In this episode of The Future of, Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., Godfather of UX and co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group, and the multitalented Marc Wallace, UX Director at Fresh Consulting, join Jeff to discuss the history of UX, the present state of affairs, and future trends that will shape the field in the next 30 years.
Jakob Nielsen: We got to scale back a bit but I do feel that there’s a lot of potential for growing into interaction styles and ways of doing things that will, I like to say, empower more users, empower more people. That’s what our fundamental new goal is, to make technology adapt to people rather than having people adapt to technology.
Jeff Dance: Welcome to The Future Of a podcast by Fresh Consulting, where we discuss and learn about the future of different industries, markets, and technology verticals. Together, we’ll chat with leaders and experts in the field and discuss how we can shape the future human experience. I’m your host, Jeff Dance.
Jeff: In this episode of The Future Of, We’re joined by Jakob Nielsen and Marc Wallace to explore the future of UX design.
Jakob, we’re honored to have you on the show. I’ve been reading your articles and books and thought leadership for, seems like 20 years now. Your present mind in our voices, we think about the UX profession and the thought leadership around the space and the thinking and the guidance.
Marc, it’s great to have you as the UX Director here at Fresh and as a leader. Want to start with some background. Jakob, can you start with just telling the listeners a little bit more about yourself? I know, anyone in the UX space knows you but for everyone else, can you give us a bit more on your background?
Jakob: Sure. Thanks, Jeff for inviting me. It’s great to be on the program here. I’ve been doing UX work for almost 40 years now. For the last 24 of those years, I’ve been with Nielsen Norman Group, which is a company specializing on user experience that I co-founded with Don Norman. That’s why it’s called a Nielsen Norman Group. Before then, I had a variety of different jobs. I was a university professor. I worked at Bell Communications Research, which was the telephone company research lab.
Then I also worked at Sun Microsystems, where I was a “Distinguished Engineer,” which is the person at the company responsible for thinking about usability and to be honest, how to make Unix easy to use, which was not. I wasn’t quite successful in that, to be quite honest but that was the main, main reason that they hired me.
Jeff: Got it. I noticed that you had, I think, seven UN, US patents, I’m assuming those are all around usability, how to make the internet easier to use.
Jakob: They are very much focused from that period when I was at Sun Microsystems because before then, user interface inventions were actually not considered to be patentable, you had to have something physical, like a mousetrap type of thing to get a patent. I definitely invented or thought of many, many, many more things than those exact patents, but for most of my career, it was not patentable.
To be honest, after starting our own company with more focus on advice as opposed to actual product development, the patents are really just from that four-year period. Otherwise, it could have been many, many more.
Jeff: Well, I noticed you’re an author of eight books. I know I have some of your literature. I have definitely been reading mostly your articles recently but I thought it was cool that Bloomberg cited you among the world’s most influential designers, and the New York Times called you the King of Usability. I think we’ve considered you in Fresh, like the godfather of UX. Essentially, you and Don, who coined the term, if I got that correctly. That’s great.
Like I mentioned, I think I’ve written 50 UX principles in our history, our blog posts, and we’re often citing your thinking. Thank you for your thought leadership.
Marc, over to you. Can you tell us a little bit of your background?
Marc: Yes, interactive design for a bit over 20 years now. Started off in print and various sorts of production as I was trying to be a musician at that time. I worked in Los Angeles for about 10 years, with various agencies, doing a lot of movie sites and Flash. A lot of people might remember that phase in history, which was fun. I’ve been with Fresh for about seven years, doing a lot of enterprise application work, crossing over with our hardware teams, and getting into interactions that happened with robotics and beyond that. Lots of fun and exciting challenges are coming up.
Jeff: Awesome. Marc’s definitely been a stalwart leader here and always does really amazing work. Marc, you also do something fun on the side. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Marc: I was alluding to my early stab at trying to be a musician which can be difficult, but we made a CD back in the ’90s that actually went underground and then turns out, it became a cult classic and was selling on eBay I think most recently for about $89.
Jeff: That’s epic.
Marc: Yes. Somebody’s making money off the ones we sold a while ago. We’ll see how that works out. Eventually, we’ll re-release a new mastered version that will actually make a little bit of money off those.
Jeff: Nice. You’re still in a band today?
Marc: Still playing with some of those guys and some metal projects and then another band called Stout Pounders, which is a Celtic rock band. Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, things like that.
