UX design is at a pivotal point in its development as an industry; never before have the contributions of designers been so highly valued, and you can see designers playing key roles in the development of every kind of product and service imaginable. But as the discipline of UX design has gained importance, so has the need for designers to come together to discuss and determine the best ways to solve the key problems facing the industry (and society in general). 

At Adobe MAX 2019, held in Los Angeles in early November, we gathered UX design leaders from across the globe. Beyond the talks they gave or attended, we invited them to XD Summit. There, they shared the biggest developments in UX design they’re experiencing first hand, and discussed how to overcome some of the bigger challenges they’re facing along the way. 

Adobe XD Senior Design Manager, Jessica Moon, kicks things off at Adobe MAX 2019's XD Summit.
Adobe XD Senior Design Manager Jessica Moon kicks things off at XD Summit 2019. Image by Evan Yamada.

“It’s about building bridges between the siloes, and how you do communication across teams in better ways. Aside from having the phone call or shooting an email, how do we actually see and share what we’re working on, so you can walk stakeholders through the decisions you’ve made. These are the big issues we’re talking about now, and it’s amazing to come together as a community of UX designers to figure out the best way forward,” said Ozzie Gundy, UX design manager at Penske.

From the best ways to collaborate, to designing beyond the screen, design systems, and more, here are some of the world’s UX design leaders biggest takeaways from MAX 2019.

The key to designing beyond the screen: embrace fluidity and put the user’s story first

UX designers are increasingly asked to think ‘beyond the screen.’ At Adobe MAX, the creation of 3D, voice, AR, and other immersive experiences are playing a bigger role than ever in the role of a designer. Figuring out the right platform for the job can be daunting. For Kevin Williams, design director at Accenture Interactive, the key to tackling this is to bring traditional UX approaches to these new platforms.

Kevin Williams, design director at Accenture Interactive, presenting to a crowd at XD Summit 2019.

Kevin Williams, design director at Accenture Interactive, at XD Summit 2019. Image by Evan Yamada.

“The key to delivering an immersive experience is embracing this notion of fluidity,” he said. “Some people may call it ‘seamless’ design, but it’s about letting the users exist in these environments. As designers in our craft, we want to make sure that the user automatically gets to where they need to go without being disrupted in our experiences. We need to carry that same paradigm beyond the screen.”

Right now, according to Williams, users are having many experiences “hurled” at them by those thinking about technology first and user story second. This is where designers play an increasingly crucial role. The designers of now and into the future need to start with the user’s story first; what is their context? Where are they and what do they want to achieve? Ignore the technology for a second, he said, and the drive to simply create an AR, VR, voice experience, and focus on creating human experiences that make use of these beyond-the-screen platforms when it makes the most sense. In many cases, this may present an opportunity to rematch experiences, and the user needs they fill, with platforms that are better suited for them.

Collaboration is key, so it’s time to start ‘opening up’ design and sharing our work and processes

Design tools, like Adobe XD, are becoming collaborative in ways they’ve never been before. This led to many hot topic conversations at MAX 2019 between designers on how they, themselves, can become more collaborative. Gone are the days when it was expected that design teams would be siloed, there to chime in and add value when other teams requested. Now design has a front row seat in decision making, and that means working well with everyone.

Kevin Williams, design director at Accenture Interactive, presenting to a crowd at XD Summit 2019.
HP’s Chad Martin at XD Summit 2019. Image by Evan Yamada.

“You have to be able to go from keeping your concepts a secret, to total transparency when it comes time to build something. You need to let everybody involved know everything about every point that’s going on, so there are no surprises and you can all get to the finish line,” said Chad Martin, principal designer at HP’s Advanced Strategy & Design division. “In the end, we’re all creators. We’re making something out of nothing, and we need to all come together on that. If that is not the best job in the world, I don’t know what is.” 

A brighter future for designer-developer collaboration

The best way to cultivate that openness in a healthy way, the kind that leads to other teams sending you their good ideas and flagging you when something isn’t right, is to build rapport, according to Elliot Beazley, lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This is especially true when it comes to relationships with developers.

“We speak different languages from design to engineering, so just remember that you can do more to strengthen that relationship. Just creating that camaraderie, sitting down with them, getting on their level, and not just viewing them as an ‘end result’ always results in better teams, better products, and happier clients,” he said, adding that some face-to-face time between designers and developers is a key part in establishing these relationships. It’s also important to prioritize communication as early as possible in the design process.

Attendees at Adobe MAX 2019's XD Summit discuss developments and challenges facing the UX industry.
XD Summit at Adobe MAX 2019 was a rare (and important) chance for UX leaders, from around the world, to come together and discuss the latest developments and challenges facing the industry.

“Developers and designers are sometimes depicted as these cats and dogs that are always fighting. A key way around this: document it all; document everything, share it, and bring everyone in as early as possible, especially your developers, as it’s only going to lead to a better job done in the end,” said Beazley.

