It’s 2019, and UX design has come a long way. Most businesses have cottoned on to the value of good UX, and today’s consumers expect (and accept) nothing less. We’ve even made some progress in clearing up the eternal confusion between UX and UI!
As the field matures, it’s a great time to contemplate where the industry is headed. In this post, we won’t talk about storytelling, AI or the rise of voice. Instead, we’ll explore three major shifts in the way that UX designers are thinking and working in this constantly evolving industry.
So what’s changing the game in UX this year? Let’s take a look.
Calm Technology, Ethical Design & Digital Wellbeing
One truly significant shift we’ll see over the next few years is in how we design for the user. Traditionally, user-centered design has meant identifying and solving a real user problem — designing the most intuitive, enjoyable products imaginable. Ultimately, brands want to create experiences that the customer just can’t get enough of.
Now, this “can’t get enough” mentality is starting to become a huge problem. Surrounded by irresistible apps and digital services that promise to enhance our lives, we’ve lost the ability to switch off. Smartphone addiction is a very real cause for concern in today’s society, and one that brands and designers must actively address.
We are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of unethical design — from physical inactivity, sleep deprivation and lack of real-world engagement, all the way through to privacy issues, anxiety, and depression.
Up until now, the question has been: “How can we engage our users to the maximum?” In 2019 and beyond, the much more pressing matter for UX designers is: “How can we design user experiences that are healthy?”
How can we design healthy UX?
Google has set out to tackle this very issue with their Digital Wellbeinginitiative, creating “tools and features that help people better understand their tech usage, focus on what matters most, disconnect when needed, and create healthy habits for the whole family.” Users can now schedule breaks on YouTube, set high-priority notifications on Gmail to avoid notification overload, and send their smartphone into Do Not Disturb mode with a single voice command.
While such tools and features are a step in the right direction, they still place the responsibility in the user’s hands. To truly encourage healthy interactions with technology, we need design that is inherently responsible. Simple tweaks, such as Instagram’s “You’re all up to date” message that warns against excessive feed scrolling, can have a huge impact on the user experience. The user shouldn’t need to actively update their settings or activate certain features; in an ideal world, the design will automatically lend itself to healthy, limited consumption.
So, as brands and technology giants face increasing pressure to put the user’s wellbeing first, UX designers will need to redefine the meaning of user-centered design. Calm technology, ethical design, and digital wellbeing will be major industry buzzwords over the next few years as “good UX” becomes synonymous with “healthy UX”.
The Design Sprint Era & Rethinking User Research
Back in 2016, Jake Knapp started something of a revolution when he published Sprint — a bestseller that has now become an industry staple. A “five-day process for solving problems and testing new ideas”, the Design Sprint method has been steadily rising in popularity. These days, everyone’s talking about agile product development and lean UX.
With the focus on building a working, testable prototype as quickly as possible, this raises the question of where and how user research fits into the picture. Jonathan Courtney of Design Sprint agency AJ&Smart goes as far as to say that user research is overrated, claiming that Design Sprints have revealed an “expensive waste of time” in the modern design process.
Does this mean that UX research as we know it is dead?
Not quite. While the Design Sprint methodology is gaining traction, the industry isn’t quite ready to do away with UX research altogether. Rather, what we’ll see over the next few years is a new approach to UX research emerging — an approach that fits in much more neatly with short sprint cycles.
Cue another soon-to-be industry buzzword: Lean UX research. As the name suggests, lean UX research takes the underlying principles of lean product development and applies them to the traditional, more lengthy research process. Just like lean UX, lean user research focuses on quick decision-making.
So what might lean UX research look like in action?
As a concept very much in its infancy, there are no hard-and-fast rules or established guidelines for conducting lean UX research. However, we are gradually seeing more and more literature on this very topic. Early adopters of lean user research recommend pre-scheduling ongoing user testing sessions well in advance — and on an ongoing basis; sharing meaningful data with relevant stakeholders as soon as you’ve got it (doing away with lengthy reports), and allowing developers to sit in on usability tests.
Over the coming years, designers will face the challenge of trimming down their research processes while still procuring those all-important insights. UX research in the traditional sense will still hold a critical place in the design process; the trick will lie in knowing when to conduct extensive user research, and when to go lean for optimal results.