Jeff: Nice. We’ll have to figure out how to weave that back in. To start with, you’ve been a rockstar designer here in our team. Jakob, just for fun, what are some things you do for fun? You’re obviously such a big thought leader. Tell us more about the fun side of your life.
Jakob: I’m afraid I don’t play music other than on the CD player, I guess, but I do a lot of reading, to be honest. It’s opposite genres like science fiction, about the future. Then actually about history as well. One of the most recent books I read was actually Julius Caesar spoke on the Commentaries of the Gallic Wars. That was quite interesting to read, a more than 2000-year-old book. It’s quite interesting actually. Then I like to travel and have fun and all of that, but I don’t really have so many hobbies other than actually doing my work, so I’m sorry about that.
Jeff: You do amazing work and it’s clear that you’re passionate about the space because you’re such a clear voice for the industry, so it’s awesome. That’s great. I can see how maybe traveling and reading can tie into that and shape perspectives. I’ve really enjoyed some of the analogies you’ve given in your speaking. I wanted to reflect on today and a little bit of the history before we jump to the future and get your thoughts there. Jakob, if we can start with you. There’s been a massive progression in this field. Can you tell us a little bit more about the history of UX design before we go into the future?
Jakob: Yes, I started myself in 1983. At that point of time, I think there was about a thousand people in the world that I would say that I really did UX. Of course, there are many more people doing graphic design and so forth or programmers who were making applications and having a user interface as a side effect of the implementation. That’s not what we considered to be UX design. Today I think there’s maybe about 2 million people in the world doing this. Just during my career, this area has increased by a factor of 2000, which is not 2000%, but a factor of 200000%, if you will. Huge growth, but obviously I was not the first one.
I personally trace it back to around 1950 where Bell Labs started, what I think is probably the first real UX type of organization to design telephone systems. Their most famous design is the push-button telephone or the touch tone as it was called. This layout of the keyboard. If you notice that layout is actually opposite of what the traditional layout was for calculators. There were many other designs that they considered, but then they actually did user testing and found how people could enter phone numbers faster and with fewer errors. Those were the two main criteria.
It was not the one that they showed to the people, “Which one do you like the best?” That was not the one and this is one of our very, very important lessons. You cannot get a good design by asking people what they like or what they prefer without using it, just by looking at it because people just don’t know. This design has been used at least a trillion times since it was rolled out by Bell Labs. The world has saved, I think at least 10,000 person-years.
This is like, getting that right has been worth a lot. Of course, you can say even before then there were human factors people, you can trace it back in hundreds of years if you really want to. People were thinking about how to design things right. I say around 1950, Bell Labs to me is the beginning of designing user interfaces with user needs as the leading guiding light. Then it’s grown and grown from there. I don’t think we are all done with that growth. I think we are still only scratching the surface actually, but it has grown a lot during my time for sure.
Jeff: What is UX design, if we’d ask that question? There are lots of terms now floating, new terminology, but I think it comes back to this core. I know your partner Don Norman coined the term. What do you guys consider UX design? You just talked about UX testing as an example, but how would you define it?
Jakob: That’s an element of it but I have two different definitions. One is the so-called elevator speech, which as I say, we make computers easy to use, so we make technology easy to use. I think that’s the shortest definition. The more elaborate definition, which really goes back to Don Norman’s original work on this, is that it is the totality of the interaction that the user is encountering. Its focus is that––the name says that actually, it’s the user experience. We have another term called user interface design, where you’re designing what’s on the screen and obviously teasing those two apart, that’s like you can spend hours discussing that. It’s not so important really, but it’s really the perspective. We are looking at user experience UX, we are looking at it from the user’s perspective. What is the user’s experience?
Certainly a lot of it is driven by what’s on the screen. The UI design is crucial but it can also be other things. It can also be what preconceived notions people arrive with. What has been generated by, first of all, their use of a lot of other things. I have something that I called Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience. Jakob’s Law says that users spend most of their time on other websites than your website. When people get to your website, they already have expectations from all these other potentially thousands of sites they’ve used before. That becomes part of the user experience because they expect it to work in a certain way and if it doesn’t, even if it’s a brilliant idea, it’s likely to fail.
Jeff: Thank you for that. I’ve been reading some of your other laws. I remember seeing a graph maybe 15 years ago about testing and the user testing being an aspect of user experience design. I think it was the notion that after five users, you start to get a marginal benefit of return from a testing perspective. Yes, you can go test a hundred users, but you might get the most outcome from five. Do you still think this holds true?
