5 Trends: The definitive guide to turn-of-the-decade UX. (Part 1)

Home Design 5 Trends: The definitive guide to turn-of-the-decade UX. (Part 1)

You heard it here first.

Happy belated New Year. Have you missed me?

Don’t answer that.

Writing predictions is sort of like placing bets on a bum fight, except you are risking your reputation instead of your coke money. Every year, it seems like more people want to proclaim their credibility in the field of UX and be dubbed a “thought leader” (in one case, someone actually dubbed themselves that… keep reading). It’s hard to tell who knows what they are talking about and who is full of it.

That is why I have read through every 2019 UX predictions article I could find, from well-known names to randos who include “yeah, but” 10 times in a single article. Across all the predictions, I identified 25 trends that are likely to be important in 2019.

When I say these trends are important, I mean that they will be highly relevant to UX, UI, interaction, and product designers, as well as anyone else who works with them. These are areas where there will be the most opportunities for UX people to make a difference, and so they are ranked by their relevance to UX people, not investors or consumers.

Suffice it to say, I haven’t presented every predicted trend, not do I endorse every prediction within as a good thing. While I am withholding some of my own predictions as trade secrets, I have added a couple of dark horses you won’t see anywhere else.

Oh, and one more thing: I will be writing full articles for each of these predictions. Check back soon and often.

25. The Techlash begins

Nobody can say tech industry didn’t have this coming. The tech douches have pissed off consumers. They’ve pissed off data privacy watchdogs. They’ve pissed off both sides of the political aisle and that’s the really scary part, because with that enmity may come regulations, regulations that come back to haunt the consumer.

The Techlash will happen in bursts as the various sins of the industry are brought before the scourging pillar. Data malfeasance will be among the first, both as a result of intentional sharing with advertisers and government, and as a result of embarrassing leaks. Social media and phone addiction will become the public health crisis that lung cancer and opiate addiction already are. Other concerns about tech which remain arcane or esoteric at this point will come to the forefront later.

These are the early days. The Techlash is only starting to build up, and it will simmer in the background in 2019, permeating every other one of these trends. Even though it was largely the fault of the founders with their mix of harebrained utopianism and plain old lust for mammon, UX designers will have to deal with the consequences. Prepare for damage control.

Read more (coming soon)

24. Legacy UX design and documentation methods hit their limit

The days of creating a bunch of flat, 2D, non-interactive comps are drawing to a close. The old ways were stressed to their breaking point when the online experience evolved from websites to rich applications (although, it’s fair to say, rich applications existed long before the web). It was already hard to document an interactive software program with static pixels, even when it was composed of fixed screens. Nowadays, though, digital interactions are just too complex for that. There are sound and/or speech based products, natural language processing, and highly individualized experiences where no traditional format could describe them all.

Historically, all the parts of the UX design process, from research to information architecture to interactions to graphics have been disconnected items that don’t communicate with each other, basically digital blueprints. Not only will this result in serious divergences in the designs between different stakeholders but it means that designers cannot see the forest for the trees when they make changes to the designs.

All of that is changing. UX software is becoming increasingly sophisticated and it is tying together all the parts of the process together. With automated documentation and quantification of the UX and IA, organizations will no longer need to use Agile as a lame excuse for not having a good design process. Start learning these tools now to stay ahead of the curve.

Read more (coming soon)

23. The last dying gasp of “delight”

I bet you thought you had seen the last of “delight”, that grating, vaguely patronizing buzzword from the mid-2010s. Well, be ready for it to have one last sordid romp in the UX sphere, possibly under the new, rehabilitated name of “serendipity”.

Cyber addiction often resembles slot machine addiction with, web users staring joylessly into their screens, scrolling down their newsfeeds which deliver variable rewards and their attendant dopamine hits, much like lab rats that compulsively push the treat button. Given that it is fraying friendships, straining marriages, and making people generally antisocial, it is undoubtedly a major societal problem. Expect some designers to “solve” this problem by turning the slot machine model up to eleven.

This means that the rewards will become bigger but less frequent in order to break the sense of nihilistic monotony, or as one self-appointed “thought leader” (yeah, he called himself that…) put it, to “wake users up from their virtual stupor”. This may manifest in any number of ways. While the “rewards” in the traditional feed model have been limited to appealing content, you can expect more explicit rewards — think the animated balloons you get when you send someone “congratulations” over iMessage — linked to user accomplishments, such as using a product for over a year. It might look a lot like the most superficial elements of gameification applied to places where nobody asked for it.

