One by one, the glistening glass of the Van Andel Arena mimicked each passerby in their red and purple lanyards as they made their way down Fulton street on the tail end of a Midwest mid-October week. Hundreds of design-minded creatives, strategists, and managers collected in anticipation of the day’s first event. Within this mix of both new and familiar faces, are members of the CQL design and marketing teams, eager to connect, reconnect, and offer a hometown welcome to Grand Rapids. Abstract, vibrant, and human organism-esque graphics and lively animations surrounded 20 Monroe Live and pinball-friendly Pyramid Scheme — the event’s primary venues. The doors swung open — Midwest UX Conference 2019 had begun.
A Look Back and A Look Ahead for UX
For me, this year was a reflective one. A moment to remember topics of years past and compare them to this year. Our team has attended many MWUX events in places like Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, and even Chicago. We have engaged in many memorable conversations around user testing, user research, designing for inclusivity, the importance of A/B testing, designing with empathy, and beyond.
Looking back at these conferences and reflecting on the state of UX, it is interesting to ponder the shifts we see in the industry and why they are occurring. In past years, there was a big emphasis on creating scalable designs, solving wicked UX problems, and how to cultivate a culture of user-centered design. In recent years, conversations have shifted to designing for more diverse audiences such as different cultures and capabilities, designing to solve abstract problems, and testing and validating the effectiveness of designs. This year, we are seeing and hearing a lot about responsible design, ethics, consent in design, and even the concept of health-centered design.
The State of UX Design and Its Shifting Nature
What are these trends and topics telling us about the state of UX design? Let me give you my take. The industry has graduated from a conversation about why user experience design matters, to showing the incredible impact and scalability of UX design, to now, dealing with both the rewards and repercussions of design decisions.
As designers focus on creating solutions to user’s needs, there are a lot of aspects to consider. The relatively easy angle is to focus on motivations and end-goals of the user, then marry them to business objectives. This tends to follow a persuasive model. The difficult and emotional angle comes into play when you take on the responsibility to account for empathy and champion for the humanity of design. Whether a designer chooses to take on these responsibilities (or to avoid them) there will always be either rewards or repercussions to design decisions. What are these rewards and repercussions?
The Rewards and Repercussions of Design Decisions
Rewards tie tightly to the positive effect of getting the user from A to B as delightfully as possible and helping them achieve their goals. Repercussions occur when the user is negatively impacted when they do not reach their goals. But here is where it gets tricky and perhaps even dangerous in some cases; repercussions can even happen when the user does reach their goal. Wait, how can this happen?
“…when you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck…”Paul Virilio
As dramatic as this sounds, it is devastatingly true. Lauren Liss, a speaker at the conference, explained a scenario somewhat like this: In a video streaming app, it can be a positive experience for the user to auto-play videos back to back for an hour. However, that can turn into a negative experience when the user spends six hours watching videos without a break, possibly leaving the user feeling terrible about themselves. Taking Lauren’s example to a global scale, this one decision to auto-play videos endlessly adds up to a massive number of hours spent collectively across a large audience. How has this one decision affected the course of humanity?
It’s big questions like this that make our team grateful for conferences like Midwest UX. Topics that keep us in check and open our minds to possibilities of not just good user-centered design but truly human-centered design.
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