Five Big UX Topics in 2012

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For years, UX professionals have vigorously lobbied for a “seat at the table” when it comes to formative decisions about products and product development. Looking back at 2012, trends indicate that this wish is becoming reality. Many leading UX consultants reported that their clients are more open to research and design methods with a UX focus than they have been in the past.

This elevated focus on UX ideas and concepts will require informed engagement with several high-level topics that emerged in 2012. This article discusses five of the themes that we expect will have relevance into 2013.

1. UX in the C-Suite

2012 was the year that UX Design crashed the C-Suite. The appointment of Marissa Mayer as Yahoo’s CEO, and the emphasis on her background in user experience as a prime reason for this appointment, is one of several examples of increased awareness, at the highest levels of corporate management, of the importance of user experience to the success of a company’s products or services. These developments suggest a growing understanding that UX is not merely a tactical part of a product development process mainly driven by inward-facing operational strategies or broad, quantitative market analysis. Increasingly, successful companies maintain a sharp focus on the experience, broadly construed, of their end consumer from the earliest formation of product strategies through their design, development, and launch.

Another indication that language and ideas around user experience are gaining traction is the surprising appearance of skeumorphism (basically an interface that mimics a similarly functioning analog item) in the mainstream media. The New York Times discussed the concept in the context of a management shake-up at Apple that may herald a departure from the “real world” design style preferred by Steve Jobs (but apparently disliked by many design authorities inside and outside of Apple) towards a minimalist aesthetic that is consistent with Apple’s hardware design. Whatever software design direction Apple ultimately selects, the popular discussion of the business impact of this decision is likely to inspire other corporate leaders to ask themselves how an improved user experience could help them achieve their business goals.

2. Multi-Context UX Goes Mainstream

Lines that could once be neatly drawn between mobile and desktop experiences continued to blur in 2012. With more and more people accessing content from multitude of devices — often at the same time — people have come to expect a seamless and consistent experience from site to site and from device to device. A variety of techniques, technologies, and philosophies are at the UX designer’s disposal at a time that some consider the “post-desktop era”.

With mobile browsing continuing to grow in the United States and worldwide, it makes sense for designers to focus on getting the mobile experience right. “Mobile first” encourages designers to start with a small screen, focusing on key interactions and content prioritization. “Mobile first” may not always be the right approach, but by starting on a small screen, solutions to complex design problems can often be revealed.

“Progressive enhancement” is not a new idea, but has gained momentum lately thanks to responsive design, HTML 5, and CSS3. Progressive enhancement starts with a useful experience as a foundation, adding more complex functionality only if the browser or device can support it. Similar to “mobile first”, progressive enhancement ensures that the base experience is solid before adding in additional bells and whistles.

It’s been two years since Ethan Marcotte coined the term “responsive design”, and in that time we’ve seen more websites that adapt to a user’s screen size, orientation, and device. We’ve seen some excellent designs, including Smashing Magazine, and the newly launched Mashable. Responsive design does not always make sense, and a responsive website cannot necessarily replace a native application. As responsive design matures, we will see more innovative techniques and best practices.

It is still difficult to predict a person’s context. We may know what kind of device or screen size they are using, but we won’t know where they are. We should be prepared for them to switch back and forth between devices frequently, and know that they expect seamless transitions and a consistent experience across all channels. And people don’t distinguish between disciplines – the difference between UX designer and visual designer may be important to us in the industry, but in the end we are all contributing to the user experience.

3. Increasing Importance of UX in Product and Service Development

The growing importance of user experience design was evident in industries like health care. We believe that this area will continue to boom in 2013 and beyond.

More practitioners and UX-focused agencies are starting to specialize in healthcare research and design. Companies in the health vertical are increasingly seeking out specialized UX help. Rising stars like Patients Like Me, Massive Health and ZocDoc are revolutionizing myriad aspects of the health care experience. Each of these organizations is strongly rooted in UX culture. ZocDoc even won an Interaction Award for 2013. Conferences like Healthcare Experience Design continue to flourish and books are beginning to appear. Look for Peter Jones’ Design for Care which should appear sometime in 2013.

4. Agile UX Design and the Lean Startup Movement

The evolving relationship between UX design and the Agile and the Lean Startup movements was another important trend in 2012. UX practitioners continued to grapple with their role in Agile development processes.

Early this year, Jared Spool wrote:

“Agile development is no longer a fad–it’s the way people are getting software delivered… Our old methods no longer suffice, as they are too bulky and slow for the demands of the Agile process. Instead we need to come at our work with a renewed introspection of everything we do.”

UX practitioners have heeded the call: the NYC Agile Experience Design meetup group has more than 1,500 members with nearly half to them joining in 2012. San Francisco’s Lean UX group has about 1,600 members.

A related movement, which is similarly UX friendly, is the Lean Startup “school” that recommends a “build, measure, learn” feedback loop. The Lean Startup principles boldly declare that a Lean Startup should develop a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible.”

