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Life as a UXer in Mid-Air Technology

The demand for UX talent is at an all-time high, driven by the dynamic world in which we live and those organisations that hold customer and business experiences at the heart of their approach. But how has it grown in the world of technology?

In this context, we caught up with Gareth Young, UX Designer at Ultraleap to give you a little more insight. If you are considering a career within the Creative/UX industry or are planning on adding an expert to your team – you can find some first-hand perception right here.

ADLIB: In a nutshell, what is a typical day like for you as a UX Designer? (…if there is such a thing)

Gareth: As a UX designer in the niche field of mid-air interaction, a standard day can sometimes feel quite different to what you might have in a typical mobile or desktop app-based company. But fundamentally it’s the same in terms of the process you go through.

A typical task for me is to create storyboards that break down the intricate details of each interaction a user will make whilst using an application. This is usually following a brief, a concept workshop, and a day of sketching ideas. I prefer to do research after ideation so not to be led down certain paths too soon. I will also prototype a design to be user tested if I can do it myself with available designer-friendly tools.

Other activities include:

  • Designing mid-air gestures and haptic effects.
  • Organising, carrying out, observing and documenting user tests.
  • Creating mid-air design guidelines for companies wanting to incorporate hand tracking and haptics into their product.
  • Performing UX reviews of existing mid-air gesture-based applications created by customers and providing recommendations.

ADLIB: From your perspective, how is mid-air interaction changing the world of UX?

Gareth: Mid-air interaction will bring a new wave of uncertainty around how to design the interface between humans and computers. Eventually, hand tracking functionality will become a standard feature in certain types of products and UX professionals are already having to adapt their existing skillset and design strategies to accommodate this increasingly popular input method.

Google and Facebook-owned Oculus have also recently introduced hand tracking to some of their devices and increasingly large user base. I expect that more UXers will have to break out of 2D design and embrace imprecise 3D interaction. The UX toolset will change to reflect this, and you might start to see more job specs asking for prototyping experience in tools such as Unity and Unreal Engine (scary!). UXers may also start to specialise in either 2D or 3D interaction.

ADLIB: What are some of the common challenges of user testing with mid-air haptic technologies?

Gareth: Mid-air haptics are invisible, and so you have no idea when the haptics are actually hitting the user’s hand. This sometimes means we have to repeatedly ask participants whether they “notice anything unusual” about the application if they don’t mention the haptics unprompted. If they say “no”, we don’t know whether that’s because; they don’t notice the haptics, they expected the haptics to be there and so didn’t draw attention to it, the prototype is buggy or whether they’ve failed to perform a mid-air gesture correctly.

Also, because the haptics require our own specialist hardware, we cannot perform user testing remotely and so all tests must be performed in person at our office or specific venues with our hardware set up.

ADLIB: You’ve been working in UX for more than 11 years. How have you seen your role evolve to where it is today?

Gareth: When I first started out, I was still in the realm of desktop web design. But it wasn’t long before the big “responsive vs mobile website” debate started and I was thrown into the world of designing for various screen sizes and devices. Then unsurprisingly, native mobile apps and cross-platform design became the focus. Right now I’m seeing more AR/VR related companies wanting UX as it becomes more mainstream.

Towards the start of my career, I was very much told what to do and how to do it. This was great because I was junior and needed guidance to make my skills applicable in the business world.

The more senior I became, the more I was left to just “get on with it” and eventually I was deciding what projects to work on based on the impact UX could have on the project and the company as a whole. I have become more commercially focused, and prioritise projects that will result in making more money for the business in the long term instead of working on something that will look nice in my portfolio.

ADLIB: What do you see as the top 3 skills it takes to become a UX Designer, particularly in the Tech sector?

Gareth: I think focusing on the tech sector for this question is great because it is certainly different from other industries where UX design is concerned.

Being adaptable. Often in the tech sector, you are working on something new that’s never existed before. This will require you to regularly step out of your comfort zone and fall back on the rock-solid design principles you learned on your design courses, because you won’t be able to rely on existing design guidelines for help. You may even find yourself writing your own guidelines for a new piece of technology.

Ability to improvise. Following on from being adaptable, again you might be working with a niche piece of technology that the UX tools you’ve used before aren’t cut out for. To prepare yourself for this situation, become really good at storyboarding because this way, you will always be able to specify exactly how a feature should work step-by-step regardless of the technology’s interface. And when it comes to prototyping, either use paper prototypes or hack something together with a versatile tool and use a “wizard of oz” approach to user testing (look it up).

Self-confidence. I know this might be more of a personality trait than a skill, but what I’m getting at is you must remember you are good at what you do, you do know what you’re talking about, and the work you do is very valuable. There may be occasions where you find yourself surrounded by colleagues that never been exposed to a user-centred design process before, and so won’t always understand the reasons behind your research and design methods.

ADLIB: And finally, what key piece of advice would you give someone to ensure that their skills/knowledge in UX remain top-notch?

Gareth: I love UX events, as it’s a great excuse to get out of the office or make a detour home so you can mix with like-minded people and learn how others tackle common UX problems. Also, if you do go to a UX event, make sure you talk to new people as well as listen to the talks, as that can be just as valuable for career development.

I’m also now a big fan of online UX courses that let you learn at your own pace. Never think you know it all. And if you do not have anyone senior to you UX-wise, it’s especially important to put in the effort to learn more as it really does help you become a better designer.

Thanks so much for sharing!