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Buzz word: “user experience design”

Innovation, disruption, transformation… these are the new buzz words of business today. Leading companies in all sectors are those that are succeeding at one or more of those things (although I would argue that those are all synonyms for the same thing). Last week I was at the Sandbox Project conference and in his keynote address, Rick Young offered that the same is true for the non-profit sector and especially within the context of social change. That the social changes we seek to affect will only be possible if we succeed at disruption/transformation of behaviour (at the micro level), communities (at the miso level), and systems (or governments) (at the macro level). These concepts are the subject of discussion everywhere. Companies are hiring “transformation managers”, “innovation strategists”, “futurists”, and “predictors of where the world is going”. All so that we can make products and services that will meet (or maybe define) our future needs.

For me, design and design thinking have always been at the root of innovation, disruption, transformation, whatever you want to call it! And the latest buzz word flying around the design world is “user experience design”. Originally a very technical concept and term, “user experience (UX)” emerged when people first started using computers and referred to the user interface through which they operated applications or websites. In the mid 90’s Donald Norman coined the term to widen the concept to human interface and usability. Since then, UX has evolved into a multidisciplinary design branch and now involves so many technical and non-technical aspects that it has almost lost the initial meaning.

I quite like the term in this new larger meaning. I am on the program advisory committee for the Humber School of Media Studies who is presently seeking endorsements and eventually Ministry of Education approval to offer a Bachelor of Design and a post-graduate certificate in User Experience Design. I must admit the definitions they offer and the scope of study proposed for the program make me want to sign up myself!

According to the Humber definitions and preambles, twenty-first century UX designers are involved in enabling people to accomplish their goals and making their interactions with the world around them more fruitful, sensible and enjoyable. They design tools (sites, apps, products, infrastructure) to enable specific types of people to accomplish specific goals in the best, most confident, human, enriching and pleasurable way possible. They try to understand the characteristics of the user and the task to be accomplished and figure out how to reduce friction in some places, or make the act of accomplishing more enjoyable or more structured.

The introduction continues… Increasingly, societal notions of the world are shaped through messages and experiences involving devices and products, with profound impacts on how we view the world and ourselves. The construction of everyday lives and identities are negotiated through user experiences which expand connectivity and influence how we live, the products we produce and consume. As agents of change, professional designers have the capacity to effect positive change in social behaviors, contributing to the environmental, social and economic aspirations of Ontario and the world.

How inspiring is that! So this re-emphasis on user-centeredness or human-centered design is what will drive our thinking over the next few years… Albeit it is nothing “really” new. Crescent’s tagline ten years ago was “works beautifully”, because even back then we knew that there was value in merging design and technology and that smart thinking and smart communications had to both “look good” and function well. We’ve always known that design shapes perceptions and behaviour. Dare I say that “user experience design” is just design on steroids. The process is the same. But, I will admit, there are more components at play; more inputs to understand; more tools available on which to rely for validation; and I will even say that we are thinking more broadly. Boxes are getting bigger yet we still need to think outside of them! Digital experiences are no longer confined to computers, phones and tablets, and they may not include screen interface at all. Everything is smart nowadays. Your fridge can tell you when you need butter!

Nevertheless, it was fascinating how quickly we, the committee members, arrived at consensus as we offered our thoughts on the must-have-skills of our future UX designers: research, communication skills, business acumen were a few that quickly surfaced to the top. Honestly, I don’t think that design thinking or design processes have changed much… good research (quantitative, qualitative, and especially observational) have always been drivers for good, even game-changing design. But alas, the continued development of the design discipline and the extension of design specializations proves that people and businesses recognize the value in it, which is a necessary and good thing.