SitePoint Podcast #78: UX Bullsh*t with Matt Magain and James Mansfield

By Kevin Yank

Episode 78 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week Kevin Yank (@sentience) chats with Matt Magain (@mattymcg) and James Mansfield (@jmans), User Experience Designers at SitePoint and 99designs, respectively. They discuss recent comments by ThinkVitamin founder Ryan Carson claiming that ‘UX Professional’ isn’t a real job.

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Interview Transcript

Kevin: September 10th, 2010. UX professionals respond to an attack on their job title. I’m Kevin Yank and this is the SitePoint Podcast #78: UX BS with Matt Magain and James Mansfield.

And welcome to another episode of the SitePoint Podcast. I’m Kevin Yank, as always, and for this interview show I wanted to get some voices around SitePoint HQ. We’ve been doing a lot of interview episodes lately with people outside the company, and I thought you know what, we’ve got a perfectly good room here at SitePoint HQ, and so I’ve cornered Matt Magain and James Mansfield to have a chat with us today about user experience design. Matt Magain works within the SitePoint team, he’s a UX designer these days, and James Mansfield does pretty much the same job over at 99designs. Hi guys, how’s it going?

Matt: Hi Kev.

James: Hi Kev, how you doing?

Kevin: So we’re here to talk about a blog post that was over at Think Vitamin by Ryan Carson, and he had a few choice words for UX designers and their chosen job title, but before we get to that I’d like to hear from you guys just exactly what it is you do, here it from the horse’s mouth; what is UX and what is a UX designer for you guys?

Matt: So for me UX design is an umbrella term; it encompasses a bunch of stuff that happens in the research and discovery and design phases of a project, and visual design is just one aspect of that, you know, there’s people that are specialized in information architecture, information design, copyrighting, interaction design, marketing, user research, editing and curation, these are just a sample of things that I believe come under the term ‘user experience’.

Kevin: Alright, and James?

James: Thanks Kevin, yeah, I’d agree with what Matt’s saying, I think user experience is a very broad term, I think that’s partly where I guess where Ryan’s coming from with the term, and it doesn’t really mean a lot to other people perhaps. And user experience for me encompasses things around user research, anything from understanding a user’s motivations or behavior through to visual design at the end of it, or graphic design at the end of it, and I think there’s a broad range of things in there, particularly I think for me user experience encompasses more of the research and user research things, going out into the field and understanding how people are interacting with pieces of software. So I’m talking about medical devices, things like that, not always web specific. So user experience is covering a broader range of things than just web and also a broader range of skills than what I consider are things closer to the coal face like the graphic design and the development of that into a working interface.

Kevin: Alright, so you guys clearly have a passion for UX design but you have chosen to apply that mostly if not exclusively to the Web. How does a UX designer working within web design, how does that intersect with the term web design for you guys? I know a lot of these terms are nebulous in our field, but is UX design within a web team a subset of the web design or is it a separate job, what is it to you guys?

James: To me web design is a subset of user experience; user experience is a broader aspect of it, I see user experience as like I was saying encompassing the research parts of it and the user testing parts of it, where web design for me is the activity of, or creating the actual what it is going to be, so it’s a facet of a broader design process. I think, I don’t know, web design, design is an activity, not really an outcome too, so I’m not really sure what I’m saying with that, but web is the medium and design is an activity.

Kevin: So we have web design, the thing you do, and you have web designers, the people who do it. Is a UX designer a type of web designer or is that too simplistic?

Matt: Well, the thing about user experience design is that there are a number of aspects to it and just one of them is visual design. I think when people think about web designers they automatically think about guys or girls that are in Photoshop creating beautiful user interface mockups, and then depending on how much of a generalist you are, possibly then going and marking them up with HTML and CSS and maybe even writing some JavaScript. I think about the end product, but user experience design takes a step back and looks at how we got to that step, like James said, the stuff like the research, creating wireframes and prototypes, all of these activities that happen before you open Photoshop come under the umbrella of user experience design in my opinion. And also user testing is a huge part of that, the usability of an app and validating a market, these are all areas that kind of rub shoulders with product marketing and market research, and they’re all valuable input that go into creating that end product.

James: Yep, I again agree completely with what Matt’s saying. I was at UX Australia which is a fantastic conference here in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, which SitePoint also sponsored and Matt was at as well, and that was a sellout event, we had 100 people there, so the field of UX is a pretty well known field, or certainly a pretty healthy field. And I think the thing for me is that if I asked, I feel if I asked the people that were at that conference whether they were a web designer I think a lot of them would be uncomfortable with calling themselves a web designer; most of the people at that conference for me were in the research phase. I think if you can have two areas within the term ‘user experience’ I think there’s the research part and then there’s the design part, and I think most of those people who were there at that conference would put themselves in the research category, and that research is researching before design as well as researching something that’s in existence, how does it work, how good is it, how usable is it.

Kevin: So a UX researcher, their business is getting inside the head of the users of whatever website or web application is going to be eventually built or is built and isn’t working for them.

James: Yeah, absolutely. And even broader than that looking at the context in which it’s going to be used, like if you think about machines in a medical, in a hospital or something, how are they going to be used in dim light, what noises, what alerts, those things that pop up, so research into I guess user experiences also encompasses some physical things as well, some physical environment aspects.

Kevin: So what brought us together today is this tweet by Ryan Carson, who runs thinkvitamin.com, he also is the man behind Carsonified which runs several web-related conferences. And he tweeted the other day that “‘UX Professional’ is a BS job title. It’s just a way to overcharge naïve clients, all web designers should be UX pros.” And he has a longer form sort of defense of his position there, but that’s — he’s been accused of link baiting, but I feel like he actually does seem to believe what he’s saying, and there’s no doubt that this is a controversial stance, but I guess maybe start off with your initial reaction when you see this.

Matt: My initial reaction is that Ryan’s obviously shooting from the hip; he’s writing something on Twitter, the timing was probably a bit unfortunate—

Kevin: Tell us about the timing.

Matt: Well, he tweeted while he was at the dConstruct Conference which the Clearleft guys run in Brighton in the UK, and Andy Budd and his team were trying to hire a UX designer at the time that Ryan tweeted this, so it was probably a bit of a kick in the ribs for the guys that are running the conference, and maybe that was intentional; maybe it wasn’t. I think Ryan definitely likes to be controversial and so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a form of link baiting.