You probably have already figured out that this is not a sustainable practice. Just as the actual joy has been removed from the sense of discovery on Facebook’s Newsfeed, the eternally rolling hedonic treadmill will turn these “perpetual happy coincidences” into mere participation trophies. This is not likely to lead to more trust in technology, but less. People want control over their digital lives, not their digital lives controlling them. There may be some use for engineered serendipity, but it needs to be ethical, and the rewards meaningful, not manipulative.

Read more (coming soon)

22. The twilight of “mobile first”

The overlong reign of mobile first did a lot of damage to user experience. If you thought that squeezing complex interactions into a tiny screen with zero tactile feedback, and no hover effects could possibly end well, you haven’t been paying attention. A lot of the good design patterns developed over decades were scrapped in a matter of years. There was a time when screens kept getting bigger, allowing for richer interfaces, but the invention of smartphones brought that development to a screeching halt. Companies used the limitations of the mobile form factor as camouflage for their attempts to take control away from the user, calling it “simplifying” or even “magic”.

Interfaces were not the only aspect of UX harmed by the reign of mobile. The rise of native apps contradicted yet another ongoing trend away from platform-dependent installed software. As a result of this fad that overstayed its welcome, we lost several mobile platforms — Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and WebOS to name a few — which fed the duopoly of Apple and Google and led to a stagnation in progress.

Well, all of that is coming to an end. The smartphone is being attacked from both sides. The decline of PCs has halted and they have made a partial recovery. Smart devices of all sorts are eating away at the functional centralization of phones. After its ill-conceived reign as the future of everything, the smartphone will be demoted to just one more tech format as the hardware ecosystem begins to regain its lost biodiversity. Ignore big screen experiences at your peril.

Read more (coming soon)

21. The western mega apps

China has WeChat. WeWon’t. However the prospect of being the single platform that integrates search, social networking, personal correspondence, shopping, and banking, not to mention replaces cash and possibly government ID cards, is a juicy banana over which the 800-pound gorillas will beat their chests. Omnipotence is lucrative. Expect these companies to throw beaucoup dollars at this opportunity, most of which will be wasted in grandiose boondoggles.

All of the major brands have been trying to turn themselves into all-in-one platforms for some time. Until now, any attempts to go beyond their core strengths have not gone well. Few people remember Facebook’s attempt at a mobile phone, or Apple’s never-was social network, Ping. The idea that any of these companies could ever stand a chance of being a do-it-all like WeChat is more ludicrous than ever. In any case, any successful attempt at said would result in a new Standard Oil, resulting in a corresponding regulatory breakup, especially in today’s tech-hostile climate.

That doesn’t mean that they won’t try to sneak in under the radar though. Apple and Google have their app stores that allow them to wet their beaks across every imaginable industry. Amazon is getting into the game with Alexa and her aftermarket “skills”. Each brand will attempt to create as complete an ecosystem as possible, and wherever they cannot venture themselves, they will pick favorites to whom they will give protection in exchange for loyalty.

What does that mean for the little guy who doesn’t want to be a gorilla’s punk? It means it’s time to identify and break down the increasingly invisible walls around the garden.

Read more (coming soon)

20. Apple’s fading design influence

The greatest trick that Apple ever pulled was convincing the world they were the masters of UX. That trick is starting to wear off, at long last. The world is starting to realize that Apple’s design is not all that great. In retrospect, we should all ask how they managed to fool people for so long into thinking that good design and pretty design were the same thing. Their reputation even survived the hockey puck mouse.

By labeling their design as “art”, they gave it a shelf life. Ergonomics and user-friendliness don’t go out of style. Art does. Now that Apple’s crass brand of “modern minimalist” is slipping out of the zeitgeist, their whole act is starting to look a little silly. The legitimate strong points in their user experience are in disrepair, having been held together by the je ne sais quois that Steve Jobs took to the grave with him. There just isn’t enough actual firewood and glass left to maintain the smoke and mirrors.

What this means is that Apple will no longer be setting the rules of UI and UX design. The fall of “mobile first” and the native app craze, in addition to damaging Apple’s credibility, is leading to an increasingly heterodox design ecosystem. They lack both the moral authority and the monopolistic might to back up their bluster. That is to say, Apple can no longer make outrageous claims about their designs being “the future” without sounding like a crackpot. Don’t confuse this to mean that the company itself is going anywhere, however their days of tastemaking are coming to a end.

