the Web

What is a User Experience Designer?

September 18, 2010

Another fascinating – and in parts infuriating – podcast from Sitepoint, who bring in two User Experience Designers to repsond to Ryan Carson’s tweet that “‘UX Professional’ is a bullshit job title. It’s just a way to over-charge naive clients. All web designers should be UX pros”.

They discuss the meaning of ‘user experience’, and of what makes a UX Designer. Is it web design? Is it research? Is it BS? The impression I got is that they thought they knew, but that they didn’t.

What is User Experience?

‘User experience’ is of course real. It’s the thing that happens when you (in web terms) go to a site, click on links and buttons, and carry out actions (download, purchase, read). It’s a thing which can be good or bad, and even if you can’t put your finger on it, you know which type you’ve had.

So, can there be such a thing as a User Experience Designer? And what is one? As I discussed in a recent post on Design with Intent (DwI), when you build something you influence how it is used. Even the most poorly thought out, ‘non-designed’ website has a user experience. The quality of this UX often depends on luck or the extent to which the (let’s call them) creator consciously puts in effort to make it ‘usable’.

So the line between the ‘UX Designer’ and the ‘Not-a-UX-Designer’ is already blurred, because you’re designing/creating a user experience anyway. The only variable is the quality.

The same goes for the pros – the graphic designer, the programmer and the HTML/CSS wizard. All these people (whether those jobs are done by one person or a dozen) are contributing to user experience. They are all designing the User Experience, with greater or lesser degrees of intent. So where does the User Experience Designer fit into this? This is where the podcast guests seemed to fall down.

UX Design appears to be research, interviews, marketing, wireframes, programming, SEO, interface design, information architecture… and so on. The problem is that UX is not a separate practice. As Carson implied in the accompanying blog post – ‘UX Professional’ isn’t a real job – if you’re applying ‘user experience’ principles to web design rather than baking it in from the start, then you’re not doing it right.

So you may get the impression that I don’t “believe in” UX Designers. But I’m certain that best practice, the theory and the discussions exist with good reason (including the conferences). But the only people who should be including User Experience in their job title are those in consulting roles. Perhaps a company has a dedicated one, but this person should constantly be influencing those around them. They shouldn’t be the only ones considering UX, nor should they be the only ones with that expertise.

Perhaps they are doing the initial research, the card sorting or the usability testing. Perhaps they are coming up with the layouts or the information architecture. But call those people by those titles.

So what is a UX Designer?

I still don’t know; it seems to cover so many things. But UX should be a subset of your specialty (e.g. Flash, layout, information architecture), not the specialty itself. For how can a UX Designer possibly know the ins and outs of all the other practices? An architect doesn’t need to know how to make a brick, but how can they design a building if they don’t know how tall a brick wall can go unsupported?

It’s often been asked whether a web designer (i.e. one who deals solely with graphics in photoshop) needs to know HTML and CSS. Of course they don’t have to, but their work is exponentially better if they understand the abilities and the contraints of the medium they work for. User Experience is a noun, not a verb. It’s a component of the other activities you do every day. If you’re a freelance consultant, then perhaps it’s the only thing you do, and therefore ‘Consultant’ is the right title.

But a designer is always working in a medium, and it is this that should be reflected on your business card. If you’re a web designer, you are a UX designer too. But to call yourself just a UX Designer leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

And wasn’t Norman’s classic of the genre simply called ‘The Design of Everyday Things‘?