Jakob: That is absolutely true. It actually goes back to one of the things we say when we do usability studies. We always tell the test participant, the user, “We are not testing you, we are testing the system. We’re testing the design.” It’s because of that, you don’t really need that many users because these users are confronted with an artifact.
Of course in principle, there’s millions of ways you can use that wrong, but there’s some main ways you can use it wrong. You tend to find those, so see, observe those after a few users.
Now, as you say, what you don’t get. We don’t get any statistics. With five people, statistics are just invalid. I cannot say if I see one out of five users doing something, I cannot say 20% of users will do that. Well, it was 20% of the five people, but honestly, anybody who’s ever had the statistics course knows that the margin of error will be so big and it is irrelevant.
Like I say, this element of design trips up people. Now, depending on how expensive it’s going to be to fix it, I may need more than that. I may need to know that this is something that’s going to be a problem for more than 10% of customers, or more than 80% of the customers, or whatever, but if it’s really, really expensive to fix.
If it’s really cheap to fix, just know that it’s bad for some people, that’s enough to fix it. It depends on what you’re talking about, how much more information you need. I like to think about debugging. Just like a programmer where you look at your code and see if there’s an error on the code. If it’s wrong once, it’s going to be wrong the next time as well, and the same is true here. If some users have trouble, guaranteed more users will have trouble. Exactly how many more I cannot say, but enough that I want to fix it for sure.
Jeff: It was a nice piece of work that I think has impacted lots of user testing in the future. You mentioned saving time with the telephone design. Well, that principle alone probably saved people a ton of time to think about the marginal benefit of return from usability studies. Not saying that you wouldn’t do more if there was more risk, et cetera, or if you wanted more statistics. You might not discover more things, but I really appreciated that.
Marc, for you, you’ve been in this space for 20 years. What are some of the pain points or problems you see in the field of UX design today?
Marc: I would say a pain point I probably encounter frequently is getting access to the right data or the right users when you’re doing tests or surveys, particularly with enterprise apps, sometimes it’s a very select group or within a company, it could be doctors, lawyers. Healthcare provides its own set of hoops you have to jump through to get real data with HIPAA violations.
Yes, you have to improvise a little bit and figure out different ways to extract what you think is a pretty representative set of information, but that’s probably the first thing that comes to mind is just trying to get access to data that’s actually helpful to the decisions you make.
Jakob: Marc, you’re really right on that. This also shows many of these things that are really stable in our field because that exact same complaint I could have made 30 years ago. With just certain disciplines where it’s just hard to get hold of people, but that is one more reason why qualitative research is so important because you can get, as we just discussed, a very large amount of insight with a very small number of users. You’re just going to squeeze the juice out of that some more when it’s harder to get users. If they’re easy to get users, if you’re talking about a broad consumer market, then you can afford to, I would say waste. You should never waste people’s time, but you don’t have to be as conscious about it.
Jeff: That makes sense. Jakob, you mentioned 2 million professionals in the UX field now that’s grown exponentially since you started. Where do you see the majority of work happening today?
Jakob: Yes, I think if you talk about the majority, then I think it’s some form of web, even though not necessarily just websites, it can also be various types of applications that are cloud-based and so forth. I would also include mobile because to me, it’s actually not very different. It’s all graphical user interfaces and the screen is a little bit bigger or smaller and you have it with you or you don’t have it with you.
Those are important points but still, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s about the same. It applies to, first of all, anything that has a user interface which is a toothbrush these days. Even things that don’t necessarily have an interactive interface, but things like road signs or wayfinding in the hospital, particularly if people like to be confused or sad or for some reason upset. There are a lot of situations like that where it’s not really a user interface in the sense that you don’t touch it or change it, but you still have to make sense of it.
“Sense-making” is a big part of what we do as well but yes, the majority would be any type of internet-oriented thing.
Jeff: Makes sense. I think what it is, like 90% of work is now done in the cloud or supported by the cloud. If we think about where work is being done, and this profession exploding, I could see where they’re like, “Hey, we’re making computers easier to use.” The interfaces of those computers are easier to use. There are a lot of us on a small computer or a large computer or a laptop computer, so that resonates with me.
If you think about the history here, and we’ve seen so much change in the last 20 years with the advancement of the cloud and mobile and the interactive web, what are some things we’ve learned from the past that we hopefully don’t repeat in the future? Technology has changed us, maybe for better and for worse, but any thoughts on some things, okay, we’ve learned that we hopefully won’t repeat that in the future?
