UI/UX designers serve as the voice of users, so it’s crucial that they’re tuned into their needs. Aaron Fazulak of Flatiron School disseminates UI/UX advice in this podcast.
No longer is UI and UX design an afterthought or even a minor consideration for enterprise software projects. Instead, it’s a major component of the software development lifecycle.
As the discipline of UI and UX design matures, more forms of specialization will emerge, and more industries will increase their investment in those efforts. But how, exactly, will that work materialize?
Aaron Fazulak, director of design education at Flatiron School, says many enterprises now see a good UX as a competitive advantage, especially as applications become more multi-sensory with their input and output.
In this episode of the Test & Release podcast, Fazulak predicts the future of UI and UX design, including the technological trends and advents that will shape it, such as voice enablement. He also explains what proficiencies UI and UX designers should have, and how these skills influence real-world apps. Flatiron School is an educational organization that teaches software engineering, computer programming, data science and UX and UI design.
On the flip side, Fazulak discusses how these professionals can lean on different approaches to balance other stakeholders’ needs with what users want.
“Having the buy-in at the C suite is helpful,” Fazulak said. “But what [designers] need to do is go to the process of co-creation — talk with your users, have empirical research that shows that this is going to actually drive down [user] conversion if we reduce the customer experience.”
Listen as Fazulak also details some predictions for the future of UI and UX design work.
Editor’s note: Fazulak spoke with site editor David Carty and assistant site editor Ryan Black. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Can you tell us about how the concept of UI and UX design has grown in importance over the last 10-15 years?
Aaron Fazulak: Sure. So my experience over the last five years for our school has been that design is now valued as a resource within a business. You’re seeing people take a C-suite position, with a chief design director [or] chief design officer position. What that means is that people see that if you provide a good user experience, it’s actually a competitive advantage. When [Flatiron School] first started, we were a generalist program where people learned the skills of UX/UI front-end development. And that’s what people wanted from a designer. But, over time, the industry has quite matured. And the discipline is seeing specialization, where they want individuals that can conduct research and prototype, or take prototypes and bring them to high fidelity, or just focus on user interviews. What’s exciting is that we’ve been able to adapt our curriculum over this time, as the industry has shifted, and [become] specialized. I think it’s been an incredible experience, and a lucky one for us, that employers really do value design and are hiring designers in droves.
You talked about that specialization there, I noticed in the predictions you’ve shared that you said to expect further specialization within UX design. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about the … new positions … [or] new permutations that you expect.
Fazulak: Sure. I think, in the near term, we’re going to see continued specialization with job descriptions asking for UX researchers, or user researchers, or UX designers, or UI designers, visual designers. But what we’re also seeing is that you need to continue to learn and understand the entire design process. And as you mature in your career, you want to have the ability to be more generalized, and know the entire process. If you’re going to manage a product, you really need to know how to do the work both visually and then on the research side. I think this is all being pushed into existence because of new emerging technologies, where experiences aren’t just a screen. Today that is the case, but we have things like the Amazon smart speaker [Alexa], where you’re interacting with that. But that also could be interacting with your mobile application, where you’re then walking into a physical store to pick up a product. All of those experiences are one customer, one user experience, and you need to be thinking about them holistically. So the skills of a designer today need to be able to think like that and connect those dots.
Aaron, I want to ask you about something you mentioned a moment ago. How should designers deal with pushback either from the business side or from developers? Their goals might not always align. For example, webpages with ads tend to load slower, and those provide a worse user experience. You’re saying that you’re seeing some organizations start to roll that design thinking all the way up to the C level, which I imagine would alleviate some of that pushback. And you’d really have an advocate at the highest level. But if your organization doesn’t have that, how would you deal with some of that pushback?
