The Future of UX, as Seen by an Educator Who Trains Future UXers

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What is the future of UX (User Experience)?

Where better to look for the answer than in the classroom, where the next generation of UX professionals are being trained. We talked to East Carolina University’s Guiseppe Getto, a longtime UX professor, researcher, and consultant, about teaching UX and looking into the field’s future in the hands of today’s students.

Q: What is the first thing you teach your UX students?

A: The first thing I teach my students is how to see things from the user’s point-of-view. I try to teach them that user needs come first, and all else comes second. That being said, the first “all else” I teach them about is business process. How does UX fit into a business model? I like to use a live case for this.

The last time I taught my graduate-level UX class here at East Carolina University, for instance, I used our department as the case. Our current website is terrible and we’re working on a redesign, so I had students go in and interview, test, etc. the current website in preparation for the redesign. This taught them about personas, information architecture, prototyping, usability, etc. One of the prototypes from the class became the framework for the entire redesign.

Having a single case they could use throughout the class also really helped them get what UX is all about.

Q: What are the most common misconceptions that people come into the UX field with?

A: I’d say people see UX as something that comes after design, and is thus ancillary to it. You design a website, you test it, you fix it. But by the time a website, or mobile app or whatever, goes live, you’ve already made a zillion decisions and missed some of the most valuable opportunities for receiving insights from users.

That’s why I try to teach my students that understanding users is at the heart of UX. What do they want? Why are they showing up at the site in the first place? What are their priorities? What are their biggest pain points when they get to the site and try to actually use it?

Until you’ve answered questions like those, you can’t say you’re doing UX. A lot of people who claim they do UX have zero insights into their actual users, and I think that’s a huge problem facing our field. Just because you create a great-looking site doesn’t mean that it meets users’ needs.

Q: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the way UX is practiced or appreciated in the time you’ve been a UX researcher?

A: That’s a good question, and my answer is: what doesn’t change? User needs. UX is very nimble and seems to change on an almost daily basis. Every time a new OS release happens, like the latest iOS, everyone tries to create a zillion new prototypes to use in designing for it.

And that’s important. UI or User Interface Design, is super-important, but as many UX thought leaders are currently chanting, in unison: UI is NOT UX. The user experience doesn’t begin and end with the interface.

So, that’s one change I see lately, which is a big divide in the field right now between people who are really very talented graphic designers and interface designers and can make the hot, forward-looking interfaces, and the people who want to dig in with user research and discover compelling insights that teach you how to design for your actual, living, breathing users.

I don’t think those two things are necessarily incompatible, but I see a lot of people in one camp or the other. A lot of UI designers, for example, tell me they don’t have time to talk to users. That tells me that they either don’t know how to efficiently gain insights from users, or more likely they think they can answer those questions I mentioned earlier without ever talking to users.

It’s just not possible, though. There are too many variables, too many different kinds of users, to guess. You need actual data.

Q: Do you see today’s students of UX bringing anything different to the table than older members of the field?

A: That’s another very good question, and I’d say: it really depends on the student. Like all new generations, I think (hope) the next generation of UXers will be smarter than us that have been around a little while. They’ll find new solutions, and better yet, new problems.

UX is just such a wide-open field, though, that students can really gravitate toward their interests. You can be more of an information architect, for instance, if you like dealing with really high-level thinking about taxonomies and proximity tables and all that stuff. If you’re better at working with people, you can be a user researcher or a usability specialist.

So, I think the students are going to create the next level of UX specializations. We’re already seeing that. There are still a lot of jobs that just say they want “UX,” and then there’s just a laundry list of skill sets that I doubt any one person has. But about half the jobs I see these days are more specialized. They say UX: user researcher. UX: information architect, etc.

A lot of UX people are also against specialization, but I don’t know how any field can avoid it. I’ve personally just never been able to be good at everything all the time. I am NOT a UI person, for example. I’ve tried to be, but it just doesn’t work well with my personality, and I think that’s okay.

I also don’t see why you’d want to hire someone who is pretty good at a lot of things, vs. someone who is REALLY good at a few things. I think the older UX generation HAD to be good at everything, because they were the first people to do this stuff, but now we’ve got room for specialization and we should encourage it.

Q: What do you consider the place of usability testing to be in UX?

A: It’s essential. Another dividing line between UX people is whether or not they test regularly. I don’t know how you can do UX without testing. At the same time that I’m saying specialization is okay, there are certain specializations that are essential to any team, and I think this is one of them. If you’re not testing regularly with actual users, then you’re just stabbing in the dark.

And a lot of people do stab in the dark. Especially academics. We’re the worst at this, honestly. We develop amazing theories and research methodologies and designs, but we don’t test them with real, live people. It’s so easy to do with available applications, as well. It’s so easy to recruit users from lots of different sources, but I think people are scared of really rigorous testing. I think they’re afraid of what they’ll find.

As I tell students who are new to UX, however: what you don’t know CAN hurt you. If you think you have an ineffective design, rather than get dismayed, go and test. See what the users say. There are always solutions. Even if you’re dealing with a restrictive CMS, which is what most academic websites are based on, you should still test.

There are always limitations for what problems you can solve, but until you know what the problems are, you can’t find solutions. The first step is to put the existing site or the prototype, or even just a piece of paper with a drawing on it, in front of people who are going to be using it. That’s where the magic of UX happens, or at least it always has for me.

Tim Rotolo is a UX Architect at TryMyUI, a remote usability testing service. You can follow TryMyUI on Twitter @trymyui.

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