Looking at the immediate future of UX design and beyond, Neil Sheppard warns against getting too excited about AI, apps and mega-navs but recommends getting VERY excited for white space, walk-through tools and the ‘internet of places’.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 2019 probably hasn’t been a great year for anyone. Political upheaval and uncertainty has left many companies reticent to invest and so we haven’t seen tremendous advancements in tech this year.

Still, progress marches on and we’re seeing many sites caving to user needs without even necessarily intending to.

Dealing with the ramifications of industry-changing products from years past, UX has spent much of 2019 reacting to the market. This can’t last forever, though, and with final decisions on the US presidency and Brexit coming in 2020, it’s time to start making some pro-active steps ready for a more-certain future.

So let’s take a look at 10 of the rising trends in UX design and what you can do about them in 2020.


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1) The death of the mega drop-down menu

Full screen navigation menus are frustrating. They try to adopt the simple, index layout of Craigslist, but with the aesthetics of a lean site. This means the index flashes up when you hover and then disappears whenever you move the pointer, usually just when you’re trying to click on the right link.

This is even worse on mobile, where the drop-downs require you to use a very similar action to scroll and to select – touch the screen and move down and then touch the screen and don’t move. You just have to hope the user’s device doesn’t lag and leave them clicking when they want to scroll.

More generally, it is always a terrible idea to hide anything from the user. If they need to see it, it should be visible; if they don’t need to see it, it shouldn’t be there.

Thankfully, mobile first design has finally sunk in (in places) and these unfriendly menus are disappearing from sites where care is being taken with UX. On the other hand, they still remain on sites for successful companies that aren’t really worried about expanding their user base.

In 2020, we predict these hellish menus will finally vanish from all but the most awkwardly designed sites. It can’t happen soon enough.

2) White space

Ever since Twitter launched its barely-noticed Medium blogging platform, the design trend has been for similar extensive amounts of white space. Long gone are the high-contrast, MySpace-style sites with columns, text boxes and black backgrounds with colourful fonts. Sites now look more like Word documents, with white backgrounds, single columns of text and large images without borders.

This new, simpler site design may not be flashy, but it is easy to read and quick to load on any device; not to mention, it converts easily to a mobile-friendly version. As we know, more complex is rarely better than simple and straightforward.

2019 saw this trend progress more widely, with Twitter itself stripping down and many other sites following suit. Night or Dark modes, of course, are serving to redress the white-space balance, but while most people prefer the black background, this doesn’t serve to change the simple layout.

In 2020, I see more sites going with simpler, stripped-down, mobile-style UIs, even for their desktop sites. As such, the focus will not be on visual design, but on content and the user journey. More on that later.

3) Mobile-only

Mouse pointers and keyboard text entry? Not in 2020, gang.

It’s been noted that under-funded schools are finding issues in getting young children to use their outdated computers. Kids are great at picking up the intuitive design of touch tablets and phones, but a large number of them have never used a mouse or a physical keyboard and simply don’t know what to do with them.

As these kids grow up, you’ll see the old-fashioned website with mouse pointers and text searches disappear. It’s been a long time since Google announced ‘mobile first’ and UX designers need to start listening or start finding themselves obsolete.

Stop designing your sites for the web. Now. Immediately. I mean it.

In 2020, your site needs to be a mobile site or app, with a web interface option. You can see Twitter has already done this, making its website look like an unloved transfer of its app, while Instagram’s site still doesn’t have messaging functionality.

By the end of 2020, I doubt most of your users will even have a computer, so stop wasting your time on desktop versions of your sites. Mobile first for 2020!

4) Appception

Speaking of mobile apps and Twitter, social networking has been the internet success story of the last decade. The majority of internet use is now entirely based on social media platforms, rather than traditional sites. Isn’t it time you took advantage of that with your own social media platform?

It actually isn’t hard to do, with companies like Disciple offering apps that let you create your own social apps – appception, if you will. By linking your customers with each other, you can let them sell your product or service to each other for you, creating an army of brand ambassadors for next to nothing.

You could, of course, use Facebook groups, but these are very much join-and-forget, and you would leave yourself at Facebook’s mercy. Your exclusive app for your customers alone acts like a private club for the people who are really interested in your product.

These won’t be influencers looking for hand-outs, but genuine customers who have real loyalty to your brand. You can’t underestimate the benefits to having your branded app in your customers’ pockets at all times. Social apps could well be 2020’s essential marketing tool.


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5) Do we need an app?

While social platforms are on the rise, the use of apps is actually declining. Mobile devices have limited storage and every site and company has their own app. Some phones have upwards of 250gb of storage nowadays, but Google’s latest phones are just 64gb and have ditched expandable memory in favour of faster mobile data.

In case you forgot what apps on an iPhone look like. It’s probably been a minute or two since you glanced at it.

As such, people don’t always want to clog up their devices and home screens with a plethora of apps for every single occasion, when they can access cloud services and save their storage for Netflix downloads. Not to mention, with Facebook’s very-public flogging for data collection, a lot of people would rather use services through a browser than install something that could potentially be tracking them.

While mobile first is absolutely the way, that doesn’t mean you should only be producing apps. Mobile sites can work exactly the way an app does, without taking up any device storage. With Android, sites can even send push notifications to users without the need for an app.

In 2020, I predict cloud-based apps will be the primary use for the majority of providers – all but social platforms and the major players. Your platform needs to be cloud-based or you risk it being deleted to free up storage.

6) Artificial Illusions

The buzzword “AI” is all over tech nowadays, with everything claiming to have an intelligent algorithm. It’s all nonsense, of course; we haven’t made AI yet – it doesn’t exist. We have some very, very smart computers that run simulations, test processes and then try other processes if they do not achieve a set result, yes – but this is not Artificial Intelligence.

