What will UX look like in 2050?

Jakob Nielsen takes us on a journey into the history of UX from the past, the present, to the beyond--offering predictions of what UX will look like in 2050.

Last year, Nielsen gave a keynote speech titled "UX 2050" where he shared fascinating predictions about what the UX profession might look like in just a few decades. Nielsen predicts growth from the current 1.5 million UX professionals to a monumental 100 million over the next 30 years. In the following episode, we dig into that prediction and what it means for innovation, research, and the world economy.

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Alfonso de la Nuez: Welcome to UXpeditious! A show that shares quick and efficient insights from product, User Experience, and design leaders across the tech industry.

Dana Bishop: Each interview we dive into how UX research impacts user insight; shaping the design and business strategy of some of our favorite tech tools and products. 

Alfonso de la Nuez: I’m Alfonso de la Nuez, Co-CEO and Co-Founder of UserZoom.

Dana Bishop: and I’m Dana Bishop, VP of Strategic Research Partners at UserZoom.

Alfonso de la Nuez: And we’re your hosts. On today's show, the guru of Web page usability, Jakob Nielsen, joins us to talk about the future of UX. In 2020 he gave a keynote speech titled “UX 2050”; we will unpack some of those predictions.

For many of you listening, Jakob Nielsen needs little to no introduction. He is a User Advocate, and he’s principal and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, and fun fact, he holds 79 U.S. patents, most of them on ways to help make the Internet easier to use.

Jakob, thanks so much for being on the show, greatly appreciated. 

Jakob Nielsen: You’re welcome. So, nice to meet you.

Alfonso de la Nuez: We wanted to spend some time discussing this keynote speech titled UX 2050, that you shared in 2020. We'd like to dig a little deeper into some of the very interesting predictions that you made.

You predicted from 2017 to 2050, the UX profession is expected to grow from the current approximately 1.5 million people, to a whopping 100 million people. Wow, that's, that's quite a lot. Our latest state of UX reports that we just conducted at UserZoom, suggest that demand for UX work is outpacing supply of UX professionals. 

Jakob Nielsen: I gave this talk, it was called 2050, because it was getting to be a long future view. But it actually also had a little bit of a long backwards view as well, because it really a 100-year-view from 1950 to 2050.

During that 100-year-period, we have had basic exponential growth, like from that first single UX team until now there's a lot. Of course we don't actually live in a logarithmic world or this kind of world where exponential growth becomes a straight line and a rhythmic chart, right?

We live in a linear world, and so exponential growth when you get out of the curve, that's when you see it start going up at a very high, high, absolute numbers. So like, hundreds of thousands new people every year at the current time, whereas back in the, they say 1960 or 1970, there might have been like 100 people every year. Right?

But I actually think the COVID pandemic, which is the two-year phenomenon, also has been something that has accelerated the growth because of the change, so many more things being virtual, people shopping much more on e-commerce. E-commerce is the number-one simple, clear-cut case for user experience return on investment is so, is stupendously obvious and high.

I don't think that will continue, but so I think we'll return to kind of that little bit lower exponential growth rate, but which is still extremely high, you know? I still believe in this, that by 2050, I think we will have about 100 million people. Give or take a million or two.

Dana Bishop: So I'm curious about the pandemic effect. We've all seen in the industry, is this crazy last two years have just been skyrocketing in terms of the number of new UX designers. I think referencing some other data that I saw recently, it's grown number of jobs placed for UX designers is 5x in a one-year period, from 2019 to 2020, right? So-

Jakob Nielsen: Yeah, I think it will level off. So this is not for anybody to worry about, about the future of this field. It will grow dramatically. It's more that there's some bumps or periods of even higher growth.  I don't think that is unlikely to continue because then we wouldn't reach 100 million, then we would reach like a billion people being UX specialists. And that I just don't think can happen.

Dana Bishop: What percentages do you think of those UX professionals in the future will be focused on keeping it simple versus new innovation?

Jakob Nielsen: Now innovation is a word that has so many different meanings. The truth is that there's not that much revolutionary innovation, like completely new things. It happens of course, but it just doesn't happen that often. And in fact, I think the vast majority of the value comes from doing things right and integrating things.

I mean, iterative design is one of our kind of key ideas, but iterative design is not just a matter of each individual webpage that you're making that a little better all the time. It's also a matter of making your systems work together and just in so many different ways, always making it easier, always making it simpler.

And I mean, somebody comes up with a revolutionary new thing, that's very nice. But typically it's actually quite bad in its details. Because they've got to have spend all of their focus on that big advance. But then it couldn't polish it properly. You can also see that in e-commerce or other kind of more measurable elements of user experience.And sometimes just changing a word will gain you a large lift in conversion rate and things like that. So getting small details right is important. 

So going back to this point about that we have an exponential growth curve for the field, well, that means that most people are new, and there's very small percentage of people who have 10 years experience. 

So you've got to accept new people, you've got to welcome new people with the recognition that in the beginning, they're not going to be as good as the same person will be in 5 years or in 10 years. And then you've also got to accept that we cannot only have top super genius talent, if we want a large number of people. 