Kevin: I mean we would, you know, pot calling the kettle black, we’ve been guilty now and then at SitePoint of picking the most sensational, most controversial wording of a particular blog post title now and then; obviously this is a standard tactic for attracting traffic to your site. And the title of his blog post is “‘UX Professional’ Isn’t a Real Job,” well I’m sitting next to two UX Professionals right now, so what do you guys do? It seems like is it a real job?

James: First I’d just like to go back, Kevin, and to back up what Matt’s saying, I think this is a clear link bait, I think he’s looking to create some controversy and some traffic and some discussion, but saying all that I think it’s healthy to have some of these discussions. I think the term ‘user experience’ is a fairly recent term in the industry and something that not a lot of people out there are comfortable using or not a lot of people outside of user experience understand what it means. I was at a father’s day function at a kindergarten this morning and when people ask me what I do I certainly find it easier to say I’m a web designer than I am to say I’m a user experience designer. So I think there’s something in that, in that if people don’t understand what a user— if the general market doesn’t understand what a user experience designer is or does then, yeah, the term web designer is something easier to describe.

Matt: I suppose the two main issues I have with Ryan’s stance on this is number one that I don’t agree with his definition of what user experience is.

Kevin: Right, he goes on to define what it is and it’s kind of a list of technologies; HTML, CSS, yada, yada.

Matt: Exactly. So Ryan I think believes that user experience is a subset of design and that includes some of the hands-on stuff. Like I mentioned before, James and I were at this UX Australia Conference a couple of weeks ago and there were people there who wouldn’t ever write any HTML or CSS or JavaScript, and yet they were specialists in their field of whether it be information architecture or user research or whatever, like is Ryan’s saying that these people don’t add any value? I mean that’s basically what his description says.

Kevin: Well, reading a quote from Ryan’s blog post, he says, “You cannot be a ‘UX Professional’”, quote/unquote, “if you are not an experienced web designer and involved in the day to day process of designing, building, testing, marketing, and updating a web project.” This is something similar that we talked about a couple months ago on the Podcast that people were arguing that every web designer if they want to call themselves a web designer need to at least have a passing familiarity with HTML and CSS and how you mechanically go about building a website. Is that necessary for a UX designer working in the Web, can we give him that?

James: No. I’ve worked with plenty of talented user experience designers, people that I respect a lot, and they don’t know how to create HTML and CSS. I think Ryan’s context is maybe quite small or his scope of what he’s talking about is quite small. He mentioned that he’s worked for three design agencies before, and I’ve worked in, for a similar period of time as Ryan, in small agencies as well as big organizations and big corporates, and worked for financial institutions. Now, those financial institutions have marketing teams; there’s specialist companies who specialize in user testing and user research, so I think to say that a web designer should be able to do all of those things is a bit shortsighted, yeah, I think it comes back to he’s link baiting and looking for something.

Matt: But also like you mention, James, you know user experience designers have skills that are portable to other mediums, so if there’s a user experience designer who is working on iPad apps or desktop software or Windows Phone 7 stuff, you know, they’re not necessarily writing HTML or CSS and it may not be relevant for them to do because they’re experts at creating wireframes or doing user testing or doing ethnographic research or whatever else they’ve specialized in.

James: I think one thing that’s common for me with user experience, or one thing that I associate strongly with the term user experience, is the actual interaction design. I think everybody who terms themselves a user experience designer will be doing the usability and interaction design specifically, they may not go on to do the visual design or the graphic design, and they may not go on to do the building, but I think interaction design is the key thing that I think user experience for me encompasses and is probably the one skill set that all user experience designers will have.

Kevin: I suspect there’s a lot of people listening to this who have never worked with someone who had UX in their job title, they’re used to working in small web teams where it’s a designer and a developer, and this is the sort of team that Ryan seems to be talking about a lot in his blog post. And I’m wondering, you know, I may be asking the wrong people but can a good website be built without someone whose job is specifically UX?

Matt: I think there are always talented individuals; Ryan mentioned Shaun Inman in his blog post as an example of a generalist who has amazing talent in both the fields of design and development, and by all accounts looking at some of Shaun’s work—I’m a fan—he has a good understanding of user experience, principles as well. But, I mean, you know if Ryan obviously believes that UX is important and believes that web designers should have that as a par for the course; if someone specializes in that area why shouldn’t that be reflected in their job title?

Kevin: So if someone is listening to this and they consider themselves a front-end designer, they know jQuery inside and out; if someone delivers to them a Photoshop mockup with a description of how this needs to change in response to the way the user is interacting with them, but they do not feel confident to make those kinds of decisions themselves, they’re all about making it happen, someone tell me what amazing incredible thing has to happen in this page and I will take care of making that happen. It sounds to me like Ryan is saying that person is not a professional web designer.

Matt: If there’s a person who is a jQuery specialist and there’s that much work for them that all they do is write jQuery code then I absolutely agree that they should call themselves a jQuery Specialist and not a web designer, not doing more general skills. I seem to get the sense that Ryan doesn’t believe in specialization, and if you take parallels, for example in the medical world, once upon a time there was only ever surgeons, there were never heart surgeons or brain surgeons or neurosurgeons. Is Ryan saying that surgeons should be able to do it all and they shouldn’t specialize? It may be a stretch for that parallel, but the field of user experience is maturing, web design the profession is maturing, and as a result specializations are evolving, and I’m not quite sure that calling them BS really achieves anything.

James: Yeah, absolutely, I think I agree that the field is maturing and I think people are specializing a lot more. I see the industry around designing interfaces and interactions and experiences as maturing a lot and fragmenting a lot as well; I think there’s certainly I’ve seen in the last few years a lot of people coming out and calling themselves front-end developers, they specialize in HTML and CSS. That’s a growing and emerging field and I think rightfully so as well; there’s lots of libraries out there, and there’s lots of techniques and methodologies to keep up with and keep on top of, and I certainly can’t keep on top of them. I’d like to, and I’d like to be able to, but I’m finding myself drawn into more user research things as I mature, so I think the market is definitely fragmenting and I think we need to accept that. I think the term user experience is a broad term to describe a series of skill sets that a person may have, but I think it’s important to know that the market’s fragmenting.

