Despite the lack of formal User Experience (UX) degree programs, and the general confusion and disagreement about what areas of study such a degree would require, UX careers are very hot with employers from many industries looking for employees with a strong background in UX research or UX design.
But you’d be forgiven if you thought UX simply referred to building a customer-friendly web storefront. The principles of UX are applicable to the user experience in a wide variety of disciplines, including technology, industrial design, architecture and the aerospace industry.
Elizabeth Rodwell, assistant professor of digital media and information and logistics technology in the Technology Division at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, defines UX for her students each semester.
“It’s a process of designing systems or products that are useful, easy to be used, and delightful to interact with,” Rodwell said.
UX is not new. Since the 1960s, NASA has been doing similar work and considering the human factor in any technology creation.
“Anything we interact with can have UX principles applied to it to make it better,” Rodwell said.
As a UX researcher, she is especially interested in the human problems behind technology, as well as the intersection between UX and artificial intelligence. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “Push the Button: Interactive Television and Collaborative Journalism in Japan,” which explores the interaction between artificial intelligence and interactive TV.
UX researchers typically have a background in social science. Rodwell, whose husband is a UX designer, came to UX as an anthropologist with training in field work and interviewing. UX researchers spend time observing people work and interact with whatever is around them, and often provide designers with information to help create user interfaces – from wireframes to high-fidelity prototypes. Still, UX research and design extends beyond the digital realm.
“I default to talking about apps and websites, just because those are the things most people are going to work with,” she said, adding she rarely works with apps and websites.
Rodwell directs the UH User Experience Lab, which opened in 2021. It is open to students and faculty as well as local partnerships. Chevron and BP are two companies that have taken advantage of the lab’s technology.
“A lot of these wealthy Fortune 500 companies do not have UX labs. It’s not infrastructure that’s been deemed as necessary,” she said. “That makes the lab a hot commodity.”
A group of UH seniors are building a website to field the increasing number of inquiries from companies about the UX Lab.
The lab’s resources include a soundproofed control room with mixing console, which can operate pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) ceiling cameras and speakers in a separate observation room, six A/V screens, two computer monitors and a visualization wall with one flatscreen TV. One of the most useful tools in the lab for testing user experiences is a Tobii Pro Fusion eye tracker, a screen-based eye tracker that captures gaze data as the subject looks at a screen.
Recently, the UX Lab worked with professors from the UH Department of History and UH Libraries Digital Research Commons who were seeking to create better user experiences for their projects, including videos. The eye tracker revealed when people were engaged with the images they were seeing, and when their attention wandered.
“You can get rid of the things that people just aren’t focusing on, and highlight the things people are really interested in,” Rodwell said.
Test subjects may include Rodwell’s students, students’ family members, and other full-time professionals and educators, as well as people she meets at conferences.
“Everywhere I go, I have sign-up sheets,” Rodwell said.
Companies reaching out to Rodwell’s students with internship and employment opportunities include Schlumberger Limited, Chevron, BP, Umbrage Studios, NASA and Axiom Space. In early 2023, Adobe and Chevron hosted the first Creative Jam the Sugar Land campus. Rodwell’s students competed to develop a UX prototype to help consumers with lower carbon goals using UX research and design methods. The students gained a better understanding of Adobe Creative Cloud and learned more about potential careers at Chevron. They also had a lot of fun.
“The UX community in Houston has been very supportive,” Rodwell said of the event.
Rodwell's UH User Exerience Lab is housed at the Sugar Land instructional Site.