As part of its AdSpeaks series, I was recently invited to give a guest lecture to Macleay College’s advertising students about the rise of UX.
I don’t mean to focus on semantics, but the field of UX is all about crafting experiences, not just screens. I’ve often felt that our industry obsesses about the screens that connect people with information and functionality available through the internet, instead of the feeling their system should impart on its audience.
However, with screens getting continuously smaller, everyday objects becoming “smart” by connecting them to the internet, and society’s expectations rapidly shifting, it’s clear that the future of designing user experiences is more interesting than ever. I believe our profession is becoming about designing that which can’t be seen.
Exciting times to be a design graduate
Like many, I came to UX via an indirect path. In the 90s I studied microelectronic engineering and I guess I was pretty good at it. In fact, I was really only good at studying it, not doing it. It was actually my interest in this new thing called “the web” that was taking up most of my time. The internet’s ability to connect people in new ways had me captivated, so when the opportunity arose to join a friend’s start-up, I jumped at it.
Back then, UX didn’t even exist. A lot of work had already been done in the software world defining best practices for human computer interaction (HCI) and optimising system usability. However, much of the early design work for websites seemed to ignore these principles - I was intrigued.
For students at Macleay and beyond, right now is a very exciting time to be joining the world of design. There are so many opportunities for those passionate about designing user experiences - from big corporations like CommBank, to management consultancies like Deloitte, to software companies like Atlassian, to integrated agencies like M&C Saatchi, to specialist digital agencies like White. It’s a good time to be a designer with empathy.
But learning the basics and getting experience are two different things. There’s a huge gulf between the theory and real world situations, where challenging timeframes and budgets are the norm. In these sub-optimal conditions, with limited available resources available to develop empathy for customers’ needs, UX Designers need to be able to think on their feet. And this is especially true if we want to progress in the discipline. If what we really care about is designing positive experiences for people, then we need to decouple ourselves from the tyranny of the screen - we need to imagine a future without interfaces.
Evolving to invisible
In 1964, when referring to the impact TV & media was having on society, Marshall McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message”. I believe that today, by leveraging the power of computing and the internet, the service can be the message. Instead of just shouting about a brand with traditional advertising, let’s design ways to improve lives.
It’s amazing to take stock of all our progress. From a handful of people time-sharing on a mainframe computer, to the PC revolution where everyone has a computer at home, to life today where each of us have four or five computing devices. Similarly, our progress from just making pages findable on the internet via Google, to the mobile web that’s with us when we need it, to an Internet of Things enabling what some call “living services”. And finally progress with interactivity, from command lines, to GUIs, to massive monitors, to portable touchscreens, to smartwatches, and finally to the smallest screen imaginable - no screen at all.
Screening our future’s screens
At some point in our rapid evolution, screens seem to have become the answer, without even bothering to understand the question. Do we really need ‘smart fridges’ with screens so we can access Spotify on them? Do our cars need screens so we can Tweet, even though about 10 deaths per day are caused by phone-related distractions? Do we need an app to unlock our car when companies like Mercedes had frictionless and keyless unlocking back in 2006, well before iPhones even existed? The answer is “No! We don’t actually need any more active screens in our lives”.
Three principles for ‘Zero UI’
Thankfully some guy, with possibly the coolest name ever, has developed three principles to help guide us in designing a world without a UI. His name is Golden Krishna, and he believes that good experience design is about creating good experiences, not about making good screens.
1. Processes, not screens
Study people, look for chances to improve their lives, and don’t start by thinking about a screen. Consider GlowCaps, as an example - they give users personal reminders by flashing, they send email updates to loved ones, they automatically order refills, and they update the doctor with a regular report. And they do all that without a primary screen or UI.
2. Leverage computers, don’t serve them
Think about the power of our devices, going beyond smartphones with touchscreens, or computers with pointing devices, and considering the various inputs available. Get machines to help us. For example, utilities like ‘Ok Google’ promise to quickly enable Spike Jonze’s voice-triggered, artificial intelligence (AI) powered vision from his film ‘Her’.
3. Adapt to the individual
Remember, everyone is special, so look for ways to combine the behavioural patterns that emerge from big data with that being revealed by the individual. A great example is Nest. Initially it might just look like a thermostat with a UI? But it’s much more sophisticated than that - it’s actually trying to make itself invisible. Nest studies the user: when they’re awake and what temperatures they prefer over the day. And Nest works hard to eliminate the need for its own UI by learning about you.
Planning for an Invisible Future
Obviously the Zero UI concept is meant as a provocation; it’s not the whole truth. There’ll certainly be UIs for years to come, whether they’re in the foreground, or just as a backup. But Krishna’s three principles give us a mechanism to imagine opportunities outside the screen.
My advice to the students at Macleay was to continue responding to our clients’ ‘media’ briefs for things like websites, apps and emails. These are always a great starting point for an ‘up-sell’ conversation. And it’s these conversations that can lead to opportunities to solve real human issues, beyond just marketing communication goals.
I also believe that it’s essential that every modern designer study people’s behaviours. There’s certainly a lot that can be learned by brushing up our data science skills. But there’s even more than can be gleaned by observing people too - speak to them, get their stories and stay curious. And don’t forget psychological and biological differences that might exist when we’re trying to be user-centred, rather than using standardised device inputs like the a mouse and keyboard.
Ultimately, if we want to design services of true value, we need to go beyond the screen. And after a morning with the students, it seems to me that the guys at Macleay are well placed to do just that.
By Sam Court
UX director at The White Agency