The Product Designer vs. UX Designer Debate
The industry has long been debating the validity of UX designer as a job title, and recent years have seen a shift towards more specialist job titles — such as UX researcher, UX writer, and information architect.
Now there’s another job title entering the fray: that of the product designer. In a trend which the experts at UX Collective call “the death and rebirth of UX”, the evolution of UX designers into product designers reflects an integral shift in responsibilities. Indeed, it’s no secret that, as the field matures, UX professionals are expected to understand, and be actively involved in, the overall product strategy and wider business goals. Does this mean, then, that every UX designer is also a product designer?
Are UX designers and product designers interchangeable?
This is where we start wading into murky waters. The reality is, the term “product designer” is as open to interpretation as the term “UX designer”, and tends to vary from company to company. In 2019 and beyond, designers and businesses alike will seek to define the product designer role and understand exactly how it differs from that of the UX designer.
A quick Google search will bring up several attempts at outlining the differences between product designers and UX designers. Read any of these articles and you’ll soon see that it’s not so clear-cut.
John Carter, a self-proclaimed product designer, sums it up nicely when he says: “There is not one MAJOR outstanding difference between the two! There are a few [small] things that make these two disciplines different. The skills are very similar, but it’s the questions that each person asks along the way that make the distinction.”
Both product designers and UX designers rely heavily on Design Thinking. Both are concerned with creating a user-friendly product, but the product designer takes a more brand-oriented view. While the UX designer might consider how the product feels in the hands of the user, the product designer will be looking at how the product fits into the wider business strategy.
When one stops being a UX designer and crosses over into product design is largely a matter of context. Some companies will look for UX designers with business know-how. Others — such as Google and Facebook — will hire product designers and UX designers entirely separately.
Through 2019 and beyond, the landscape of UX job titles will continue to be complex, controversial, and often contradictory. Those bearing the classic UX designer title will ultimately face a fork in the road: To specialize (UX researcher, information architect, interaction designer…) or to strategize (product designer, product manager…)?
Android might separate emoji from OS updates so you can get new ones faster
Emoji are important. Heck, they were the biggest reason I wanted to write about the recent iOS 14.2 update. More emoji = better expression.
Whenever Unicode consortium, a non-profit organization that handles dissemination and approval of emoji, releases a new set, there’s palpable excitement to start using them in our favorite apps and devices as soon as possible. However, we often need to wait it out till Apple, Google, or your phone maker releases an OS update with the new set.
This process may change for Android users. Sleuths at XDA Developers a clue in Android code that suggests the Big G is thinking about separating emoji from the system update, so you can get them faster.
Here’s what’s happening: until now, font files containing emoji were stored under the /system/fonts directory. So refreshing them has been possible only through an over-the-air update.
The new code commit suggests that they are to be stored under a new /data/fonts/files directory, which allows for a server update to these files. That means Google or other manufacturers can push a font file update to push new emoji to users anytime.
The new code also indicates that this will help other apps read these files and import new emoji directly into their system.
As folks at XDA noted, this code hasn’t been merged to the Android open source project, so it’s not final yet. But we can hope that this update makes the cut and we get new emojis without waiting for an over-the-air update.
How COVID and an unexpected 17-hour time difference forced us to master asynchronous work
As my co-founder and I roll into the eighth month of our “one-week visit” to Australia, it amuses me how a company so focused on meeting efficiency ended up being one of the strongest examples of effective asynchronous communication.
Like many, we were surprised by the sudden grounding of our entire team. In particular, we were two co-founders of a San-Francisco based company stranded down under, putting a 17-hour time difference between ourselves and our headquarters.
Fortunately, we already had processes around asynchronous communication alongside our already unique meeting culture. To adapt to our new situation, we moved more of our day-to-day collaboration to asynchronous modes. Sure, it’s been a (major) adjustment, but it’s just accelerating our arrival to somewhere we were already heading.
The pandemic shifted companies to more synchronous collaboration
Our experience hasn’t been the norm. Many teams have replaced face time with another form of synchronous communication: Meetings.
While most teams made adjustments to accommodate remote work back in March, they were often short term solutions. A common issue since then has been too many meetings — a drain on productivity and time. When you can’t tap a co-worker on the shoulder, you might pop a “short sync” on their calendar instead. The result is a surge in meetings, many of which are unnecessary (or unnecessarily long).
