freelance UX Community Manager at Conversion Talent 

Javier is an expert in the UX recruitment market and sees change afoot in the industry as new technology comes to the fore. He describes how the role of a UX Designer is constantly changing and that therefore it is the duty of the individual to ensure that their skillset is best suited to take advantage of the multiple new directions that UX is branching out into.

He argues that UX despite being in a constant state of evolution can only go from strength to strength as it boils down to companies needing innovative solutions that will help their clients and customers to solve problems that they have. There is a gulf between many companies in terms of how advanced their UX capabilities are and it is for this reason that we can expect to see the demand for such expertise grow.

Conversion Talent’s Salary Survey supported this argument as it showed an increase in the percentage of freelance respondents working exclusively in UX from 8% in 2015 rising to 21% in 2017. This growth reflects a general trend across the Belgian market whereby UX designers are playing an important role within leading companies whilst also becoming more integrated within corporate structures and different departments gain a greater understanding of the importance of the work they carry out.

As companies continue to grow in new and innovative directions, so to will the market for UX designers. As elements such as AI gain pace, Javier believes that UX teams will begin to form the core of many companies’ growth strategies. We can see the beginnings of this as companies such as Amazon and Google change the way in which we interact with technology with their intelligent personal assistant devices that will allow brands to interact with their customers in a completely different way.

Javier concludes by saying that UX is becoming increasingly mainstream and so it is only natural that its definition may come under threat as non-experts attempt to cash in on the demand. However, he states that for the true innovators within the field, the future is bright as technology branches out in new directions, so too will the market grow for those who know how to truly deliver an improved and more integrated user experience.