Read more (coming soon)

19. The soon-to-be-renamed “Internet of Things”

If you still don’t fully understand what “internet of things” means, you’re in good company. It’s a stupid, bullshit term that really just means “smart stuff”. Smart vacuums. Smart bikes. Smart shoes. Smart hot dog buns. Picture the Jetsons, where everything seems to have an antenna. The confusing name has likely been holding back its development because even people in the industry really don’t understand it. Expect to hear the word “smart” applied to regular things this year. Rather than a single IoT industry, expect distinct industries with different approaches and skill sets behind them.

That said, smart things will begin to gain traction this year. Smart home technology, ranging from refrigerators to security systems to speakers, is already widespread. Cars will receive new focus, which may prove a mixed blessing given how prone today’s vehicles are to premature obsolescence. What actually makes something “smart” may vary. Everything will have more sensors embedded in it. It might have a screen. It might have a Bluetooth to send data to your computer or phone. It may run on software that can upgrade itself.

Smart things are fraught with challenges and opportunities. There are close to zero established patterns for any of these technologies, meaning there is no shortage of room to make a difference. We could see good precedent established, or very bad precedent. Given that technology is no longer limited to abstract data browsing tools, but very real, physical parts of our lives, the risks posed by bad design are higher than ever. As municipal infrastructure is embedded with online technology, they will become vulnerable to hackers. A single, sufficiently destructive, cyberattack on a major city could set “smart things” back by years.

Read more (coming soon)

18. Virtual reality will become feasible

Even in 2018, VR remained a tough sell. Too many of us remember when it was a punchline in the style of fusion power and flying cars, and it continues to conjure images of people fumbling around in giant helmets at best, and the Matrix at worst. The winds are shifting, though. One by one, the technical limitations holding back virtual reality are being overcome. The headsets no longer look pathologically dorky, and the cost is now scraping up against $200 to get started. Processing power to handle the software side just keeps growing.

The big question now is where the killer app will come from. The practical uses of VR are still lost on most consumers. Workplace training, especially for dangerous jobs such as law enforcement and military, factory workers, and electrical or nuclear technicians is looking to be that killer app. While it probably won’t take off this year, the groundwork will be laid, so if you would like to work in the field, start now.

On the other hand, we can’t forget games, which have been a perfect match for VR from day one. The practical concerns are much less an issue in gaming. The low stakes and discretionary nature of video games is a perfect proving ground for experimental ideas and UI patterns for virtual reality. Take advantage of it and experiment wildly.

While VR won’t necessarily be a driving force in most domains of UX in 2019, it will continue to provide a wealth of opportunities for design and development, and to set precedent that will impact technology for decades to come. Moreover, VR should remain insulated from the wider Techlash for the time being, provided none of its evangelists make any stupid statements about how we should live in virtual reality to save the planet.

Read more (coming soon)

17. Augmented reality will become practical

If the possibilities of VR are under-explored, then those of AR are barely even touched. Like the erstwhile “Internet of Things”, poor understanding of augmented reality has hampered its development. If your mental image of AR is limited to some Black Mirror scenario involving “social conformity” ratings floating over people’s heads, take a step back.

For real-time AR, phones now have sophisticated enough cameras and processors to do some pretty neat stuff. Until recently, though, they have been wasting their potential on frivolous nonsense like putting dog snouts on basics or drawing doodles in the air. We are finally seeing practical applications of AR including virtual tape measures and motorcycle helmets with navigation built in.

For all the gee-whiz appeal of the real-time AR, the real short-term potential is in prefabricated AR media. Allowing people to envision themselves with new hairstyles and clothing, or virtually furnish their homes with chairs, tables, and artwork, or even add another story to their house, will be an absolute coup for marketing. Small-time video and music producers will make themselves sound like big-budget stars to level the media playing field.

Then there is the possibility of AR that goes beyond the screen. As people begin to avoid screens, they may not want to lose out on the convenience of connectivity. Don’t neglect the possibility of projector-based AR that dynamically superimposes cyberspace directly onto meatspace.