Designing for MVP is a radical departure from the perfectionism we have seen in traditional UX design. Doing UX in Agile fashion means backing off on documentation and traditional processes to become more iterative and nimble. It means having the courage to let something go when the design is “good enough,” knowing it can be adjusted in future iterations.

Many UX designers have seen positive results when integrating UX design into Agile development. The focus on results over processes and documentation is invigorating. Adjustments include: writing user stories; becoming less sentimental about deliverables; attending standups; and participating in testing, implementation, design and strategy at the same time. While the relationship between Agile and UX is uneasy at times, the consensus in 2012 was that the combination is a win for users and product development organizations.

5. Visualizing Data, Big and Small

Although the collection and interpretation of data isn’t a new trend, 2012 brought a new creativity and aptitude for mining data sets of varying sizes to expose patterns and develop insights – and a variety of compelling examples of how the meaning of data patterns can be visualized. Most notably, the strategic and predictive value of data analysis was a potent theme in the runup to, and aftermath of, the 2012 presidential election. Obama relied on “data-driven decision making” in fundraising and campaign strategy planning and Nate Silver famously used aggregated polling data to predict the election outcome with striking detail and accuracy.

In parallel with this new understanding of what we can learn from data, figuring out how to present it in creative and understandable ways has become a high priority. The New York Times, in particular, published a host of compelling data visualizations and information graphics around the election (the NYT graphics department tweets their work here) that illuminated election issues with greater clarity.

Mark Newman of the University of Michigan provides a great example from the election cycle. The standard red-state / blue-state map, the “traditional” visualization of election data depicts a deeply divided country and stark correlations between geography and political persuasion.


However, adjusting the map to account for population sizes, a finer grain (counties rather than states), and a gradient to depict party lines, the story is more nuanced.


Like most buzzwords, “Big Data” is casually invoked in disparate situations, and the difference between what constitutes big and small data is fuzzy and probably not that relevant. But what is meaningful from a UX design perspective about this discussion is the correlation of data patterns with underlying human behavior – and the strategic value of the data in predicting future behavior. In 2013, expect to see a greater emphasis on the collection and analysis of data, big and small, as a way to improve user experience.


Now that the UX “seat at the table” has opened up, we’ll need to be prepared to discuss the developments and business impact of our discipline at a strategic level. Some major themes emerged in 2012, and we look forward to following and participating in the development of these themes into 2013 and beyond.


  1. This era definitely is the best ever for UX. There are much more importance being given to the practice and, teams are giving more respect to UXD. Though its yet to reach the pinnacle in an enterprise point of view, there are wonderful days ahead of us. Thanks for this enlightenment on an new year day morning! Happy new year!

  2. A well-written article. But this could have been written with various modifications each year over the past 10 years. And if I search, I’ll probably find examples. The sad fact remains, these are not issues of “2012,” but issues that have long plagued our industry. Look at the proceedings for the very first IA Summit in Boston back in April 2000. Same shit in different wireframes.

    It’s high time we stopped wasting time identifying these issues and instead start doing something about them. We can begin by eliminating the navel gazing and feeling sorry for ourselves, and move on to expressing empathy for our clients and their business needs. There is a difference between “teaching stuff” and “helping people learn.” Despite years of efforts on the part of the more vocal thought leaders, our industry is pretty hopeless when it comes to doing the latter.

  3. Eric, I’m not sure how closely you read this article, but it was a celebration of how we are successfully addressing these issues, not a complaint about them.

    Yes! UX in the C-Suite.
    Yes! Responsive design.
    Yes! UX as integral part of agile and lean!
    Yes, everything visualized!

    2012 may be the year we wave our “mission accomplished” banner.

    And like that infamous banner, we may find the work is only beginning.

  4. UX in the C-Suite is the big news. You can have an underground movement for a decade, but if the board room isn’t listening, well it’s like an unheard echo. Now that they’re listening, let’s make sure the message is clear and can be demonstrated.

    Great article!

  5. This was a great read, thank you. Makes me feel quite optimistic about a career in Experience Design. 🙂

  6. Great things to keep in mind for teams and UX leaders. I’d like to see us as a community develop more subtlety about the concepts of context and visualization.

    Context has far less to do with device, only somewhat to do with location, and far, far more to do with everything else that makes up the average complicated person. We UX folks consistently seem to try to boil it down to a few simple things that favor the ease of our decision making. Perhaps we can make progress on this in 2013.

    The visualization movement is much more about being able to accurately show and understand the meaning obscured in mountains of numbers and bad ways of showing them, so it’s not so much about clever means of helping people absorb significant data sets, but rather about enabling them to see what’s meaningful and useful for decision-making. The longer we put off holding ourselves to that distinction, the more we encourage infographic triviality over insight.

    Moving forward!

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