Jakob: Well, I don’t know. I actually think we probably will repeat it. It’s the same and the sad lessons about the field. I feel like every time there’s a new technology, the same story happens again, which is that people get very excited about this. We can do these new things, then they do them and they fail because normal people cannot understand the design. They have various tripping points. Even the latest one I just looked at was this so-called, what is it called, the Metaverse or whatever they call it. A lot of these ideas, they sound good but then the actual implementations are such that they just are honestly so difficult to use.
We saw it with personal computers, we saw it with websites, we saw it with mobile. We have seen it with intelligent assistance of voice-driven assistance and all of that. The watches, every new generation. Again, we’re seeing it now, again, with virtual reality or augmented reality. Those types of systems. They all have their promise, but they’re all done wrong, the first few attempts.
Jeff: They’re not getting it right at first and they’re probably not spending enough time in the UX field doing enough UX testing to inform the interface and the experience.
Jakob: Yes. Those people think it’s great because they work on it. If you work on it, of course you understand it, and of course you like it, and of course you think that what it’s doing is something that’s, wow, so great. It’s more difficult for the outside person as well. It’s one of the big lessons of our entire history.
Jakob: If you work on a project, you can understand it. If you’re an outsider, unless it’s very polished, people are going to fail.
Marc: It’s like that poster in the background that says, “You are not the user.”
Jeff: Makes sense. What are some of the methodologies or principles or techniques that have withstood the test of time? I asked you originally about the usability, marginal benefit of return after five users. You’re like, “Hey, that’s still relevant.”‘ What are some other things that have withstood the test of time? I’m curious about both of your thoughts.
Jakob: Well I think a lot of the resource methodologies definitely continue to be about the same. Now, there are also changes. For example, we talk about doing user testing and one thing we do a lot these days is remote user testing over the internet. That technology was not really there in the old days. We had to grab people into the lab and sit with them, which we also still do, but not as much.
That basic idea of just watching your customer, watching your users to see what they do, making a prototype or markup of the design before you implement it, so you have not wasted hundreds of programmer’s time for months upon months to make a feature that users cannot understand. Those types of ideas have honestly been the same for my entire career. I predict that they’re going to be the same for the next 40 years as well.
I also want you to think of that. I’m thinking, “Oh, nothing is ever-changing. It’s all the same,” because there’s honestly been a lot of progress in user interfaces during this time. If you think back, anybody who’s old enough thinks back to things like DOS or Unix or the entire tech space, mainframe text-based interfaces, they were truly terrible. Then the PC interfaces were just terrible. They were not as bad. They were better. And then the early websites were in fact bad.
Then probably even touched the middle ground of websites who were already starting to be better and the modern ones, the better ones anyway, are getting to get pretty good. The same is true for mobile. Like the first mobile apps were really bad. You had this fat finger problem, you couldn’t touch anything. Then we started to understand that and make them better. This is also echoed, by the way, in the masses of people using computers, which used to be relatively few people. Now in at least rich countries, it’s a very large percentage of the population. That is only possible because computers have become much easier to use. They’re not what I want them to be, I’m very critical, but they’re much better than they used to be.
Jeff: That makes sense. Marc, what are your thoughts?
Marc: Yes, I echo a lot of that. I think some things, it’ll change a little bit about getting some of that user feedback as things become more physical with virtual reality and how do you capture that? It has been nice, especially the last few years, being able to still conduct interviews and some testing remotely. Nothing beats getting in person and really watching a person and how they act with different things that happen in the environment around them that you can’t really capture in this two-dimensional, help the cameras capturing everything that’s going on around that person. For certain things, it’s just always better to see him in person.
Jeff: Makes sense. Let’s shift to the future a little bit. Jakob. You have done this hundred-year span timeframe that I’ve talked about before. A hundred-year view on UX that starts in 1950 and goes to 2050. What’s in store for the UX field in the next 30 years, 2050? Tell us more about what you predict for the future.
Jakob: I predict enormous additional growth, so I always said that in my time, it’s grown by a factor of 2000. In that sense, the factor is smaller because I’m predicting another growth of a factor of 50 from two million to a hundred million people. Of course, in terms of absolute numbers, this is like 98 million more people. That’s a huge growth. The reason I do that is I really feel that what we are doing is becoming a more and more core part of the world economy.