Now, we make software that powers meeting workflows for Adobe, Netflix, Spotify, and thousands of others, so we don’t think there’s anything wrong with meetings. That said, meetings are expensive when poorly used.
The obvious cost is the hour that people are in the meeting, but that’s only a portion of the time spent. Research shows that switching one task to another costs between 10 minutes to 2 hours. Meetings may interrupt productivity, but despite the cost, the data still shows a natural tendency to reach for the calendar invitation.
Research across our customer base shows a large increase in the average number of meetings per person since the onset of the pandemic.
In other words, companies haven’t embraced asynchronous collaboration. Despite so many ways to share information — chat, email, documents, video recordings — meetings appear to be the go-to communication channel for socially-distanced teams.
Analysis of the titles of these meetings is even more revealing. Updates, syncs, weekly status meetings, check-ins, demos, and reviews dominate. In other words, most meetings aren’t for decision-making; they’re for sharing information. As such, they could have been just as effective when performed asynchronously.
Mastering the async: Assessing your choices
At Hugo, we have a 4-hour per week limitation on synchronous, internal meetings. This is to protect everyone’s productivity. We only use meetings for the 3Ds: Debate, Discussion, and Decision-making. All of our other collaboration is asynchronous.
Perhaps ironically, one of the most important forms of asynchronous information is the documentation around meetings: agendas, notes, and tasks. If an agenda is shared or collaboratively prepared prior to a meeting, attendees can intelligently choose whether to attend or skip a meeting. If they get the notes, takeaways, and tasks assigned, they can find out what’s happening on other teams without attending their meetings too. And even, if we find ourselves in a meeting, being well-prepared means we can get through a lot of Ds in short order and we often end early.
But, how do we choose whether to have a meeting or do something else?
Think about the way you communicate at work as a continuum between synchronous and asynchronous, which in both cases range from low to high nuance. What we mean by nuance is the density of the non-verbal cues, such as body language, voice tone, the position at the table, etc.
Generally, we go from high-nuance to low-nuance when choosing the means of communication. While you’re probably well-versed in the synchronous methods of working together, we also owe our success in building a strong, aligned team to these asynchronous channels.
- Video — A three-minute video often replaces a 30-minute meeting. That’s why we love tools like Loom and Vimeo Record. It’s easy to record videos talking through an idea and sharing a screen. We can use whiteboarding, images, anything. Even when we’ve written up a document, we might talk about it through a video, highlighting specific information or ideas. I’m known to send late night videos conveying my excitement for an idea, or concern about a challenge in the same dynamic way that I like to communicate in meetings.
- Voice — Voice gives a level of personality and tone. With humor and empathy especially, voice is usually better than text. The disadvantages of voice and video are that people don’t tend to keep and review them.
- Email and notes — Email is great for long-form information. Email and documents give you more time to consider your wording and put things together in an organized fashion. Written communication also allows you to reference links and other docs.
- Threaded chat — Chat apps such as Slack and Microsoft Teams allow people to have asynchronous group conversations and we use them heavily. Most companies are making great use of these tools. When any of the chats reach the point where they are a Debate, Discussion or Decision-making need, then a synchronous conversation (aka a meeting) may be called for.
- Text — Text is best for short, logistical communications. Text can also be important as a supplement to other communications. For example, if you have an urgent deadline, you might want to tell someone by text to watch your video right away.
Take a week to consider the different kinds of communications in your organization. How many synchronous meetings could be replaced by one of these asynchronous methods? Are people communicating in ways that lack nuance, such as via text, when it would be faster and more effective to send a video?
It’s natural to lean on habits simply because that’s how we have always operated. But a silver lining to this crisis is that it’s also an opportunity to assess whether there are better ways to work — both in and out of the office.
Even if you’re not on the other side of the globe from most of your team, you can still benefit from combining synchronous and asynchronous methodologies of communication. Find that balance, and you’ll see for yourself how it reduces fatigue and distraction, increases effectiveness, and makes your organization more productive.
Shola Akinlade: Paystack’s maturity relied on a community of hard and smart workers
At Paystack, triggers and nudges for product creativity and stunning user interfaces derive from team members’ expectations for how they want the world to look and feel.
