A Definition of User Experience Design

Over my long career I have had many job titles: web designer, webmaster, information architect, user interface designer, user interface developer, front-end developer and human factor engineer, to name the most common. I have also had a handful of less formal titles, including graphic designer, usability guy, UI guy and just plain old web guy. I’ve been referred to as an IT resource as much as a creative one. The funny thing is that for the most part, despite what others think I am, I’ve been doing the same essential work and relying on the same basic disciplines and practices my entire career.

On the one hand this mishmash of job titles should not matter to me. My career path has mostly been one of greater challenges, responsibility, authority, and compensation, along with a steady increase in my own expertise and knowledge. So why should I care if my colleagues wish to call me a lead web designer or a front-end developer? Does it really matter?

Yes, it does. A lot. This ever-evolving and increasingly ambiguous assortment of job titles implies that no one has a clear idea of what I do. And if they aren’t sure about that, then surely they can’t have a very good understanding of the full value that I bring to the table. Ultimately, this implies that my overall value as a professional — in terms of how much I should be compensated for my expertise and knowledge, as well as how that expertise and knowledge should be best utilized — is anyone’s guess. And that’s not good for anybody.

I don’t want my career to be a crap-shoot. I don’t want to have to spend a good portion of my professional energy struggling to convince people of my value and how to best use my services when it should be spent actually providing that value, instead. And if I’m doing that, then I can’t possibly provide the full value that I’m claiming I am worth. So, in the vain hope that there might be a way I can change this unfortunate reality, I have decided to do something about it.

What follows is my definition of User Experience Design as a profession. The definition is almost a manifesto, declaring what user experience design is, attempting to clarify and distinguish everything that I do, why I do it, and how I do it. My hope is that by providing this degree of clarity I can more easily demonstrate the tremendous value that can be realized by employing user experience design, help management better understand how to exploit that value, and help myself and my peers earn compensation commensurate with the value we can provide.

I’m not arrogant or brilliant enough to believe I’ve got everything “right” here. On the contrary, I’m sure there are some things that will touch a nerve or worse. However, after nearly two decades in this profession, whatever my job title, I believe I have a pretty good understanding of what user experience design is.

User Experience Design (UXD)

User experience design is a multi-disciplinary profession concerned with the design of product features and elements that contribute to a pleasurable and successful user experience.

User experience design incorporates aspects of psychology, anthropology, sociology, cognitive science, marketing, architecture, graphic design, animation, communication design, industrial design, human-computer interaction design, computer science, and other disciplines as required by the particular product being designed. In addition, certain aspects of application design, product design, content strategy, customer experience design, and digital strategy can also properly fall under the purview of user experience design.

Increasingly, while not technically design, code development as it relates to the user interface and its interactive elements is considered an essential user experience design discipline. Where this is the case, it is proper for the unique needs, perspectives and practices of user experience design and UI development in particular to inform the application architecture and software development methodologies to ensure the best possible experience for users.

User experience design effectively encompasses seven distinct areas: user research, information architecture, interaction design, visual design, UI development, usability analysis and user experience strategy. While each of these could be a full-time job of its own, it is far more often the case that a user experience designer is expected to wear most if not all of these hats.

User Research

The understanding of user behaviors, needs and motivations to inform the user experience. User researchers:

  • Gather information about users
  • Evaluate user information to identify distinct types of users
  • Identify intended user types
  • Create a detailed user profile for each type of user
  • Define the optimal user experience for the product

User researchers produce and/or use:

  • Contextual interviews
  • Individual interviews
  • Task analysis
  • Surveys
  • Personas
  • Empathy maps
  • Mental models
  • User stories
  • User experience definitions

Information Architecture (IA)

The art and science of making information valuable and easy to find for the user. Information architects:

  • Reduce information to improve clarity
  • Structure information to identify relationships
  • Label information to improve findability
  • Organize information to inform navigational schema
  • Define navigational schema

Information architects produce and/or use:

  • Content audits
  • Content models
  • Site maps
  • Card sorting
  • Click tests
  • A/B or multivariate tests
  • Surveys
  • Word clouds

Interaction Design (IxD)

The design of engaging interactive interfaces that are easily understood by the user. Interaction designers:

  • Define the visual flow of the product
  • Create the visual layout of the interface
  • Define interaction patterns and affordances
  • Define interaction behaviors using animation, transitions, and sound
  • Maintain consistency of interactive elements

Interaction designers produce and/or use:

  • Storyboards
  • Wireframes
  • Mockups
  • Prototypes
  • User journey
  • Heuristic evaluations

