What Does a UX Designer Actually Do?

Matthew Magain

I still remember the first time I came across the term “User Experience Designer”. It was years ago, embedded in the email signature of a friend of mine—someone whose job I never quite understood. So I asked him.

His answer fundamentally changed how I designed websites from that day forward. Not because of what he actually said (he mumbled something about usability and research) but because of the ongoing discussion that ensued. That discussion prompted me to dig deeper into the world of UX, re-evaluate my processes, and dramatically shape my career.

While many designers hear a description of the term “UX” and reply, “Oh, that’s what I’ve been doing all along—I just didn’t know it was called that”, I was different. Before learning the term “UX Designer” even existed, my design process was arrogant; my designs looked pretty but often missed the mark. Much later, when I chose to adopt the term as my own job title, I felt confident that I had grown measurably as a designer, and evolved my processes to the point where I was worthy of the title.

the throne of UX

Such is the power of a phrase. UX may be a buzzword, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for those of us who design for the web. The principles, philosophies and techniques of which UX design is comprised are well established, and the good news is this: anyone can learn them.

So what does a User Experience Designer actually do? Well, there’s no typical day, however there is a grab bag of techniques that many UX Designers rely on at various stages of a project. I’ve expanded on a few of those techniques here, using panels from a short comic that appears in Everyday UX, an ebook containing interviews with 10 prominent UX designers:


wireframes A wireframe—a rough guide for the layout of a website or app—is the deliverable most famously associated with being a UX Designer.

Once created by designers as a series of static images, these days tools like Balsamiq Mockups and Axure RP make it straightforward to evolve your wireframe into an interactive prototype without writing any code.

While many UX Designers make a point that they are more than just wireframe machines, it’s certainly true that many UX Designers start with wireframes: creating a basic site layout is something anyone can do, and the tools are easy to learn.

User Testing

user testingSitting users in front of your website or app and asking them to perform tasks you’ve planned for them while they think out loud is the fundamental premise of user testing.

How many test participants you involve, how closely your test participants match your actual users, and how many iterations of testing you run are all decisions shaped by budget and time constraints.

User testing is straightforward enough that anyone can—and should—experience running one. Being in the same room while someone struggles to use your product is a powerful trigger for creating empathy with users—a common trait.


personasA persona is a fictitious identity that reflects one of the user groups for whom you are designing.

Personas need to be informed by research to be useful. It can be tempting to put on your creative writing hat and invent details to make them believable or interesting. However, the goal should be to have your personas reflect patterns that you’ve identified in your users (or prospective users).

There’s no shortcut for identifying these patterns—they come from user research: conducting interviews, surveys, user testing, contextual inquiry and other activities.

Scenarios and Storyboards

storyboardsA scenario is a narrative describing “a day in the life of” one of your personas, including how your website or app fits into their lives. If you’re familiar with writing user stories in an agile environment, you’ll be comfortable writing scenarios—although the focus here is on regular usage, not edge cases.

Depending on the audience, a storyboard may be a more appropriate tool for capturing how, when, where and why someone might use your product.

Inspired by the filmmaking industry, a storyboard is a visual sequence of events used to capture a user’s interactions with a product.

It may be an extremely rough sketch—purely for crystallising your own ideas—or a more polished comic for engaging your audience more effectively.


This is just a sample of the hundreds of techniques that UX designers have available to them to ensure they get the right design—and the design right.

The trick to applying them is learning when to use which technique.

But that’s a topic for another day …

Free JavaScript: Novice to Ninja Sample

Get a free 32-page chapter of JavaScript: Novice to Ninja and receive updates on exclusive offers from SitePoint.

  • Sarah Bauer

    Great post. I’d say that in order to love your work as a UX designer, you’ve got to have a fair bit of fascination for human psychology, user context and the processes involved (the research) in developing conclusions about targeted end users. Sound good? Then go forth!
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

    • Matthew Magain

      Thanks Sarah. I agree, human behaviour is a complex and fascinating topic, and part of what keeps me continually interested.

  • Moeskido

    All due respect to the work you do every day, but every generation believes it invented graphic design, while instead coining new buzzwords to describe subcategories of graphic design.

    • Matthew Magain

      Maybe you know all there is to know, Moeskido, but personally I’m constantly learning new techniques and would never be so arrogant to suggest that everything there is to know about designing for the digital world has been covered before. The collection of techniques I’ve listed here may have been around for years, but the more I learn, the more I discover that there is to learn. If you think that designing for the web is just a subset of graphic design, then I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  • http://www.elisabethhubert.com/ Lis Hubert

    Great post Matthew! And thanks for the link :-).

    • Matthew Magain

      Cheers Lis!

  • Tihiy

    Nice post… though nothing new, the nth simular post on this theme.. Either UX designer for IBM and so on don’t want to share his secrets or there is nothing new under the moon)

    • Matthew Magain

      Thanks for your feedback Tihiy. Are there any specific topics you’d like to see covered in future posts? I take your cynicism about a designer’s “secrets” as a challenge that I’d like to meet. :)

  • Reem Sabry

    The process above is in order, although there is no order in the User Centered Design process. Above is the initial order and then you go back and forth to improve your design.
    For Example: The wire framing is in the ideation part where you brainstorm and sketch your ideas on a paper. Then you build a prototype. Then you conduct a research (usability testing). from the research (usability testing) results you go back and forth to enhance the initial idea of the design.

  • Carlos Mosqueda

    Short answer, yes you can get into the UX Design field. I am a UI/UX Designer who started out as a Front End developer. I also have a BA in Graphic Design so I know a little bit about most of the areas that revolve around UX Design and UI Design. I, personally, would rather have the credentials of front end development, so I can gauge the Level of Effort for the UX and the UI. Having these credentials also allow you to have a better insight on what can be done to improve upon the UX and what it might take to do so. Not only HTML/CSS for websites and hybrid apps but also for other fields like mobile application development and software development.

    Having a better understanding of most of the areas that is takes to build an app/website/software/etc. then the better understanding you will have for UI/UX.

    Too often are the UI, the UX and the actual development separated out in the processes and by different people. I know one person can not know it all, BUT the better understanding the developer has of the UX and UI side and the better understanding the UI and the UX people have from the development side, the better projects turn out.

  • Megan Shields

    Hi, I’m a freelance graphic designer and came across a lot of UX design roles while looking around for more freelance work. They stood out as tend to have a much higher salary than graphic design roles and am now considering to try to get into the UX design field. I have a BA in Graphic Design, but am considering applying for short courses (or an online course) in UX design – would you say it is necessary to do an extra course to get a job in UX design? I don’t have any knowledge of HTML/CSS, I have done basic wire framing and app design – created on Adobe CS programmes eg. photoshop, Illustrator, but have never used Axure for example. I know some people who have used books on HTML coding etc, and have taught themselves how to create websites, would this be sufficient?!

    Many thanks,