Dr Hannah Fry of UCL recently took to Twitter to highlight that many AI algorithms are all mouth and no trousers as publicity for her new book on the subject – Hello World. One example was last year’s headline that researchers had discovered an algorithm that could determine your sexuality by facial recognition with a 70-80% accuracy. Dr Fry pointed out that, since 94% of the population identify as straight, labelling everyone straight was technically a more-accurate algorithm.

From there, things descend to Alexa and Google Home, “AI” interfaces that simply translate your voice into text, Google it and read out the result. Still, AI seems to be a term we all flock to when choosing which tech to invest in.

We don’t see any signs of that abating in 2020, but Dr Fry’s book already shows that people are wising up to the man behind the curtain of so-called AI. AI is still a good marketing buzzword for now, but temper your use of it in your pitches as we anticipate a backlash.

7) The internet of places

For a long time now, we’ve all been able to carry the internet around in our pockets. With laptops and wifi tethering, we have full desktop functionality in a backpack. Our music, videos, TV and documents are all in the cloud.

However, we still have different experiences on our different devices. Netflix is an app on your phone and a site running through your browser on your desktop; install the app your tablet and it will also need to be installed on your phone.

Various companies have been trying to create virtual desktops to follow you between devices since the 80s, and there have been numerous working models, like Wyse boxes and Sunray. Likewise, Samsung have created their DeX concept, where you can dock your mobile to a keyboard and monitor and use it as a desktop. Still, none of these have taken hold.

We’re beholden to access the cloud through our different personalised devices, rather than accessing our personalised space in the cloud from any generic device. Being able to pick up any phone, tablet, laptop or desktop and immediately see your own setup with your apps, files and saved passwords would save physical storage, make it easier to work with multiple devices and could incur a rental cost for companies to profit from. How cool would it be to run full-functionality Chrome OS from an iPhone?

Will 2020 see this concept finally take off? Probably not. We still need to sure up mobile internet before it can become feasible for everything to be in the cloud. However, given the increased number of commuters who could benefit from not having to carry a laptop with them wherever they go, this might become a more-common user experience option for some corporate platforms in the coming year.

8) Walking tours

Walk-through tools like the kind provided by WalkMe have been around for a few years now, but this year I’ve seen the functionality copied by several other platforms. In 2020, I predict this will become the standard for more and more sites.

Essentially, the tool allows pop-up boxes to appear on screen with arrows linked to fields and buttons, telling users exactly where to click and what to enter into tools to complete whatever they need to achieve. WalkMe itself is expensive, but the idea is one that will likely spread to become common by the end of the year. It’s certainly an option worth looking into for your self-service support.

9) New interfaces

As we said above, point-and-click interfaces are dead. Touch screens are the new standard, even for desktop devices and you should be designing all your UIs for tap first and click second.

That’s the present, however, with the future being voice. Again, it’s not yet AI, but Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa are common enough now for voice interfaces to be normal for most users. Apple and Google have added voice entry options to their virtual keyboards and every site and its dog has a chatbot now, so that’s something you should be considering in your user journey planning.

One of the most interesting areas of development is how many major players are adding their chatbots to Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat and Microsoft Teams. This allows your users to access the full functionality of your service without ever visiting a space owned by you – they may never access your app or site.

By the end of 2020, I think more designers will have worked out ways to incorporate new methods of interaction into their UIs and asking Alexa to order from your site will be the norm for your users. Simply making a desktop interface you access with a mouse is not good enough any more, and certainly won’t be in 2020.

10) Though shall not password

Passwords are a pain. Data security experts are telling us over and over again to have different combinations of random numbers and letters for every single one of our logins; yet, this just isn’t feasible – the human mind just can’t remember that much random information.

Tools were tried to store all your passwords under single sign-on, but those were complicated and required an additional login. That’s why Google and Facebook are offering login tokens that will let users access their other accounts with their existing logins to those services. Dealing with password resets is the number one customer issue for most services, so we see most platforms caving into this option by the end of 2020.

This, of course, leaves everyone – user and provider alike – beholden to the whims of Facebook and Google. The smart alternative to avoid this is biometrics. Users can now log into their phones and many laptop devices with fingerprints and facial recognition. The former is far more secure than the latter, but both are harder to crack than a password.

I recommend deviating from the crowd and setting up for your users to log into your platform by unlocking their mobile. Like two-factor authentication, but just with the second factor.

There can be resistance to this, since it automatically excludes those who don’t have a smart mobile device. However, in 2020, this is going to be such a small portion of the market, that it’s unlikely to be an issue for most companies, let alone digital providers.

Leaping into 2020

So, to summarise, 2020 will be all about utilising new technology to change the way your platform interacts with your customers. This radical shift in the very concept of your UI is going to require a complete rethink of your design process.

The appearance of your site will soon become irrelevant, as a large part of your user base will be accessing your service from social and instant messaging platforms. Your graphic designers may soon be out of a job, while chatbot scripters, voice designers and CRM specialists will be in high demand.

This complete revolution has been held back by the political and economic concerns of 2019, but with these possibly being resolved – for good or ill – next year, expect a slingshot effect, with tech rocketing forward to catch up after being held back over the last year. We can’t expect the future to fully arrive before the end of 2020, but I predict we’ll be on a course for a whole new horizon for UX this time next year.

I’m not saying you won’t have a desktop site in 12 months’ time, but you’ll certainly start to see a reduction in user interaction if you don’t have a mobile-friendly site and integration with voice assistants.

On the other hand, the early adopters of this new technology are going to be the real winners in 2020. As users give up on their laptops for tablets and purchase more and more through Alexa and Siri, the future-ready sites will find a lot less competition for user attention.

Are you ready for 2020?


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Main image by JR Korpa