Fazulak: Part of the reason designers rise to prominence within companies and corporations is because of their ability to communicate and manage the business needs with the users’ needs. And those are the skills that we definitely teach here, especially with the live client phase of our program, where we’re working with local startups. Yeah, we know that you need to hit these business goals, but also, you need to have people adopt your product and enjoy the experience. So how can we help you increase conversion over time? I think that having the buy-in at the C suite is helpful. But what you need to do is go to the process of co-creation — talk with your users, have empirical research that shows that this is going to actually drive down conversion if we reduce the customer experience — maybe in the near term, we’re going to capture a few more emails or leads. But in the long term, people are going to leave our application or website. So having buy-in from your users, if you will, having buy-in from the business leaders showing them that: If you make this design decision, it’s actually going to hurt our business. So you just have to make sure you’re translating what your findings are to what they’re going to ultimately result in.
To continue along some of the threads you mentioned, like communication being so important, I was wondering if you could lay out how you think about the handoff and the relationship between UX designers and UI designers, specifically.
Fazulak: Sure, yeah. I want to talk a little bit about our program. We have a specialization, where you are diving deep into UX or UI. But we provide a foundational education in the entire design process: You need to know the constraints of the visual designer as a UX designer that’s creating prototypes and sketching out wireframes. Same thing with working with the developer: You need to know what the technical constraints are, what can they actually make. So understanding the entire process is why it’s important to have a general level of understanding. Specialization allows you to do a few things really great over time.
Aaron, can you tell me how you see UX design work fitting into an Agile team? It would seem to require some adaptability on the designer’s part. So I’m curious if you think that the UX should develop along with the app functionality, or if some of that design work be done upfront.
Fazulak: I think everything should start with research. I’m not one to take sides with the Waterfall method or anything like that. But I will say that the best place to start is with some data and research and talking with your users, and that can inform the direction of the project. Depending on what type of organization you are, if you are a small startup, like the ones we work with here at the Flatiron School, you need to be pretty quick, nimble and lean. But if you’re a corporation, you can follow that process of conducting research, working through some wireframes, testing with users and going through the high-fidelity design. So I guess that would be my take.
You mentioned [how] you have to do your research, you have to listen to your customers, you have to figure out what they’re thinking. I’m curious, what do really proficient UX/UI designers, how do they actually translate those human descriptions of wants and needs that aren’t necessarily pre-written as design or development tasks into high-quality software experiences? How do they go about translating that?
Fazulak: Sure. So for example, [say] you’re a ride-hailing app. In their beginning days, they started off with an experience where hailing a taxi is a painful experience for users. How can we make it easier? So their first test was really just a text-based platform where you would text your location, and they would text back once they found a taxi. On the back-end, you have people actually calling taxi companies and saying where people are; that was the beginning of the service. And you’re able to say, okay, people are valuing this experience, we interviewed our users that tried this text-based application. How can we use and leverage the smartphone and all of its technological capabilities to make this a better experience? So, from there, you move on to sketching out what this application might look like, but, really, it’s a pretty simple experience on the side of a user. All they want is to find someone to take them from A to B. So we have a GPS here in the cell phone. So we’re using the technologies that we have available to make the best experience possible. We really only need one button, we’re going to use the GPS. And we’re going to let the driver’s side, which would be the back end of the service experience, let them know where the customer’s position is, from a GPS standpoint. From there, you’re connected. And what they’re going to do is, they’re going to sketch out this mobile app, and they’re going to say it’s going to be one button. And users’ feedback over time was, ‘Yeah, we want this to be a pretty seamless experience; one click and we’re ready to go.’ So that’s kind of the design process, from a lean standpoint, what you’re going to expect.
One of the big highlights in your predictions were voice and smart [phone] assistants. How extensively utilized are these assistants? Do users make use of those assistants’ full range of functionalities? Or is it just a narrow span of what they offer that people use? Because I have to imagine, it’s a fairly involved task to create such an assistant. Do you want to only go about developing the features that people will use, or do you have to make a full product?
