It should be easy to explain your profession, right? There’s lots of succinct phrases that describe the end-goal of UX Design (my current favorite is: “to create beautifully functional digital experiences that connect brands with their audiences”), but none capture the disciplines and processes used to achieve that goal. So here’s a very cursory introduction.
What is Design?
Before we talk about UX, let’s define design. Design isn’t art—it’s not about making something look pretty. While that’s often a part of it, websites and other digital experiences aren’t things to be admired from afar. They are participatory exchanges, artifacts with function used to accomplish one or more goals—and in this sense, they are tools.
Design is the art of tool-making.
Websites are complex.
So complex, in fact, it takes a team of people with diverse skill-sets to make one. Usually this team includes at least one member from each of the following industries (if not more): account/project managers, graphic designers, creative directors, content managers, copywriters and developers. Key client stakeholders are also an important part of this team.
Each of these roles approaches the project from a different perspective which shapes the way they define goals and success. For instance:
The designer wants to create a gorgeous, sleek and trendsetting portfolio piece.
The developer wants to create a technologically cutting-edge, lean and efficient, well-oiled machine.
The business owner wants to create a conversion tool that maximizes ROI while projecting the way they see their company to the world.
While each of these roles must consider the end user in order to be effective, that consideration is often secondary to their skill-set and the demands and goals of their role. Many consider it best to have someone whose primary job is to consider the user. It’s like Quidditch—you could have everyone looking out for the Snitch, or you could recruit a Seeker.
Meet the UX designer (fanfare).
UX is user advocacy.
A tool’s form is defined by it’s function. Hammers have hard, heavy heads because they must drive nails. But hammers also have long necks to increase the amount of force we can impart because of our limited strength, and handles because we have hands. Sometimes the form-defining function lies not in the task being accomplished, but in who and what is wielding the tool. Hammers would be very different if we had tentacles.
It’s the UX designer’s job to understand a project’s tool-wielders. This understanding is almost always a combination of a project-agnostic truths about humans in general, and project-specific insights regarding specific audience subsets.
General truths about humans.
There are some things that stay the same (for the most part) when it comes to the way we as humans interact with things. They fall into the following buckets:
Most of us use our hands and eyes (and occasionally ears) to interact with Web-capable devices. (Although there is a large population of folks who interact in different ways that must always be considered). And while websites are virtual entities, we access them through these physical devices—laptops, desktops, smartphones, even kiosks, televisions, projected displays. This seems pretty self-evident, but the different constraints of each influence design decisions in a big way. For instance, a mouse and keyboard are very different than a touchscreen. And the size and shape of smartphones dictate the way people hold them, which in turn makes certain areas of the screen easier to interact with than others.
Understanding the way our brain works is a prerequisite to shaping and optimizing things like attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, and thought processes. For instance, there is the common trap of trying to stick all important information at the top of a webpage (above “the fold”) because of the notion that people don’t scroll—because their attention spans are too short. Understanding why this is false can allow for better design (both in terms of aesthetics and efficacy).
We are creatures of habit and rely heavily on past conventions when navigating new territory. Understanding this reliance can help us piggyback on users’ past experiences to make a design more efficient, or can show us where and how to deviate from past convention in order to alter behavior. Users’ expectations are not just shaped by other digital experiences they have—physical experiences often have an equal or greater role in adding to our interactive vocabulary. Skeuomorphism as a design trend is derivative from this acknowledgement (for better or worse).
A user’s emotional state will influence their thought processes and behavior, and is a good measure of the potential effectiveness of things like conversion funnels or signup processes. The perception of ease or difficulty, delight or boredom, confidence or insecurity, and value or waste can be measured before, during, and after a user interacts with a website and should have a huge impact on both visual and technological decision-making.
Narrowing the set of “all humans” to “people already interested in my product or service plus people I want to be interested in my product or service” will allow for a more granular understanding of a project’s audience. UX designers will combine the aforementioned generic human truths with market research, stakeholder interviews, past analytics, and other data-gathering methods to create design-aiding tools known as personas.
Instead of trying to design for something as nebulous and gigantic as AUDIENCES (properly read in the voice of Oz), we can design for a few archetypal individuals synthesized from research-gained insights, called personas. Each persona paints a broad picture of a specific audience’s goals, motivations, attitudes, situational constraints, and aversions. Anything and everything that can help predict the way they’ll think, feel, and do in any given scenario. This allows the UX designer to guide designers and engineers in creating frictionless, enjoyable experiences for that audience.
The UX designer must also be able to take these wonderful findings and transform them into actionable paths. In order to understand how personas should influence decisions regarding visual design, development, or business practices, the UX designer has to have concrete foundational knowledge in each of those fields.
“You really have to be a triple threat: businessperson, engineer, artist, with experience and empathy for all three domains, and must be able to express and communicate those User Needs to all 3 domains.”
—Treatise on User Experience Design: Part 1 by Erik Flowers
In addition to being an advocate for the end user, the a UX designer has a few other obligations:
UX as interdisciplinary advocacy.
A by-product of this three-pronged skillset is the opportunity to talk to practitioners of each discipline in their own language. This can make UX designers very effective at facilitating communication between different parties.
UX as goal alignment.
While this is listed last because it draws on the previous points, goal alignment is the UX designer’s initial objective. Defining the success parameters at the project’s outset, and reaching a consensus when designers, developers, and/or business stakeholders arrive at different solutions to the same problem.
UX is a process.
This is the most important thing to remember. It’s not just a step along the way. Instead, it’s a mindset that steers a project throughout its lifecycle. It’s the UX designer’s job to ensure all efforts during discovery, design, and development make progress towards the agreed definition of success.
A project isn’t finished once it launches. New insights can be gained through analytics and user testing post-launch, and the design can be modified to adapt to these findings.
Have any questions about UX? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.