State of UX: 2020

In my work with companies of all sizes from 2010 to 2020 I’ve watched the industry of web design turn to sub-disciplines within the umbrella term: UX, or User Experience Design.

These are my findings about where the art and craft of UX Design is in 2020, where it’s been in certain cases, and what has emerged as the standard procedures in the World of UX Design

When my 1.5 year stint as UI/UX Designer for one of Michigan’s largest commercial printers ended in January of 2017, I started contracting and consulting for companies as a UI/UX Designer and Frontend Designer/Developer for some medium- to long-term contracts. Looking back on the last 6 or 8 years, I’ve worked with a total of 6 companies in industries from manufacturing to printing to financial advising software, and seen them all implementing a formalized UX design review process, in each case working to establish agile design and development methodology in their practices.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned about the state of digital design – especially User Experience and User Interface Design –  out there, and how it’s being integrated with agile development.

1. The overall workflow and artifacts being used for User Experience evaluation, design and implementation seems to be unifying.

2. The use of User Personae and Flow Mapping continue to gain traction.

3. Yepp, it works with Agile.

4. The main players in app-based Agile workflow management field seem to have established themselves.

5. A multitude of specialized design tools have cropped up, but the field may be gelling finally.

1. The overall workflow and artifacts are unifying

When I first heard companies talking about monitoring and designing for the “User Experience” in the mid- to -late 2000’s there were few widely-accepted tools for measuring and explaining this thing called User Experience and communicating findings through organizations.

I started using wireframes as a design tool around 2003, we would draw our wireframes in Microsoft Visio, the tool primarily used for making flow charts, and embed them into Word documents, making the deliverable a wireframe document that was meant to be read page by page. These ad-hoc combinations seemed millennia away from today’s specialized wireframing and prototyping tools. Around 2012 Axure came on the market with an application specifically devoted to drawing wireframes, then linking them to one another and adding links to make them into a clickable prototype. Although Axure still is a player in this clickable prototype space, there are also a host of other tools that compete. These include Sketch, InVision App, and Adobe’s recent foray into the market: XD. These tools allow for fast creation of wireframes with interfaces that are both conventionally designed to be easy for traditional designers to learn, and contain specialized features that make wireframes and prototypes very fast and easy to build consistently. These include the use of symbols to make reusable components like buttons, forms, galleries, etc. that can be used in multiple places, and the ability to import entire data sets to populate things like customer detail tables, address fields and the like with sets of data or even a series of images from online image repositories like Dreamstime. 

Design System Managers and “Single Source of Truth”

InVision App’s Design System Manager is an awesome and powerful addition to that already leading Prototype creation and collaboration tool.

As these User Experience tools took their own medicine and evaluated how their users were using the tools and what their needs were, the process of breaking design into reusable components became tantamount to “tying up the pieces” of UX. The manual formerly known as a Brand Standards Guide has often become a “Design System”, or “Style Guide” or sometimes a “Design Symbol Library”. All of these variations have the same main goal: To establish a design rule book or “Single Source of Truth” for design, whether applied to stationery or vehicles or mobile apps – and make that rule book easy to follow anywhere within a distributed team. 

A Single Source of Truth

These tools meant to catalog styles, fonts, colors, form elements and more all are attempts at providing a single source of truth when it comes to brand guidance for a design. The great thing about InVision App’s version is how seamlessly it works when installed as a plugin in Sketch, Adobe XD, Illustrator or Photoshop. Shared DSM libraries can be opened at any time in these layout programs and fonts or colors easily applied, or entire design elements like lists, button sets, or form fields can simply be dragged onto the art board with the design and customized to meet the designer’s individual needs. The set of design components in the library are not changed, however it is also easy to update components and sync them with the cloud to ensure anyone in a distributed team is working from the latest version of the design standards. Since the DSM generally works like a standard plugin in the UX Designer’s application of choice (Sketch, Adobe XD, Illustrator, etc.) there is a steep learning curve for design teams looking to start using it in their workflows (that is, it’s fast and easy to learn.)

2. User Personae and Flow Mapping continue to gain traction.

There are some common UX files and artifacts that are firmly entrenched and have been key tools in the process since the beginning, like site maps and wireframes. User persona files and user flow diagrams are a newer addition to the common artifacts and tools used by modern UI/UX Researchers, Designers and Developers. I’ve worked on at least 3 projects in the last couple of years where I’ve introduced the concept of personas and user flows and was met with kind of blank looks from stakeholders who’ve been through the web/app design process before but have never heard of this toolset.

3. Yepp it works with Agile

If you’re not up on the concept of agile development and you work in the tech industry, you WILL be soon. It’s a work methodology that has spread like the proverbial wildfire throughout application development, web development, and other programming shops around the world. After some trepidation, in addition to coders it’s caught on with designers, project managers and executives in web, app-dev, and even pure design shops around the world from three-person code shops to Fortune 500 multinationals.

A sample Agile Workflow Chart Showing how Design may be Integrated into the System

Like I hinted at previously, in newer agile work environments, I’ve noticed a bit of a reticence among experienced designers about a feeling of shoe horning the design process through the agile work flow, which is well-known for being developed for software engineering and app development workflows. Similar to sometimes chafing at a perceived throttling of creativity after adoption of a detailed and strict brand standards manual, some feel the highly-structured nature of working agile may stifle creativity.

4. The main players in app-based Agile workflow management field seem to have established themselves.

During the rise of Agile as a methodology for software development, web development, quality assurance and design, many tools predictably came on the market to help give devs, designers, testers and project managers a centralized place to manage their agile workflow. 

When it comes to web-based tools that allow scrum masters or other sprint runners to manage and track their Agile Workflow, the main players in the market today are the Atlassian Tools, Rally, and Trello.

Of the many tools that have emerged to help with the Agile UX Design Workflow, Rally, Atlassian’s Jira (and others) and Trello have emerged as leaders in the field.

5. A multitude of specialized design tools have cropped up, but the field may finally be gelling

Tools to design for UX and with an eye towards the Agile Workflow for Apps, Interfaces, Websites and the like also experienced a surge of new products in the last 10 years. While there continues to be sporadic new entries to the market, the main players for design tools at the moment seem to have settled on these leaders: Adobe XD, Sketch, and Affinity Publisher. Many of these programs also allow for the addition of clickable prototype functionality, either in-app or with easy integration with prototype-building software like InVision App. Affinity Publisher is a late comer to the game but has really been taking off with creatives, 

Adobe XD might be a natural choice for creatives already using other Adobe CS (Creative Suite) products like Photoshop, Illustrator or AfterEffects. XD works very well with other Adobe products, is easy to learn for users of those products, and is included in many of the Adobe Creative Suite subscriber plans.

Sketch works very much like Adobe XD or other vector- and layer-based drawing programs, with a real emphasis on making larger-scale production work with consistent elements easy to do. Sketch also works extremely well when connected to “synced” prototypes in InVision App, allowing for one-click updates when designs change. 

Affinity Publisher is a relative newcomer to the game but has been making serious inroads with the Creative Community with it’s one-time license fee (XD and Sketch are Subscription only), easy-to-learn vector-based art creation, and the ability to output art for digital use, print, or both all from one interface.

That’s all for now!

That wraps up my thoughts for now on the State of UX Design in 2020 from my observations in multiple contract and freelance positions with companies large and small and in multiple industries. Have any thoughts on what you see as emerging trends in the industry? Please comment below I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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