Kevin: I’d like to move beyond Ryan’s specific blog post because I do think a lot of people are disagreeing with him, but a lot of the conversation that comes out of it and the different things that people disagree with is the most valuable thing that’s going on here at the moment. But I think on the surface I think I agree with you, Matt, that he is arguing against specialization; he’s saying “At its core a website should be the product of a web designer and a developer, obviously on larger projects you will need to add various people because the workload would be much too much for just two people. However, these people are added for logistical reasons not strategic.” So yeah, it’s like everyone is a web designer or a web developer, and that itself is a specialization, you know, those two roles used to be one person at the birth of the Web. So yeah, some of the conversation that’s going on is several user experience blogs, one of them Cennydd Bowles; he seems to be talking about why is it that people are able to question the value of user experience design? Why are there people out there who cannot see the intrinsic value of this thing? Obviously you know you’ve got a finished product that had a user experience designer involved, you’ve got another finished product that didn’t have a user experience designer involved; if this is a valuable contribution the difference between those two products should be obvious. You should be able to point at it and say that we never would have had without a user experience designer. What is the source of the confusion here? Why can anyone even question the value that such a person can bring to a team?

Matt: So my opinion on that is that some people are rock stars and they can nail their design first time round, and sure they might be able to incorporate some user experience into it, or maybe they just kind of nail it first pop, but for the rest of us who don’t have that genius—and I’m happy to put my hand up as saying that my design skills come from iterating and evolving and testing and validating until I achieve something that I’ve proven works rather than just having a gut feel.

Kevin: I think the testing and validating is especially important because even if you are one of these gifted geniuses who can produce something that everyone stands back and agrees is a marvelous thing, how can you prove that it is a marvelous thing, that there isn’t a lot more room for it to be better without some discipline, some rigorous UX design practices?

James: There are certainly some rock stars out there who can create great user experiences in a very small team or within their own practice. Where I think the term user experience is more appropriate is when we’re talking about bigger organizations again or bigger markets of users. A good trait of a user experience designer is empathy, having empathy for the end user of that product, and the way you get that empathy is to have a constant dialogue with them and to test your product or to test that experience with them to understand what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what they’re not finding, what they are finding at a very basic level. So I think if we talk about a context of a bigger organization or a bank, a user experience designer helps bring to that organization empathy for the end user, and I think anyone who’s worked in one of those organizations knows that empathy is not a quality that many people have and a lot of people have quite strong ideas and strong concepts within those organizations who don’t necessarily see that they’re bad ideas or not thought through very well. So I think user experience designer for me is somebody who more brings together a team and shows them and communicates to them what the end user is thinking and feeling and how they’re reacting to something as well so they can go on to help design that end product, but I think they need to, yeah, that term user experience I see applying in a more broader organization sense than in a small team. I think in a small team you want a web designer who has that empathy, can do the design, and then build it for you; if you’ve got a small team that’s exactly what you need, but in a big organization, a lot more people to communicate with and a lot more people to get on board behind an idea to get it over the line you need somebody who can — you need a user experience designer to help build up that awareness of what the user’s reaction is going to be to help champion their cause.

Matt: And to be fair to Ryan he’s not suggesting that user experience design is not valuable, you know, he’s acknowledging that it’s important, in fact, he’s saying that everyone should be able to do it if you’re a web designer. But the point is that process, like getting better at it, there’s room for specialization and there are people that are specializing and there’s an entire conference dedicated to it that James and I attended. Is Ryan suggesting that UX Australia is a BS conference title?

Kevin: So, something that occurred to me, this is something that comes out of my personal life, in my spare time one of the things I do is I perform with an improv theatre company, and the thing about improv is the better you do it the more invisible it becomes. If you do a perfect job of improvising what you get at the end of the night is not an audience who’s impressed with your improv skills, you get an audience who doesn’t believe you were improvising; they think, oh, there were no mistakes in that, they did such a good job, clearly they weren’t making it up, it must’ve been scripted in advance. I’m wondering if this applies to a certain extent to UX that the better a job that you’ve done at the UX design of a given site the more natural it feels; what you see is the problems, the mistakes, and if there are no mistakes the job that you did becomes transparent.

James: Yeah, Jared Spool I think summed this up really nicely at a UX Conference in that, yeah, good design is unseen, you don’t talk about it and you don’t notice it, and I think Google Search is a good example of that, you don’t know what happened or how it worked or you don’t really talk about the interface, it’s not a very appealing interface; it works, you get results, the results that you want, relevant results quickly, and everybody raves about it so it’s a good experience. I think, yeah, definitely I think good user experience is certainly invisible. I want to digress a little bit to go back on Matt’s point about I think there’s something in what Ryan’s saying, I would’ve termed myself a web designer probably five years ago.

Kevin: And at parties you sometimes use that term still.

James: Yeah, I do, because again I think people understand it; it’s a lot clearer for people to understand. But I’ve been calling myself a user experience designer for a few years now and that’s because my interests have been more in conducting user sessions and doing user research and those things that are a bit more early on in the process. I’ve moved away from — I do code, I have coded, but I’m moving away from it, I struggle to keep up with the trends and the technologies and the right approaches, and my interests are more earlier on in that design process, so I’m terming myself a user experience designer. I do visual design as well, so I think that that term user experience fits with the skills that I’ve got, I think it fits for doing the graphic design as well as doing the research and the testing and contextual inquiries and things like that where you’re going out into the field and talking to users.

Kevin: Another issue I wanted to raise was if you have someone on a team whose job is the UX Professional, does that relieve everyone else from the responsibility of worrying about UX and can that be a problem itself? I’m again trying to think this is a point Ryan might be making by accident, but yeah, if you are the UX guy and no one else cares about the UX does that even work?

