One of the great things about my job as a UX design lead at Microsoft is I am surrounded by smart people, both on my immediate design team and outside of it – People who are always looking at what is going on in technology and focused on providing the best experience to users. Satya Nadella, our CEO, said as such when he declared “We are in the experience business” at the 2015 Windows 10 devices event. Part of being in such a business is you are always moving forward, looking at how people engage with technology – how new offerings can enable people to do more with less.

We are especially focused on the question, “How can people be more productive?” And a key aspect of helping people become more productive with technology is user experience design. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “next big thing” in user experience. I’m sharing my take to help you, your user experience teams, and your content teams plan for the possibilities in 2016 and beyond.

Gesture is Dying – Speech is Rising

As computing power and software gets more and more advanced we can now provide voice interaction and speech control to devices that cost less than $100. Siri, Cortana and Google Now are providing an easy way for users to get information without having to enter apps and search by hand. While gesture-based interactions will still be used in some instances, the days of us looking at “Minority Report as the future of UX” is over – future interaction models will be much more like the voice-activated interactive operating system in the movie Her.

The main character in Her talks to his OS “Samantha” after installing the program in his computer
The main character in Her talks to his OS “Samantha” after installing the program in his computer – © Warner Bros. Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Smart Enablers Will Finally Reach Critical Mass

Speaking of Cortana, Siri and Google Now… 2015 was the year that these services broke through to mainstream use, especially after Cortana was rolled out on all Windows 10 devices. These services offer proactive alerts and enablers that help users be aware of when they need to leave for the airport, or that an important birthday is coming up. As software becomes more aware of how you work and who you are, these services will be able to be even more personalized to how people live and what is important to them through the use of “machine learning”. While some are concerned about the privacy implications of such functionality, the end result will be smarter devices that solve problems for us that we may not even be aware of.

Micro UX

The devil is in the UX design details. In 2015 we saw a growing focus on “Micro UX” – that is, the small details of user interactions that, along with the other features and functions, make up the holistic experience. Instead of doing big-picture, high-level design, teams often focus now on the smallest of details – making sure the “little moments” are as effective as possible. This approach also aligns well with the Agile software development methodology, which has grown in prominence in recent years. Look for more of micro UX in 2016.

The Windows 10 Action Center has excellent Micro UX - all key features are touch-friendly with clear feedback which options are currently active.
The Windows 10 Action Center has touch-friendly keys that clearly indicate when they are active.

UX (aka Design Thinking) Gets A Seat At The Big Table

The people in the corner offices – VPs, CTOs, CIOS, and CFOs – are understanding the value of UX more now than ever before. Instead of UX practitioners having to explain why user experience design is important, they are telling us how important it is. A focus on UX is a key differentiator, and smart companies are embracing it on Day One. Business magazines are covering UX (often using the label of Design Thinking) more and more, with magazines like Bloomberg Business even giving it cover stories. Look for increased demand as more companies wake up to the value.

Creating Apps Without Coding

CASE tools that help developers create apps from standard libraries have been around for a while, but a new trend has developed over the past year: Online tools that allow users to create full-blown apps without knowing how to code. While the early versions of these tools were limited, the most recent generation of these services feature extensive functionality and customization. Look for this trend to continue, and more app creation services coming to market.

The On Track Academy for iOS was built using Appy Pie, a creation platform that does not require coding.
The On Track Academy was built using Appy Pie, a platform that does not require coding.

UI Homogeny

As UI design standardizes, apps and websites are becoming increasingly similar. And, design languages such as the one set for Windows 10 have aligned with responsive web standards and controls to increase learnability and usage. The need for responsive UIs that work across any size screen have evolved potential layouts down to only a few good possibilities at this point. Look for a consolidation (for good or ill) around how many apps and websites look alike – even across different platforms.

The Next Web uses the common card layout UI pattern.
The Next Web uses the card UI pattern. These content chunks allow the content to easily expand or collapse to fit the size of the user’s screen.

Content Strategy For Microcopy As Differentiator For Apps

As the app landscape becomes increasingly competitive and apps look increasingly alike, content becomes a key differentiator. Issues such as providing clear, compelling messages will be the difference between success and failure for many new apps and initiatives. Content is a critical part of the experience that people have with technology in all its forms (mobile, desktop, TV, voice). Smart companies will pay very close attention to content issues – voice, clarity, usefulness, and much more. Look to see more and more conversations about providing the right content to users within apps, not just what features should be provided.

For example, the digital health startup Sharecare put extensive effort into refining the voice of their content in their mobile app AskMD. As VP of Product and User Experience Toni Pashley explained in Colleen Jones’ book Does Your Content Work?

“There’s nothing like getting actual users to evaluate the product experience and to give your product a competitive advantage. As we developed our mobile application AskMD, we took content, such as diagnostic questionnaires and instructions written for physicians, and ‘consumerized’ the language so that users understand what they’re asked. At the same time, we preserved the scientific validity of the questionnaire. We had users test drive AskMD with scenario-based tasks, and we conducted interviews.

We learned how important the tone of the instructions are to users due to the sensitivity of the subject. So, we adjusted the content to make it even more approachable, conversational, and personable.”

Experience Design Will Be Big

With technology such as Internet of Things rolling out around the world, there will be just as much focus on designing experiences  as there will be on designing screens . How can the data from these IoT devices be used to help users? I’ve engaged on projects where IoT beacons help pull people together, reserve conference rooms for them, and reduce power consumption based on how many people worked on a particular floor.

I tell young practitioners they should focus less on UI design and more on experience design, because with the consolidation of UI standards as stated above, there will not be a lot of custom screens that need to be designed – but HOW those apps are used, using research to identify the best way they can be tailored for the end consumer –  that will be key.

Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) Will Come Of Age

As head-mounted virtual reality devices such as Oculus Rift and Hololens comes to the market in 2016, the age of (relatively) inexpensive VR/AR devices will arrive. These devices will allow users to explore new environments and augment existing environments with three-dimensional overlays. The potential for UX practitioners to take advantage of this technology is (to paraphrase a certain Presidential candidate) YUGE. I am quite excited about designing for Microsoft’s Hololens, for obvious reasons.

The Microsoft Hololens could allow engineers to explore three-dimensional digital prototypes.
The Microsoft Hololens could allow engineers to explore three-dimensional digital prototypes.

So, I hope you find these trends useful as you think about your products and offerings for 2016. Factoring any of these into your strategies and roadmaps is sure to make for stronger user experiences.

The Author

Joseph Dickerson is a past UX Lead at Microsoft with a diverse background in application design and development, information architecture, user research, and usability testing. He has led design teams for companies around the world, as well as headed ethnographic research efforts on multiple mission-critical focus areas. He has authored seven books, including two books on user experience design: the recently updated “Experience (Still) Matters: Essays, Tactics and Lessons in User Experience Design” and “UX101: A Primer on User Experience Design.”

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