The Triangle's Top Technology Barrier: User Experience - 1

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The Triangle's Top Technology Barrier: User Experience - 1
Blake Callens is the Lead Engineer at SpotTrot, a fully customizable, plug-and-play solution that allows you to implement your mobile commerce strategy and start generating revenue quickly and easily.

I receive a large amount of emails from recruiters, which is not uncommon for developers. The emails, likely sent by automated systems, tend to focus on keywords found in my resume or Linkedin profile. For example, my inbox is inundated with this form subject line at least three times a week:

New position for [skillset keyword] job in [city] now open

Over the last few years, the most common skillset keywords triggered by my data were iOS, Android, or one of the several web languages. Lately, a new theme has appeared: user interface and user experience. These are keywords that have been featured in my resume and Linkedin profile for years, but have never made their way into the form emails until now.

The jobs that I'm being recruited for are all in California, though I moved to North Carolina almost a year ago. Every piece of public information, down to my Twitter profile has long been changed to reflect this. The recruiters' programs must be working off of the same, older information that was, and still is, triggering iOS and Android emails.

While I would like to believe this new slew of emails is due to an increase in my development skills and the natural progression of my career, it's more likely indicative of a massive sea change happening in the software development space.

This change towards valuing the front-end of an application as much, if not more, than the back-end is not limited to the new crop of single faceted, slickly designed social networks coming out of Silicon Valley. It will also not solely affect social network developers in the Triangle. Ultimately, the user experience revolution will change the area's technology ecosystem as a whole.

What is user experience and why is it so important?

If you are not a regular reader of Smashing Magazine or UX Magazine there is a good chance that the term user experience (UX, for short) is foreign to you. UX is the science of understanding how users interact with software to create interfaces that are easy to understand and pleasurable to use.

When the average adult now spends eight hours a day looking at a screen , it's no wonder why UX is becoming a skill in high demand.

It is also one of the hardest positions to fill in our area. A coworker and I were able to name six open UI/UX positions at small to medium sized Triangle software companies that we learned of by word of mouth alone. While that gives me comfort when it comes to job security, it downright frightens me as someone working to help local software startups.

With a dearth of experienced front-end design and development talent, the user interfaces of software products coming out of the Triangle are rarely as polished as their competition from other locales.

We have all seen people take to social media to complain when Facebook changes even the smallest elements of their site layout. With that in mind, imagine how a less-than-satisfactory user interface negatively impacts adoption of a new application or website without an established user base.

How many mobile applications have you deleted, within minutes of downloading them, simply because you did not like the way they 'feel?'

In the short term, this is a medium-sized problem for the big data companies that get most of the Triangle's economic development attention. UX isn't as much of a make-or-break issue in many enterprise applications, and those companies can afford to recruit from outside the area, anyway.

For small to medium sized companies - especially those with a B to C product - lack of UX talent can be as good as a death warrant.

What can we do to solve this problem?

1. Get academia and Human Resources out of the way.

While it is understandable that a city heavily tied to academics will value extensive formal education, someone with a Ph.D. in Human Computer Interaction rarely works for a mid-sized software company. Unfortunately, almost every job posting for UX architects, designers, and developers in the Triangle lists formal HCI education as a requirement.

Most of the people I have met who are winning awards for their user interfaces have either art school or non-traditional web development degrees, if any degree at all. Our best bet for short term growth in this area are the web design and development departments of our community colleges.

2. Make a strong investment in B to C, Web 2.0 software created in the Triangle.

Quickly name three established and three up-and-coming technology startups from Silicon Valley. Here is a friend's list:

Established: Google, Facebook, Apple
Up and coming: Uber, Dropbox, Nest

Chances are, like my friend, most of the companies you named are primarily known for a B to C product. Consumer software is not only prevalent in the minds of users, but also developers - after all, we are users too.

This is why, every May, there is a mass exodus of our area's graduating front-end design and development talent. For example, I know a native North Carolinian student who is being courted this summer by one of the six Silicon Valley companies previously listed. At the same time, he is interning for one of the Triangle's largest B to B, big-data companies.

If both companies were to make an offer, which one is more likely to come out on top?

Since moving to the Triangle, every technology-oriented, entrepreneurial event I've seen has focused on enterprise, academic, and big-data software. Those three verticals will be the backbone of our area for the foreseeable future - business software is still the backbone of Silicon Valley too.

I would, however, like to see those less marketable genres give a little way to events that are wholly focused on B to C software. This will not only help sell our tech scene to young talent, but to national media as well.