James: I think everybody should care about the user experience and everybody on a project should have an opinion on that. I think we’re all designers, everybody inherently can design and we all like to come up with solutions for problems, so I think a good user experience designer is somebody who listens to everybody on a project and is open to their ideas and feedback; I certainly work quite closely with two developers who I have a lot of respect for their opinion on user experience, and I’ve certainly started off with one idea that they’ve changed my mind on as well. A good user experience designer needs to be able to think, okay, this is the audience I’m targeting and the idea doesn’t have to come from them, but a good user experience designer needs to be able to pick ideas that they know will fit that audience and be objective and say, hey, it’s not my idea but that is a much better idea and feed that into the process. So a healthy team everybody should have a view on user experience and everybody should be voicing their views on that experience, but I think for me the user experience designer needs to be the person who’s making that call at the end of the day because they’re the ones that are on the coal face talking to the end users of the products ideally, and they’re the ones that have a deep understanding of what they’re looking for in that experience.

Matt: And they’re also the ones who understand the process, right, so they’re going to be the person in the team who is making sure that the user in ‘user experience’ is what is focused on and that the decisions are made based on what the user’s needs are and not a clash of opinions.

Kevin: I’d like to get into that a little more. We’ve got a little bit more time here, so I was wondering because at the start we talked about what UX was, what it achieves, could you talk about a bit in practicality some of the things that you do as a UX designer in a team here at SitePoint that other members of the team would not be doing; some of the practical processes and exercises and design steps that to be honest we never used to do here at SitePoint before we had people who had job titles like you guys.

James: I might talk about a project that I worked on before I came into 99designs specifically because I think it’s a good example of the skill set that I think a user experience designer should have. So, I was a government organization, their intranet, they knew it wasn’t functioning very well, and they didn’t really know why, so I was engaged to help do some user research for them to understand what did this diverse, what did the diverse range of people within that organization want to achieve from their intranet, what did they want to know, what were they turning there for. Also what things did they think was good and bad about it currently, so I went and interviewed and sat with a range of people from personal assistants to scientists to management and got an understanding of a range of different perspectives on what they would like it to be able to do, what it was doing well at the moment and what it wasn’t, so that gave the organization and myself as a designer a really good grounding to understand what are the key things that we should be designing and what we should be trying to achieve from any redesign project that we undertook. We then came up with some concepts and these were prototypes, rough wireframes, and again we sat down with users from that organization, again, people in different levels of the organization with different roles and tested out that interface on them with certain tasks, and that helped inform the design further and we made changes and tweaks to it from there and then we went on to do the visual design to communicate and we worked with their marketing department to make sure it communicated the brand and the brand values of that organization and then we proceeded to hand it over to a company to then develop it from there. So I think that gives a good overview of how I see a user experience designer’s role is to understand and start from the beginning before doing any wire framing and then getting into that from there.

Matt: From my perspective there are a couple of other tools that form part of that process that I think are invaluable; one of them is surveys. We’ve been surveying customers at SitePoint about our courses recently, and the data that we’ve gleaned from responses to those surveys— Obviously they need to be taken with a pinch of salt because only a certain type of person will respond to a survey, but certainly if you’re after some quantitative data then surveys are a great way to achieve that, and the other thing is using personas and scenarios; personas are user profiles that represent typical users in your customer base, and scenarios are tasks that these users might be undergoing on your site. And I think when James referred earlier to the user experience designer having the obligation of communicating user experience to the entire team, personas and scenarios are a great way to achieve that. Generally you give these personas a real photo, you might just pinch an image of someone from a stock image site, give them a back-story, make it a bit of fun, you know, give them a dog and a house and some personal problems, and people have empathy and identify with these user profiles, they come to know and love them like they’re real people, and then the task of user experience permeating throughout the team has begun because people even subconsciously if they’re making a development decision, if they’ve got Larry and Henry and Joseph and Elaine on their mind they might think, well, how does that affect Elaine, I know that she’s got this particular requirement so I make sure that I take that into account, and if that’s happening then your job as user experience designer is successful.

James: Yeah, absolutely. I think surveys are really important, and personas and scenarios are really important, Matt. One other thing I’d like to quickly add is just analytics as well, and traffic stats, we often as user experience designers delve into that to understand what’s going on, what are the general paths that users are taking through a website and where are they dropping off to help identify ways in which we can fine tune things. An example of that is on 99designs, we’ve learned from web traffic stats that a lot of people are going through to browse existing contests on that site before going on to commit to starting a contest, so we’re doing all we can to help bring the really active, engaged contests to the fore and make them easier for our users to find those and see what’s going on within those contests so they have a deeper and a faster understanding of what is involved in those projects, so yeah, I think analytics is also another really important research tool for a designer.

Matt: And just lastly, user testing is one thing that can’t be ignored. Certainly I’ve learned from James since he’s come on board the value between just recording a user testing session compared to making sure that stakeholders actually watch the session. Generally a big shout out to the Clearleft guys who write Silverback, that’s the guerilla user testing app that we use here at SitePoint. If you record a user testing session the chances of convincing your boss to actually watch that entire recording are pretty slim, so if you can find a way to have them actually monitor the session live while it’s happening that live element is appealing and you’ll find that people get hooked, and then your job of permeating user experience throughout the organization is achieved.

James: Yeah, I see it like a game of basketball or a game of football, I think watching a recording of a game that was played last weekend is highly unlikely and you get a much different experience than when you are watching the game live. So I think with user testing it’s really important to try and get the stakeholders there, get them to be more empathetic for their users is the key, get them to really know their users better and understand their users’ perspective because I think it’s very easy for that to get lost within any size organization and it’s important, really important, to go back and keep talking to their users. Jared Spool said one of the three key things about successful organizations who are focused on UCD [User Centered Design –KY] is the amount of time that organization spent looking and talking and observing the way users interact with their business, and I think that’s really, really important.

Kevin: And if you can’t get people to watch the session live then maybe you need a good highlights reel tool or something like that.

The one last issue I want to bring up, and it’s kind of a tricky one, it’s something that Andy Budd raised in his rebuttal blog post to Ryan Carson, I guess you could call it, and it’s the issue of people calling themselves UX designers when that’s not really, maybe they don’t have the qualifications or the focus that would be required; I guess people who really do have that focus are taking exception to that. The quote that stood out for me is Andy Budd says, “…there are increasing number of people out there who are calling themselves UX designers because they sketched out some wireframes and sat in on a couple of usability tests.” And realistically if you’re in a small team and you’re a designer who has raised your hand to be I’m going to do what I can for user experience, I’m the one who’s most passionate about it, maybe that is all the experience you have with UX design, and when someone comes up and asks you what you want on your business card that’s what you might pick. Is this a big problem for your discipline specifically guys?

