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The Evolution of UX, a view from Down Under with Jay Whittaker

12th May 2016

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This article was a collaboration between Xpand and UXswitch and was first published on their website.

How has the UX field changed since you were starting out?

As I move into my second decade in the industry I find my mind turning back. I am currently writing some articles where I look at how the industry has evolved and where it might be going. I’ve found it quite valuable to take a look back to realise how much the profession and the business environment has changed. UX professionals are both drivers of change and compelled to adapt to the change.

I’ve found myself questioning the label ‘UX’ as it is frequently applied. I am not abandoning it altogether. It has been useful, it has recognition and is still relevant to many of my activities. But it often feels too small, too narrow to capture the breadth of where I am today.

While trying to explain this I‘ve observed that my own development echoes in many ways the evolution we've seen in the industry. By looking at how I've sought to overcome limitations and solve new problems in better ways I can provide some context to understand the change. 

When I started out the smartphone was not yet a reality, the global financial crisis hadn’t happened and CNN were calling Facebook an also-ran in the race with MySpace. At this time UX or User Centred Design was barely on the radar of many organisations. Sometimes treated as a curiosity and mostly not considered in the product cycle at all. The concept was completely absent from my first Computing Bachelor Degree. The realisation that something vital was missing has fuelled an ongoing desire to add pieces to the puzzle.

Early on a common phrase I’d hear was;  “I’ve been told I need to talk to you UX people, what do you do?” This provided a lot of opportunities to refine the answer while realising what seemed ‘obvious’ or ‘natural’ to me was very foreign to most - especially in the corporate world. There was a lot of work to do and it wouldn't happen overnight.

What change have you observed since then?

In general we’ve experienced the ever-building pressure and rate of change and disruption. This has been followed by a gradual and sometimes difficult evolution in how UX is thought about, performed and valued by organisations.

Change is of course constant, but there is an increased sense of urgency as the power of incumbency erodes and organisations in virtually every industry struggle with the pace required. The present is characterised by a highly dynamic, hyper-connected and uncertain business environment that is challenging traditional business models and is rendering old skills and approaches irrelevant.

There have been complementary shifts from defining hierarchies to managing complex systems, from Waterfall to Agile to Lean methodologies, from web pages to Apps to platforms, services and ecosystems.

How has the UX field evolved over this time?

There are two ways I like to describe the evolutionary stages of UX. The first - the 3 Is - is outward looking and describes a broadening of our focus:

  • Information - supporting access, discoverability and distribution of information.
  • Interactivity - creating a new channel to perform tasks and interact with people and companies
  • Integration - going beyond the page or app to become more seamlessly integrated into your life and the world around you (we could also call this phase intelligence)

The second - choices - looks inward and describes a broadening of our influence:

  • Communicating choices - that are already made
  • Making choices - broadening the options available and influencing decision making
  • Creating new choices - by reframing the problem and changing the wider system

Tell me about those choices?

In this less mature phase we (UX) would often be called on to “clean this screen up and make it look pretty”. The strategy was set, solution had been chosen and the technology determined. How it works and why it exists was off limits. There was limited ability to ‘stop the production line’, determine salience or find more effective solutions. We could make some functionality and usability improvements by applying local optimisations. It would improve the outcome a bit. However this leaves the organisation in a vulnerable, less resilient state and contributes to expensive failures. It is also unsatisfying for a designer.

It was clear that in order to get to better solutions we needed to wrestle more influence and have an impact earlier. The next phase was about emphasising design as a process that starts well before coding. We looked at how to best compliment Agile development practices for smaller cycles, increased collaboration and continual insight injection. I sharpened the process, conducted research interviews, crafted personas and user journeys then prioritised product roadmaps. There was considerable progress but ultimate success was still prone to what I call ‘Organisational Antibodies’. These are all the things that emerge from elsewhere in the organisation to gnaw away at the unfamiliar, to dictate solutions regardless of the research and inhibit meaningful change.

What about the last phase, creating new choices?

The challenges I tackle today are broader. To make a difference within traditional organisations I had to work on the business as much as the product. The question became; how do we make sure we are building the right thing rather than just building the thing right? Perhaps even broader; how can I shift culture to create an organisation that is more nimble, empathetic and resilient? This forces tough questions about how decisions are made, power used and learning applied. It also means spreading design capabilities across diverse teams.

This last phase is vital to meet the challenges of the ‘integration’ era. An organisation must act across touch-points, silos and domains. They need to create new ways to frame problems and turn learning into action. They need to experiment with a new way of looking at the world and considering their place within it. This must happen in many places at once, across and beyond the boundaries of the business. It needs to be supported by an emergent culture. Rather than optimising to become good at doing a particular thing, organisations will increasingly derive their value from learning how to do new things.

Whether we call it UX or something else, UX to me is no longer just about what you put on a page or how your app is designed. We have skills that are vital to how organisations work and how they will navigate change in this next decade.

Jay Whittaker, UX Design and Strategy Principal @ Lab49

Jay leads the UX Design and Strategy team for Lab49 in Australia. Lab49 is a global strategy, design and technology consulting company that transforms the business of the world’s leading capital markets firms. Jay blends skills in Design and Strategy Consultancy to identify opportunities and deliver solutions for complex scenarios in high-pressure environments. 

Prior to returning to Australia and joining Lab49, Jay spent more than 6 years in London seeking new skills and challenges. For more than a decade he has worked across a diverse range of industries for clients big and small. 

Jay can be found on Twitter and Medium. 

Stewart Salazar, Senior Digital Consultant – UX/UI Practice Lead at Xpand Group

Stewart heads up the UX/UI & Service Design Practice at Xpand. A specialist Digital and Technology Headhunting firm with offices across Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, UK and Kuala Lumpur. 

Having focussed on the Digital Landscape for the past 6 years, with the last 3 years solely focused on UX/UI & Service Design. Stewart is one of Australia’s most knowledgeable recruiters in this space.  

Stewart can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter or by clicking the icons on the right.