At the beginning of every new year since 2016, the UX Collective has offered up an assessment of the UX industry – where it is today and where it’s headed. Their article, “The State of UX in 2023,” looks at the shift toward business- as opposed to user-centered design, the rise in web3 aesthetics, and (of course) AI. I found myself wondering what Haley Stonecipher, our brilliant director of design, would make of it all. So…I asked her. Here’s our conversation.
So to start, what did you think about the article as a whole? Were you surprised by some of the points they made? What was your take?
They certainly pinpointed trends that I’ve started to pick up on over the last year. Overall, it seems pretty spot on. My reaction at the end was that it felt honest, maybe a little bit cynical.
On that note, one thing they talk about early on is this idea of “digital product design [becoming] commoditized” and how designers “miss the creative fulfillment they once took for granted.” What do you think about that?
I actually have a mixed reaction to this. I don't think it's wrong to say design is becoming more and more commoditized. People are paying attention to it. They’re a little bit more informed about design and the design process and know what to ask and look for. And so, as we become more established as an industry, it makes sense that certain patterns are also going to be established.
Also, design is a huge umbrella. Subsets of the industry will be really creative, like branding, ilustration, and animation. But with UX you always have a blending of priorities: the aesthetic and the strategic. And that strategy is definitely both user- and business-focused. As UX designers, we have to think about how to deliver for both goals. That’s the reality of it.
And has been forever.
Yes. I can understand the lack of creative fulfillment when we talk about design systems becoming really tight, dictating what we can and can’t do visually. But at least for the clients we’re working with and the design systems we help to shape, we design in a way that still allows room for creativity for the people who need to run and own the site long-term.
So it's about balance?
Absolutely. Every design system has nuance and different challenges or goals it needs to solve for, so it's hard to make blanket statements. But yes, I do think it’s important to build in space for creativity. It's all matter of degree – different brands need different things. Some will need to have a super rigid, tightly defined system. But in many of the instances we work in, there’s some wiggle room.
The next thing that jumped out at me was the idea of the focus shifting from the user to the business. The quote is, “Many designers who started a UX career with the goal of advocating for users are seeing their role shift to one that is focused on boosting company profits at all costs.”
This is real too. And I can't help but think this is a theme very much attached to our place in time – we’re facing a possible recession, layoffs, and finances being tightened. It has to do with the need to leverage design to make money. Even with some of our clients – this is something that has come up in the last few weeks – when there are certain features they want to get people to sign up, become a member, pay for this extra thing. As designers and strategists, we have to take stock of what’s being asked of us and figure out the essence of what they're asking.
We will always advocate for what we think is best for users. But ultimately the decision is going to come down to our clients. Our role is to guide and direct and inform and educate when it comes to user-centric best practices. But at the end of the day, they really hold the keys. So yeah, it's not something that I see across the board, but it's definitely something that I’m seeing more and more of. Again, I think it's tied to what's happening in the world at large and you can't really separate the two.
Again, we’re talking about balance, right? Companies are feeling pressure to drive profit and conversions. You're kind of like a guru, trying to help them navigate all that so that they don’t inadvertently do more harm than good.
For sure. And I think all of this to kind of goes back to product design becoming more commoditized. Making money and the business side has never not been a part of the equation. Business goals have always been a focal point of our work. That's why they're hiring us, right? If they didn't care about their businesses succeeding then we would be unemployed. So it’s just being practical. Helping our clients do well while focusing on the user will always remain a focus of UX.
I do think the thing they are pinpointing here is this changing mood of, “No, I'm going to disregard this thing that I know you say is best for my audiences because I'm feeling pressure from all of these other places to get this result. So we're going to throw whatever we can at the wall and see what sticks.” But I think that's just gonna create, as you were alluding, some pain later when people protest.
Totally. Here is another quote I thought was interesting, “Shrinking headcounts increase the demand for generalist designers and hands-on leaders.” Thoughts?
Honestly, I read this and thought, “damn, we’re really well-positioned” and that feels good. Because, I do remember even three years ago, reading articles about the growth in specialization and how generalists were not attractive anymore. So it's just interesting to see how the pendulum swings. And again, this ties back to things feeling economically uncertain. And, obviously, that is a part of the downsizing.
As a generalist myself, I always champion the value of generalists when it comes to flexibility and really understanding the fullness of the design process and all of the pieces involved.
I love that. What about this idea of leaning into a bias toward action and being able to “let go of certain steps of the process” in order to get things done?