Fazulak: Yeah, so right now, voice assistants are used, and the usage varies, I guess you could say. So some people are just asking their smart assistant, ‘What’s the weather?’ but others are using it for reminders that actually feed to an application on your phone. That’s a connected experience to yourself. We have a [graduate] … that is working at a massive cable company, and she has the task of connecting an Alexa app to their smartphone app. What types of things would people want from their cable provider on a smart assistant, voice assistant? So I think first would be just turning on our TV. Very basic, it is a part of the experience that you’re portraying as a brand. Second may be, can you record a show later today, and giving [the system] a certain time. So voice assistants are being used and connected to apps at a basic level, and that’s just the start. And then over time, I think people are going to continue using voice as a search functionality. And from a marketing standpoint, what does SEO look like for voice? How do we manage the keywords that we’re using? How do we get priority, when we’re searching for different products, those are all going to be some of the challenges faced by marketers and designers alike. I think that there’s a lot of focus on augmented reality [AR] and virtual reality [VR] — or a lot of hype, if you will — but those things are still, I think, five to 10, even 15 years away. The next thing right now is creating an immersive experience that is connected between different technologies like voice.
You mentioned AR and VR. I did want to ask you briefly about that. And I agree with you, it seems like we’re not quite near the mainstream with those kinds of apps. But when those do grow in proliferation, design work is going to be central to those experiences, because visual stimuli are basically the whole premise of that technology. So I’m curious how … that work would be different from design work on typical apps or voice-based apps. I imagine it’s a different level of design.
Fazulak: Sure, yeah. So research will be research, you’re going to be talking with people, and that’s the main focus. It’s user experience, it’s research. From there, the user interface changes. The interface could be voice, the interface could be a blended mixed reality experience. And visual design might not be built on the current software that we’re using today. So what we do here at Flatiron School is we’re always trying to update our curriculum for the latest software that is released for designers and tools that people are using. And those things I think are going to change over time. So I think the tools and the software that we’re using, the design experiences will change, but also the skill set of designing for the web, where you have to learn how grids work and typography and things like that. Maybe it’s just all visual stimuli, where you’re interacting with your environment. We had Google Glass, I’ve used the Oculus [AR system, produced by Facebook] and things like that. And they’re pretty cool. But I think that until we can mix the experience into the real world, they’re not going to catch on. I think designers, though, have to continue to stay on top of their technologies.
You mentioned the tools that people use to actually develop these experiences and it reminded me of the one prediction that you had about internal tools. And you mentioned something about how designers will be quite well suited to fix or streamline those internal tools. I was wondering if you could explain how they would go about performing this work, and why they are in fact, the best suited for it.
Fazulak: So designers are just really good at, A. being empathetic, and figuring out and caring about their users. And then, B. coming up with solutions to some of their pain points. Or sometimes it’s just making the experiences better. And an example of this would be an insurance company. This insurance company has [a] very complicated system, and the vocabulary used for the everyday user is very hard to understand. To fill out an insurance application, there might be questions with words you’ve never heard of — this is an experience I’m aware of. From there, you get lost, and you’re asking your customer support specialist questions on what this question is about, or how do I fill out this part of the form? And, on the other end, you have a customer support specialist that actually doesn’t see the screen of the users, they have no idea what they’re looking at. And you have two people trying to communicate a problem. That person’s job is quite difficult. So I know from an experience in working with a client, that we were able to sit down and co-create a better internal application that allows them to benefit the users’ needs. And that employee themself has a more enjoyable job. It’s kind of like the Golden State Warriors, if you will. Everyone’s involved and co-creating … what we’re trying to build, so you have a better buy-in and adoption of the products and services that you design.
Editor’s note: The Golden State Warriors made five straight NBA Finals appearances from 2015-2019, winning three, largely credited to effort made by each team member to contribute, as opposed to the work of a small number of star performers.
What are some of the hard skills of UI/UX design that you see as on the rise?
Fazulak: Yeah, sure. So there’s always new UX research methods that are coming out, and we’re teaching our designers. On the visual design side of things, we’ve seen that rise to prominence. And we’ve been so excited to be teaching that over the years. There are new prototyping tools popping up, it seems like every week, and we’ll try to plug them into the curriculum, we’ll share them with our Slack community, and provide educational content on that, so that you can continue learning these tools. But what we try to teach our students here is how to learn to use new tools, quickly. It can’t take you a while to learn how to use the latest prototyping platform. So what you can get good at, just like software engineering, is, ‘Okay, I’m just going to be a great software engineer, regardless of the language’ — we’re trying to make our designers great, regardless of the tool that they’re using.
