Summary: Good news for UX students! The core concepts you're learning now will serve you for decades. Just keep an open mind and stay updated with new tech. The key to staying current is simple: hands-on user testing with new technologies.
In September, I met (through Zoom) with the HCI Masters students at CMU. Carnegie Mellon University has one of the world’s best UX graduate programs and exceptionally smart students. (I highly recommend hiring these high-IQ UX talents in a few months when they join the job market.) I enjoyed the meeting tremendously and was happy to give some advice to the next generation of UX leadership.
One student asked, “As someone who has lived through 40 years of change evolution, do you have any recommendations on how to keep up with new research methods, design, and implementation in the field of UX, which is constantly evolving and changing?”
Here’s my answer (lightly edited):
Core UX Concepts Change Slowly
There are two things to say about that. First, UX doesn't change as much as you may think because many of the changes are more on the surface. Many UX concepts are long-lasting and only change in the manifestation, but not at their core.
So the change is not as big as you may think. There's also a phenomenon I hate that I call vocabulary inflation, which is the tendency to come up with new names for the same things — old wine in new bottles. Constantly changing our terminology confuses the UX field no end. It didn’t even used to be called the UX field. It used to be called either man-machine interface, human factors, usability, or five other things. So now we hopefully stabilize the name “UX,” but in reality, all those names meant the same thing. When you read about, let’s say, research done 5 or 10 years ago or if a hiring manager looks at people’s resumes. Then, the terms in the research papers or the job titles on the resumes will make no sense compared to the words used today.
So that's my first point. UX doesn’t change as much as you would think based on the surface manifestation or the vocabulary used to describe concepts. So many of the core things remain the same, and many of the things you are learning now [at university] will help you for the next 40 years. Now, they may require a little bit of fine-tuning or adjustment because you can’t just proclaim, “Now I have my master’s degree, and new information shall ever enter my brain.” That is not a good idea either.
But a lot of UX insights can just be adjusted over time. Once you know the fundamentals, fine-tuning is reasonably straightforward, as long as you keep an open mind and listen to what’s happening at local meet-ups or posted to the more professional social media channels.
Keeping Up with New UI Technology
As a second point, many new technologies are coming out, and that’s where we get more differences. We went from mainframes to personal computers to mobile phones to AI. We may also get augmented reality headsets. Right now, we have a monoculture of user interfaces. I used to love going to Tokyo and going into the Docomo store. Docomo was the mobile phone company in Japan, and they had a huge line of weird mobile devices that you could only buy in Japan and only worked on their systems. They had a lot of exciting devices 20 years ago in Japan.
Unfortunately, I never photographed the Docomo stores I visited during the dot-com bubble. Probably because I didn’t have a smartphone with a camera. Here’s a reimagined visual of those stores from Dall-E. No two devices looked the same!
Today, every single device looks like a thin brick. [Holding up a smartphone to the camera.] Flat screens are useful in many ways, but we now have a monoculture of user interfaces. And I think we will soon enter a world with more diversity in form factors and types of user interfaces. However, the underlying interaction design and human factors principles will be the same. Also, the usability heuristics will still apply to new UI styles.
The go-to method for learning about new technologies has been the same for the last 40 years. Something new comes out: let’s do user testing.
The iPad was not the first tablet. We had tablets when I worked at the phone company 31 years ago. But they were so heavy that they never sold. Then Apple came up with a thinner, high-resolution tablet, which became more popular. What was the first thing we did after the iPad launch? We bought one, and then we watched some users use it.
Jakob Nielsen in 1992 at Bell Communications Research with a Go tablet. (Real photo.)
We discovered that the iPad launch apps had a crazy, wacky design. The list of usability mistakes was long because the people who had designed those first apps had done it in isolation. And I think most of them had not done any usability testing, which showed.
My approach was: get it, run some tests. So, to keep up with new UI technologies, get your hands on as many different designs as possible and test them with a few users each.
It could also be something completely new you're developing in your own lab. You may have to make some prototypes on your own. But yeah, if you can create a variety of designs and then test them with a handful of users, that gives you great insights into what works for tablets, what works for artificial intelligence, what works for augmented reality headsets, whatever the technology. There will be new issues for each of these technologies. But you can discover them by qualitative usability testing of a variety of designs.
Most people only use user research for iterative design. Just drive forward this one product that you’re working on. Done. But there's a lot to be learned from testing other products, which is a very underused methodology. Particularly in trying to keep up with what's new because a study can be done in 2 days. And then you know more than almost anybody else in the world because, sad to say, most people still don’t run such studies. Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Similarly, one of my sayings is that “there are no secrets in user experience.” You have to look, just run a study and watch and see. Then you will find out.
Jakob says: “There are no secrets in user experience: just look, and you will see.” (Image by Midjourney.)