Is UX Obsolete

When I started my career roughly 30 years ago, I was designing instructional systems, what we call eLearning or online learning today, for the Aviation industry. What we designed then was far superior to what’s being produced today. Why? Because we designed for an audience that was hypersensitive to minute details in the content. We had multiple levels of interaction that spanned from page-turners, which is the vast majority of what’s being produced today, to near and full-on simulations. This made everything we produced engaging on many different levels. The users could immerse themselves in the content in ways they can’t even dream of today. And keep in mind that everything that online learning is today came from the aviation industry. Everything from compliance to technical capabilities all came from what was being done at Boeing, Bell Helicopter, American Airlines, Lockheed, and FlightSafety. These pioneer organizations were the first to have data-driven courseware that could reconfigure itself based on instructor input or user behavior.

So what happened? How did we go from what we had then to the dull voice-over PowerPoint-like presentations that we have today?


The online learning industry as a whole chose to pursue a direction of simplicity in their toolsets. They surmised that if you could drastically reduce the cost of creating online learning and put the creation of lessons and material in the hands of everyone instead of the professionals, you could have cheap courses for everything made by everyone. And in a sense they were right. Today you can access courses on almost anything you want. But at what cost?

The answer is now everything looks almost exactly the same. It’s all page after page of simple content that’s got a voice-over, with some video sprinkled in, and multiple-choice questions that allow you to test your implied knowledge. No more highly engaging content, no more immersive experiences, no more remediation, and no more adaptive evaluations that measured your actual competency in a subject or task(s). And as a result, the efficacy that used to be a 7:1 reduction in time to learn a specific subject over traditional classroom learning has dwindled to nearly even.

So., what does this have to do with UX?

I’m glad you asked!

In case you weren’t aware, the UX process and the instructional design process are almost exactly the same. The UX process isn’t an innovation that came out of thin air, it’s an imitation of the ADDIE process.

Analysis, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate.

Look familiar?

But wait you say. The UX process is;

Research, Design, Prototype, User Testing, Develop and Launch.

Oh yeah.., that’s much different. Sit down and be quiet!

Now, where was I?

The ADDIE process has been around since 1975 and has been at the heart of instructional design. Don Norman didn’t coin the phrase UX Design until 1995, even though he wrote his book in 1988. Some could argue that UX has been around for longer than that, being human factors or later human-computer interactions but I totally disagree. I will say that HCI comes close but still if I were to tie it down to a single event I’d have to say the release of the Macintosh in 1984 with the first graphical user interface. Others would say it goes back to the 1970s when Xerox PARC was first inventing the graphical user interface and the PC. But again that was a collection of psychologists and engineers inventing something new and not implementing a practice or profession.

And as history would have it, UX is heading down the same path as online learning. Stagnation, driven by the cost associated with good UX processes. If you think I’m kidding, just look around at the experiences you find out there. They’ve all melded into the same experience. And if you’re about to say that that’s a product of best practices, give the user something familiar so they don’t have to learn the blah blah blah.., save your breath. That’s a BS cop-out brought about in an attempt to salvage your margin and you know it. Or at least you should. And this is what drove online learning to the decisions they made. They began creating tools that everyone could use. Hey! UX design tools have entered into the arena that are easy enough to use that anyone could use them.

And let me point out that the most disruptive entries into the corporate world over the last decade or more has begun with an experience that was way out of the box and violated, in most cases, the conventional best practices. But that’s the exception and not the rule.

Ok., so what are you saying? What’s the future of UX?

Well if UX is to survive it has to innovate in a way that elevates the professional away from the mundane tasks of creating the design to creating the experiences. By crafting experiences and letting technology do what technology does best we’ll not only create better user experiences faster but at costs, so ridiculously small there will be an explosion of new experiences that will drive additional innovation into the stratosphere.

What the hell are you talking about?

Let me explain. If we take most of what UX Designers do today, the designing of screens, interactions and so forth, we can identify them as basic data elements. These data elements can build overall experience when combined in a specific way. A good example would be an online store. They all have the same basic experiences and therefore the same experiential data elements. And as data elements, we’re able to bring a host of analytical tools to bear against them to gauge their efficacy. Not only from a component level but entire flows can be analyzed and suggestions for conversion rate optimization (CRO) made with options put in place to continuously optimize. As this data is placed back into the experiential data lake the analysis continues to refine that experience in its entirety and on a lower level so that all can benefit.

Well what about imagery.., you can’t automate imagery.

Really? Sure you can. And in much the same way that we create imagery. One of the things that computers are good at when it comes to creating imagery is compositing. Selecting an image in the foreground and making out or eliminating everything else so that the image can be placed into another composited image. In this particular case, if we wanted to have an image of a girl wearing a blue dress on a swing that’s hanging from a tree on top of a small hill in the middle of a field of green sprinkled with multicolored flowers, it would be almost impossible to find an image like that. But it would be easy to find a tree, a small hill, a field of green grass, multicolored flowers, a girl in a swing, maybe even wearing a blue dress. And then composite them into a final image. And AI and machine learning can do that for us today. All we’d have to do is explain to the intelligent system what we want. A girl on a swing wearing a blue dress, etc…

So where does this bring us?

It brings us to the point I was trying to make about UX having to innovate and UX professionals having to define experiences and not do a lot of the leg work that will soon be taken over by machines. We’ve got to get in the practice of defining what the experience will be just as clearly as we define what the user stories are.

Wait! Don’t the user stories define what the experience will be?

Absolutely not! User stories define the functionality and features that will be in the final product. They in no way define what that experience will be. Nor do they define what the digital moments will be or how a user will transition from one channel to the next and when. This cross channel experience is even more important today than it’s ever been. We’ve got to define and describe experiences before we try to decide what the screens will look like, o whether or not we’ll need a native app or a responsive or a progressive web app (PWA). We still find ourselves being caught up in what the technology is instead of implementing the technology where it’s needed in an experience or when and how it’ll be needed by the users.

So the bottom line is this.., we need to evolve as a practice and profession. We need to stop thinking about designing at the screen level or for single devices and look holistically at an experience and how that experience transcends devices and what is it that users will want when and on what device and why. Research, design, and analytics aren’t different disciplines within an overarching profession but the mechanisms that support and reinforce what the defined experiences are. Technology is what’s used to support the experience or experiences and not the constraint or limitation. And finally, don’t think of any of the aforementioned items or try and craft the solutions when defining the experience but let all the supporting mechanisms define the solution of creating the experience that has been defined. Don’t let the technology lead the experience.., have the experience define the areas where the technology fits accordingly.

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