Just to ask a follow up on the flip side of the coin, are there any commonly used tools or frameworks that you see as out of date? Or maybe soon to be out of date? Maybe not keeping up with where the industry is going?
Fazulak: Not at the moment — I think there are companies that are still using old tools, and they have designers using older tools that have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t work. It all depends on where you work, what the needs are, and what people have already adopted. The cost of switching from one software to another and educating your entire design team might be outweighed by just having the new hire adopt the software that you’re using within that department. So it’s the same premise of user experience: What is the best decision in the end for a company?
We mentioned blended user experiences, and one way that the user experience is changing is that more and more apps are being based on AI, including voice assistants like you mentioned, how they use neural networks. So how important is the designer’s work with these type of apps to ensure that the model is trained appropriately, and, more importantly on the designers’ part, returns the correct feedback? What’s their level of responsibility and involvement there?
Fazulak: I want to focus on one thing when it comes to AI into designers’ responsibility. So at Flatiron School, we really value diversity and inclusion. And what AI can’t necessarily detect is if it’s giving preferential treatment to certain users and making us make decisions. So designers [must] constantly be involved in the evaluation of the decisions that AI is making or inferring. We have to train our AI to not have bias. I think we’ve seen that before in some of the larger tech companies. So designers are all about solving everyone’s needs, and users are across the board from all demographics. So we’re trying to teach our designers here at Flatiron School, how to be responsible and design ethically.
You also predict that the healthcare industry is ripe for some renewed focus on UI and UX. Could you explain why that is, and what are some other industries that are behind the curve similarly to healthcare?
Fazulak: If we think about our everyday lives, what experiences seem a bit outdated, or, quite frankly, a pain? If you go into the doctor’s office, and you’re filling out the same form you did last time, that’s an experience that we’ve all been through. So healthcare hasn’t been focused on by a lot of startups over the last, I would say, eight to 10 years. There have been lower hanging fruit. Healthcare is a tough industry to change. But, for designers, there are so many pain points of users using platforms within the healthcare system, that I think there’s going to be a ton of value created there. And you’re seeing a shift in focus from the Valley to New York to even us here in the Midwest, on healthcare.
Another industry that is seeing disruption and has been focused on, I would say a little bit before healthcare has, is financial services, with apps like Robinhood or Acorns; it’s improving the experience of the user, how to trade stocks, how to view their financial resources, how to make smart investing decisions. Finance is the other industry, I would say, that’s going to be focused on.
Right, and those are two interesting examples. I’m familiar with both of those apps. Like you explained, it’s just about making it as simple as possible for the user. And it’s an interesting thing to keep in mind when we talk about this kind of design work.
Fazulak: My father is now retired, and he likes to trade stocks here and there. And he pays a fee, and he has to go to a broker and there was a time where he actually had to mail in his trades. And I can get out a phone and, in five seconds, buy a stock and on almost anything that’s publicly traded, and there is no fee. And for me, that’s an incredible experience. That’s an example of design disrupting a certain pain point or experience within the financial services industry.
So along the lines of the industries that you see potentially in line for a UX/UI overhaul: What are some of the technologies themselves that maybe aren’t widely adopted now that you could see doing the disrupting or creating more experiences for the user, or, to put it another way, that will open up more avenues for UX/UI designers to work in?
Fazulak: So I’m not going to name any specific platforms, but I will say that change within healthcare and any enterprise software solution takes time. They’re so robust, and they’re large platforms used by so many people, that change is incremental. So what you’re seeing is, if you’re an enterprise software company, designers are pointing [to] a spot on the map where we want to get to, and you have to make a plan step by step, week by week, month by month, year by year on how you’re going to get there, and make incremental change. You can’t just take Windows 95 and give someone a Mac and say, ‘Okay, here you go, here’s a better version of your software experience.’ You need to gradually make those changes to get adoption. It’s one of the principles of being a UX designer, is making sure that users adopt. So that would be my take.
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