Why Your UX Designer Is (Probably) Unhappy

Last year, I marked about fifteen years in the game industry as a UI-designer-turned-UX-designer. And late in that same year, when I received an unexpected job offer from a company that didn’t make games, I decided to see what the User Experience Design grass was like in the non-gaming tech industry. Since then I’ve felt like a kind of border agent at the boundary of two lands: on one side I watch people — graphic design students, interaction designers, web designers and more — longingly gaze over the wall as they ask me what kind of official, legitimate stuff they need to get across the border and into the Land of Game UX. And on that other side I watch disillusioned game industry designers look back over the wall toward the world of web and app design and sigh as they ask, “so, what’s it like over there?”

People clamor to get into game UX design, and then they get depressed and annoyed, and they want out. And if you’re someone who believes that a good User Experience Designer is a valuable member of your game development team, you might be surprised to know that.

A Brief History of UX Design In Games

User experience design in the game industry is a relatively new discipline, showing up for the first time somewhere around 2010. iPods and iPhones were popular and the iPad was about to become Apple’s next big thing, and the company was leading the charge in making “user experience design” a household term.[1] User experience designers were working in larger and larger numbers in non-game development disciplines— most notably, in web design. And now the game industry was taking notice of this new trend.

Until that point, though, the closest thing the game industry had to a user experience designer was a user interface designer, which isn’t the same thing. And a company might not have even had that — for most of the history of game development, the design of a game’s UI was often done by a game designer sketching up some screens near the end of a project, and a junior artist and a junior programmer being tasked with getting them into the game and looking pretty.

The rough evolution of UI and UX roles in games.

When games began getting complicated enough — and gamers became pickier about how much frustration they were willing to accept from a game’s interface— game developers started employing people as UI artists or UI designers (which aren’t the same thing, but we’ll leave that for another article). UI artists or designers, regardless of which role they had on their business card, were often tasked with both the aesthetics of the UI and the architecture of the UI. And eventually, companies began adding the role of UX Designer to the roster. (I was fascinated by the evolution of these roles so much that I wrote an entire article about it.)

Today, the role of the User Experience Designer varies from game developer to game developer, but there’s a common theme: most UX designers get hired by game companies and are put into the role of a UI designer, and frequently they’re often squeezed into the even smaller box of UI Artist. Most game companies with postings advertising a UX designer don’t have an adequate understanding of what a UX designer is and how it’s different from a UI designer or a UI artist. (I was once asked if I was interested in interviewing for a “UX Artist” position, which is even more confusing, and very telling of how little the company understood user experience design and who they needed to hire.)

This lack of understanding can result in a few things:

  • friction between the UX designer and the game designer over the boundaries, expectations, and overlap of their roles
  • paying for a potentially expensive UX designer when what you really wanted or needed was a UI artist
  • frustration for the UX designer who tries to do UX work, only to be pushed more into game system design or more into UI design

And the final result? Your potentially talented-yet-misutilized UX designer seeking work elsewhere.

Ways You May Be Hampering UX Design Work…and How To Fix It

The most important thing to understand when adding a UX designer to your team is how that role is going to fit with the lead game designer. Every project is different, but there’s a common thread I’ve seen in the relationship between the UX designer and the lead game designer or system designer: it’s rarely collaborative, and often combative.

Game designers often feel that they’re the drivers of the game’s user experience. And they are! And that’s why they should be collaborating with their user experience designer more often. If a project is Top Gun, a game designer is Maverick and the UX designer is Goose. Goose isn’t trying to be the pilot or steal Maverick’s thunder; they each have specialized skills that work together to accomplish the mission: shooting down hostile MiGs. No! Wait. Making a game with the best user experience possible.

To ensure that you and your UX designer are working as well as Maverick and Goose did[2], let’s look at some things that may be impeding good UX work from happening on your project, and what you can do about each of them, ensuring that a good UX designer doesn’t feel mistyped or underutilized.

