Highly usable tips from Vancouver UX Awards Finalists

You can have innovative technology, big investors, and a Times Square-sized marketing campaign, and your product might still fall flat with a bad user experience (UX). How do you prevent that from happening? What are the most bleeding-edge UX trends in tech today? How is UX changing for particular kinds of applications – and what are the biggest challenges UX designers face when putting out something great?

Just before the winners were announced at the Vancouver 2015 User Experience Awards, BetaKit chatted with some of the finalists to get their insight on this fast-changing arena, including Wayne Chen, nTrust (UX for Enterprise), Mark Fromson, LocalSolo (UX Superheroes), Gagan Diesh, DesignStamp (UX for Enterprise) and Ryan Opina, EngineDigital (UX for Marketing).

What are some UX trends you see cropping up this year for many kinds of organizations (not just your own)?

Chen: Recycling of tools and templates. Everywhere I look, it feels like it’s the same design with different logos and colours. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the UX standards have already been vetted by professionals, but I find it to be bland and lacking emotion. One, soon day, we will hear “I don’t want it to be simple, let’s add more paint to the canvas” for the first time.

I’m not saying to make designs complicated, but products have become so “clean” and “simple” that it can be repurposed for a small price or even free. Perhaps I am that guy making it complicated, but I certainly don’t want the entire UX industry to be acceptable and replaceable by tools and templates. Our brains can do better than that!

Fromson: Application interoperability is a main trend we’ve seen this year. Companies like Slack, Zapier, and Vurb are in the forefront of a connected application ecosystem. The easier it is to integrate these services together, the better value for the user and the service.

Social content aggregation platforms like Crowdriff are another very cool UX trend. Organizations can use these platforms to collect, curate and then display hashtagged relevant content from multiple social sources on their own digital properties. Automatically commenting with macros and a link back on the content itself also creates a value loop for the organization who re-posted.

Diesh: We still live in a world of fragmented experiences. User experience professionals can be quick to blame legacy technology as the reason why we can’t build seamless experiences. But we have a lot more at play. User acquisition and retention, app turf wars, and privacy and security issues all cause massive friction for users. I see these barriers slowly dropping. I dream of a world of less apps and less noise — a more integrated experience that puts user goals back in the driving seat.

Opina: Design for multitasking moments. I recently read that because we all multitask so much, the average employed adult has over 31 hours of activity in a day. 31! So the big question I have is how do we design experiences for a consumer base that is becoming less and less attentive to what we are creating?

How are approaches to UX changing?

Chen: I’m really excited for wearables, specifically VR. This is an uncharted space and experts are creating the standards as we speak. We’ve seen the evolution of gaming UI decrease over time. This indicates the future of UX is all about integration into what we see through our eyes, rather than layers of screen flows, menus and buttons. It can be all gesture-based or spoken or very advanced AI. Perhaps the best UX is no UI?

We’ve seen Google Glass take a stab. If you don’t need to think about the UX while going through the experience, then we may have achieved “UX-zen.” Do you need an interface talking to your coworker sitting beside you?

Fromson: We’re also seeing the death of the Information Architect! In the past the information architect was the champion of UX. We’ve noticed this role being squeezed out in favor of team members who take a multidisciplinary approach to UX. Designers who can also front-end code and Developers who design are the new team unicorns. Prototyping in front-end code with a full CSS design style already applied is the new clickable wireframe. And the information architect who can’t design or code but still wants to work with the best teams? It’s time to train up or find a new career path.

Opina: Then there’s business strategy as a design discipline. UX Strategists and Designers are being brought into strategic business discussions more and more. What should we do? Why should we do it? How will that impact our operations and logistics? Is that a risk worth taking? All of these questions are now design questions and it’s becoming just as important for someone working in UX to be able to defend a design decision with the Creative Director as with the CEO.

How would you like to see UX change with specific kinds of applications?

Chen: Online Banking websites really need some UX love. I understand the complexity of the banking system, but there are some really silly things that we are forced to interact with every day. Banking mobile apps are usually better, but it is still far from your UX poster child. Heck, even consumer services are stepping up their game. You look at Telus, Shaw, BC Hydro and they have some really well thought out UX in their website or apps.

Fromson: I would like to see personal concierge AI applications take advantage of contextual awareness in a more seamless and connected manner across distributed platforms. For example, if you want help from Siri, you have to ask, but it’s still very primitive. But what if Siri knew you were flying out of Terminal 3, and that the flight was late? Shouldn’t it tell you ahead of time without you having to manually activate the airlines alert system? Wouldn’t it be cool if you landed in a new airport and Siri directed you turn by turn through the airport to the closest Starbucks on the way to your gate that actually was just changed 5 minutes previously? Seamless UX solving everyday problems.

Opina: I would love to interact less with the apps I use on a daily basis. Using anticipatory design to show me what is important at that particular moment. Getting into my car and having Google maps tell me whether my commute home is normal or slower than usual as I put my phone in its holder is a good example (especially when I didn’t tell it that I am going home, even though I am).

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to UX (common to most or all UX experts) — and how do you see that getting solved in a new and interesting way going forward?

Chen: All the UX, but where is the UI? As much as UX is what sprout wonderful experiences, the magic is often lost when it’s all about the UX without the UI layer on top. We have access to some of the best tools, templates, CSS’s today, but they all look and feel the same as an end result. Products are looking more and more like another cookie-cutter replica of 10 other projects cross-industry. More often than not, once the wireframe (UX) is done, it has already been optimized for the best UX. The moment you add a layer of fancy UI on top, UX starts to suffer. I’d love to see “UX artists” and variety again. The creativity in design has been lost for a while and it’s time to see personality in UX and products. Don’t be afraid to explore the visual and creative side to make that much cooler.

Focus Groups are overrated. Yes, to some extent, focus groups can be useful at very early stages of a new startup, but when all of the data is coming back the same from lots of money invested, you start to think if everything is really supposed to be designed for millennials, male or female, that have mobile phones. Trust your UX professionals in your organization, they probably already have this information or are your best bet at the accuracy of their predictions. Speak to your real customers for their raw and unfiltered feedback.

Fromson: As a small team of 2 people (and even in larger organizations), our biggest UX challenge is finding the time to enhance every facet of the UX with best of breed interactions. Continually enhancing the UX is one of our main guiding principles, as our UX is a big reason why we’ve managed to attract so many amazing UX practitioners to sign up with our platform. Online Interaction libraries are a great solution to speed up UX enhancement development cycles.

Opina: For me, it’s understanding the big picture, but focusing on the right details. It’s really important to understand the why behind everything you’re trying to create. That is how you know what details are important. But you also need to understand the big picture, including the system that the solution needs to plug into and work as part of. So that beautiful portfolio piece that completely overhauls the airline experience, if you are unable to speak to how it works in the context of the current infrastructure then you are doing your idea a disservice and will have a difficult time creating the momentum necessary to see that idea come to life.

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey is a content marketing strategist and BetaKit Senior Editor. Living and working in the heart of downtown Vancouver, he's watched this city's tech hub grow and start to compete on a world-class level. He has learned most of what he knows about tech startups and entrepreneurial spirit by interviewing some of the most innovative thought leaders here and abroad. He's always up for learning something new about the startups, leaders and technologies that are changing our world.