I blinked.

In my world-of-work – the domains of knowledge, process, and user experience – I somehow missed a profound change in user experience. Those familiar with my work know that I do not just design. I build things by getting under the covers and earnestly practicing the black arts of coding and engineering. So what did I miss? It was the connection between what have become visually and tactilely commonplace in the user experience, and what have become the core competencies and artifacts around making it happen. I imagine this gap analogous to having been a 1920s-1930s Art Deco master who, in 1965, looked at the tools and techniques of the trade, and realized that they were inappropriate for producing the Minimalist art of the new era. It is like having been immersed in Art Deco, living through the gradual change in aesthetics, embracing the change, but missing many of the dependencies and prerequisites that fostered the change. The techno-motivation for bold, metallic symmetries had all but disappeared, and so, too, had the materials and techniques of those aesthetics. Not only had the visuals changed, but the toolbox had been replaced.

There are several factors driving changes in the user experience. The most obvious are smart phones and tablets, and what their display constraints demand of usability in design. Related are shifts in social cognitive behaviors that manifest as minimalism in communication, and how small devices are obviating the personal computer.  Yet another layer is comprised of social cognitive behaviors of those who develop the user interface, which can be summed up in the term responsive – and the many things that it implies.

Responsive to what? Responsive to whom? – I hear you cry. On the one hand, it means that user interface code responds appropriately to the device on which it is being displayed, resizing and reconfiguring automatically so that the experience is usable without manually pinching, swiping and resizing. On the other hand, it means the tools and techniques are responsive to the needs of developers, completely separating content from structure, fostering minimal markup requirements for the optimal user experience, and providing a platform for minimal effort in managing change as the many platforms evolve. Yet another force includes the demands of business to respond to the market with split-second accuracy to grab an incrementally greater margin from rapid, agile changes in the user experience (UX) and the user interface (UI). Thus responsive means responsive to the device, responsive to the user, responsive to the developer, and responsive to the business. While there are overlaps in these four meanings of responsive, the term is clearly ambiguous.

Underlying the responsive revolution is the work of W3C in establishing standards for HTML5 and how best to isolate style (CSS), render functionality (Javascript), and, with agility, to stimulate change dynamically (jQuery). The artifacts of the coding black art now exclude the hacker, toss out the hammer and chisel, and track with earlier visions of structured programming and virtual publishing. But the overwhelming driver, it seems, is business.

Further evidence of this observation is the language of recruiting for so-called UI and UX professionals. Job descriptions are now replete with references to HTML5, CSS, Javascript, jQuery, A/B testing, W3C, portfolios, Photoshop, Omnigraffle, Axure, Visio, usability inspection methods, collaboration, cross-functional teams, agile methods, and the list go on. There is either a great deal of confusion between the domains of the architect and carpenter, or business is simply demanding now that one person creates the vision and strategy, conducts the surveys, does the analysis, designs, codes, tests, deploys, maintains, and, ultimately, meets business goals. My knee-jerk reaction is that it is wishful thinking to imagine that more than a few such individuals exist. On the other hand, it is a business imperative in process engineering that we dis-intermediate as much as possible. Demands have increased for cross-functional collaboration, but the lion’s share of facilitation and execution falls on the UI-UX professional. For this to be possible, the toolbox has become rich, efficient, capable, and, well, responsive to the business need. In this regard, usability has a new meaning: See, click, and buy – in 30 seconds or less.

What does all of this mean? Usability means business. Usability means performance. While responsiveness may be necessary, but not sufficient, for usability, there is a tacit assumption in business that responsive means usable.  But aside from this snazzy new term, things have really not changed (conceptually) with respect to business goals and the general methods of achieving them. Performance (human, business, organizational) requires an optimal environment that facilitates the flow of work (process), delivers just enough relevant information (knowledge), and reflects the preferences and behaviors of the people who do the work (the user experience). Yes, there is a new toolbox in town, but the principles of performance-centered design have not changed a bit. They are simply becoming better understood and more broadly applied.


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