Usability in Practice - The Decade of Convergence
By Dr. Charles B. Kreitzberg | April 2010
Welcome to 2010. It’s hard to believe we are a decade past the Y2K “crisis” and well into the 21st century. Prognostication always seems appropriate in a new decade, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts on how the field of user experience is changing and what it might mean to you.
Several of the user experience organizations I belong to use e-mail lists to conduct conversations. While there are days I don’t appreciate the torrent of comments flooding my Inbox, I stay subscribed because I find skimming through the conversations a great way to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry.
One of the surprising things I’ve noticed is the number of job announcements being posted. In the midst of the worst recession since 1929, companies seem to be hiring a fair number of usability specialists, interaction designers and information architects.
For many years, the usability and user experience profession struggled to achieve visibility and credibility. The fact that, in these difficult times, there is active hiring suggests that the profession has made its case for relevance and is now seen as an important part of interactive product development.
The “Everyday Internet”
That the user experience has become increasingly important to corporate strategy is not surprising. This past decade has seen rapid growth in personal digital technology, much of it in the smartphone market. In the United States, smartphone penetration is now estimated at 29 percent of adult mobile users (blog.kelseygroup.com/index.php/2009/11/17/mmv-us-adult-smartphone-penetration-29-yes-really/).
In a further indication of how technology has become part of everyday experience, Amazon reports selling 48 Kindle copies for every 100 physical copies of books offered in both formats (msnbc.msn.com/id/33208339/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/).
Moreover, a vast number of people now participate in social media. Facebook recently announced that its membership had grown to 300 million (blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=136782277130). Recent research by Forrester Research Inc. found that more than 80 percent of Americans with Web access engage in some form of online social content; the numbers for Asia are similar, while penetration in Europe is somewhat less (blogs.forrester.com/groundswell/2009/08/social-technology-growth-marches-on-in-2009-led-by-social-network-sites.html). And according to the Conference Board, nearly 25 percent of U.S. households now watch TV online, either streaming or downloading the shows they want (mediabuyerplanner.com/entry/45030/study-two-thirds-of-households-watch-online-tv/).
These statistics suggest we’ve moved to the next level. It is clear that the Web has become an important but routine part of everyday life for most people. One reason Web access has become ubiquitous is the smartphone—it has substantial computing power and storage, and you can keep it with you just about all the time. Users tend to replace their mobile phones every two years, so smartphones are rapidly becoming the standard. When you want something a bit bigger, you can slip a netbook or eBook reader into your briefcase or backpack. If you need a more substantial computer, you can carry a laptop. In the home or workplace, DVRs stream online video to large wall-mounted monitors. All these devices are useful in both consumer and business settings, and all of them offer “always on” Web connections.
So what does this shift to "everyday Internet" portend?
At the very least, corporations are now seeing the business value of focusing on user experience. Apple Inc., whose relentless pursuit of design and usability resulted in record profits, has convinced corporate CFOs that user experience matters. Perhaps that revenue opportunity and the need to compete on user experience is the reason there are so many job postings in my inbox.
An interesting aspect of these job announcements is the skill set required. When I entered the profession almost 30 years ago, my programming background was unusual. Most practitioners in the field were psychologists who had become interested in software. As a result, a lot of effort went in to figuring out how to communicate with the development team.
Going forward, I believe we will be dealing with increasingly complex user experience models. About 30 years ago, when we were just beginning to think about these issues, the most relevant profession was ergonomics. Our focus on human-computer interaction (HCI) was typically limited to one person and one device. But now that computers are used for communication and collaboration, we need to consider a wider range of human-device interactions. Many of the interactions we design will be human-human interactions, facilitated by computer. These interactions may be one-to-one (think Microsoft Messenger or Skype), one-to-many (think blogs, YouTube) or many-to-many (think Facebook and forums). In addition, many of these interactions will occur over multiple sessions, in some cases over years.
Evolve Your Skills
As people increasingly integrate technology into their everyday lives, they expect a seamless experience as they shift from device to device. Reading an e-mail at the office and responding to it on the train home should be easy, utilizing a single UI design. If you’re watching a video at home and need to go out, you may well want to finish viewing it on your smartphone—without needing to search it out and figure out how to restart it where you left off. And people want to seamlessly share data across multiple devices, as with the Bump app for iPhone and Android. Multiplayer games also require UI sync across potentially diverse devices. Achieving this kind of seamless experience will be challenging. The technical issues and need to work across multiple organizations add to the design complexity.
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, user experience design is coming of age. It will increasingly become a more regular part of development activity, and more developers will specialize in it. In some organizations, user experience design will evolve into a core business competence. It’s a great time to work on your design skills.
Dr. Charles B. Kreitzberg is CEO of Cognetics Corp., which offers usability consulting and user experience design services. His passion is creating intuitive interfaces that engage and delight users while supporting the product’s business goals. Dr. Kreitzberg lives in central New Jersey where he moonlights as a performing musician.