In the old days, it was a matter of making farming better. I’m sure this will still happen. It’s just not my area, but I’m sure farming will still get better, or mining or the assembly line, making an automobile, those types of things. They’ve always been important. They will continue to be important, but relatively speaking, the knowledge work, the intellectual work, the information-oriented things.
Various people say we are in the knowledge economy, information economy, or whatever, but I really feel we are. Not just the economy in terms of producing, but also the economy in terms of consuming. There’s only so much bread you can eat or so many mistakes you can eat or whatever. As farming gets better and better, we can’t eat more anyway. The same is true for how many cars do you want and how many this or that physical thing do you want. We can always want things to be more pleasant, more engaging, easier. That’s why I think a lot of the growth is happening now and even more so in the future.
Also, this is a global phenomenon as well. We just had to remember there’s still a lot of countries in the world that are more middle-of-the-road or even poor. Those are going to get richer and richer and richer. The countries that are now middle in 30 years, they’ll be rich and the countries that are now poor will in 30 years hopefully be middle-class. I’m expecting a lot more affluent people who will really be very demanding in terms of quality. How do we deliver quality? We do it by this UX work. That’s why I’m thinking that there’s a need for dramatically more people doing this than we have now.
Jeff: That makes sense. How do we see the UX field evolving with all of these new technologies that are coming out, some of which don’t even have screens. You have that different type of interface, I guess. How do you see the UX field evolving with all this new innovation that’s going to be coming in the next 20 years. Yes, more designers, but do we think that the practices, the methods need to change or the field needs to change at all with all this new tech?
Jakob: I think you’re right that we will divorce ourselves more from the screen. The graphical user interface was honestly one of the really big advances in usability. It’s so much easier to deal with things we can see rather than have to remember them. This is actually one of our human factors principles is that human memory is really weak. If you can show things to people so they don’t have to remember them, this is vastly an improvement in usability. That said, we can’t always sit in front of a big computer screen. There’s a lot of things that are becoming more interactive, becoming more computerized.
The user interface will more be around us, it’ll more be the world. That’s the user interface as opposed to just your computer screen. I still honestly believe in the same fundamental methods of watching users behave and act in that world. Yes, the actual design principles will certainly have to be very different because we cannot use these principles saying, “Well, no, make a search box in the upper-right part of the screen.” A lot of those guidelines we have that are great guidelines, but apply to a certain representation of the interaction.
Jeff: It’s been interesting to watch voice AI, how rapidly that’s evolved. We have 3 billion devices with voice AI. That being a common way for us to interface with information today. That’s been fascinating, I think, for the UX field as an example. Our voice, our eyes being a key thing with the future of the AR/VR world. One of our clients is OVR. It’s a smell factor for the augmented virtual reality devices as well. We’re tapping into these different senses and it seems like the human factors aspect of UX might become even more important for the future, given that we might not have all the interfaces.
Jakob: I think you’re right because one of the key things about the graphical user interfaces is it can show you options. A menu is one of the classic things in a graphical user interface, whereas for a lot of these other interfaces, you have to basically write. You have to not show people, but let’s say have people smell or hear or whatever, a much, much smaller number of things because you don’t have that– The visual scanning is very, very powerful and that’s one of the reasons the menus work. Yes, a menu that’s– People hate these phone trees like, “For this, press one, for that, press two, and for such-and-such, press 25,” or whatever.
They are just insufferable to use because scanning doesn’t apply to an auditory interface and even less so to a smell interface. You’re right, we have to be much more accurate in our design. The graphic interface has saved us many ways from our inability to be perfect designers. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s a perfect designer in the world, but we’ll have to become more perfect when we have these other types of interaction channels.
Jeff: Yes. One of the things we’ve been talking over here at Fresh is about using a combination of methods because it can be really efficient, for example, for voice, for search, and for getting the information in, but it’s not super-efficient for getting information out. We have a robotics platform called Harmony, and we’ve been discussing, well, it’s efficient to get information in if you’re, let’s say navigating a robot somewhere, but to get to see what’s happening, if you’re trying to hear back from audio, you could scan in seconds what it could take a minute to tell you.
That hybrid of thinking about when to use different experiences and when to design with different inputs I think is going to be more important for the future. Marc, what are your thoughts on how things need to evolve, or what are some of the game-changer things you see for the future of UX design?