Foster collaboration between game/system designers and UX designers

For the Maverick and Goose power combo to really shine, healthy collaboration needs to take place between the game or system designers and the UX designer. Good design — on anything — never happens in a vacuum, and UX design is no different. Too often, game systems are designed in a silo and hardened into unyielding designs before a UX designer ever gets to see them, making them unable to withstand any changes that must be made in order to make the user experience a good one.

How to fix it: For a UX designer to adequately help you both deliver the best user experience possible, involve the UX designer in all stages of a system’s design and make it a collaborative effort, not silo’d. Early whiteboarding sessions with your UX designer, fleshing out the seeds of a game system collaboratively and cheaply, are often the best ways to sort out what the best match up will be between a game feature or system and the user experience of interacting with it.

Understand the relationship between system design and UX design

Since I’m targeting this mostly to lead game designers or system designers, it’s important that people in those roles understand something about UX design:

It is normal and expected for UX design feedback to uncomfortably encroach on your system design, and for the two of you to have to push back on each other sometimes to achieve compromise.

This friction is natural and expected, because what you’re both doing is mostly at cross purposes: as the game designer, you want to make an interesting, fun, and possibly challenging game, and that can come in the form of complexity. The UX designer, on the other hand, is trying to make a game that is approachable and easy to understand while still retaining what makes it engaging. Many game designers mistakenly see the criticism or proposals they receive from a UX designer as criticism about the validity of their game design and not as an attempt to help fit the pieces with user experience design in the larger puzzle of the project.

How to fix it: The roles of UX design and system design will have a little overlap, but that overlap should be considered an asset, not an encroachment on the system designer’s job. Collaborating early and often on a system design and getting it in front of the UX designer will often avert the predictable later disaster of being asked to change key aspects of your system that you’ve already fallen in love with but that aren’t going to make for a good user experience in the UI.

Understand the difference between UX design and UI design

By now, I’ve probably made my point that UX is not UI. If not, UX designer Erik Flowers has my back:

A handy chart created by Erik Flowers.

How to fix it: really learn the differences between user experience design, user interface design, and what a user interface artist does. They are three disciplines with plenty of overlap, but plenty of non-overlapping skills, and plenty of differences within that between game industry work and non-game industry work. The differences alone, and how they get used within the game industry and outside of it, are enough for a separate article.

Know when you need a UX designer…and when you don’t

Once you’ve increased your understanding of the different related disciplines that tend to fall under UX and UI design, you may find that you actually need a UI designer when you thought you needed a UX designer. Or you might find that you need a UI artist when you thought you needed a full designer. Or you might even find that you need none of these things, and that your UI and the game systems hooked into it are so simple on your project that it would have been a huge waste of money and time — yours and the UX designer’s — to hire a full User Experience Designer for your project.

How to fix it: if you’re making a complex RTS or a Free-2-Play city builder with social engagement, it’s a safe bet that a User Experience Designer is going to add value to your project; if you’re making something no more complicated than Flappy Bird…probably not.

Remember, though, that even if you don’t have or need a User Experience Designer on your team, user experience design will still occur. It’ll just be done by non-UX designers. You’ll need to carefully evaluate the UX design-shaped holes in the skill sets of your team members in order to determine if you really need to fill them or not.

Know What You’re Hiring

Because the separate disciplines of UI Artist, UI Designer, and UX Designer have become muddied in the game industry, the resumes and portfolios of potential candidates for any of these roles have similarly become muddied. A UI artist may call themselves a UI designer, and many UI designers have simply changed their title to UX designers or the combined UI/UX designer.

(Don’t worry; it’s confusing to those of us who are actually working in these disciplines, too.)

If you’re putting out calls for UX designers and you’re getting portfolios filled with UI art, you might need to evaluate the job description and deepen your understanding of what kind of work you should be seeing in the candidates who’ll be right for the job.

