Starting out in UX: What it actually means, when you say that you’ll do UX for a living

What I learned from doing UX work for a media network, and then transitioning into UX for consumer brands.

Note: This is an updated post, dated June 11, 2015.

The “user experience” (UX) practice began in the US in the late 90's, with the likes of cognitive researcher Don Norman, usability and HCI engineer Jakob Nielsen and Web Standards pioneers Jeffrey Zeldman, George Olsen and Glenn Davis — developers, researchers and designers who really worked for and with the web.

In emerging markets (like the Philippines), “UX” is moving into the creative community’s consciousness through the introduction of seasoned web developers, and young designers who have discovered the discipline through influencers.

Why do it?

All of these websites (in the Philippines) existed for years without it.

It’s not as if they died away. Some are even popular.

More importantly, why shell out money to do it or pay someone to do it for you?

Let’s see if I can help answer that.

Do I believe “UX”?

Not really.

To be specific, I don’t believe in “UX” as something special that you plug into projects to make them great.

What I do believe — is that “user experience design” is:

  1. A system that (thankfully) formalized and branded conscientious product planning and product design, backed by behavior research.
  2. Not a “new” thing.
T.I. Dance moves, from VH1:

Essentially, it is how you plan and optimize a product to cater to how your consumers actually behave. So that, whatever it’s called — UX, User Experience, Service Design, Customer Experience — it is: keeping your consumers in mind as you create how your product or service works.

Having said that I will talk about the:

I. Elements of UX

II. Use and “Fit-to-brand” of UX

III. Deliverables of a basic UX practice.

I. Elements

I’m always a bit curious about people who call themselves UX practitioners.

I used to tell my team

“Never just ‘do UX’.”

(Ask them, they’ve heard this many times). I wanted them to excel in a discipline that could be understood by others even if you strip off the flashy UX label.

I told my team that, because UX is composed of multiple disciplines. And, to call yourself a UX practitioner is to have an expertise in a combination of the disciplines (or all, if you’re a “unicorn”).

UX Unicorn Coloring Page — by Philip Likens

This is why there are many different flavors, so to speak, of UX designer.

The (Many) Disciplines Under User Experience Design

The disciplines under UX design, are summarized in this popular (“force fields”) bubble chart, by iA.

iA User Experience Skill Force Fields Diagram:

To simplify, I organize them under these four (4) broader fields:

Research — User research, Post-testing (Bare minimum: Knowledge of heuristics)

Architecture — Content Strategy, Information Architecture, Organizational or Product Architecture

Design — Visual Design, Interaction Design, Product Design

Development (or Production) — Product Management, Web and App Development, Content or Hardware Production

II. When is UX Design useful, really?

Not all products “need” UX.

I’m saying this particularly to you, if you’re a business owner who will pay for someone to “do UX” for you.
Poster image, care of Fast Company

Keep the following in mind when wanting to apply UX to your organization:

1) UX is only worth doing for creating long-term products.

2) The more ingrained a product is into your revenue or consumer flow*, the more necessary UX is.

*Ramifications: As Fast Company writes, this is why it’s potentially a struggle for any advertising agency to suddenly deliver and market User Experience.

3) UX is best planned on a product and brand development level, rather than a communications level.

A “Do I need UX for this?” checklist

In Aaron Shapiro’s book — Users, Not Customers, he talks about how Huge evolved themselves from digital production to pushing for user experience as integral to business. They did this by asking Clients to understand the business role of digital properties.

For businessmen and business development managers who want to pitch or incorporate UX, this is a simple checklist to gauge the readiness of your company (or clients) for a User Experience Design element in your projects. Essentially, it’s a gauge of the multi-channel planning maturity of your business.


1. How critical into your revenue model is your idea?
2. How integrated is your idea in the consumer journey?
3. How open are you to discovering new insights that may change the definition of your idea?

You can use your answers to weigh what kind of UX services would be most viable for the business.

III. Deliverables

What does doing UX “look” like?

From experience (i.e. presentations, meetings and workflows that have failed and those that succeeded ☺ ), I’ve realized that doing a full UX process for certain projects can be a waste of time — either because the Client doesn’t actually find it useful, or they don’t care about it enough yet.

User experience design is, more often than not, a struggle to justify.

Like anything with a “research” element (like analytics, or ethnography) — projects can technically run (and succeed) without it, and its value isn’t instantly felt.