Marc: Yes, just what you were just talking about, bringing in the senses of smell. Traditionally, it was just eyes and keyboards and trackpads, but now it’s not just that. We’re bringing in smell. You have heard of AR/VR devices, now you’re talking about physical gestures. That brings in the human factor of being aware of more physical accessibility issues beyond the plethora of vision problems that a lot of people have. Yes, I think it just expands into further understanding the human restrictions and when to account for that in design.
Jeff: This is a question I had for you, Jakob. Do you think the next generation of tech advancements will make the future of computing more natural or do you think we’re going to be just more distracted essentially with all these different devices and ways to interact with computers that are in IoT devices, but mobile and screens that are everywhere? What are your thoughts on making the experience with computers more natural? How does the new tech enable that?
Jakob: I feel like what you’re pointing out is definitely a risk that it just becomes more distracting, more overwhelming, more you’ve bombarded at all in all channels. If you’re not in the physical reality world, but you’re going to some place like Times Square or any other major downtown place in the big city, and all these things are flashing at you and the taxis are coming and you are at dire risk of your life if you misstep once. There’s definitely a risk of that.
I think attention management is going to be a really big concern. We have to remember, people are very limited in how much they can take in. At the same time, I also believe that there’s a lot of potential for making it more natural. We just basically know that most humans are not great at dealing with abstract information. This is again just like the “you are not the user” point, because I think most people who are watching this episode are probably in the very high end of the population in terms of cognitive skills and abstract thinking and all those types of things.
We may not realize how hard it is for the majority of people but there’s been very thorough studies of these things and it turns out that it’s a very limited percent of the population who are actually capable of really advanced use of computers with the current type of computers. One really big study that was done by OECD said 5% of the population average over the OECD. Then there are some countries like Singapore and Japan were 8%, and that’s nice bragging rights for them, but honestly, whether it’s 5 or 8, you do the opposite math that says that on average it is 95% and in Japan and Singapore it’s 92%.
It doesn’t even really matter whether it’s one or the other. In any case, more than 90% of the population cannot do this. They can do simple things which is why eCommerce works. If you see something you want, you can click to buy it or you can scroll through a News Feed. Simple things people can do, but complicated things they cannot do. It’s not because 90% or 92% or 95% of people aren’t capable of functioning. Clearly, we can see this. It’s the case that the vast majority of people are able to do, drive a car, go shopping in the supermarket, deal with their girlfriend and whatever things. All those types of everyday activities, not everybody, but most people can in fact do them.
There’s clearly a disconnect here. Humans are involved to live in that physical world and understand a certain way of doing things, but only to a certain extent. Again, not if there’s thousands of people banging things at all times, blinking things and behind us and beside us. We got to scale it back a bit. I do feel that there’s a lot of potential for growing into interaction styles and ways of doing things that will, I like to say, empower more users, empower more people. That’s what our fundamental goal is: to make technology adapt to people rather than having people adapt to technology.
Jeff: Makes sense. I really like this, that stat of like, if humans are only doing, 92 to 95% aren’t doing really complex work with computers, that’s a great promise for truly making computers easier to use, doing more of the advanced complex work. If we can adapt them to humans, then they can do even more advanced complex work as we continue to evolve.
That being the role of, yes, technology will get more automated, as it does it, hopefully with good UX design, it gets easier to manipulate and utilize and do more advanced functions. We carry that need forward with us. That’s awesome. Marc, what are your thoughts? How do you see the UX design field evolving and how does that relate to making things easier for humans?
Marc: I think it is getting out there more and watching people. I think that assumption that people are just going to get this because I get it––you still see it all the time actually. It’s always fun to show people our user test video and reveal that it’s not as easy as you thought it was. Here are some places where we should probably focus and fix it. As far as evolving, it’s going to be some different sorts of test methods to capture how struggles with VR, the new technology that comes out, we’re going to have to adapt our methods to capture the big picture. It’s a lot of the same, but some shifts to adapt to the new technology that’s coming out.
Jeff: One of the trends we’ve been seeing recently has been this decentralization of data, Web3, blockchain, all that stuff. Jakob, do you see that impacting the UX design field or is that just more behind the scenes?
Jakob: To a greater sense behind the scenes, but it does also raise some additional issues. For example, do people know where things are? I would say, mostly probably not. Do they have to know where things are? Hopefully not, I would say because it’s too difficult. Those are definitely issues we didn’t have in the past. Before the incident, if you had a PC, you knew all your data was on your own local drive or your floppy disc, even if you go back far enough. It was easier to understand what was going on. The more steps and layers you have, the harder it becomes. This is a particular problem when anything goes wrong because it’s almost impossible, even for somebody who knows. I know a lot about computers actually. It’s very hard for me to understand what’s wrong when something breaks.