How to fix it: Once you follow the suggestion earlier about knowing the difference between UI and UX design, you can start looking for the right things in a candidate’s portfolio. If you’re looking for a UI artist, they should have a visually rich and engaging portfolio of UI art and possibly motion graphics. A UI designer should have plenty of wireframes and sketches that demonstrate thought process behind the creation of a screen. And a UX designer’s portfolio and resume should be filled with examples of low-fi prototyping, task flows, and collaborative whiteboarding or sketching.

Although it will be the most common thing you see, be wary of the combined title “UI/UX Designer” on an incoming resume. While most people doing UI and/or UX work in the game industry use this combined title even if they’re only mostly focused on one of the acronyms, the roles do have some non-overlapping skills — you’ll need to determine which acronym you actually need and if the candidate’s portfolio adequately demonstrates it. Most game industry UI/UX designers do indeed have to handle both roles in some capacity, but few will have done the full range of each job’s responsibilities.[3]

Don’t think of UX design as a “pass” on a system

Too many times I and other UX designers have heard this, in various forms on various projects: “Well, the system is kind of complex, but you can fix that in the UX pass...right?”

This is the fastest road to wasted work and a frustrated UX designer (not to mention a frustrated gamer, if it ships). Because, as covered earlier, collaboration is often not happening enough between a system designer and the UX designer, UX design is thought of as something that can come after the system has been fully designed. In most cases, this is not true.

A slide from my “What is Game UX?” talk (created with Paper on the iPad).

How to fix it: Understand that UX design is not a “pass” on something. It isn’t something that can be handled with a strictly waterfall process. And it definitely isn’t a bandage that can be applied to a system’s complexity to magically heal it. User experience design is done at all stages of a project’s development, but it’s most valuable before a system is fully-designed so that early ideas can be vetted in the UX design process.

“UX design process…?” I hear you ask.

Understand that UX design is an entire process

User experience design isn’t about deliverables; it’s about process. Many developers use the terms UI and UX interchangeably, but that’s an incorrect understanding of the terms — a user interface is a tangible thing, but the user experience is a holistic, intangible collection of things. To point to a UI screen and call it “the UX” is to point to the steering wheel of a car and say that it’s responsible for the entire way the car feels to drive.

How to fix it: Understand that UX design is an entire process…and let your UX designer actually use that process. UX design is made up of techniques and processes designed to create good user interfaces long before Photoshop is ever opened — task flows, sketching, wireframing, and low-fi prototyping are all ways that a UX designer can cheaply test out ideas, and then throw them away before the time of an expensive programmer is wasted. By collaborating early with your UX designer and participating in this process with them, you can work together to iterate cheaply on systems and the UX design for interacting with them and safely throw away bad ideas before any money or ego is invested too heavily into them.

Think Collaborative, Not Combative

In any kind of team-driven creation, you’ll inevitably argue, butt heads, and grudgingly compromise (or stubbornly dig in your heels). This is just as true for game design as it is for any other creative endeavor.

But you don’t have to drive your UX designer away and then worry how the UI is going to be any good. Deepen your understanding of how to use the vast resource that is a good UX designer and you’ll have a valuable team member to help make your user interfaces and user experience top notch.


  1. Donald Norman, author of the seminal UX design text The Design of Everyday Things, first coined the term when he worked at Apple as a User Experience Architect in the 1990s.
  2. …and to also ensure that your UX designer doesn’t share the same fate as Goose. Too soon?
  3. The combined title of “UI/UX designer” is an attempt to achieve the nirvana of the design world: the UX Unicorn. Most people don’t believe that this mythical beast exists, but some will claim that they are, in fact, UX unicorns who can do everything from wireframing to prototyping to scripting UI functionality to UI art, all at top skill. Since this is highly unlikely, candidates with the combined title of UI/UX designer should be screened carefully to determine which of their skill bars are highest, and if those skill bars match the skill set you’re actually hiring for.

Caryn Vainio is Principle UX Designer at Luminus Networks, where she’s working on solving meaty, complex design problems for software-defined networking administration. You can find more about her, her work on UX and UI design, and the alpacas she’s raising in her spare time at her site, carynvainio.com.