The answers to the previous checklist questions help us, by giving us a picture of: the readiness of a business to appreciate the value of UX, and the level of contribution or necessity of UX design.

Updated section

Minimum Viable UX versus “Full-Stack”

The fact that there’s a concept such as Lean UX (coined in 2011) leads me to believe that a significant segment of projects either: 1) can’t afford, or 2) can’t justify the value in, a full-length UX design process.

And that isn’t hard to believe considering that how many UX deliverables there are.

This is something you need to keep in mind when diagnosing what “UX” you need to do.

So Many Deliverables to Choose From…

There are at least 20 kinds of deliverables associated with User Experience Design. You can see some visualized lists of these deliverables in:

UXDesign.CC — This clusters deliverables according to its role in the process, supported by a cheerful polar bear.

UX for the Masses — This is just an alphabetical enumeration (which means you don’t see their role in the process flow), but has image examples for each.

…But, which ones do you need?

Three years ago, the team I was working with formalized our deliverables list, so that the account managers and designers we worked with knew what to expect from us.

The deliverables in black were the “needs”, and the greyed out elements were “nice-to-haves”.

This was our ideal process*, but this was much neater than reality. This process was only reserved for content-heavy platforms and apps.

The other projects used a bare minimum type of UX — in a way “minimum viable UX”.

*To get a picture of how many additional man-hours “UX” entails in a project, you can look at this case study of a previous project where we were able to apply testing, design iteration and user research to the website planning process (Thanks to our patient clients). Or, one of my favorite user research reports on Medium — @Samihah’s A User Research Case Study on Slack.

Why is it important to think of “minimum viable UX”? Because UX is time-consuming, and therefore — seems more expensive than not doing it at all.

Honestly, you’ll need a rare kind of Client, who is open and (design) mature to get approval for these “additional” project costs, and is willing to co-create an idea.

What is minimum viable UX?

You can look at it two (2) ways:

I have a minimum viable UX that I need to make a project run sensibly.

And there’s a minimum viable UX that account managers like to use to give Clients confidence about a well thought-out design.

For legit multi-channel thinkers

Certain clients would have a more sophisticated grasp of their customer experience channels (understanding that each one works together to build their brand).

They see UX as a way to plan their “brand experience” across channels

Lastly, there’s a currently rare breed of progressive clientele, who are willing to see the team as Discovery Partners building their product idea.

What differentiates the deliverables for each?

Because some Clients just want “UX” for the name, but not the spirit, it actually affects the level of deliverables they can appreciate.

*This is awfully cynical, I know. But give me a better solution that will save the sanity of your design team — after you’ve tried pitching a full UX deliverables presentation (from an analytics assessment, user interviews, data-backed personas, to userflows and a heuristics check) to a Client who couldn’t care less and just really wanted an aesthetic facelift.

Bare-bones UX (In the local language, what I playfully coin as “mema-UX”* ☺)

*i.e. Just-so-we-can-say-we-did UX.

Don’t knock this. This happens. And change management is a gradual journey. So in the meantime, why not give:

  • Knowledge of heuristics
  • Wireframe stage (Early prototype) deliverables
  • Post-prototype analysis

Added Layer for Sophisticated Clients

Somewhere in between just wanting the cool “UX” label and being willing to pay for research analysis, there’s this level (The I-understand-that-objectives-drive-design-but-research-still-takes-too-long layer), where you can give:

  • Content Strategy and Information Architecture (that helps organize their content hierarchy, features and interactions)

For Progressive Clients

Really the only level that will pay for delaying their vision of a project till they’ve invested in research.

  • User research into Personas and Use Cases
  • Design Thinking Workshop to build the idea collaboratively

This is a work in progress, and will be building on this as I learn more about how brands will use User Experience Design.

If there’s some bitterness seeping through, those would be the dregs of previous project frustrations, from exerting unappreciated effort ☺

Feel free to chime in and share what you think and how you evangelize user experience in your company, because we can all use a little help (and sympathy) from our friends.

Follow me here on Medium, or on Twitter, for more straight-talking, practical stories about how to plan, execute and analyze design research. Message me if ever you want to work together.

This post was updated to protect a presentation I made when I worked for an advertising agency. This post’s content is based on public knowledge, and my personal thoughts about user experience design work.

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