James: Yes, I think it’s something that’s for all disciplines. I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there that call themselves web designers because they can cut and build a website. I’m sure an uncle’s brother would call himself a web designer, there’s plenty of people out there, that’s something that’s a problem for every industry. I think because it’s a relatively new term and a new field and an emerging field there’s not a lot of courses out there or degrees or qualifications you need to become before you can use the term ‘user experience designer’ so I think that adds to it; it’s an ambiguous term, I think that’s one thing that we can all agree on, it’s ambiguous for a lot of people. And, yeah, I think as it matures and progresses I think it will settle down; people will have a clearer understanding of what’s involved and what skills a user experience designer should have, and I think it will mature.

Matt: I’d just like to add to that, that yes, some people use UX as a buzzword and the fact is if you do a search on a job listing board for web designer the positions will list salaries that are lower than if you do a search for positions of UX designer. And perhaps one positive upshot of that is that if someone decides to call themselves a UX designer and realistically they haven’t had a lot of experience following any user experience processes eventually they’ll probably start doing some research on their own and finding out how they can validate that process, and maybe that’s how people move into the field; that’s the optimist in me anyway.

Kevin: So just because you like to call yourself that doesn’t mean you’re going to bag one of those jobs is what you’re saying.

Matt: Well, you’re going to have to demonstrate experience and talk about processes that you’ve followed, and if you can’t talk the talk then it’s going to be difficult to be able to walk the walk.

James: I certainly use the term user experience designer as a way to judge the maturity of the organization who’s advertising for a position. If they’re advertising for a web designer I don’t want to necessarily work with them when I don’t think they show maturity in what they’re looking for and their approaches into the way they value design, so I guess the flipside is, yeah, I actually look for and just look for jobs advertised for user experience designer because I think that organization wants to have a deeper understanding of their users and wants to use user centered processes in the way that they reach their designs. So, yeah, the flipside is that I actually specifically look for organizations advertising those positions and respect those organizations more than others.

Kevin: So let me put it to you listeners. I’m going to give the last word here to Ryan Carson, the man himself; after all he wrote a blog post that gave us a podcast so I think we owe it to him. This is the last word from his update, so after seeing all of the response that his blog post generated this was his considered reevaluation of his opinion. He says, “I still strongly believe that if the lead web designer on a project needs someone who specializes in UX because they don’t have a good understanding of solid UX principles then they shouldn’t call themselves a web designer. Web design and UX are not two separate disciplines and UX is not something you add to a project because you have a large budget.”

So, agree or disagree, please head over to sitepoint.com/podcast and comment on this post. Do you work with someone who has UX on their business card or do you do the best you can with the skills you have as a web designer? What do you call yourself and what do you think that means to people who read that on your business card? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and we’ll be reading, and hopefully James and Matt will chime in on the comments feed as well. So, thanks for listening!

Once again, Matt Magain is a user experience designer working at SitePoint in the SitePoint courses team at the moment. You can see plenty of his writings over at sitepoint.com/blogs where he has written many a post over the years. James Mansfield is a UX designer working in 99designs. You can visit 99designs at 99designs.com and post a contest if you need a logo or other design job done. You can follow me on Twitter @sentience and SitePoint @sitepointdotcom. Visit the SitePoint Podcast at sitepoint.com/podcast to subscribe and receive every show automatically.

The SitePoint podcast is produced by Karn Broad this week, and I’m Kevin Yank. Thanks for listening, bye.

Theme music by Mike Mella.

Thanks for listening! Feel free to let us know how we’re doing, or to continue the discussion, using the comments field below.

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  • http://wydajnykomputer.pl ChrisPL

    You kind of convinced me that your job is important and different from web design (by talking to end users and doing user research & testing).
    I am also sure that every web designer should have a good understanding of user experience. If they don’t, they will be making useless designs, just like they would make unrealistic designs if they didn’t know code to the point that not every font in Photoshop is going to work on the web etc.
    As for the Google Analytics stuff, it seems like user experience designers are stepping in the foots of usability experts.
    With that in mind, I find that if a web designer has a good understanding of user experience design, there’s not that much room for a user experience designer to make use of himself. Sure, he can do a user poll, but everyone can do this. I find almost no room for a UX designer if a team has already a good web designer and a usability expert.
    And if I had to choose, I’d choose to have a usability expert rather than a UX designer on my team, as the first one can also improve the income of an e-commerce site. If the site has good usability and good graphics, the user experience is guaranteed to be high. What’s there left for a UX designer to do in this mix?

  • http://www.magain.com/ Matthew Magain

    Hi Chris

    Thanks for chiming in. I think your comment illustrates the fact that the term UX Designer is not well understood. Like I said on the podcast, I think the term UX Designer is an umbrella term that includes roles such as usability expert, visual designer, information architect, interaction designer, user researcher and more. I think it’s wrong to draw such black and white lines when there is always so much overlap.

    Should we just call someone with this skillset a web designer instead? I don’t think so, because the skills required to do any of the more specific roles I just listed are equally applicable to other mediums—not just the web. Is it a term that describes any one particular role? That depends on how many aspects of the above the person dips their toes into. If they are very focussed on only one aspect of the process, then perhaps not. But to suggest that a UX designer isn’t required because you have a usability expert instead doesn’t make sense to me, especially if you consider a large project with a complex IA that might span thousands of pages.

    It’s a good discussion though, and I’m glad the term UX Design is entering the vernacular as I think it’s an important and emerging field, and the better understood it is, the more opportunities there are for people to explore and expand their careers, while striving for best practice along the way.

    • http://wydajnykomputer.pl ChrisPL

      Thanks for your reply, Matthew.

      I do get the overlap, I just question if it is necessary to have a UX designer on a team that already has a usability expert and a good graphic designer. And I’m not saying I know better. If I’m wrong, please explain this to me.

