What Does a UX Designer Actually Do?
User Experience (UX) Designer is a job title you’re likely hearing more and more these days. While UX design is a field that feels essential to product development, its function still remains a mystery to many because of its relative newness. Thus, when someone says “I’m a UX designer,” it is not always immediately clear what they actually do day-to-day.
This article is dedicated to those who are genuinely still unsure what a UX designer does.
What UX Design Is All About
For a long time design has been associated with graphic design (“the look” of a product). As digital technology and our expectations about digital interactions has grown, we’ve begun focusing more and more on “the feel” part of a design, also known as the user experience. If UX is the experience that a user has while interacting with a product, then UX Design is the process by which a designer tried to determine what that experience will be (Note: We can’t really design experiences as a formal entity. However, we can design the conditions of an intended experience).
A UX designer’s role is directly involved in the process of making a product useful, usable and enjoyable for its users. If you want to learn more about UX design, consider reading the article, What You Should Know About User Experience.
Responsibilities of UX Designer
How do UX designers work on a day-to-day basis? The answer to this question, as with many questions, is: it depends. A UX designer’s responsibilities can vary dramatically from company to company and sometimes even from project to project within one company. Despite the variety the role offers, there are some general functions a UX designer can be expected to perform irrespective of the company they work at.
Below I’ve summarized the 6 main responsibilities of UX designer:
1. Product Research
Product research (which naturally includes user and market research) is every UX designer’s starting point for a UX design project. It provides the foundation for great design as it allows designers to avoid assumptions and make information-driven decisions.
Product research is important because:
- It teaches UX designers about users: their behavior, goals, motivations, and needs.
- It helps UX designers understand industry standards and identify opportunities for the product in a given area. It also helps with prioritizing various aspects of a product (e.g. product features).
From the technical side, product research is a data collecting process through channels like:
- Personal interviews with users and stakeholders
- Competitive analysis
- Online surveys
- