Explaining UX to My Sister
What I said to someone who had no idea what “UX design” is
A few weeks ago, I was talking to my younger sister about careers.
Me: “…So that’s when I decided I’d like to focus on becoming a UX designer rather than staying in front-end development.”
Sister: “Well, what is UX?”
Me: *generic textbook definition of usability and user focused design*
Sister: “So… a web designer?”
Me: “Well, not exactly. I think what you mean is a UI designer. They definitely work hand-in-hand but focus on different aspects of the same story. Ya know?”
Sister: “But there are enough templates out there for me to make a website so what is the point?”
Considering I’ve recently only surrounded myself with people who know or understand UX, I was taken aback by this comment.
Posts, conversations, and comments from friends “in tech” and industry professionals made me foolishly think most people could innately understand the value and reason for working on the user experience. I sat on one end of the phone pausing to consider her words and to truly think about how my chosen career path is relevant and useful.
I will admit, I had some doubts over the past few months as I delved into each article, podcast, and tweet I could get my hands on in my continual quest to learn more about the ever growing field of user experience.
Are we all just ruffling our own feathers, when we say, “UX and usability are OBVIOUSLY necessary.” Just out of fear for losing jobs? Are these design systems, and designOps jobs we are creating just a hoax so that the PMs will keep us around and devs don’t take over our jobs?
Are ready-made templates really more useful than UX designers?
Short of going through a quarter life crisis, I decided to answer her as honestly as I could. I’d read all the books and articles I could find. I call myself a UX designer. I should know this!
In my most confident of voices, and in an attempt to convince my sister why my work was relevant, I explained the following:
1. So really, what is UX?
First, and to sooth my own wounds, it’s actually ok if you don’t recognize what UX, a.k.a. user experience, is.
If I have done my job correctly, you’ll never notice.
As soon as you are frustrated with something, that’s when I’m doing my job wrong or when a designer might need to be brought onto a team. My work should be invisible to you if it’s done right. User experience design is about making a product more satisfying to use by improving its accessibility and usability. What I mean by that (without using buzzwords) is that if I am working on, for example, a website, you should be able to enter it and easily understand how to use it without any pause or hesitation. It should be both natural to understand and satisfying in that it gets you what you want. There won’t be any blinking signs saying “UX used here!” because we are working behind the scenes to create an obviously enjoyable product.
There might be a small learning curve with some tools or applications, but I’ll also be the person who helps find a way to guide you through that process — with ease, and again, some level of enjoyment.
Doesn’t that sound great?
2. What is the reason for UX now?
As tech changes so will the way we interact with it. “What is the reason for UX?”, you ask. Well, as the industry expands so will the interfaces and design that are needed to accommodate for new products and the users that follow. UX designers must also adapt and change. New content is coming out all the time to meet the demands of the day. I am amazed at the creativity and ingenuity of technologists and designers that come up with new and bold innovations daily. I find myself inspired by the never-ending flow of new ideas, collaborations, and studies that come out weekly. It is an exciting time to be alive and in the industry.
But with great ideas come great challenges. Old sites and apps are still being used but falling behind the curve and quickly becoming nearly impossible to understand. You know what helps fix that? Bringing in designers to adjust designs based off research and feedback from users. If you need an example of how designs adapt, look at what the first iPhone layout looked like vs. now. Spoiler alert: UX designers were involved.
Not only do designers adjust old designs, they also create for the future. UX designers advocate for the users so that users can focus on the experience the app is supposed to provide. We make it clean and focused so you don’t have to worry what a button on your screen will do or how to parse through a mountain of content on a page. And while you can’t wait for the latest gadget to come out so you can play with it, we can’t wait to see how to enhance the experience you have with it by designing interactions that flow naturally and simply.
3. Can I replace what you do with templates?
Templates do have their uses and can be a great starting place for many individuals and businesses. But they have a defined limit. While many are beautiful, if you want to make sure that what you’re creating works for the user, it needs to be more than beautiful. In order to meet rising client demands and new user’s attention, a designer must push the boundaries of creativity past what a template can achieve. It needs to enhance the user experience to be pleasant, enjoyable, and easy to understand while keeping users engaged in your product. A template cannot always offer all the intricate micro-interactions and flows you have come to love. The process behind signing up to be an Airbnb host or the clean and uniform look brought to you on all you Google applications by their design system of Material Design, would not be possible without the help of some dedicated UX designers (and a great design team overall). Only using templates does not create these experiences.
Is each app offering the same thing? No. So each experience will be different. You might expect clicking on the website logo to bring you back to the homepage. You might expect tapping the menu on a mobile app to show you the navigation of the page. But, who is to say these things have to look/act the same everywhere?
Regurgitating an online template makes anyone able to create something new on the web. But by adding a good helping of user experience research and design you can go from a good website to a great experience.
It seems silly now as I write this. Naively, I thought that someone so close to me would completely understand what I do. But now, I see the positive and the normality in that. Do any of us really know what our parents do for work? Plenty of people like my sister do not know what UX is. But that does not mean it doesn’t profoundly impact them. Or that they might not understand UX one day.
In the grand scheme of things UX is still young and growing. It is only fair that it will take the world some time to understand it. Those of us who are professionals are constantly trying to learn more about best practices and ways to improve upon the knowledge we already have. Like I said before, new insight is coming out weekly by people, like me, who are fascinated at forging this path to make products easier and more satisfying for the world to use and interact with. UX is not just about making something pretty. It’s more than the many attractive templates out there. It’s about changing the way we interact with the world around us so that we can get to where we want faster, more efficiently, and with more enjoyment. From this conversation I remembered how good it is to step outside of my safe UX bubble and into the wider world where it is still a relatively unknown topic.
My sister seemed satisfied with my answer. Unaware of the damage she potentially dealt my ego and life’s meaning, we said our goodbyes and hung up. Another believer in UX (hopefully) in the books. And so I started my newfound quest to evangelizing the value of UX. The next subject? My grandpa.