What’s a UX Designer to you?

I expect the usual “What does a user experience designer do?” question when talking  with people outside of design & technology industries.

What’s scary is the vast discrepancies over the answer to that question  according to people within the most relevant industries to UX.

Part of the problem is simply the large spectrum of various specializations which all fall under UX design. OnwardSearch’s “A Guide to UX Careers” infographic helps examine some of these differences. (Although, I would add a “UI Developer” role to pinpoint UX developers who are more equipped with the technical skills to code foundations of front-end designs).

Part of OnwardSearch's infographic of "A Guide to UX Careers" segments some of the various roles that fall under UX/Interaction Design/Development.

Part of OnwardSearch’s infographic of “A Guide to UX Careers” segments some of the various roles that fall under UX/Interaction Design/Development. http://www.onwardsearch.com/UX-Career-Guide/

While OnwardSearch’s resource does a great job identifying differences between job titles, the titles still don’t quite align with job descriptions posted by HR managers or tasks requested by co-workers. This infographic conveys these roles as separate jobs which fall under the UX umbrella.

Instead, I see a spectrum of UX disciplines which range across four core anchor points:

Spectrum of UX Designer Roles

Of course, this a spectrum. So there are aspects of each point which may overlap or fall between others. And that’s part of what complicates the identity of a UX designer’s capabilities, responsibilities, purpose and title. I think it might help to start associating these titles not only with task-based skills, but goal-based verbs. We need to think about who is strategizing, who  is designing, who is producing, who is executing. (You might even classify the latter two disciplines as separate — Graphic Artists and Front-End Developers, for example. But these skills are often coupled under “UX Designer” today).

For example, a UX designer might be designing the functionality of an interface, and may play an influential part in the strategic, visual and technical decisions — but the responsibility to actually produce the visuals or to execute the product may or may not be part of that person’s job. This is where that gray area exists, and where we need to be more specific about identifying the core purpose of each UX role. After all, as Jakob Nielson and Don Norman define it:

“‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

UX Magazine highlights IBM’s balanced approach to fundamentally incorporating content strategy and its related roles in the UX design process.

Another major part of the problem pertains to UX designers in that first of four categories — the one which primrily revolves around the conceptualization, strategy and user-centered design. This problem, which I frequently face, is the misunderstanding of the UX design process. For this role, tasks should never begin with “make a wireframe that shows this” or “put this button here.” UX processes begin with the problem and the users — not with the solution. Instead, assignments should start with “familiarize yourself with this company’s product, audience and needs.”

Similarly, UX designers should not be called upon to immediately provide the “expert” decisions for flows, interfaces, visual designs and technical specs without understanding the context first. Whitney Hess wrote an excellent blog post about this subject matter, emphasizing the importance of intel over instinct and intent over matter. Yes, we are constantly researching and testing usability, and we are knowledgeable of the general best practices. But this usability knowledge can only be as valuable as understanding the context and goal to which it is applied. Good UX designers should be depended upon for their attention to details — but always in the frame of the big picture as a whole.

We need to stop expecting UX designers to always know the answer; we need to focus more on the UX designer’s ability to know how to find the answer and convey it through thoughtful solutions.

Please. Don’t ask a UX designer to blindly make decisions. You will devalue their role and miss out on their positive contributions.

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