Last updated on 7 November 2022
The UX field has changed as new and emerging technologies dominate product development. However, the true value a UX professional brings to the design process doesn’t come from tech knowledge, but from human-centered skills.
So in order for us to continue evolving as UX professionals, we need to develop these so-called ‘soft’ skills.
Originally published on the Toptal Design Blog and edited by the Toptal editorial team.
As Tech Evolves, How Should UX Adapt?
Digital technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Mixed Reality (MR), Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI), blockchain, and voice interfaces are changing the landscape of human-computer interaction. And services like The Grid, Felipe for Sketch, and UIzard show how an increasing share of design tasks are being automated.
But where does the advancement of tech-focused tools and techniques leave us UX professionals?
The Story of Phil Tippett
Phil Tippett’s story is a great example of a successful adaptation to tectonic shifts in an industry’s technology. Tippett started his career as a stop-motion animator working on Star Wars, but his shift occurred on the set of Jurassic Park.
While Tippett was building the dinosaur models for the film, Steven Spielberg saw some computer-generated dinosaurs done by another team. Impressed, Spielberg decided to make the movie with CGI instead of stop-motion animation using models. As Tippett says in Vice’s My Life in Monsters, “Jurassic Park was actually the shot in the head that killed stop motion.”
So what was Phil’s role in this new world of CGI filmmaking? What value could he bring to the table in the face of this novel, unfamiliar technology?
While at the time Tippett didn’t know about CGI, he was already an expert in everything else that goes into the craft of feature film creature animation. He was already a master at storytelling, movement, anatomy, and filmmaking – ‘soft’ skills the new CGI animators didn’t have.
Spielberg brought him back onto Jurassic Park as effects director, where he reinvented the team’s process to incorporate the best of both worlds. Because of that, the film won several visual effects awards, including an Oscar, and ushered in the age of Hollywood CGI.
When technology shifted, Tippett successfully turned to the non-technical part of his craft: his human skills. He applied those skills in a strategic way, moving into a role working with people, rather than the technology.
That is one of the directions we UX professionals can take in the face of shifting technology.
Human-Centered Creative Skills for UX Professionals
Tippet’s true value wasn’t his skill in molding clay or bending wire. His true value was his ability to help others use their technical skills to turn digital pixels into terrifying, yet satisfying experiences for audiences around the world.
A UX professional’s true value isn’t a proficiency with wireframing or prototyping. It lies in the understanding of human nature, the knowledge of which helps set the stage for meaningful experiences.
Real UX is about deeply understanding people’s needs, crafting inspiring narratives, and empowering people without exploiting them.
Technology constantly changes, but human nature never does. That’s why empathy, storytelling, and ethical design are the most important human-centered skills for UX professionals.
When we understand people’s needs, especially latent needs they aren’t consciously aware of, then we can build meaningful products and services for them. Empathy puts us in touch with those latent needs by allowing us to “listen” with our emotions.
- Simulation: creating an approximation of another person’s context (like MIT’s aging suit or VR experiences)
- Immersion: inserting ourselves in another person’s real context (like Adrian Brody preparing for The Pianist, or Drew Manning’s Fit2Fat2Fit)
- Sense memory: simulating a person’s context with emotional, sensory imagination
- Directed free writing: free writing, in character as another person or persona, about a topic related to the project
Empathy in Action
A great example of empathy is the the Philips AVENT uGrow mobile app. The app is part of a digital service that helps new parents track their baby’s health indicators (e.g. temperature, sleeping, and breastfeeding).
While e.g. temperature can be measured by a connected smart thermometer, parents need to manually input data about a baby’s sleeping and feeding habits. But a pilot study with real parents showed that the UI for tracking things like breastfeeding was too cumbersome.
So breastfeeding moms didn’t use it. But without accurate tracking, the service can’t provide effective guidance or insight into the baby’s health.
As the UX designer on the project, who has no children of my own, I needed to figure out what was going wrong and design a solution. But after consulting with UX researchers and parents on the team, I still wanted a deeper understanding of the emotional context around breastfeeding.
So I turned to acting techniques to build an empathic connection: sense memory and directed free writing. I began by writing a letter, in character as a new mother, to her new baby. After awakening that emotional state in myself, I conducted sense memory exercises to imagine the basic realities of a new mother’s experiences before and during feeding her baby and using the app.
The exercises gave me a better understanding of what was important to the mother while she’s using our app. I reorganized the tracker UI so parents can use it with one thumb while the other hand was holding the baby.
I moved non-essential data input behind an extra tap and created an architecture that delivers guidance content at more appropriate moments. Our test parents enjoyed the redesigned UI and tracked much more baby data. The app even won some design awards and great reviews in the app stores.
Just as empathy helps designers connect with a person’s latent needs, storytelling helps designers connect with people’s latent motivations. Stories can inspire people to change their behavior or help them engage emotionally with a product or service.
- Complete actions: Every (micro-)interaction must have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
- Narrative content strategy: Onboarding can go beyond intro slides and coach marks to create a story around how people will use a product or service.
- Dramatic tension: Friction or mystery can help propel a person further in their journey.
- Love Story Canvas: a workshop tool for planning habit-forming interactions that help increase emotional engagement over time.
Storytelling in Action
A great example of storytelling is when Philips created the Shaver 7000 series for men with sensitive skin. Philips realized that with a little coaching, the shaver could also help men with Shaving-Induced Skin Irritation (SIS). So we created a digital shaving coach as well as a smart shaver.
A the project’s UX Lead, I saw it as an opportunity to leverage design storytelling in a new way. So I hired a professional journalist and playwright as Content Strategist. Together, we created a character for both the ‘user’ and digital coach, then wrote a story of how those characters’ relationship developed over time.
This evolving, dynamic narrative provided a framework for our team’s designers and developers to understand people’s needs over time. That helped us create content to address those needs and build mechanisms in the app to deliver each piece of content at exactly the right time.
The digital coach we created helped all the men in their pilot study to successfully reduce their Shaving-Induced Skin Irritation. Their SIS improved significantly more than control groups who used traditional razors or just the shaver without the digital coach.
The work of UX designers and developers can literally make the difference between life and death. This is a heavy responsibility, but also a great opportunity for us to build trust and differentiate ourselves from less ethical competitors.
Design Ethics Tools
- Ethical Design Checklist: a focused tool to guide decision-making for ethical design
- Regret test: a simple heuristic for weighing the effects of design decisions
Ethics in Action
As an example of ethics we can turn to Philips and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which took effect in 2018.
Philips had a Privacy by Design policy as far back as 2014. Working with engaged stakeholders from business, legal, and IT, I got the rare opportunity to help shape our policy and guidelines around design for privacy.
Philips quickly recognized their responsibility around privacy, because many of their apps and products collect medical data about the people who use them. And because Philips’ apps were already using mechanisms like Short-Form Privacy Notices and Explicit Consent, they didn’t have to change anything when the GDPR came into force (unlike some other companies).
Embracing the Future of UX
We UX professionals are faced with a world dominated by technology. And it’s easy to be distracted by the latest prototyping tool or the coolest design trend.
The future of UX is about creating technology that amplifies our humanity.
But design, especially UX design, is about making people’s lives meaningfully better. It’s about creating a equitable, loving world for ourselves & our loved ones, now and in the future.
So let’s embrace our humanity for the future of UX!