Is user experience design the key to a more ethical future in software engineering?

“When you bring in user experience design methods, you bring in that human element,” says Elsevier UX Director Philipp Engel

By Ian Evans - February 25, 2020  5 mins
Philipp Engel at Elsevier
Philipp Engel (right), Elsevier’s Director of User Experience, talks with attendees of UXcamp Amsterdam, an “unconference” for user experience that Philipp co-organizes and which Elsevier sponsored for the second time this year. (Photo by Sabrina Couto)

When Philipp Engel started his undergraduate studies at Technical University of Ilmenau in Germany 20 years ago, software engineering had significant restraints. Whether it was storage or processing power, technology was never quite good enough to deliver what the designer had in mind, he recalled.

Now, with the rise in processing power and storage enabled by cloud computing, almost anything is possible. That comes with its own set of problems, said Philipp, now Director of User Experience (UX) at Elsevier, but he’s convinced that the answer lies in expanding the human-centered approach that user experience design embodies:

Nowadays, with enough time and the right planning, you can do pretty much anything. The question now is not ‘Can we build this?’ but ‘Should we build this?

Philipp said that’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough in technical environments because they’re normally driven by feasibility and a narrow business focus. “Facebook is a good example,” he said. “They had a narrow focus about what the tool is about: driving engagement with marketing content. But nobody anticipated what would happen if this engagement tool was used for political advertising – and what a disruptive effect that would have on society.”

In Philipp’s view, the nature of the role means that UX designers are well placed to address that question:

UX designers are confronted with a lot of ethical questions because they’re the ones simulating possible futures. They build prototypes and come up with solutions that they then test. Their job is about assessing the implications of changes and capabilities in software.

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While Philipp works on Elsevier’s portfolio for institutional customers, including the Research Intelligence systems Pure and SciVal, his role also involves working with the broader tech community in Amsterdam, including Amsterdam Data Science, with whom Elsevier partners on its Amsterdam TechHub, and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

“(Colleagues at) the university are looking for new ways to innovate education and recently started a spin-off called Digital Society School,” he said. “They’re educating master’s and bachelor’s students, but here, they act like an agency where they’re connecting the expertise their trainees and designers have with the societal needs of a company.”

Philipp is working with them now to see if they can facilitate training with our UX design team at Elsevier.

The key, he said, lies in collaboration – between disciplines and across cultural boundaries using design methods:

When you bring in user experience design methods, you bring in that human element, which is so essential. You’re no longer thinking, ‘Is it possible to build this?’ You start reframing the problem in a better way, looking at what each decision means for the people.

UX: designing from the outside in

Philipp Engel, UX Director at Elsevier, on stage at UXcamp Amsterdam 2019. (Photo by Scott Neilson)

While most people understand the concept of UX design, the process may remain a mystery. So Philipp explained how he and his team work:

“Using design methods and adopting a design thinking mindset essentially means to start looking and working outside-in,” he began:

‘Outside’ in our case refers to customer communities and users, their ambitions and challenges, and how they work in day-to-day life. UX researchers uncover this by deploying a wide variety of user research methods (e.g., ethnographic research). That helps to develop or deepen the understanding of the problems that can be solved by technological products, something designers call the ‘problem space.’

‘Inside’ describes product teams made up of technologists (e.g., software engineers and data scientists) who are fully focused on new technologies and building large scale applications. They are home in the ‘solution space.’

Design as a discipline bridges and connects these different perspectives, starting from the outside with the problems space, and building the bridge into the inside of a technology organization – defining the solution space from a users perspective. There are tons of different design processes out there, but usually all design projects start with user research, followed by framing the insights and declaring hypothesis (for potential solutions).

Those hypotheses can be prototyped and tested in experiments, such as an interactive prototype for a new mobile app or a new feature on a large website which is shown only to a handful of users in an A/B test. Successful experiments will be worked out in more detail, moving from low- to high-fidelity designs and tested again with potential users. Potential solutions are tested with real users all the time in this process, and this is how new solutions can be assessed and validated according to all kind of criteria (including inclusivity, accessibility and ethical implications) before they are build and released to the world:

As you can imagine, this process involves a lot of different actors from all disciplines while building a product, so collaboration is key. When I studied ‘usability engineering’ at university, we were told that we are the ‘advocates of the users in the technical teams building the solutions.’ That’s still true today. So user experience design usually helps to moderate and facilitate the messy process along the question of ‘what should be build?” by representing the users perspective and validating assumptions using prototypes that simulate future states.

In that way, answering the question “Should we build this?” is a matter of the data science community and the UX community exploring problems together, Philipp said:

As technologists, we tackle some big problems – it’s one of the things that made me want to work for Elsevier. When you bring diverse groups together to work through a problem in different ways, with divergent ways of thinking and different potential solutions, you make sure that you solve the right problem in the right way.

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Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier six years ago from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

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