What Is UX Design?

Recently, I had the chance to ask three leading UX designers about their views on their field: what it is to be a UX designer, how they got into the field, and where they see it going.

The three UX designers I interviewed were Shane Morris (Automatic Studio), Daniel Szuc (Apogee HK and co-author of SitePoint’s Usability Kit) and Iain Barker (Meld Studios). Their responses provide insight to aspiring UX designers, and paint an interesting perspective for experienced practitioners.

Hi gents, and thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.

First of all, User Experience Designer is a relatively new job title and a little tricky to define. How would you describe the role of a UX designer, as opposed to, say, a usability consultant or interaction designer? What title do you give yourself and why?

[Daniel Szuc]: I think we get carried away at times with our own buzzwords. We all want to differentiate what we do, but every new term brings with it the responsibility of educating the marketplace. This is not to devalue the direction they give us, but I prefer to use a term that the marketplace understands. At present, it seems to be UX. Every marketplace is a little different in terms of receptiveness to terms; for example, usability, UX, CX, design, XD, and so on.

Currently, I lead with “usability consultant” but often wear a number of hats including facilitator, designer, strategist—depending on the job. For me, the core of what we do is this: how can we take teams on a journey to help them make or create better stuff that has some positive impact? How can we take teams on a journey to help them make or create better stuff that has some positive impact?

[Iain Barker]: I’ve used all three terms at different stages. When I called myself a usability consultant I was in a highly specialized role conducting usability tests, and then lobbing my grenades of usability goodness at client teams. I’d identify usability issues and make design recommendations, but lacked the responsibility of making or implementing the decisions.

When I refer to myself as an interaction/UX designer, I have a broader responsibility for the research and design of an interactive product or service, and actually making design decisions. I agree with Daniel that for the majority of clients, UXD is better understood than interaction design. On my LinkedIn profile I describe myself as a “user-centered design specialist,” but that might not be helping matters!

[Shane Morris]: I think the three terms reflect a maturing of the market, and what we as user-centered design specialists can offer our clients and employers.

Initially, we were all about usability; then it was about interaction. Nowadays we’re concerned with a broader relationship between a user or customer and the organizations they deal with, so we talk about user experience. So there’s a shift of emphasis.

I’ve always been wary of highfalutin titles, but I’m comfortable with calling myself a User Experience Architect because it best describes what I now do with my clients.

Thanks guys, very interesting perspectives. What do you think it takes to be a good user experience designer?

[DS]: I think it requires a number of people skills, like the ability to listen to all perspectives, watch for elements than can improve the design, and keep on learning generally. Then there are the more professionally recognized skills like communicating clearly, showing leadership, and being able to sell and market yourself and your ideas. And I’d add storytelling—the talent to tell compelling stories across everything we do.

[IB]: This is a big question. Some of the facets include having empathy for the end user, being able to collaborate and communicate with various stakeholders, and recognizing when to compromise on and when to fight for an idea. Importantly, you should see failure as part of the learning process that leads to a better solution; be prepared to share unfinished ideas or ask “stupid questions.”

[SM]: I concur with Daniel and Iain, but what’s interesting is that none of us focused on “hard” skills: running a usability test, facilitating collaborative design, or building a prototype. The most important skills are “soft,” with empathy the most important; perhaps it’s because hard skills are usually learned on the job, which certainly was my experience.

I conducted my first usability tests, and a lightbulb went on

It’s certainly interesting that you’ve all focused on what you’ve termed the softer skills. I imagine they’re the hardest to teach young students and, as Shane pointed out, are often learned on the job. So for aspiring UX designers out there, what advice do you have about entering the field?

[IB]: My advice for anyone starting out as a user experience designer are:

  • Choose an organization that actually involves users in their design process
  • Work in a nurturing environment that offers experience and mentoring
  • Don’t be hamstrung by the fear of failure
  • Read widely about the different perspectives on the UX process and techniques.

I studied a vocational information design course at university, and from there I spent a few years working as a technical author before given the job of designing the interfaces. For the first few years I got by on opinion-based design, which I found frustrating at times. Then, when I conducted my first usability tests, a lightbulb went on.

[SM]: Usability testing is a great way to start with user experience. It’s one of the more procedural techniques we use, and scales well from informal to formal; best of all, it’s a great environment to learn about human behavior.

For me, working in UX was a lucky accident. I’d studied computer science and cognitive science at university, but then discovered this area, and that I was qualified (by the standards of the time). I’m very lucky that the field has continued to evolve, and remain fresh and challenging to me.

Usability testing is a great way for a person to get started with user experience

[DS]: I started in development, and then learned about “human factors” while working at a telecommunications company in the early 90′s, leading to my interest in usability. From there I moved onto customer support systems, where I received good grounding in developing UI standards and training projects on embedding usability in products.

Thanks guys, that’s really interesting. You’ve been involved in the industry for quite some time, and seen it mature. Where do you see it going from here?

[DS]: Some advancements I’d like to see include a common language, standard and flexible tools, a better understanding of the leadership role UX plays in product strategy, and design being used to help business articulate strategy and plans. Basically, all the stuff we are good at, and more.

[IB]: I see a broader understanding and acceptance of the value we offer, with greater and more diverse opportunities, more demand than supply, and the recognition that we should influence business strategy.

[SM]: I think of it this way: once we were in the business of telling people their baby is ugly. Then we progressed to advising people how to make their babies more attractive. Nowadays I help companies work out what sort of baby they want, or whether they’d actually prefer an Xbox.

[DS]: The good news, as at 2010, is that there’s healthy interest from business about UX; now it’s our time to determine what role we want to play in the UX business discussion.

[IB]: It’s good to see organizations building strong internal UX competencies, and those teams given increased profile and recognition. Long may it continue.

By day James Mansfield designs the user experience for 99designs, and by night he plays dad and rants on about UX design at his blog. He loves cycling, food, beer, AFL and his eggs poached.

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