8: The Future of User-Experience Design

The author reiterates that people do not change as quickly as technology, and most customers do not flock to the latest and greatest, even if it is significantly better than the previous options. As such, the future of user experience will be paced by the user, more so than technology, though the latter will generally extend the horizon of possibility, the former will determine the actual pace of progress.

In terms of technology, we are nearing the point where making systems faster, with greater capacity, and stronger is achieving diminishing returns. Technology is even more powerful than it needs to be in order to accomplish the tasks we ask of it. What is needed now is to take the capabilities that have been provided, and put them to work at serving human needs.

Shaker Experience Design

In the late 18th century, the Shakers were on the cutting edge of design and technology, and were largely focused on human experience. The fascination with technology and craftsmanship was not in contradiction to their religious beliefs, but was derived from them: that any piece of work "should be able to stand before God"

As such, the Shakers embraced the technology of their time, and dedicated themselves to continually learning and employing the latest techniques in their work. But they were not fascinated by knowledge n and of itself, but the way to which knowledge could be put to use in better serving human needs.

(EN: This is a somewhat oversimplified take on Shaker philosophy of design, but not inaccurate. It's also worth noting that Shakers sought to make objects that were necessary and useful - and while aesthetic appeal was important, it took a back seat to practicality.)

User-Experience Design for the Future

Presently, technology is seeking to escape the desktop environment by becoming smaller and more mobile, and more pervasive in life away from the office environment. (EN: recall the book was written in 2002, so the explosion of mobile had not occurred.)

The next step beyond that is for the devices themselves to become more intelligent and autonomous. In effect, technology can become invisible and the user doesn't realize they are using it - such as the EZ-Pass that enables wave-and-pay for gasoline and fast food. (EN: this concept actually failed because it was "too invisible" and users were unwilling to trust it.)

The net phase may be the integration of digital and biological components: technology is getting closer to the human body, and it may eventually break the flesh barrier to become integrated into the human body, whether as a method for interfacing with the outside world, or as a method of improving the capabilities of the body itself (better, stronger, faster).

The author acknowledges that this seems a bit farfetched - but given that athletes use steroids to improve performance, children take medications to improve their concentration, people use cosmetic surgery to improve their appearance, it would seem fairly reasonable to predict that there would be acceptance of technology to enhance and improve the human being in a direct way.

Experience Drives the Business

Ultimately, the business model may be turned on-end: companies presently seek to engage user experience to facilitate the acceptance of their existing products and services. If the focus on experience persists, it will supersede product. That is, a business will seek to deliver a user experience, and the product will become a means to deliver that experience.

The author uses Napster as an example. This service was created based on a desire to deliver an experience to its users, with no consideration of how it might generate a profit. Had the service not been shut down due to copyright issues, it would have eventually grown to the point where it would need to become self-sustaining - but experience would have come first, profitability afterward.

(EN: Wikipedia might be a better example. It was started as a labor of love, to provide a way for people to collaborate and share information. It has been so popular that it now costs millions per year to maintain, and is grubbing for charitable donations in amounts that increase exponentially each year. Eventually, it will need to find a way to become self-sustaining, or it too will fold. But again, it's a case of experience first, money afterward.)

Natural Interfaces

To fully liberate itself of the desktop paradigm, computers will need to do more than be portable: they will have to eschew the mouse/keyboard interface with the user, and eventually minimize the dependence on a physical user interface. This may depend on sensor technology (to read gestures) or voice recognition to take input from the user without the need for a bulky and artificial input method.


The notion of ubiquity goes beyond portability, though the latter is a method that attempts to extend the reach of computing toward the former. True ubiquity means that computers are everywhere - embedded in devices, appliances, clothing, street sighs, automobiles, and literally any object in the human environment, such that wherever a person goes, they have access to information technology without the need to carry it with them.

An increasing number of objects are being "enhanced": with computer capabilities - though in their present incarnation, they are generally limited to the device in question: the "computer" in your car is concerned only with the vehicle and the act of transportation, and does not communicate with other devices. This is bound to evolve.

Delivering Real Value

The notion of "bloatware" - loading down software applications with unnecessary and largely useless features - was largely based on user fascination with technology: the entertainment value of seeing a computer do "tricks" that added no real value. As consumers become more familiar with technology, this is less impressive and more intrusive, and customers are tending to prefer lean technology that accomplishes basic tasks efficiently.

This will be increasingly true as computing becomes ubiquitous: dozens of devices assaulting the user with unneeded data is not desirable - a few devices that provide information that is relevant to the user's desires at the moment will be of greater value.

(EN: This is a common design argument, and not as clear-cut as the author paints it. The capability one user considers to be clutter is a valued feature to others, and my sense is that the Spartan extreme is no more desirable than the Swiss army-knife approach. Determining the value of a feature requires careful consideration and user research.)

Wireless Is Not Just the Web

Many device manufacturers seek to enable users to get "the Internet" on a handheld device, but this is not the best approach. The bandwidth restrictions and display capabilities of portable devices are not suited to deliver an experience that was meant for a full-sized monitor, and the mouse/keyboard input paradigm is not well suited to the mobile device.

As such, both manufacturers and designers will consider portable devices in and of themselves, to develop a user experience that is not merely a viewing a Web siet on a tiny screen, but is tailored to suite the specific capabilities of a device.

(EN: The author goes on to marvel at the "chicklet" keyboards and slightly improved display screens of the time - but devices have progressed a long way in the past few years to smart phones with larger screens and keyboards. But still, the original point stands - that a cell phone is still not a computer, and requires a completely different design approach.)

Scenarios of the Future: What Happens to Marketing?

The author describes a few scenarios to suggest how marketing can fit into the mix. It's a particularly poignant question, as users are increasingly frustrated by advertising online and are utterly intolerant of marketing to portable devices.

The first scenario calls for qualitative marketing, overcoming the mass-marketing paradigm of blasting a message to as many people as possible in order to get a few responses in favor of using information on-hand to better target advertisement to users. In effect, the user will receive a smaller number of more appropriate messages to which he is more likely to respond - and, as a result, to regard "advertising" as a helpful assistant that offers things he might benefit from rather than an intruder who's hawking things he doesn't need so that someone else can profit.

The second scenario focuses on the marketer, who uses a single "dashboard" that aggregates information from all channels and enables him to better target advertising messages to users with specific needs, at the right time, through the right channel. Simply stated, marketers must become more analytical and circumspect in their efforts, though there's a careful balance to be struck, as the younger generation of statistics-driven marketers are often accused of losing touch with the customers, the people behind the numbers.

Wrapped into this scenario is the notion of marketers who work in real time. Whereas current practices are to plan a detailed and elaborate campaign and execute it with few adjustments on the fly, marketing must evolve to developing a strategy that is more broad and general, with a great deal more effort on making tweaks and adjustments in execution.

An the third scenario moves marketing into the design process, such that marketers are not relegated to pushing boxes and selling products as they are, but have input into product development so that the company will develop products that have the features and functions that appeal to customers and thus do not need a strong-arm approach to unload. This has been the Holy Grail of marketing for decades, and the digital media present a major opportunity to finally get in on the ground floor.

The Future of Design

As channels emerge, the notion of being a "general practitioner" of user experience design will simply not be possible. Like doctors, designers will need to specialize to a specific channel or genre in order to focus their attention and develop "deep" expertise in design for a very specific niche.

(EN: Ironically, the author uses the "Palm Pilot" as an example - which underscores the danger of specialization. If a UX designer - or even an entire studio - chooses to specialize in a channel that becomes defunct, they are also defunct. It's simply too great a risk to put all your eggs in one channel.).