UX Designer, Jack of All Trades, Master of Some

User experience design is so more than what the market thinks it is.

Aaah, the User Experience (UX) designer. So hot right now.

Behind the trendy vocabulary, there is a a big misunderstanding between what the market have come to name a UX designer, and what user experience design really is. More often that not, the description for a UX designer job is indeed a User Interface (UI) designer position. It has been widely discussed in articles like this one, this one or this one,(along with many, many more). My own text has been inspired by this article.
Even those descriptions containing words like wireframing, user testing and persona creation; while these terms are part of the UX design skillset, it does not make one a UX designer. This is still relevant for a UI designer
Here’s why.

Both an Expert and a Jack of All Trades

While the debate between generalists vs. specialists goes on, a UI designer is at a crossroad between the two — and like in most cases, the answer to which one is better is : it depends. While a specialist is characterised by his unique type of deliverable, a generalist is able to deliver multiple types of outputs, though maybe with not as much depth as the specialist.

In this aspect, a UI designer is specialised in screen applications. His output is either a visual composition or a dynamic mockup (for exemple, in HTML). This is his speciality, his strength. No one is better than him at this.
This is made possible by his mastery of the relevant tools (Adobe’s Photoshop, Fireworks, Illustrator, Sketch, Paint, whichever floats your boat and fits in the process). We, as web professionals, understand that a static visual composition is not the ultimate goal, for many reasons. Clients and higher-ups, however, are still very much attached to seeing the final product in the first stages of a project, and this rather heavy work is supported only by the UI designer.

Workflow and tools are evolving in order to relieve some of the pain : design in the browser, new software like Macaw. And yet, even more dynamic mockups aren’t the answer.

The Deliverable Isn’t Everything.

The UI designer should be aware of his environment. He works as closely to the technical team as to the product team. This gives him insights on the users and technical flows, the scope and constraints of the project.
As underlined by J. Gothelf in his book Lean UX (and verified by my own experiences), the sooner you involve people from all teams involved in a project, the more streamlined the process will be, because conceptual and practical mistakes have a bigger chance to be noticed and rectified early.
This goes to show that the UI designer (along with everyone else involved in the project) must have a deep understanding of usability and accessibility principles.
That’s still not enough though, as he also needs to be familiar with other aspects of the process that are more closely tied to the product itself : branding, copywriting, marketing, product scope, technologies, etc.
Of course, this is, often the case. A lot of designers today, including myself, have incorporated some level of usability practices in their design process : wireframing, prototype testing (usually the leaner option), maybe even user interviews (which are wickedly hard to lead).

The UI designer is both a specialist in Interface design, and a generalist of User Experience (see this article for reference). That still does not make him a full-fledged UX designer.

Product Usability is Also a Full-Time Job.

So is accessibility, for that matter. Accessibility experts, usability experts, psychologists, sociologists, to name a few, can all be value to a project. Each can bring insights unexpected by people without their expertise.
While accessibility and usability have become a staple of interface design, sociology and behavioural psychology are often skipped, as they are seen as too theoretical and abstract in modern workflows. Decision holders don’t like a waste of time. This is a mistake, as it is not a waste of time at all.

Researchers are more often than not very happy to share their findings with people who show interest in their work. Their distinct point of vue has been forged by years of studying a specific phenomenon. They have a lot to bring to the table. The UI designer is not these people. He can learn from their findings, and even sometimes, work with them. But ultimately, he will not go deep enough to understand the root reasons, and will stop at big generals ideas and trends. And that’s fine.
Now why does he have to do this ? The reason is simple : money. In many cases (most of them in my experience, if not all), there simply is not enough time (money) to do include an in-depth usability study. So it befalls to the UI designer to take care of the usability aspect and “ux” it up. After all, that’s his job, right ?

The problem is that the market tries to fit two or three full-time jobs in one. Can’t blame them for trying, but this is a mistake.

A compromise is then necessary. Either one single individual can do all of these things, should he be given the time to do so, but with the tools and processes of his choosing: instead of endless back and forth between pixel-perfect static mockups, let the whole design process happen in browser (or in a browser-like environment). Another solution is to get more people to work on the project (money). What companies usually need when looking for a UX designer is a UI designer, T-shaped.

And yet, there is still something bugging me about User Experience Design. The term itself is a bit weird : user experience of a given product or service cannot be controlled, so how can it be designed ?
Furthermore, it is often associated with screen interfaces. What about offline user experience ? This is an inherent to UX design — even for interface design — and one that is not as widespread that I would have thought it to be.

User Experience Design Is a Holistic Approach.

