UX has come a long way in the past five years, with companies becoming increasingly user-centric.

But where will this trend head in the next five years? As part of our series of Q&As with Jakob Nielsen, I posed the following question…

Where do you think UX is placed in organisations now… and where do you see it placed in five years’ time?

So let’s have a gaze into the future then. In terms of the clients, in terms of people you speak to, where is UX placed in organisations right now, and where do you see it in 5 years’ time. Jakob?

Jakob: I think in many ways the answer to both of those two questions is the same, because there is really no answer — there is really a continuum of answers there. Now (and I think in 5 years as well), because we have this phenomenon called the methodological maturity or UX maturity and companies just vary dramatically with that.

So we could talk about “full maturity” which would be: everything is done in the user centred design way (that we would like and recommend), where the product is driven by user needs and driven by research.

I think there’s very few companies where they would say: “our main goal in life is better user experience, and the way we achieve it is by doing all the recommended steps”. That would be a very small handful, and where it really comes from is the true, truly top executives. Not in terms of some high-level manager saying “we want good user experience”. That we see in a lot companies already. But that they really kind of truly embody that and it becomes a driving force in the company — that’s pretty rare. And I think it will probably be rare in 5 years’ time from now as well.

On the other hand, we have a lot of companies in the various stages of kind of before then, and we have a huge number of companies in the “zero” stage in which they don’t do anything and that they just hope for good design to happen magically (which it actually doesn’t!), but they hope for it.

And so that’s what you might call stage zero, the nothing stage of no maturity at all, there are a lot of companies in that stage. But they are gradually emerging from that and they are moving up to these higher stages.

The first stage is typically doing a little bit of user research that is tried with five users as I said before, and then after that there are higher levels of maturity where it becomes more of a systematic process: we always do it, we just don’t do it once for fun but we always do it, it becomes part of our planned process for any new project.

Not just one method but we do many methods… we don’t just test something before we launch it to make sure it’s good and it will never be good that way, we do research up front before we do any design… I mean there are all these steps for more and more maturity.

Also, at a kind of organisational level— is it just one guy in a corner doing it? Is it the product manager doing it, or running it anyway as part of the process plan? Are the higher level managers doing it, is there a defined budget for it where every year you revise your budget for this stuff? Is it the high-level executives?

So there are a lot of different levels there, and what I would say is the answer today is that all of those are in place in different companies. At very low levels of maturity there are a lot and at high levels of maturity there are a few… the various steps in the middle quite a lot.

And what I have seen, let’s say, if you want to look forward five years the best place is to look back five years and see what has been the change and you can say, “will that continue?”

I do think that if we look back 5 years then it’s the same as I just said: the numbers in each of the stages were different and they were more, many more in the “do nothing” camp, and there were even fewer in the “let’s do everything” camp, and then the status in-between: more companies were in the weak stages, fewer companies were in the more managed UX stage of higher maturity.

So that has happened over the last 5 years, where we have seen companies move up the maturity curve, and I would really predict that that would happen in the next 5 years too. However, it does mean that in 5 years everybody will move to the highest level because this change takes several decades in a big organisation if you start from nothing.  

Now if you are already in the middle, then you have a better chance, but if you currently at nothing then 5 years you should be lucky if you are in the middle — more likely you are still going to be in that kind of weak stage where there is not a very well defined budget, where there is not highly managed user experience, but it is rather a little bit ad hoc, every now and then we will do a study.

But that’s still big progress up for a company from doing nothing to do something, that’s the biggest step actually, and then from doing something to doing good and then from doing good to doing great, those are the next steps. Companies are gradually moving up that curve, and five years from now I think we are going to have that similar type of distribution but just more skewed towards the high end. I think it’s going to be another 20 or 30 years before we get to the point where most companies are at the high end.  And I think that is okay, because we are talking about changing the world here and it’s just naïve to think that can be done in 1 or 2 years — it does take some time.

Lee: It certainly does – it’s a lot of things, it’s culture, it’s working practices, it’s not just the financial element of it… we must remember that people are really really busy in their jobs and follow the paths of least resistance.

Have you got any examples of maybe in a larger organisation where somebody senior has come in or has maybe mandated that UX is important and the way they address it should be changed?

Jakob: No it definitely happens, and it typically happens when people are hired in from a different company that did have a higher level of maturity, where that executive had great experiences from years of doing good projects and running the departments that did things right. And now they go to another company that doesn’t do it and say “we should do the same here.”

We definitely see that from time to time and we get client calls of that nature, like a new Vice President said we should do this and he used to work with you in his old company now he is calling you in again… we get those calls and that definitely happens.

That said, we do like to say that executive support and push is important for user experience it really is, but it’s not enough because it has to be grass roots as well. You have to have both levels, and grass roots can be assisted in the beginning if it is mandated from the top but that is again where these issues about team buy-in come in and including them in the process and making them see the users. I think seeing the users — that’s our most valuable tool we have.

Even if all you do is that you go to a team meeting and show like two 1-minute video clips (if you can get people to sit and watch an entire clip), but just a few clips already goes a long way and maybe later you can get them to stretch a little further.  

Lee: But it’s amazing isn’t it, it’s really that something… especially executives who are overwhelmed with charts and lots of different forms of data, I don’t know whether it’s empathy or whether it’s embarrassment or some combination of the two, but showing a really short video clip can really unlock people’s minds when it comes to UX.

Jakob: It brings home the point very strikingly, and I think you are right, there is some empathy in seeing it’s real people it’s not just some hypothetical persona or some bar chart that shows that it takes x numbers of seconds more to do a certain transaction or anything of that nature, because that is very abstract. We need those as well, but I think showing them the video, showing them the users that’s our little secret, not out secret but our secret weapon in the UX field.

Lee: I think it is, and the more we do that and the more we enable people to do that I think the better for the industry as a whole.

Jakob: That is our superpower, that we have the users on our side right, that we are the user advocate and we are in some sense fighting for the people of the world, and we are doing good so to speak.

We are helping companies get their products out, we’re helping drive efficiency and productivity in enterprise, all those things… but ultimately what we are also doing is that we are defending the people, and we are showing the people and we can, because that’s what we do. It’s not something we say, it’s what we actually do — we can say: here is one of your customers, listen to what they have to say, see how they keep clicking the wrong button on your website! That is very motivating.

Lee: It’s real, and I think the next five years hopefully will be as interesting as the last five have been.

Check out the rest of our series of Q&As with Jakob Nielsen