Building up our design process has been one of my core focuses since coming to Foster Made. And, we, as a collective team, have put in a lot of time and effort to figure out what we want to do, what we can offer, and how to continue to refine things to make our process watertight yet flexible, meaningful, and valuable to our clients. Now we’re in a place where our process feels good, we have this really robust set of offerings, and a way we like to work.
But the beauty of it is, when you know it really well you also know when to let things go. You know when steps are actually essential, versus when they're nice to have. It’s essential for us to consider what we can give each and every client that's really going to deliver value. So, you can say with confidence, “actually, I don't think you need these four things. If we can do these two, you're going to be pretty well positioned and informed.” Of course, we all love it when we can do everything. But there's definitely a point where we need to determine the minimum that needs to be done, make a decision, and move on.
What about this idea of new designers getting a lot of their information and influences from social media influencers?
I don't follow design influencers, in general, but we do use Dribble and it’s a great example of a design space where you see some pretty ridiculous things. I also imagine they’re talking about Instagram. In both places you will see some really beautiful UI; it is just gorgeous. But more often than not, when I actually look at it deeply, immediately, I can start poking holes in it. Like, that's not going to work because it doesn’t account for X, Y, and Z. There's no way to close out of the window. Or, I'm in a shopping cart and I'm missing a ton of valuable information. It's just not functional.
A lot of the design that I see shared on social media is aiming for beauty and not functionality. It's funny to see what gains traction or popularity in places like that because sometimes it’s just bad design. I also loved in the article that they highlighted a tweet, and I'm forgetting the specifics of it, but it was like, “please do the research.” See who originally said the thing you saw online. And that feels so real and right and true to me. As a team, we have really helpful resources when it comes to UX best practices from professionals who have spent the time doing the work to arrive at this knowledge that they're then able to share.
Ok, this next part I found really fascinating. I’m just going to read the quote–it’s kind of long but so good:
“If the visual narratives broadcasted by web2 companies were built around putting people first…the new wave of web3 companies represents a shift in direction. There is no place for photos of women laughing alone eating salad, or flat geometric-style illustrations of humans on this new web. Instead of showing how products fit our lives, web3 aesthetics shifts the focus to showing an exciting yet-to-be-explored universe…Instead of reminding us of the problems of our current world and the harm that’s been caused by Big Tech, the new, abstract forms of web3 distract us from the crises of the day with the promise of a new virtual world…Web3 companies seem to be saying that it’s easier to leave this world than to fix it.”
I mean, honestly, my first reaction was just – big cringe. It's fascinating but very escapist. Visually, I'm so intrigued. You know, for the most part, the clients that we work with do not live in this world, and I cannot see them adopting web3 aesthetics anytime soon. So I am mostly just curious to see how it becomes adopted. I think it's gonna take a lot of creativity for people to figure out how to aesthetically adapt. The web3 examples they shared make sense in the tech space, but beyond that, I am just really, really curious.
That makes sense. And it’s definitely a trend and trends don't necessarily stick. But I do imagine some elements will. There will be more palatable components that will be woven in that aren't people in futuristic gear…
For sure. I think that's one of the fun things in just observing design trends as they come through and change. Trends come and go I've always been very wary of them. I’m not ever quick to jump on the bandwagon given that they tend to be pretty cyclical and change quickly. But I do think if you sift through it and shake out all the fluff, there probably are really good principles that can be applied that will stand the test of time. Over the last decade, we’ve been thinking about maturing design online. We've been thinking about how to make it more accessible, how to make it fun, how to adapt it to brands. Although I’m definitely wary of the out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new mentality, I'm so curious to see where this goes. And I'm excited for the really practical, functional takeaways that emerge.
Ok, we have to talk about AI. In the article, they talk about how we're on the verge of this great technological transformation. And their advice is, “keep an open mind. We want to be good at what we know but even better at we what we don't know.” What is your take on AI?
I think my general response is that I’m very interested in and open to what AI can provide. I’m not afraid that it’s going to wholesale replace the creative field, though I do recognize that some creative specialists are facing more immediate uncertainty, especially those involved in content generation — graphic designers, illustrators, writers, and photographers all come to mind. Generative AI is moving fast, but I do believe that it takes a creative mind to make creative work and there’s a lot that we can accomplish by using AI to augment our creative processes.
I also think it’s incredibly important consider the ethics of AI. I’m certainly not an expert here, but there are a lot of good conversations happening around human agency, safety, security, intellectual property, inclusivity, and accountability. We need to collectively consider the potential positive and negative outcomes of its use.
Again, I’m very curious about where AI is going to go, but I don’t think the human element is something that can be replaced — and that’s central to our work.