If we compare UX now versus in the early days, in the early days, those people who work back then, they had to invent everything for themselves. They had nothing. Today we have great tools. But not just platform style tools, but also I would call them intellectual tools... things like concepts, best practices, documented guidelines, all this type of stuff, they didn't have in 1950, in 1960, in 1970 they had a little bit, but mostly people who worked on those early systems. They still had to invent everything for themselves. What does it mean to have a good graphical user interface? Nobody knew. Today we know.

Alfonso de la Nuez: My takeaway is that, hey, quality is important. But I think Jakob is saying, "Hey, we will have quality with experience that we have, with the knowledge that we have, the tools and all that- it'll be easier to get quality." So that's an optimistic view which I share and I appreciate.

Dana Bishop: What do we do from a business strategy standpoint? How do we embrace this coming wave, right? From 1.5 million to a 100 million usability professionals to embrace it, make the most of it, impact the sea level, and beyond. What do organizations do with all of these people and all of this, all these resources, right?

Jakob Nielsen: It's not necessarily the one company that has 10 or a 100 times more UX people. It's more like it's 100 times more companies that have UX people. But of course it's a growth in every step of the way. It's going to be companies that don't don't do anything now that will start doing it. I think that's where the more of the growth comes from.

Honestly, there's an enormous number of unmet tasks in user experience. There's no actually perfect product, but at least you want to have a great one.

And I think almost everything shifts.  It's really more so the question of is the return on investment there so that you can pay for having this bigger team.

The team will have something to do, but... And I think that return investment is sometimes already there, it's more a matter of It takes a while to get people to realize that. I also think there is in general a shift in the economy towards more kind of experience goods and towards quality being more important, like the quality of the design of the experience. And the more things become interactive, more things have a user interface that didn't used to have a user interface.

Alfonso de la Nuez: This is one of my favorite topics-

Dana Bishop: So in your opinion, how much does a good user experience impact the world economy? I mean, this is a big question

Jakob Nielsen: I do think it's going to have a much, much, much bigger impact. There is just as we talk about in our own little field various maturity levels. And so does the world or country, or an economy have maturity levels as well. And if people are at the starvation level, then just getting another bowl of rice, that's what's important. You know?

Then you go up another level, and then it becomes important to maybe get a bicycle, whatever, sort of a little bit of a sort of an advanced manufactured thing.

Then you keep going up these levels and the more higher you get, the more you already have more than enough food to eat already. You have more than enough things, stuff, manufactured items, you already have all you would ever need there. And the more important it becomes, how nice it is, or pleasant it is, how interesting it is, those type of things.

Luckily, what's happening in the world economy is that poor countries are getting richer. We will get to a level that's even more rich, where customers really are not going to be satisfied with mediocre products.

Alfonso de la Nuez: As a manager myself, I am very focused on ROI of great design. And I think we're seeing this in the last few years more than ever before, and McKinsey's writing about it. And that's nothing but great news. I think it'll continue going this way. 

Dana Bishop: I agree. Companies that are making a big investment and have been making a big investment in UX, we're having those conversations with them about the ROI and measuring the impact, of this investment that they're making. And I think that's actually exciting.

Jakob Nielsen: Oh, it is. There's absolutely individual examples you can point to where you designed a product, a new product based on some early discovery research and on really understanding customers and those type of things, and you got a bigger success. Or the more as much as we're talking about this more smaller scale where you did a specific study, you found a specific button, you changed that, and your sales increased and all that.

I think what in sometimes is more interesting is this notion that you kind of sustained, and you have this maturity model of user experience where the higher levels of maturity are that it's done systematically. I mean, any individual example is wonderful, but doing it systematically actually is more important because then again you have this cumulative effect of just thousands of improvements you do every year, you just keep getting better and better and better.

So again, incremental improvement, and this is not something I came up with. This is like one of the lessons, number one, in quality, like all type of quality, not just interaction quality.

Alfonso de la Nuez: Kaizen style. 

Jakob Nielsen: Yeah, exactly. It's, well-known principle, incremental quality improvement. And that I think is exactly where we are moving, it just becomes the way things are done. And therefore you gain these, the vast improvements. And how you are in 10 years is nowhere like what you are today. And you can't say, "Well, this was the one thing." Some changes are bigger than others, but ultimately it's cumulative effect of 1,000 improvements. It's huge.

Alfonso de la Nuez: More about a culture of how you drive and how you manage the digital product.

Jakob Nielsen: Yeah.

Alfonso de la Nuez: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jakob Nielsen: It was great to be on the show. So thank you so much for inviting me.

Dana Bishop: Thank you.

Alfonso de la Nuez: That's Jakob Nielsen, speaker, user experience expert, and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Dana Bishop: Thanks for listening to UXpeditious. Make sure to continue listening to our new episodes each week for quality insights from UX industry leaders. If you like what you heard, help us out by rating and reviewing the show on your favorite podcast platform.

Alfonso de la Nuez:  UXpeditious is produced by UserZoom in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christopher Ratcliff from UserZoom; and the team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Hannah Pedersen, Colleen Pellissier and Jason Mack.