Read more (coming soon)

16. Customization — the yang to personalization’s yin

You have no doubt heard by now that data-driven, personalized experiences will be the way of the future (and if you haven’t, you will in this article). Software is already able to tailor itself to your (supposed) preferences, inferred from the data they have on you. The more data they have, the better the experience. See a problem? If you’re a little guy, you don’t have anywhere near as much data, which means the 800-pounders will bogart the customers, and thus the data, in a vicious cycle. What is to be done?

As the gap widens between the data haves and have-nots, the latter will need to resort to asymmetrical warfare in the form of a technique somehow forgotten in today’s hipsterized, Apple-ified world: customization. Where personalization crafts the user’s experience for them, leaving them a passive agent, customization is entirely user-driven. They create they experience they want. In addition to earning the user’s trust by giving them agency, customization also serves as a jump-start for data gathering initiatives to support personalization in the future.

That is not to say that customization is merely a poor man’s personalization. Customization gives the user exactly what they want instead of what some crappy algorithms presume they want. Facebook users never asked for ideological bubbles, but they got them anyway. That was personalization. Without customization, Venmo would have never succeeded. It turns out that most people have enough sense to want their financial transactions to be private, and only with the ability to turn off Venmo’s ridiculous social notifications could the site be anything more than a novelty for overgrown children.

From 2019 on, customization will go beyond a few token settings and allow users to dramatically re-shape their user experience to fit their lifestyle, their tasks, their disabilities, and more. The opportunity and challenge for UX designers is to create a customization experience that users will actually use. Facebook dumbed down their privacy settings because users were confused by the earlier design. UX designers will need to be smarter than that in the future, making complexity appear simple, or at least fun.

Read more (coming soon)

15. Conversational interfaces

This trend is all about opportunity. As it currently stands, chat bots suck. They have sucked for a long time, and they continue to suck. But they won’t suck forever, and 2019 will see a lot of effort put into developing them. The technology is finally catching up to the need. Nonverbal communication is far more intimate than verbal communication, and people do not necessarily want to be intimate with your brand.

As consumers re-evaluate their relationship with technology, the first thing on the chopping block will be push content. Getting information through the firehose of stuff known as the newsfeed just won’t cut it anymore. Clicking through a navigation tree to find what you’re looking for just gives the brand more chances to derail you with ads or other distractions. Push content was the way of the past. Users don’t want stuff pushed on them. They want to pull stuff toward them, in other words, to ask for it when they need it.

For the brands’ part, customer support is an expensive service to maintain. Small companies cannot afford their own trained on-shore staff, let alone to operate them 24/7. Sufficiently advanced AI will be required for these chat bots to be on par with carbon-based staff.

The challenge for conversational interfaces will be to find them the right niche in the UI ecosystem. The principal advantage of verbal navigation is that it adapts to the user’s personal idioms where point-and-click navigation forces them to adapt to yours. Understanding which types of information are best navigated by either form is the key to success. Nor does it have to be an either-or thing. Chat interfaces can benefit from buttons, menus, and interactive media, and point-and-click interfaces can integrate contextual chat input. Seamlessly integrating the two is the ultimate goal.

Read more (coming soon)

14. Peak Smartphone

When the iPhone redefined the mobile phone in 2007, every other device ultimately copied it, attempting to out-iPhone the iPhone. This meant bigger screens and narrower form factors every release cycle. By 2018, phones had become ergonomic nightmares, too big to fit into a pocket (especially with a case), impossible to grasp tightly, and increasingly devoid of physical buttons. And, of course, the bezel around the screen became smaller and smaller until the front face was all screen.

It’s only going to get worse, for now at least. In the waning days of “mobile first”, the hardware that led to that entire paradigm will reach its most extreme form. The war to make the thinnest phone with the least non-screen surface area will continue apace. Form will rule, function be damned. Apple will doubtless continue to lead the escalation by attempting to strip more hard features from the iPhone. It is unlikely that they will remove the remaining hole, but those volume buttons and mute switch offer them tempting targets.

What’s more, the manufacturers will attempt to cram even more sensors into these decreasingly anthropocentric devices, continuing the process of excessive centralization of all of your technology into a skinny rectangle. 3D cameras are very likely, as well as any other technologies that facilitate augmented reality.

At this rate, things are getting so extreme, and the limitations of smartphones so apparent that the trend cannot go on forever. It’s only a matter of when.

Read more (coming soon)

While you’re waiting for Part 2, help me get 15000 followers!

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