UX design is moving into a point of real maturity now, no longer in the adolescent stage of mobile friendliness or optimising sales funnels on your website. Google even removed the "mobile friendly" label from search results last year because mobile optimization is now considered the norm, even if it still has a long way to go.
So what's going to dominate the UX design talk throughout 2019? If mobile is old news, what comes next? Well, the web is in a state of transition where the platforms people use and they journey they take between is where we need to focus our efforts. Which means we need to be asking a completely different set of UX design questions this year as the web moves into the next stage of its evolution.
#1: What experience do my users want?
The brands that really make it online over the next ten years will be the ones that don't follow the usual blueprints and best practices. Instead, they'll be creating their own unique experiences, custom built for their users and theirs alone.
This means every brand will need to be testing and collecting data from user interactions; building their own best practices and design trends. Relying on third-party statistics as a guide to building user experiences won't be enough anymore. Online technology is moving at such a fast pace now that waiting around for reports and studies from other sources will leave you playing catch-up - and by the time you get there they'll have changed again already.
#2: Which platforms are my users most interested in?
As I mentioned in an article last week, the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and the other key names in online tech are all releasing their own personal assistant platforms. These are designed to be a single gateway for people to access everything they need to online and the personal assistant war is about to kick off.
Early consumer stats suggest people who buy Google Home or Amazon Echo aren't too willing to buy another device from a different supplier. They'll be mostly locked into one device and the platforms they integrate with - which is precisely what the tech giants are fighting it out for.
#3: What's next after mobile optimisation?
It's amazing how far behind many brands are when it comes to mobile optimisation, even now. We still suffer from poor loading times, responsive quirks and a bunch of sites that barely make an effort to optimise for mobile at all, but the web is already moving on from smartphones.
Screens are laborious and restrictive. Typing is a real chore on mobile screens and the notion of touch interactions is already starting to be replaced by voice technology. Apple Watch and Amazon's Alexa both allow you to book an Uber ride without touching your phone - and this is the direction things will continue to move in.
Voice technology also has its limitations, of course, but it's progressing nicely and we're not far from a point where it will be easier for users to speak to devices rather than type. Which means we'll have to optimise our experiences, content and entire online presence for voice over the coming years.
#4: What actions do people want to take on each platform?
We've talked about personal assistants already but this only one of many platforms people will be using online. Social networks aren't suddenly going to disappear, online gaming will continue to thrive and websites, in some form or another, will still house the content people need to access online.
The question is, though, what actions will users want to take on each of these platforms and how do we cater for them? If people prefer to buy their products via Facebook do we bother with eCommerce sites anymore? If people book their flights through Google do we keep paying for display ads to show on booking websites?
Four key micro-moments from Google's own guide (PDF)
In an omni-channel web, where people interact with brands both online and offline, we'll need to pinpoint when, where and why users take certain actions. Google is calling this phenomenon micro-moments - small windows of opportunity where you have to catch people with the right content, in the right place, at the right time. This paints a complex map of the new consumer journey people are taking but it also presents a wider range of opoprtunities to capture leads - as long as you're quick and relevant enough to be there when it matters.
#5: What chatbot experience do people want?
Chatbots are going to kick off this year and designers have to figure out what kind of conversations people want to have. Or, more to the point, what do users turn to chatbots for and how can the technology make completing these tasks easier?
As Mark Wilson puts it in his own article on UX challenges of 2019, "Do I really need to have a five-minute fake texting conversation to get three news headlines that I could have skimmed in seconds?"
This sums up the current state of chatbot design quite nicely. While Siri, Cortana and various other platforms can charm us with their witty responses, what kind of tasks are they actually making easier to complete?
In some cases, chatbots are making the buying process more streamlined but most of them don't. In which case you have to question the point of building one in the first place. Are we really expecting people to make small talk with a machine while they buy their groceries online? People don't even like talking to human checkout staff at the supermarket for crying out loud.
Progress is happening, though. One 14-year-old made headlines last week for building "the best Facebook Messenger chatbot". Yes, that's a pretty subjective claim but the author, Dave Lee, calls out the usual standard for chatbots - and gets it spot on.
"Other chatbots are a lesser experience of something else," he says in the article. "The CNN news chatbot, for example, is worse at giving you the news than any of CNN’s other products. And popular weather bot Poncho, while cute and well-branded, has a habit of telling me it's about to rain five minutes after water started falling on my head."
So what impresses David so much about this 14-year-old's chatbot? It's the simplicity of the task it helps users achieve - organizing homework and other tasks - without unnecessary fuss. There's no small talk, just organization and the little bot even knows when to keep quiet during school holidays.
#6: What will content look like by 2020?
This is one of the most important questions for designers, developers and marketers alike, but first we need to rethink our idea of what content actually means. Does a conversation with a chatbot count as content? Does a push notification on mobile count as content? Or how about the price tag people see when they walk into your store after seeing your promotional email?
The answer to all of these questions is yes, of course, but the point is this: content will become increasingly fragmented across a wider range of interactions, multiple devices and platforms - both online and offline.
The challenge at this point is predicting how these snippets of content will integrate with each device/platform and how we need to format everything. Google, Alexa and the other leading platforms will need to pull snippets of content from various parts of the web - it could be your website, a local listing directory site or any other third-party source. Either way, you'll need to have the relevant piece of content sitting in the right place, otherwise you won't be discoverable.
Rich snippets will only become more important as Google and co. need contextual information about your content but the format you publish in could change as well. Who's to say podcasts won't be the new blog posts in a voice-orientated web or that won't be hosting landing pages on third-party sites for our PPC ads if that's where users prefer to go?
UX design questions
Looking back at the last five years or so of UX design, you have to realise how two-dimensional things have been for us until now. Sure, mobile optimisation was a challenge but it was nothing compared to the shift in technology we're experiencing now - and things have only just started.
The journey people take between first showing an interest in a product or service and actually buying it is becoming more complex. This makes the notion of UX design and everything that follows a much more involved process - one we have to analyse at a growing number of smaller interactions between brands and users. It's a notion that raises many questions and the brands that come up with answers quickest will be the ones that win big in an omni-channel web.