As long as it all works fine, no problem. The ideal there is actually that things break less often. This is a great example of how something that you would consider to be truly backend, like the exact code and stuff like that, impacts user experience. When they’re bugs, when things go wrong, they go down, they break, endless confusion is involved. People start then doing things to overcome the problem. They will often be the wrong things because they don’t understand what went wrong and that is really terrible.
Having more stable, solid technology that doesn’t break us often would be a vast improvement in user experience actually, even though it’s not an interface design, but a backend engineering design problem. Then of course, all the security issues and the endless things compound to make things more complicated and they have a bigger impact than just that one isolated spot in its own right. When you can’t log in, that snowballs, those types of issues. There’s a lot of things that impact your total user experience, which is what we want to optimize.
Jeff: That’s interesting to think about how the back-end can reinforce obviously the front-end experience or, something going down could damage trust, which may be a critical aspect of using something. That’s helpful. I mentioned technology has a life of its own and I think UX has done a great job helping us focus on the users, which impacts humans and impacts humanity. What are some challenges that we need to be working on as we think about the future to solve for humanity and not just users? I think this recent focus on inclusive design has had us thinking a little bit broader than just the traditional user personas and user testing and started to think about, “Oh, humanity is getting impacted here.” What are some thoughts on again, the challenges we need to be working on from a humanity perspective?
Jakob: Well, there are many. I also don’t think we should over-exaggerate our own role. There are some certain things that we probably can’t really deal with. Like say the risk of World War 3 can be used as an example. It’s definitely something I worry about.
Jeff: It’s becoming a real present reality, potential reality that people are talking about, right?
Jakob: Well now hopefully people are watching this in five years and the problem will go away. Actually not, there’s still going to be some other problems. Yet I don’t think we should expect that we can solve everything, but that’s it. There are certain things that we can either solve or at least help improve. One thing is a little bit of a traditional human factors problem, but I think that’s a really big one because it’s true: in almost all countries, a bigger and bigger percentage of the population is getting older and older. I feel like there’s actually two aspects to that. One is really just traditional usability issues of using bigger fonts and simpler workflows and stuff such that old people can have an easy time using those designs.
Honestly, that’s a disgrace that it’s not already done because we know how to do that. Then there’s a second one, which I think is more complicated and difficult, which is how to use technology to overcome the degradation of the brain by aging. A simple example of that is the memory problem. Anybody who has not forgotten where they left their car keys says two reasons. Either they don’t own a car or they’re not 50 years old yet. Otherwise memory, it’s just known. Memory just degrades a bit.
I think computers have perfect memory. We should have human-computer symbiosis of having the computer take over some of that responsibility, and have humans do more of the things that they are good at. There’s honestly not been that much good work done on personal information management. Ever since the web came out, the web really changed our focus a lot to just putting out more information as opposed to really understanding and dealing with our own information. That has been progress and that has not been as strong. There was very much more interesting work I have done in the late ’80s and it’s been done more recently. That is just one example, but there’s a lot of other things as well.
I think that we can make the aging population still feel active and do things because a lot of the physical health problems are not going away. They’re always sick people, which is another question. Generally speaking, older people tend to be much more fresh now than they were in the past, but they’re still old. They’re still aging and so we still need to have the computer be better able to magnify them and amplify them and make them more creative, and so forth.
That I feel is like a really big challenge, that is, as far as I can see, not being done a lot. Most design interest is in how to design for young people, not how to design for old people.
Jeff: Yes. Marc, what are your thoughts about challenges that we need to be working on, and also what are some of the big topics that we could cover that can make the world a better place?
Marc: Actually, I was watching a video, I think it was one of yours, Jakob, where you talked about that population shift where there’s just going to be a lot more older people as opposed to more younger people, which has traditionally been the pattern. I think that definitely comes to mind and watching how they interact with things. You have a different population now that is becoming old, that has grown up with computers, whereas people like my parents did not, they’ve adapted over time.
I think it’s just interesting to watch how as Gen Xers or whatever they’re calling us now get older. Are they just completely out of the loop on the new technology that’s coming up, or do they have a great ability to adapt to new technologies that come out? How do you design for people that like you say, just the memory starts to go a little bit and eyesight and things like that? Just being cognizant of not forgetting those people and making sure if they’re even remotely going to be part of your user set, then you really need to work their needs in there.