      My case study:
      – a usability expert ensures that the content is easily accessible, that everything works like imagined. The user is therefor happy with the content delivery method (so he can find everything quickly and nothing is counter intuitive etc.).
      – the graphic/web designer ensures that the layout is good, and therefor the user is happy with what he sees and how it interacts with him (like hovers etc.). The usability expert ensures that the graphics will not make the site unusable (like if they’re too heavy in size or the buttons are too small to click).

      In this situation, is there some other user experience beside easy content access & good graphics that the UX designer could improve on?
      And if not or if it’s a small thing, wouldn’t it be better for UX designers to be usability experts with the knowledge of that small thing?

      I’d be happy to see a specific example where a UX designer has his place and it is not covered by a web designer, nor usability expert or the combination of both.
      If I was to hire a UX designer one day in this situation, how would I benefit?

      • http://www.magain.com/ Matthew Magain

        Hi again Chris.

        Assuming the project is small enough, I would agree with you that there are many projects where a graphic designer and a usability expert would cover enough bases for the project to succeed. But as I explained, I don’t see the term UX Designer as a role that is necessarily separate from those roles. So the question is not “is there room for a third person here?” but “if someone excels at both of those tasks, or in fact performs other user-centred design tasks for iPads, or phones, or desktop software, what should they call themself?”

        So really the question is, “What is the generic term for someone who applies user-centred design techniques to the design process?” Ryan believes the term is “web designer.” I believe “UX designer” is better, for the reasons I explained in Kev’s interview—because there are many tasks that designers with skills in user research, usability, and other areas that are not visual design that are independent of the medium of the web.

        To brainstorm a bunch of hypothetical situations for when you might want to bring in someone in addition to the team you’ve described:

        • when the information architecture of the site turns out to be insanely complex
        • when there is a risk that the product does not meet the user’s needs (note this is different from being usable)
        • when the site audience has specific needs (e.g. a demographic with English as a second language, or an specific age group)
        • when the project demands expertise in any of the areas that UX design covers.

        To address the comment you made earlier that “anyone can do a user poll”, I’d suggest that it’s more accurate to say that anyone can learn to create a survey that asks the right questions in the right way and successfully captures the data you need … just like anyone can learn to perform user research or conduct a user interview or run a user testing session. In fact, anyone can learn to specialize in any of the fields that come under the umbrella term “UX designer.” But the more experience someone has at doing that stuff, the better they’ll be at it, regardless of what they call themself. And if they’re an expert at this stuff, based on their experience doing it, why is it wrong for them to assert that fact in their job title?

      • http://wydajnykomputer.pl ChrisPL

        Thanks for your reply, Matthew. It answers all my questions and clears things up. I agree that in larger projects a UX designer could well complement a web designer and usability expert. And I have nothing against this job title.


  • http://www.zerooneproductions.net jive

    I strongly agree with Ryan on this one. Every responsibility and job duty that Matthew and James described as to what entailed and UX Designer does, I and most of my Web Designer associates have been doing already for years. Because that is our jobs. Finding out what went wrong with a previous site design, what is needed, usability testing, wire framing , user researching, information architecture, interaction design are all but just common sense items that any “plain ol” web designer should be doing anyway. To call yourself “special” because you do these things, is almost a joke.

    And to call Ryan’s posts link baiting, seems like a red herring to me. It tries to dismiss his very valid point that it is a Web Designers job to be able to do all of these things anyway. And that it is a way to try to elevate himself above the view of a simple web designer, and therefore charge more. I think the below paragraph alone proves that:

    I certainly use the term user experience designer as a way to judge the maturity of the organization who’s advertising for a position. If they’re advertising for a web designer I don’t want to necessarily work with them when I don’t think they show maturity in what they’re looking for and their approaches into the way they value design, so I guess the flipside is, yeah, I actually look for and just look for jobs advertised for user experience designer because I think that organization wants to have a deeper understanding of their users and wants to use user centered processes in the way that they reach their designs. So, yeah, the flipside is that I actually specifically look for organizations advertising those positions and respect those organizations more than others.

    How narrow! Just because a company chooses to place “Web” (which is historic and familiar instead of the words “UX” (shiny yet ambiguous) Doesn’t mean they don’t have or want a “deeper understanding of their users and wants to use user centered process in the way that they reach their designs” To me and most of my colleges this is extremely important! My guess is that one searches the want ads for that specific title out of a sense of self importance and with dollar signs in their eyes.

    We live in a economical world, where job duties are multifaceted, and mastery of each of these duties are imperative to complete successful results. It doesn’t take “rockstars” to do this! That takes hard working, disciplined, craft loving individuals.

    So go ahead. Call yourself special. I’ll call myself a born and bred web designer, through and through, true and true. ;). And also do the job of a UX Designer better then self proclaimed UX Designer ever could. Cocky? Not really, most serious Web Designers that I know are the same way.

    Perhaps you should broaden your skill set a bit? There is only value in this.

    • powerpotatoe

      So then, are you arguing that there should be only one classification for the entire web industry; web designer? Is there, for example, no real distinction between layout/interface designer and design developer?

      This larger argument boils down to delegation of tasks.

      The delegation of jobs becomes necessary as projects grow in size and scope. I own a small web design/development business. I work on projects that can be completed by one person. Therefore, as the designer I also fill every other role required for the completion of the project. But if I took on larger projects, ones that require more hands, as the project manager I would delegate certain jobs to the various people. Some would design the interface and layout, some would develop or build the site, some would handle marketing and user testing, etc.

      Every single business in the larger design industry (graphic, print, film, web, etc) uses people with various skills and specialties. Depending on the needs of the project, people will be delegated a particular task (say, UX Designer for example). Why is it hard to understand that this is the basic argument?

      • http://wydajnykomputer.pl ChrisPL

        But if you delegate a person to do a task that is not in his job description, he can fail at it or refuse to do it.
        Like if you say to a web designer: “go make some user polls about this layout”, he can be like “and how the hell do I do that? I work in Photoshop, not with people on the field”. And I would completely understand his point.

        IMHO when a project grows in size and scope, you hire extra people to handle that, experts included.

      • http://www.zerooneproductions.net jive

        Yes. Because as a Web Designer, I should have mastery of all of those things. Would it really be to much to require one to be well studied and practiced in the various tasks that his job requires? Being a so called specialist almost seems lazy to me. It relieves the burden of having to learn the craft of web design and learn it well on all of it’s facets. Instead concentrating on a small bit, and falling back on it over and over again. (True laziness!).