Visual Design

The design of aesthetically pleasing interfaces that elicit an intended emotion from the user. Visual designers:

  • Create the look-and-feel of the interface
  • Define the color scheme
  • Define typographic and iconographic elements
  • Maintain consistency of visual design language
  • Create and maintain the visual identity

Visual designers produce and/or use:

  • Mood boards
  • Style tiles
  • Mockups
  • Style guides
  • Color palettes
  • Icon libraries
  • Branding visuals

UI Development

The development of code necessary for a high-performing user interface. UI developers:

  • Develop the code for the interface layout
  • Develop the code for the interactive elements
  • Develop the code for the aesthetic style
  • Ensure the code meets product and design requirements
  • Provide guidance for code maintenance, enhancement, and reuse

UI developers produce and/or use:

  • Prototypes
  • Working products
  • Cross-browser tests
  • Multi-device tests
  • Performance tests
  • Code validation tests
  • Kitchen sink guides
  • Code documentation

Usability Analysis

The gathering and evaluation of usability metrics to drive user experience improvement. Usability analysts:

  • Gather metrics on the usability of the product interface
  • Perform tests to gather additional data on usability
  • Evaluate data to determine how to improve usability
  • Recommend specific actionable improvements

Usability analysts produce and/or use:

  • Web analytics
  • Heuristic evaluations
  • Eye-tracking tests
  • Heat mapping
  • Accessibility tests
  • A/B or multivariate tests
  • Surveys
  • Usability reports

User Experience Strategy

The art of effective user experience design leadership and guidance. User experience strategists:

  • Provide direction to the user experience practice
  • Provide guidance to product owners, management, and executives
  • Mentor user experience designers
  • Promote and implements user experience design thinking wherever beneficial
  • Ensure consistency and effectiveness of user experience design products and practices

User experience strategists produce and/or use:

  • User experience design principles
  • User experience design standards
  • Shared user experience design asset libraries
  • Enterprise experience journeys

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  1. I have intentionally chosen to avoid the commonly used term front-end development because of its traditional association with any code executed by the graphical rendering engine, i.e., the browser for web applications. Until recently, application business logic and data transformation was handled by code executed on the server on the so-called “back-end.” However, while this code properly remains the bailiwick of a dedicated application developer or programmer, the popularity of the MVC model and related scripting frameworks means that more of this code, and in some cases all of it, is now executed on the “front-end” along with the code, primarily HTML, CSS and JavaScript, responsible for rendering the UI. Hence the use of the term UI development is meant to clarify that the job of a user experience designer who writes code is only concerned with the code specifically responsible for rendering the user interface, even if that code may coexist with non UI-code in the same file.
  2. I have long viewed user research as a distinct discipline that concerns itself solely to discovering and understanding information about users. Defining the user experience did not belong to user research and instead belonged more appropriately to designers, right? However, the more I thought about this, the more I came to realize that designers should not be the ones deciding on the best user experience for the users, but merely on the best design to hopefully generate that experience. So, who should decide what the best user experience would be for the users? Well, I suppose it should be the folks who best understand the intended users, who know what the users want and need and expect, and who can imagine the experience that would be most pleasing to those users. It is important to understand that this does not mean that user researchers are designing anything. (In fact, many argue that an experience cannot be designed anyway, only designed for, despite the misnomer of user experience designer.) Rather, user researchers should be conceiving of the optimal experience for the users and then communicating that to the designers. This communication could be in the form of a story, an empathy map, or some other document that adequately conveys the kind of experience to design for.
  3. The growing recognition of the tremendous value of a great user experience, and therefore of user experience design as a profession, means that few businesses still have a single “web designer” responsible for everything detailed above, but instead have a number of user experience designers to handle the increasingly demanding workload. In some cases these professionals may have the same essential roles and responsibilities, with each assigned to a different product or products. Elsewhere, they may work in a more matrixed environment, with each contributing different skills based on the unique availability, expertise and preferences of each. Either way, as user experience designers multiply in organizations, the need for consistency, standardization, process improvement, and so on translates into a need for UX design leaders that can provide oversight, mentoring, and creative and technical support to the others. Management is also likely to prefer a single liaison for user experience design, someone who can see and participate in the bigger picture, so to speak. From Chief Experience Officer and VP of Design to User Experience Director and UX Team Lead, the titles, expectations, responsibilities and compensation can vary widely, depending on the needs and structure of the organization. Despite this, I have attempted to create a useful amalgam of all these possibilities under the general heading of User Experience Strategy. Your mileage may vary.