Thankfully, Jesse James Garret answer these two question in his book the Elements of User Experience. It is not the experience that is designed. We design the product, which in turn shapes the experience. Also, interaction through screen is not the only way to experience something.

A Screen ? What Screen ?

Let’s look at the experience of eating at a typical fast food chain (any will do). They offer some of the most simple, streamlined experiences available :

  1. You enter the restaurant.
  2. You look at the menu while waiting in line.
  3. You (make up your mind at the counter and) order.
  4. You pick up your tray and sit down wherever you want or can.
  5. You eat.
  6. You dispose of the garbage and put the tray on top of it.
  7. You leave the place greasily full and self-disappointed. You swear never to come back again, knowing you are lying to yourself but you’ll do your best.

People who have entered a fast food restaurant have at least been through steps 1 to 6. Yet at each of these simple steps, something can go wrong.
Maybe there was not enough tables considering the crowd. Maybe the food was cold when you ate it. Maybe the person at the counter was unpleasant. Maybe you didn’t find the straw dispenser. Maybe the toilets were dirty. Or, maybe you were just having a bad day and it deprived you of this guilty pleasure.
The number of factors influencing someone’s perception of our product on a given day, nay, moment is astronomical. This prevents us from taking things for granted. Certainty is not attainable when talking about perceived experience. What can be designed and controlled are all the little things that make up the big one (the product), which in turn shapes the experience, to an extend.

Also, the only interactive screen involved in the one used to input your order (true, you may have been the one pushing the buttons). Yet you know that something was done to guide what you were experiencing the entire time.

Experience Is Perception.

Because I really like food, I will borrow from Pixar’s movie, Ratatouille, to illustrate my next point (if you haven’t seen it, give it a shot, it’s awesome). In the scene where Remi, the rat, observe the kitchen of a restaurant from a window on the roof, and describes each worker’s job and responsibilities, the movie does a great job explaining that EVERYONE is important. The receptionist, the waiter, the chef, the sous-chef, the saucier, etc. Even the lowest job of all, the garbage boy. Every member of the staff brings value to the overall experience. The overall experience is the only thing that matters.

If the food is good but the waiter obnoxious (as it “sometimes” happens in Paris), then the product failed to be perfect. While that’s not great, it’s not the end of all things. The experience, what the customer will perceive in this given situation is unpredictable. Maybe this person will leave a review on Yelp that looks like this :

“Not great but ok (3/5)
Rude waiter but ok food for a tourist location.
Kudos for the music not being too loud, my friends and I did not have to scream to communicate”

Or the review might look more like this :

I will never be coming back to this awful place ! The staff has no respect for customers. Expensive too. Avoid at all cost !”

It depends on this specific person set of values and sensibility, in this specific moment. As a matter of fact, the term should probably be pluralized : user experiences. To each user his own experiences. There can be as many if not more experiences as there is users, since while different users will have the same experience (good or bad), a single user may have a different experience the next time around.

User experience is a result, and often more than the sum of its parts.
What about the UX designer then ? What is his job if user experience is the sum by everyone else’s job plus the user perception ?

UX Design Is the Audit of Use

The UX designer is, ultimately, an auditor. He has a set of very specific tools that can be applied to any part of a product or service.
Working both with internal teams and the end users, his goal is to assess how the product can be improved in order to provide more satisfaction for its users and subsequently, bring in more money for the company.
He makes sure the product is consistent throughout and that each part is optimised for the end users, in order to minimize the variance in user experience quality (thanks @jgadapee for pointing this out).

The UX designer aims for consistency in user feedback.

The more well-defined and consistent the product is, the more users will know what to expect, and will adjust their expectations. No product is perfect, and that’s ok. Fast food chains leave much to be desired, but they are consistent. Therefore, their customers experiences are similar to one another. People who don’t want to eat fast food don’t go there. People who do, know what to expect. Thus, the variance is small, the experiences are similar, controlled. It is then possible to merge them into one single, representative experience. That’s when we can talk of User Experience Design.

Back to screens. This logic still holds when applied on online applications. Yes, the UX designer is certainly involved in information architecture, content strategy and interface design for interactive applications.
But he should also give a hand to customer service team to define how they should spin their answers, to the logistics team to think of how delivery time can be reduced, from the end user’s point of view : how to make it seem shorter to the user than it really is. Experience is perception.

And those seven homepage redesign mockups to deliver by Thursday are not his job. That is a job for the UI designer. I mean web designer. Visual designer?

If UX design is the audit of use, then UI design is the branding of use.

Whatever floats your boat. Just make sure all the people around the table share the same understanding of what you’re talking about.