For those who may not have a background in it, what does "UX" mean?
User Experience as a practice includes everything that impacts how the user experiences your website, app, or software. UX includes initial impressions of what they see, how they arrived, and the conclusions they draw about your brand...even the way their interaction with your site or app makes them feel. If you've ever heard a comment like, "The average time our users spend on the site is way up!" and thought, "Maybe people can't find what they need," you might have a potential career in UX.
For the UX Designer, the ultimate goal is ensuring your user had an experience they would want to repeat again. I'd say an "enjoyable experience," but sometimes the goal is just to make things a little less painful -- like filing your taxes, for instance. You may not enjoy it, but if it's simple and easy, next time you won't dread it. Good UX makes difficult things bearable and mundane things delightful.
Why should companies take an interest in UX?
If for no other reason, companies should care about UX because it's so hard to acquire a new user. This makes retaining the users you attract incredibly important. Getting someone new to try your tool, site, or service -- in terms of marketing and advertising -- is expensive. Often, if the design doesn't draw people in, you won't even get an at-bat. It's important to optimize what happens when someone lands on your site so they want to keep using it, especially now that a good user experience is an expectation from consumers. Sites and apps are designed to be addictive -- Instagram and Facebook are great examples. If there's no external obligation requiring you to use a specific tool, it has to be engaging or users will move on quickly.
Where do you notice companies struggling most often with their UX strategy?
There's been tremendous improvement in collaboration on design implementation -- it's far less common for a designer to just create something in Photoshop and hand it off to be developed. Still, I would say poor communication is the source of greatest struggle within companies. So many great ideas and designs never fully see the light of day due to perceived technical or budgetary limitations. Some of those limitations are real, but some are purely communication issues stemming from a lack of shared understanding of the key design objectives.
The back and forth between designers and stakeholder is always going to be challenging, as well. It's a tough balance to strike. The ideal is a collaborative conversation that designers need to take part in -- without it, it's extremely hard for a design to meet the needs of both the user and the business. Too often, there is an idea that a new design needs to be spectacular, new, sexy, and somehow, intuitive -- and both designers and clients can fall into that trap. Realistically, groundbreaking design that is also completely intuitive is very rare.
Another area of struggle I've seen in companies is the inability to be objective about a redesign project. Just because something is new doesn't mean it's perfect. It's important to recognize that and consider the steps towards continuously improving it. Likewise, it's easy to want to totally redesign a visually dated tool, even when it's working well and only really needs a facelift. Regardless of where you are in the process, it's easy to forget the focus should be continuously improving usability.
Any emerging trends in UX that should command attention?
It's tricky to even classify something as a trend anymore, since everything is changing so fast. Right now, a lot of attention is paid to design patterns and libraries that are reusable from both a design and code standpoint. I'm also pleased to see designers caring more about code implementation. There's more of that taking place with the rise of agile methodologies and emphasis on cross-functional teams. The designer acknowledges that the developer's understanding of the design will impact the UX, which is a good thing.
What companies are standout to you in terms of top notch UX?
It's fairly easy to point out the brands like Apple, Google, and Adobe -- big companies who invest a lot into the design of their products and services. If you go beyond the recognizable names where their primary business is essentially design, the companies that depend on the user actively choosing them over the competition tend to be leaders in UX innovation, as well. They depend on it to survive. Uber is a great example of this and American Express does a really nice job, as well.
Many of the sports-driven channels are doing an exceptional job, too. MLB's app, despite having a ton of data to show, is very enjoyable to use. Similarly, ESPN offers a great mobile and desktop experience.
It seems the component that sets companies apart now is the ability to personalize the consumer's experience without being creepy. Balancing that line is the new leading edge, because visual styles and design trends are easy to copy. For example, it's a little unsettling to see the coffee mug you looked at on Amazon ten minutes ago show up as an ad in your Facebook newsfeed, but it's great when Gmail recognizes a tracking number in your email and turns it into a link to track your package. The concepts there are very similar, but have very different impacts on the user's experience.