The million-dollar design system question: do they help, or hinder creativity?

Design systems are now a key part of most successful design-driven companies’ workflows and processes. It’s undeniable that they can improve efficiency, eliminate tedium, and contribute to overall better, more consistent products. But at MAX 2019, many designers focused on another aspect of the conversation: do they really facilitate increased creativity?

“Yes, design systems can sometimes constrain creativity, but that’s not the point of them,” said Kevin Smith, visual design lead at Cisco. “The point of them is to steer design teams to be productive, so requirements like accessibility can be met quicker, delivery can be much quicker,” he said, adding that when implemented correctly so they achieve their goal, they can be forces of good for individual designers.

Kevin Smith, visual design lead at Cisco, presents at XD Summit 2019.
Kevin Smith, visual design lead at Cisco, presents at XD Summit 2019.

The key question many design leaders are trying to answer is how to create and implement design systems in the right way, so they have an overall positive benefit on the creativity of designers in the long run. “You need to first understand project specific processes unique to the organization; look at how your designers work through the design process or redesign system, and how everyone’s going to be able to work with established governance models,” said Michael Eppelheimer, group creative director at VMLY&R. 

“Your design system is also never done. You need to justify it and make it palatable. You’ve got to treat it like a project, it needs to be alive.” Eppelheimer also stressed how important it is to be able to track and show a return on investment for your design system. By starting with an audit to identify the issues you’re trying to solve (consistency of product, user experience quality, etc.), you’ll be able to continue to get buy-in for your ongoing design system project as you’re able to demonstrate ROI in fixing those issues.

Raising the bar for research in UX design

Doing extensive research is not always considered a key part of the UX process; at MAX 2019, several UX design leaders identified that there’s still a major challenge in understanding and communicating the return on investment for a full slate of UX research. In theory, design teams should understand their users and the problems they’re trying to solve for them, and that should be enough to create a successful product, right? Wrong, said Michele Ronson, founder of Ronson Consulting LLC. This inclination to avoid in depth, formal UX research is not wise, she said, and is slowly becoming a thing of the past thanks to the efforts of UX researchers seeking to elevate their field.

“It’s about the short-term versus long-term gain, my friends,” she told the room at XD Summit. “Research saves time on the back end for the shop. It saves money, and helps to ensure meaningful and relevant experiences by putting the user at the center of everything we’re doing. It increases all of our confidence in our ability to make informed decisions.”

Michele Ronson, UX researcher and head of Ronson Consulting LLC, presents at XD Summit 2019.
Michele Ronson, UX researcher and head of Ronson Consulting LLC, presents at XD Summit 2019.

So, how do you get design and business teams aligned with the need for UX researchers as key team members in the design process?

“First, show teams how it’s done…bring the user to life and help them understand the context of the user’s point of view. Number two, cite your research. Spending a lot of time citing other people’s research or your own research will help validate the point you’re trying to make,” she said.

“But the number one indicator of success in terms of whether your research will move from insights into action? How many stakeholders have been involved in the process. To find this out and get a good gauge early on simply ask, ‘Who’s interested in learning the answers to this topic or learning more about this topic?'” 

And if UX researchers and their advocates ever get challenged on the cost of upfront UX research again? Just remind them of the costs to fix the product if it breaks or fails to resonate with your users, she said.

Adobe Max 2019 attendees participate in a round-table discussion at XD Summit.
XD Summit at Adobe MAX 2019. Image by Evan Yamada.

The greater question of ethics in technology, and the designer’s role to uphold them

Some of the greatest questions facing designers today are among the hardest to answer; questions of ethics, responsibility, and the designer’s role in making sure digital products do good and never evil, are top of mind and hot conversation at events like Adobe MAX. Every year, the intensity and urgency of these conversations grow, and as we closed out XD Summit for this year, this topic took center stage.

Attendees at Adobe MAX 2019's XD Summit engaged in discussion.
XD Summit, 2019.

“It’s really up to us as UX designers to be the advocate for our customers, for our users, for the people that we are impacting. The approach, more and more, is through literally talking to them. But it’s important to not only talk to our users, but also to all the stakeholders involved; not just listening to them, but by taking action and advocating for them every step along the process. This is how you build a good culture with your team,” said Design Director Geremy Mumenthaler.

And that theme of ‘taking action,’ not being passive when your user and stakeholder advocacy, resonated with many design leaders at MAX this year. Now, the focus is shifting to creating ethical frameworks to make this happen.

Black coffee mug with UX Leader's Summit logo on it.

“We hear over and over that everybody within our organizations wants to make a difference, wants to make ethical change. Some of the ways that we identified to affect that is through creating an ethical framework. That way, when you see things that aren’t the right way, when you get that feeling, we have a process in place to address it.”

To learn more about the conference, head over to the Adobe MAX website. Interested in 3D and AR design, as well? Head over to the Adobe blog and check our article on the top 3D & AR takeaways from Adobe MAX 2019.