A Facebook product design manager outlines the future of working in UX

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Chelsea Klukas sees a bright future for anyone pursuing a career in user experience design — maybe even brighter than her shirt.

Chelsea Klukas

When she spoke at the Flash In The Can (FITC) Toronto conference last week, for instance, Klukas was dressed in a top that was literally lit up with an electrical undercoating — just one of the garments she admits she likes putting on as the co-founder of wearable technology startup MakeFashion. That’s just one of her roles, however. By day, Klukas is a product design manager at Facebook, a job she took on after a stint at Amazon where she helped design the look and feel of the Echo Look.

Though aspiring UX designers may have a basic sense of what they’ll be doing after they graduate from the coding bootcamps, workshops and other programs they discover through CourseCompare, Klukas suggested the profession needs to broaden its horizons to consider a range of emerging areas that will require their expertise. In fact, keeping on top of where UX design will go next is a big part of being successful.

Here are the handful of fields where Klukas expects UX design skills will soon be in high demand:

Bot Design

Whether you’re trying to check in to a hotel or working with the next generation of messaging apps, chances are you’ve stumbled across those little pop-up helpers who deal with customer service issues, facilitate transactions or a range of other tasks. Chatbots with artificial intelligence programs in particular have become a standard part of sectors including hospitality, financial services and even retail.

“They’re gaining in popularity because they reduce the need for a live agent,” Klukas said. “However it can amplify the disappointment when the AI doesn’t work like a human.”

Chatbots can usually leverage natural language processing to understand commands to look something up or make a purchase, for instance, but Klukas said UX designers are now being brought in to create “chat avatars” that look and behave more like a real person. These avatars may need to be enthusiastic, energetic, youthful, affirming, direct or wise, depending on the use case.

“In 2009 Apple came out with, ‘there’s an app for that,’” Klukas said. “Soon it’ll be ‘there’s a bot for that.’ Why have so many apps on your phone when you can have a single bot for all those things you need done?”

Good UX design here won’t merely cover off how an avatar looks, she added, but will ensure there is a critical path that guides users through what she called an “ideal conversation” from being introduced to a brand, buying something, tracking an order and so on.

Voice Design

“Alexa, why can’t you understand me?” With stories of smart speakers laughing at consumers to others struggling to talk to Siri, Klukas said there is still a long way to go before voice-based technologies can completely comprehend the tones and colloquialisms of real people.

The best way to research such projects, according to Klukas? Just try calling the average customer service line and try to route yourself to the right expert.

“You’ll understand why this is a challenge for voice designers and what you don’t want to do,” she said.

One of the nuances in UX is the rise of a “machine learning designer,” Klukas said. This is someone who provides the missing link between computer capabilities and human intelligence. If you order a $300 mixer online, you don’t need other mixers recommended to you, for instance. Instead, you might want a system to recommend complementary products, like a bowl. That same intelligence — along with a better understanding of non-verbal cues a user might make — are making voice technology solutions meet human expectations, she said.

VR/AR Design

Have you tried wearing an Occulus Rift headset? Imagine what happens when it’s no longer just about fun and games.

Klukas says both virtual reality and augmented reality have untapped potential far beyond entertainment, including health and wellness, where kids can be distracted from getting a needle by entering a virtual world.

The UX design considerations here include recognizing “relative baseline capabilities,” Klukas said — in other words, not everyone in a target market might have access to the same hardware and software. Then there are the ergonomic considerations — there’s a big difference between wearing a VR headset in your own home versus walking around with one on the street and potentially getting struck by an oncoming car.

“We need to have empathy for how and when these applications will be used,” she said. This includes how ads might show up in VR and AR environments. “You need to think about the user affordances — they may be seeing deals, but if they don’t know to take out their phone or how to download something it’s not going to be effective. And in some cases, is it right to use it (for advertising)?”

Wearable Tech

Sure, you might learn how to bring UX design to a website or mobile app, but what about a T-shirt? In her work with MakeFashion, Klukas said she has learned a lot about the many ways the human body can input and/or receive information. Clothing can be rigged with everything from temperature sensors to pulse wave and brain wave sensors, but without the right approach it may become little more than high-tech window dressing.

“If you think about Google Glass, which I personally did not like . . . it was a limited interface. It was hard to figure out how to communicate information quickly,” she said.

There are even sub-segments in wearables such as “hearables,” Klukas said, which send notifications and inputs into the user’s ear. These fields will evolve and overlap but all will need strong UX thinking. “We need glanceable interfaces, designed for short moments of interaction,” she said.

Some of these areas might seem far away from what UX design students are learning today, but Klukas said the design careers of the future may arrive more quickly than expected.

“Look at mobile (UX) — it went from specialization to the norm,” she said.

Bots, VR/AR and voice technologies may be the “next norm” — or at least as normal as wearing a shirt that needs batteries.

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