MEX has entered its 10th year as an initiative and today sees the 15th edition of the event convened in London. User-centred design, however, teaches us to be wary of numbers without context – and rightly so. Why then do these otherwise arbitrary data points feel like significant milestones?
The early days were concerned in no small part with raising awareness. In 2005, the notion of digital products which prioritised user experience over technical advances was novel. Back then the MEX community held a minority view; today, this is the outlook of the successful majority. User-centred design principles are increasingly sought by everyone from venture capitalists gauging the competitive advantage of a prospective start-up to large corporations rapidly expanding their in-house design teams.
However, while the first years necessarily prioritised proving the value of user insight in guiding product strategy, MEX has always been focused on a harder, longer-term outcome: helping people do it better.
Increased awareness of user experience has raised the baseline of technology products across the board. It is astonishing how good even the cheapest products have become, relatively speaking. In the early days of the initiative, we held a MEX session asking whether we might one day build a phone for £25, and therefore connect those in the world’s poorest countries. It was accepted, of course, that it would be the most basic of devices, likely eschewing expensive luxuries like a screen, but it remained a tantalising possibility.
In less than 10 years, not only has the industry delivered capable, multi-function smartphones at this price, there is a thriving, competitive market providing choice for customers.
With this higher baseline comes a new set of challenges. To stand out from the crowd now requires not just an acceptance we can improve by understanding user needs, but an ongoing commitment to evolving the art of doing so. As connectivity and digital components become pervasive, this challenge of responding to user needs is multiplying in complexity. There is no industry, however traditional, untouched by these developments. As a result, user experience practitioners find themselves required to assimilate ever more diverse and complex behavioural patterns, all the while balancing the politics and traditions of the various industries they are helping to evolve.
Our 15th event reflects the scale of that challenge, and we’ll hear examples of mobile technology and user-centred design principles transforming everything from credit cards and maps to living rooms and car dashboards.
Perhaps the significance of 10 years and 15 events is acutely felt because it coincides with a watershed moment for those who form our MEX community. From the students who join us on the cusp of careers to the seasoned professionals who – by virtue of their affinity for user experience – now find themselves driving strategy across whole businesses, this community is making a more a meaningful contribution to users’ lives than we ever imagined possible in 2005.
If it feels like a big deal today, I also believe it is about to get a lot bigger. ‘Under the skin of user experience‘, the current focus of the MEX initiative, speaks both to our desire to provide the inside story for practitioners, but also the way in which technology itself is becoming more personal, pervasive and physically closer to our bodies.
This is the frontier we find ourselves at: the digital foundations dug, the structures built upon it and ready to be inhabited. However, as users start to walk through those doors and live in a world surrounded by digital architecture, those who call themselves its architects will find a new set of responsibilities that come with being one of the builders. Furthermore, this architecture should be ready for a constant state of evolution, as it is influenced, adapted and even subverted by the users it serves.
10 years on, the ingredients of success remain the same: deep, obsessive insight into what really drives user behaviour and an ability to connect that knowledge into better design decisions. It is the scale of outcomes which have changed more significantly than we imagined back in 2005: with near ubiquitous access to digital communications, greater reliance on these tools by individual users and a level of cross-industry influence which is accelerating.