UX Curiosity Inclusive design


With technology developing faster than ever before, how can designers keep their skills and knowledge up to date in parallel? Jonathan Hooper-Saunders, Director of UX Design at Expedia Group, says that the best advice to keep up is to utilise your own experience.

17 February 2023 • 5 min read

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I was a big Star Trek fan as a child. I was fascinated by the technology that seemed so futuristic and so far from reality. What was merely a fantasy 25-30 years ago has now become a reality today and will continue to influence technology way into the future.

In the 21st century, technology is advancing more rapidly than ever before. With the invention of smartphones, driverless cars, voice technology, AR and VR, wearable technology, AI and so on, it’s changing at an exponential rate. The role of a designer has also changed substantially when it comes to keeping up with these advancements in technology. Throughout the 80s, 90s and early 00s, designers would typically focus on creating experiences for graphical user interfaces, primarily websites. Now, designers have to think beyond the two-dimensional, expanding the need to understand the user interface through different means such as voice and conversational experiences, touch, movement, experiential and beyond. Today, a UX designer doesn’t just have to keep up with the trends in technology for one type of user interface or experience, you’re now thinking in different dimensions, different types of interactions and user flows.

Today, the challenge a UX designer faces, albeit an exciting one, is the breadth of technology and the pace at which it’s changing. You have to seek to understand it as much as you can, in order to begin to master it. The number of hats that designers have to wear has grown massively, and continues to grow, with many UX designers often responsible for interaction design, content and visual design to accessibility and analytics, as well as more operational skills like project and programme management. Whilst you don’t have to become a jack of all trades, or a unicorn as it’s sometimes known, it is important to remain open to learning new skills and gaining new experiences that add more strings to your bow. From my own experience, embracing new technology early on, using it wherever I can, helps me understand and experience the technology from a user’s perspective. Fundamentally, whether you’re designing for web, voice, VR, or whatever it might be, the fundamental principles of good experience design remain the same: start with the customer’s needs and work back from there.

As technology evolves, a whole new set of design skills, standards and best practices will have to emerge within the industry. As we move away from screen centred interfaces, these will be vital to break down those artificial barriers that enable more designers to expand their skills beyond conventional experience design. For many designers it can be a bit of a black box when it comes to designing for those emerging technologies, because they are still fairly niche and somewhat in their infancy, so your exposure to them might be limited or may not be applicable to the business that you’re in or clients you work for.

While you may not have an opportunity to work with emerging technologies such as AR or VR which Meta have made more accessible to us all with the launch of the Metaverse last year, the best thing you can do is throw yourself into those experiences in your own time. Become a user of the Metaverse, for example. Test it out and seek to understand it from a user’s perspective whilst it’s just taking off. This way, you’ll have first hand experience of how it works, how you interact with it and how it makes you feel.

Time is a luxury for many people, but remaining curious and continuing to learn through experiencing these things hands-on is one of the best ways you can keep on top of them. Even if you don’t have a detailed technical knowledge or understanding of how they work, as a customer and as a user, at least you know what that experience is like and begin to understand how it could be better. The UX designer’s superpower, no matter what they’re doing, is always thinking about how they experience something and how to improve the experience, be that opening a door, making coffee or sending an email.

Remaining curious also means looking beyond your current focus or the constraints in which you operate. I work in travel and technology. Whilst it can be easy to focus on what others are doing in your space and focus on competition, I often try to look at brands or industries outside of that bubble. Often going beyond the familiar can lead to moments of inspiration which help you to innovate in very different ways. I often look at brands like Netflix or Spotify. They are doing some really interesting things in how they personalise experiences using very advanced ML (machine learning), anticipating my needs with recommendations that reflect a deep understanding of my preferences and tastes – sometimes feeling like they know me better than I know myself.

In addition to experiencing first hand, explore what other designers are doing, read books and articles, attend conferences and forums, listen and absorb, and be part of the conversation too. Share back your experiences with others, as you never know what somebody might learn from you. Don’t be afraid to reach out beyond the design community too, speak to engineers and product managers, as ultimately everyone will be approaching these things with slightly different and often enlightening perspectives.

You should also be pragmatic – it’s impossible to keep up with everything, and that’s ok. Hedge your bets a little around where to invest your time and trust your gut too. Focus on the things that bring you the most pleasure, intrigue you the most and challenge your way of thinking which will steer you towards where to invest in building new skills for the future. What might feel like a flash-in-the-pan fad right now may one day become the norm. Take voice interfaces for example, when Apple and Google began to invest in the technology in the late noughties, there was a lot of scepticism about its longevity and usefulness. Skip forward ten years and look how ingrained they are in our homes, cars and daily lives. In the role you’re in, you may not have the opportunity to be exposed to some of these emerging technologies, but harness that excitement and intrigue to go and explore new things. With that excitement, often comes a sense of trepidation that can arise from the fear of potentially missing the boat, coming to them too late or things moving on too quickly to keep up.

This excited trepidation, combined with the incredible pace of technological evolution and trends can often feel impossible to keep up with. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be across everything. You don’t have to understand how everything works at an intricate level. But having experiences of your own helps you to remain curious. And if you want to dip your toe into the water and try designing new types of experiences, even if it feels abstract or alien to what you’re used to, if you remain true to principles of good experience design, and can speak from the customers’ perspective and vouch for their needs in the experiences you are creating, you’re half-way there.

You don’t need to fear change, you might even find yourself excited about it. You never know what’s coming round the corner – but you can guarantee it will be exciting!

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