The companies we work with at Iconstorm currently have two major concerns: one is their strategy, and the other is implementation. And in my opinion, UX design is a typical tool for the latter. Thus it fulfils an important role, but at the moment it also runs the riks of losing its meaning and becoming obsolete. Let’s take a look at why this is the case.
The unsatisfactory status quo of UX Design
UX design has a very important task, namely to make life easier for people through reliable and intuitively usable services or products. Its main focus is the satisfaction of users – i. e. customers. Customers take part in the testing and customers decide on tests that determine how products are created. The design of these products is all about meeting expectations. About avoiding mistakes. About satisfying needs.
In this operative niche, UX design has made itself comfortable today. It should be as lean as possible and Lean UX now resembles a trial and error approach. Creating variants is cheap today. Testing as well. The process goes on until the product can be used as conveniently as possible, is as close to the customer as possible.
UX design focuses on the user and his or her handling of a product. A discipline of implementation. But as designers, this does not absolve us from a broader responsibility that we also bear for society. A pure focus on the comfort of the user helps neither the company nor the user itself in the long run.
Eintracht Frankfurt or Bayern Munich?
Eintracht Frankfurt is our local soccer club. And they are not nearly as successful as the famous FC Bayern Munich. But let’s imagine us conducting an experiment and asking on the street: Which club has the better user experience? Eintracht Frankfurt or Bayern Munich? The answers could be quite varied.
The fan of FC Bayern
will tell us that (of course!) it is the FC Bayern. He gets to see world-class players every game. He meets people in every city (even worldwide!) who sympathize with his club. His club easily wins 80 percent of their games and is constantly winning the championship, and winning the cup or a Champions League title is also always possible. As a fan of FC Bayern he is in a constant loop of positive feedback! What do fans of Eintracht Frankfurt have to show compared to that?
The fan of Eintracht Frankfurt
might be inclined to agree with the Bayern fan. He remembers the barely missed championship in the 90s and the first relegation of his traditional club, the DFB threatening withdrawal of its licence for professional soccer and almost being relegated to the third division. To this day, the club cannot build on its glorious past. But then he also remembers how his club got promoted to the Bundesliga again, the legendary fight against another relegation in 1999, he remembers suffering, anger and despair, but also exuberant joy. When did a fan of FC Bayern ever experience something like that?
The Brave New World of User Experience
If we draw a comparison, the product “FC Bayern” represents a great usability. Being a Bayern fan is comfortable and easy. You almost exclusively get positive feedback from the product if you use it; a defeat rarely spoils your Saturday evening. It doesn’t really matter who the trainer puts up or what the tactics are – you don’t have to worry about that. Just go to the stadium and enjoy!
In principle, UX Design’s goal is to create such positive experiences. For example, let’s look at a social network like Facebook: The algorithms in the background are designed to show us exactly what we (supposedly) find best or most interesting. We’re bombarded all the time with news that we’re “being liked”. The Likes are addictive – and that’s exactly what they are supposed to be. And if there is an unpopular comment (after all, the only way to get negative feedback here) we can still block the author of said comment.
A beautiful, new, ideal world. With consequences…
A pure focus on the comfort of the user helps neither the company nor the user itself in the long run.
Should usability mean that we don’t have to think anymore?
Today, products such as Facebooks Network dominate our digitized world: as users, we are provided with convenient, simple applications that we can use without any problems. And that’s why they’re so popular.
Every child can handle a smartphone, but the we are moving far beyond even that. Soon, practically every child will be able to drive a car, or rather: to have a car drive itself. And if there’s something you can’t do, you’ll soon just ask your personalized artificial intelligence. However, it is currently difficult to estimate how drastic the long-term consequences of this user-centered satisfaction of needs could be.
The drawbacks of a perfect user experience
Think about it: Remember when you had your first experiences with the PC? Maybe you put it together yourself. Or you had to argue with family members when several people wanted to go online or make phone calls? That wasn’t possible at the time. You may remember building your first website without any helpful tools or content management systems. By no means are these perfect user experiences, but that’s a positive. Because…
1. We don’t learn anything from a perfect user experience
Sticking to our soccer analogy: our first experiences with technology were often very painful. In these situations we had similar experiences to those of the fan of Eintracht Frankfurt. But it is exactly this pain that creates a learning effect for us – whether we learned a programming language or acquired IT knowledge when tinkering with technology. These experiences were valuable to us personally, probably much more valuable than any of our visits to Facebook. (As a Frankfurt-based agency, we can therefore say without any doubt that it is better to be an Eintracht fan than a Bayern fan.)
2. There are less chances of actual innovation emerging
Never in the history of mankind have meaningful innovations followed one another faster than in the still young history of digitization. Ingenious, imaginative and inventive individuals with a penchant for experimentation failed and failed again, developing technologies, products and services that are changing our societies at an ever faster pace. But few of these innovations have emerged from the Walled Gardens, the closed platforms of today’s Internet.
This is exactly where the great danger lies: if we understand UX Design to mean that it is only there to make products that focus on convenience and short-term satisfaction of users’ needs, all users will soon find themselves in an experience that is so perfect that they no longer have the need to actually deal with their reality. Are we thus moving in a direction in which there will be fewer – and above all less meaningful – innovations?
Die strategic challenges of design
At the beginning we emphasized that as designers we have a comprehensive responsibility for society. If we think only from the user’s point of view, we run the risk of ignoring the implications of products in the user’s immediate and distant environment. So we might ask ourselves what the ecological or social costs of a product are. What’s going to happen at the end of its life. What values it represents or even promotes.
These are also long-term strategic issues for companies. We know that the current upheavals and disruptions affecting most industries make it more difficult to focus on strategies. Because they lose their half-life, offer less support, are sometimes literally shot down by radical changes. This makes it all the more understandable that many people are relying heavily on implementation disciplines such as UX Design, while at the same time trying to run them even leaner and even more agile.
Will the future of UX Design lie in a more strategic direction?
The stronger emphasis on Lean UX and the strong focus on the users are leading UX design into a crisis. After all, AI systems will quickly learn to meet customers’ routine-based needs faster and cheaper than UX Designers are able to. This could result in a deflation of UX design and at the same time reinforce the overemphasis on user centricity in relation to strategic issues.
So does UX Design have to look in a different direction? Will it stand a chance in the future if it looks more closely at strategic issues and questions its role? What if it not only focuses on the short-term needs of users, but also asks what is best for them in the long term? And thus also for society in general?
In this sense, it is the task of designers to design more than “just” a great customer experience. And this in the interest of everyone involved.
Forward-thinking UX Design
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