The call, if you will, to work at the company is an opportunity to do something about your complaints. To take the matter of changing the world into your hands, not with Molotov cocktails but code bases and Adobe’s magic buttons.
Paystack, the Lagos-based payments startup that helps merchants accept payments from their customers, is now part of an American company following the celebrated (though still under-discussed and under-analysed) sale to Stripe, the global payments giant-in-waiting.
The fusion of both companies, though separated miles apart in distance, is testimony to how similar desires are around the world.
But it is chiefly good reckoning for Shola Akinlade, the mid-thirties somewhat shy developer who co-founded Paystack with Babcock University schoolmate Ezra Olubi and turned it into an envy of the world.
As of this writing, Paystack is live in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. With the acquisition, they could be popping up in more places.
On Building from the Ground Up, a TechCabal live video interview series in partnership with the UK-Nigeria Tech Hub, we got an honest lowdown from Akinlade on what it took to begin the journey that has made Paystack a $200million company.
Typically self-effacing, Akinlade ascribes the early days’ momentum to encouragement from figures within the Nigerian community – the ecosystem. Osita Nwoye’s name pops in the conversation, with reference to a famous email sent to Michael Seibel – CEO of YCombinator – urging the famed accelerator to consider the innovation Akinlade was working on.
Other interesting characters at the scene of Paystack’s nativity in the second half of 2015 include angel investor Olumide Soyombo, Oluyomi Ojo (CEO of Printivo), Odun Longe of the Longe Practice and Honey Ogundeyi, who used to run the fashion website Fashpa.com en route her current role as the Nigeria country director for the UK-Nigeria Tech Hub.
Paystack took off early because businesses like Piggyvest, Supermart.ng and now defunct ride-hailing service Jekalo needed payments integrations to build their own proofs of concept.
It’s not like Paystack had it all figured out at the time. Akinlade remembers telling the Jekalo people that “we can help you collect your money but not be able to settle,” but his service was commissioned and invoiced anyhow.
That kind of confidence from the community spoke to a perception that Akinlade knew what he was up to.
Before Paystack, he had built an open source version of Dropbox and operated it for about 5 years. He’d built software for a few Nigerian banks.
In the conversation with Big Cabal Media’s CEO Tomiwa Aladekomo, Akinlade says building Paystack was partly a result of discovering he could charge a card from his computer. A decade ago, that was sort of a big deal in Nigeria’s emerging financial technology and ecommerce sector, but the process was anything but seamless for the mass consumer or small time business owner.
The challenge, then, was to design a payments product that anyone could consume.
To achieve this, Akinlade would have to go on a recruitment spree. He would convince new developers hungry for a challenge to come on board. He would persuade ex-bank employees and experienced product engineers at older fintechs who were probably comfortable at their jobs. One key hire was Khadijah Abu who came in from Interswitch in 2017 and has been integral to shaping product.
Akinlade would need the expertise of design geeks like Opemipo Aikomo, and the storytelling prowess of Emmanuel Quartey.
Akinlade says it was inevitable that Quartey would be a key cog for the company’s public image following a spectacular presentation during a one-week familiarisation period.
The result? In November 2020, Paystack now processes 5 times what Nigeria as a country was doing in payments pre-Paystack.
Clients include MTN, Bolt and Domino’s, part of 60,000 small to medium-scale businesses using the multiple payments and accounting features the startup has developed over the last five years.
Paystack was built from the ground up by visionary Africans, in concert with investors from around the world.
Thanks to a work culture centered on transparency, clear communication and practicing kindness, the startup’s 120 or so staff are discernibly among the happiest people in Nigerian tech.
The Stripe acquisition means they’ll be even happier thanks to the stock options they hold. A key question for the ecosystem since mid-October has been this: how do we scale this happiness? How do we build more Paystacks from the ground up?
Here are Akinlade’s thoughts on that:
This acquisition shows that people can build something valuable and appreciate value. I like the idea of different ways to do this. One problem with a small ecosystem is that everybody will want to follow one path. If we do so, it’ll be bad. We need more people trying different things so that the options will be plenty. And then, people can have different paths ahead of them.
The man has sold a company for $200million, earning a valuation above some Nigerian banks that have been around longer. Might be worth paying attention to.
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