Jeff: Any other thoughts from a macro perspective about how we can be more intentional for the future, given all we’ve learned from the past? Jakob, thoughts from you?
Jakob: Well, mainly I’m a very optimistic, positive person, but one of the things that has been disappointing to me I guess is a lot of social media for the last 10 years or something. That could be one area one would hope one could have learned from the past. There’s a lot of great both actual benefits and also perceived and hoped-for benefits, but they’ve also been overshadowed by various downsides as well. That would be one area I think that there would be potential for learning from the past and doing better next time.
Jeff: Yes. I think we’ve become more divisive as a result of some of the media and some of the technology. How do we bring people together more and think about that more intentionally? That’s definitely on our minds. Let’s move into just a couple of closing questions. Jakob, what advice would you give for someone interested in the UX field? It’s obviously, you mentioned, going to be a growing field, but what advice would you give for someone that, “This sounds interesting, I’d like to get involved.”
Jakob: Yes, well, of course, you have to be interested in all of that, but if you are, I think it’s going to be a great career. The only thing to do is to get going, get into it as fast as possible because this is an area where you mainly learn from experience. There’s absolutely some theory and it’s worthwhile reading some books. You mentioned I’ve written many books and then go take some courses, all those types of things, all very good.
I think if you just try to do it on yourself, on your own, you’re going to go and make all the mistakes that I made 40 years ago and why do that? Learn from what’s already known, but the truth is that it’s not that much, it’s not that much theory. It’s good to know some psychology, some research methods, and some design principles and whatever, but mainly it’s a matter of actually doing it and then learning from those projects and doing better next time.
My main advice is just to get going as fast as possible. It’s, of course, the exact advice that will depend on the person’s circumstances. Is it someone who’s in high school? In that case, maybe you could advise that they try to get an undergraduate degree, not a graduate, an undergraduate degree in UX, and then go and get a job. Are they already in the job market? In that case, what I actually usually say is, look around where you are right now and see if you can twist your current job to become a UX job and just take on some of the low-hanging fruit.
Particularly in the company that does not do a lot of UX work, there’s going to be a lot of terribly designed internal applications that very little work can make them vastly better which will be very visible to management, which will then hopefully make them give you more resources to the next project and so forth. I think if you’re in this place already, try to see if you can make it work where you already are but yes, if you’re completely new, then––what I did, but this is back in the 1970s. This is so long ago. I did all these things like getting a PhD, whatever, but that’s honestly––it’s not worthless, but it takes too much time. It’s better to get going faster.
Jeff: Marc, what are your thoughts for someone that’s interested in this UX field, you’ve been in it for a while.
Marc: Yes. Get exposed to as many things as possible, not just education, but getting out there. If you have opportunities to travel, do it. Expose yourself to as many cultures as possible. I think just understanding more humans, the better, more perspectives. I know throughout my life, I’ve had opportunities here and there and you don’t realize it until you go through it, but how that can impact you and your perceptions on not everybody sees things the same and just understanding that principle alone can be powerful as you approach your design.
Jeff: Jakob, for you, any other closing thoughts as we think about the future of UX design?
Jakob: I think it honestly will be glorious. There’s always resistance as well. What I feel is, don’t let that get you down. If you’re in a place where there’s resistance, push them harder and if you keep pushing and it still doesn’t work, then maybe get another job but that should be the last choice. If you look at the bigger history, and again, history is not from one week to the next or one month to the next. You have a brilliant idea and it’s going to be shut down or you do testing and discover a major thing that needs to be fixed and the engineering manager says, “We don’t have time. We’re going to ship it next week.”
Yes, so there will be those types of setbacks. They just happen. But if you look at it over a longer period of time, over years, many years, we are getting more respect, we’re getting more budgets, maturity in organizations is going up. It’s becoming more international. The ultimate point is the actual quality of the user interfaces that are shipping is going up. All those things are getting better and better and better. Then there’s small setbacks, but don’t focus on the setbacks, focus on the bigger picture, then it’s just really great.
Jeff: Awesome. Thanks so much for being here on the show both for your insights, your wisdom, your experience. Huge gratitude for that and for joining us today and for just sharing thoughts on where we’re going and how we can continue to impact that with intent. Grateful.
Jakob: Well, thanks Jeff and Marc. It was a great discussion.
Marc: Thank you.
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