Virtual Reality: the death of the UX designer?

Johan Verhaegen

UX Strategist

A new reality

“When will Virtual Reality become mainstream?” My answer is simple: now!

How else do you explain that in the first seven days after its release already more than 65 million people are playing Pokémon Go? That’s more than the total number of Twitter users in the US. Wow.

Now you could easily challenge that point of view. Pokémon Go isn’t real Virtual Reality (VR) because VR by definition transports you to another place, different from your physical location. True, but that’s beside the point.

Most people simply don’t make a distinction between Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR). Even the media labels Pokémon Go as AR, while it’s actually more MR. Confused? No need:

  • VR (virtual): transports you to another location entirely. Like the HTC Vive does.
  • AR (augmented): the real world overlaid with digital content. Like Google Glass did.
  • MR (mixed): virtual objects integrated into the natural world. Like Pokémon Go, indeed.

Batman: Arkman, PlayStation’s new game to be released this autumn? VR. Your car’s head-up display? AR. Microsoft Hololens? MR.

See? It’s not that hard.

Should you wish to dive in a bit deeper, this Wired article is well worth the read.

So ‘virtual reality’ is here today, and it’s here to stay. But what does this mean for UX designers like myself?


From Usability to User Experience to Experience Design

I have been working as a human-computer interaction consultant for the last 20 years. My career can easily be sliced in parts.

Part 1 - first 10 years: Usability designer

Most projects I have done in the first stage of my career were about reducing the friction between the user and the technology. Desktop applications, websites, web applications,… mostly  horrendous technology-driven undertakings where the user was an afterthought: “Oh yes, and it has to be user-friendly, too.” As long as your product met the requirements of the System Usability Scale you were good to go.

Part 2 - last 10 years: User Experience designer

The iPhone changed the rules of the game. In no time, a piece of technology with usability in its DNA flooded the world. Without usability, your device (or website, or software application,…) faced an immediate death. Users simply started dumping technology that wasn’t easy-to-use and raised the bar of expectations fundamentally.

The overall experience while using a product or service became the new normal. So suddenly, on top of being just usable your product also had to be engaging, delightful, emotionally appealing and in line with your company’s brand. Users demanded no less and became hooked to great user experience.

Part 3 - the next 10 years: Experience Designer

The most fascinating stuff lies in front of us. At Human Interface Group we are currently doing mainly user experience work for our clients. Most companies are still working very hard to get that user experience right. And we’re glad to help them out with great UX. But it won’t be enough in the years to come.

When you look at technologies that are skyrocketing right now like wearables, voice interfaces, conversation bots, virtual reality, robotics, artificial intelligence and the like, you clearly see that a lot of them aren’t used in the traditional sense anymore. They are experienced:

  • Fitbit’s SmartTrack automatically recognizes and records exercises for you, so you can keep track of your workouts without ever pushing a button.
  • Alexa tells you based on your calendar and current traffic that it’s time to hop in your car to your meeting.
  • Nest's self-learning thermostat saves you energy without you having to do a thing.

The balance is clearly tipping over to the experience side of User Experience. And Virtual Reality, boosting experience to a whole new level, will only accelerate this evolution.


The future for UX Designers

So, this is the trend: less User and more Experience. Designers of products and services need to shift their focus. We won’t stay UX designers forever, like we didn’t stay usability designers 10 years ago. What will we be called? Experience Designers perhaps? I don’t know yet, but what I do know is that the future for UX designers will become more fascinating than it has ever been.

But as a UX designer, how can you prepare yourself for this future? How do you make sure you stay relevant in the coming years?

First of all, sharpening your skills by subscribing to a VR/AI/Robotics/Machine Learning/… training certainly won’t harm. But that will not be enough. More than ever you need to deepen and broaden your designer’s core skills. And by core skills, I mean everything that goes beyond sketching, wireframing and graphic design.

These are the essential skills you need to survive the next decade as a UX designer:

  • Psychological insight in people: the increasing focus on experience requires human-to-human interaction skills like empathy, perception and social insight. I’m a strong believer of Omotenashi, a Japanese concept to express the ability to be attentive to the mood and needs of others, whether that person be a visiting guest, a business contact, a friend or any person experiencing your technology. A mindset like that is golden.
  • Communication skills: I can safely assume you already are a good communicator (you wouldn’t survive in the UX world otherwise). Be prepared to invest even more in talking to people, figuring out what they want, what they need and what they fear.
  • Both your improved psychological and communication skills will help to nurture your anticipatory design techniques, in which technology anticipates the user’s actions thanks to smarter algorithms, more efficient data processing and better hardware. Anticipatory design will be in the DNA of all future products.
  • Data analysis competencies: the times where you could base your designs only on user observations and interviews is far behind us. Data analytics and data-driven design are booming everywhere. Do yourself a favor and learn the basics.
  • Profound knowledge about human-computer-interaction: I really don’t understand designers who design mockups without having a profound knowledge of design theory or usability principles. If your primary focus is on mastering the next cool tool to create the next even cooler mockup you’re staggering towards a dead end.

Instead, absorb the splendid research of Susan Weinschenk, Donald Norman and many others before you draw a line on a piece of paper. Their work has helped me enormously in every single project I have done in the past 20 years. And I’m sure they will keep doing that in the exciting future in front of me, virtual or otherwise.

Would you agree? I’d love to hear your view on it.

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