        User research, information architecture, interface design, front end development… These are tasks, not roles. If a project is larger in scope, and requires more folk to complete those individual tasks, that doesn’t make them “specialists” they are just simply taking on a smaller bit of the project that the rest of their co-workers should be able to handle as well. Why? Because they are masters of their craft. Experts in all areas of their profession…

      • http://wydajnykomputer.pl ChrisPL

        I get your point, but it seems that user experience may not be the best direction for a web designer to educate in. Web design is so huge of an aspect that I’d rather like my employee to study how to make better graphics and cool effects.
        Maybe the right person to learn the UX things would be the usability expert?

    • http://www.magain.com/ Matthew Magain

      While I don’t necessarily share James’s sentiment that organizations who advertise for UX Designers might be better to work for than those who advertise for web designers, I do agree with him in that it is a possible indicator that the organization “gets” user-centred design and is more likely to embrace all the tasks that are part of that. You’re less likely to encounter resistance to performing iterative user testing in such an organization, for instance.

      Perhaps you should broaden your skill set a bit? There is only value in this.

      I think it’s naïve and arrogant to state that a generalist can do anything better than a specialist. Note I’m not suggesting that you possess either of these properties jive (I don’t know you—maybe you do, haha!) But I don’t agree with you that a generalist can ever perform a task better than a specialist. While there might be the occasional freakish individuals who are able to do all of those tasks that you listed, and do them at a very high level, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that one person can perform any of these tasks better than a specialist in any one of those fields.

      Note I’m not arguing for or against generalization or specialization. I think either are valid career paths. Nor am I suggesting that a generalist can’t perform outstanding work in any of those tasks. But let’s not pretend that someone who spends all their time focussing on a given field isn’t going to be better at it than a generalist in 99% of cases.

      • http://www.zerooneproductions.net jive

        Of course. I would agree with that. Anyone who does the same thing over and over again a thousand times over will likely be a bit better at a person that does it only a hundred. But the guy that has done it a hundred times is good enough. And he has additional skillsets to further aid the project making him more valuable. But focusing on just one thing over and over again seems somewhat wasteful and more then a bit of overkill in web projects. At some point and time, after doing something over and over again, one would reach what I call the mastery cap. The point at which the person has done it so many times that everything he or she does becomes second nature, routine and easy without challenge. How many times, really, does a generalist have to perform these very tasks to reach this mastery cap? 20? 30? 100? There comes a point and time when the mastery cap is reached and yes, the “Generalist” performs just as well as the “specialist”. The difference? The specialist stays still. Does what he’s comfortable with. To me this is complacence. While the “Generalist” moves on, and further enhances his skillset. He can still perform the task that he reached the mastery cap in, he’s done it so many times, it’s easy. But he’s also expanding and learning more. And then to place less value on these folks!

        I think it’s naïve and arrogant to state that a generalist can do anything better than a specialist.

        Neither naive or arrogant, as the tasks and qualities that you specified, that made up a UX designer, Web Designers have been doing well and successfully for a very long time already. So I guess the question is whether or not you can even call these folks specialist, if so many in the field of web design can and has been completing such tasks with common success. There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands or brilliantly usable web designs and websites that are very successful who have reached that success with the aid of a simple, humble web designer.

        Just because you call certain tasks, specialist tasks, doesn’t make it so.

    • jmansfield

      Nobody is calling themselves special here Jive. I think it’s great that you do similar things to what we described but choose to call yourself a web designer – that’s your choice.
      As with any job title it will mean different things to different people. In my experience those companies who advertise for a Web Designer want a graphic designer and front-end developer – someone who will come up with one design based on their experience and then turn it into code without doing any testing or research. They normally have a small customer base and are looking for the designer to turn things around fast. They are not looking for someone to go out into the field and conduct user research to understand their users or to sit down and user test their product. But that’s just my experience and maybe it’s different for you.
      The key reason I call myself a UX Designer is because I believe the other titles are too restrictive. Firstly the term “web” in Web Designer restricts me to one medium and I’m not comfortable with that. Secondly, and coming back to what I said above, I don’t think the rest of the world perceives the approaches and techniques I want to use to inform my design as being part of a “Web Designers” skill set.
      I like to conduct user research, delve into traffic stats, send out surveys to users, conduct user testing sessions, do interaction design, information architecture, visual design and some front-end coding. If the rest of the business world saw this as falling in the scope of a Web Designers role then I’d call myself a Web Designer – but that’s not what I’ve experienced.
      I see the title UX Designer (as Matt mentioned) as an umbrella title that describes someone who uses techniques and methodologies from a variety of more specialised professions to help reach a solution. For example I’m comfortable doing the Information Architecture for a website but I wouldn’t be comfortable coming up with the classification system for a phone directory like the Yellow Pages. Another example is that I haven’t studies cognitive sciences or psychology so I’m not totally comfortable calling myself a usability expert but I do conduct user testing sessions to inform my design work.
      My point is that I like to do a broad range of things to inform my design and the term web designer doesn’t encompass these properly for me. Also that I’m not an expert in usability or graphic design but I do a lot of the same things as those who have these job titles.

  • powerpotatoe

    From the discussion on this podcast and the replies thus far, it appears that a Usability Expert and a User Experience Designer are similar in terms of function. However, the titles of both positions offer a hint to the fundamental difference. A Usability Expert helps discover a product’s ease of use and overall effectiveness at doing what it was designed to do. Whereas, the UX Designer helps discover if the user is satisfied with how they are required to use the product and if they think it could be redesigned to be more effective and enjoyable.

    I agree that much of a user’s experience could be satisfied with a good design/development. However, even in my brief years of web design and development I have encountered many situations where “good design” is a relative term and where an audience prefers a “bad design” versus the latest “good design”. The design may adhere to top-of-the-line design standards and the product may work like imagined, but the audience may still ignore, or dislike, the product.

    The description offered by ChrisPL that “a usability expert ensures that the content is easily accessible, that everything works like imagined” does not include the important question, “Does the user want or enjoy the design or the overall product?”

    It seems that the Usability Expert primarily asks the question, “Can a user complete, with relative ease, the task for which the product is designed?” while the UX Designer asks the question, “Does the user enjoy using the product and, if not, how can the product be changed to make it more enjoyable?”

    Although these questions (and corresponding answers) may overlap, they are distinct.

    Do I understand the basic concept of these positions or am I still missing the point?

    • http://wydajnykomputer.pl ChrisPL

      Dear powerpotatoe :)

      I am far from stating that an UX designer equals an usability expert.
      But, if we combine the efforts of a good web designer & an usability expert, I see no room for the lack of satisfaction from users in this area. Sure, they can dislike the product, but if it has good graphics and is user-friendly and is easy to use, then I blame the core idea of the product or the developer who coded it (like if it’s working slowly).
      Am I missing out on something here?

      • powerpotatoe

        What I am trying to distinguish is the subtle difference between usability and user experience. I understand the former to primarily ask the question, “Does the product work as it is designed to work?” and the latter to ask, “Does the user enjoy or prefer the way the product is designed to work?”

        These questions and the corresponding answers will be similar if not overlapping. Therefore, a Usability Expert may complete the tasks of a UX Designer or vice versa. However, since the questions of mechanical/technical function and user/consumer satisfaction are distinguishable, depending upon the needs of the project an expert in each of these areas may be needed to ensure a successful product.

        Obviously, there is a fine line distinction here. However, no matter how fine the distinction may be, this does not eliminate the inherent difference in these job functions nor the possibility of separate but complementary tasks on the part of a Usability Expert and UX Designer. Since the distinction is so slight, it is very likely that the larger argument at hand is due to a simple misunderstanding. That is, some Usability Experts may do the same thing as some UX Designers. In this case, the job title is the only difference. Although, this does not mean that every Usability Expert (or good Web Designer for that matter) always does the same work as a UX Designer (or vice versa).

    • jmansfield

      From the discussion on this podcast and the replies thus far, it appears that a Usability Expert and a User Experience Designer are similar in terms of function.

      I agree with you powerpotatoe that UX Designers and Usability Experts serve very similar functions. Having worked for a usability consultancy for a couple of years I see the role of a usability consultant as being quite similar to a UX Designer, the difference for me though is in the perception of the role by others.
      Most people think of usability consultants as being focussed on identifying problems but not fixing them; testing existing products but not designing them and; making sure a user can complete a task but not identifying ways in which it can be improved. I don’t agree that this is the case but (from my experience) this is how other perceive the field of usability.
      This is why I prefer the title UX Designer, I don’t want to be perceived as someone who just tests and identifies problems, I want to be seen as a designer who uses usability practices to inform my design.

  • Kevin May

    I definitely think that the title, UX designer, is a real title. But like you guys mentioned in this podcast, it’s new, it’s not very known and there isn’t many degrees or qualifications you need to become a UX designer. I can kind of see where Ryan is coming from. I think that over time, with lots of experience, a good Web designer sort of takes on some of these skill sets that UX designers have. Is Ryan saying that people who go to school for web design and get a degree to become a web designer, aren’t really web designers yet? Analytics, surveys, ab testing, these are things I didn’t know at first, but have learned over the years either because clients asked for it or because I was curious about them. No, I wouldn’t call myself a UX designer, but I think it’s good for web designers to know some of the skill sets that UX designers have.

    In my opinion, yes Ryan, web designers should know some of these skill sets, but why not hire someone who is specialized in the thinking aspect of it, so that web designers can focus on their main skill which is design.

    I also think that in the Web field, a lot of job titles overlap so to speak. UX designers can do testing and design, web designers can do design and front-end coding, and web developers can do front-end and back-end coding. At least, that’s the way I see it.

  • http://www.magain.com/ Matthew Magain

    they can dislike the product, but if it has good graphics and is user-friendly and is easy to use, then I blame the core idea of the product

    Chris I think you answered your own question there. Blaming the person at the start of the chain isn’t going to result in a successful product. Having a focus on the user from the very beginning will help avoid this situation.

    • http://wydajnykomputer.pl ChrisPL

      In this situation that you quote I doubt if a UX designer could help. If it’s looking good and working fine and still has no success, it’s gotta be crappy by the idea, right?

      • jmansfield

        If it’s looking good and working fine and still has no success, it’s gotta be crappy by the idea, right?

        I’d agree with that, but I would add that a good designer should have tested the idea with users first to validate it was viable. Through collaborative design sessions, paper prototyping, focus groups etc you would get a strong sense of whether or not an idea is going to fly with users or not.

  • simonJae

    Just noticed all this in an OLD post… though better late than never.

    Its always been a gripe of mine that CODERS have highjacked the term API
    Give me a break… really and truly – INTERFACE!!!
    Get serious – you mean they look at each other in the eye, and give each little bit of code a gentle blink.
    UX… slight, compared to the laziness of this potential anaphor.

    UX is as valid as a “pommy” is, to an Englishman


  • jmansfield

    I created a diagram illustrating how I believe others perceive the various job titles and what tasks each completes – http://www.jamesmansfield.id.au/ux-is-bullshit-i-dont-think-so/

    I’m not saying this is an accurate representation of what actually occurs within each role either but just how I believe others perceive them.

    • powerpotatoe

      I like the diagram. It represents the basic distinctions of roles I have in mind.

    • http://wydajnykomputer.pl ChrisPL

      Well done, I can agree to it for the most part :)

    • http://www.magain.com/ Matthew Magain

      Thumbs up! :)

  • blindpete

    I think part of the problem is nomenclature can be scattered around loosely in software work.

    Take for example the registered trades. Various engineers must obtain license from their state to perform work and call themselves a Professional Engineer (PE). Without it they can work but can submit no designs for permit under their own name. So in that sense their job title Civil, Mechanical, Electrical etc ending in PE, really means something.

    In software, aside from various certifications you can call yourself anything as there is no real standards body that recognizes any specific title to have any specific statement of competency or even specific meaning.

    • jmansfield

      I agree blindpete. As the designing for IT industry and professions mature I’m sure we’ll see a move to more standardised teachings, qualifications and titles but we’re a way off from that yet. I’m also not sure it’s a good thing but that’s another discussion. :)

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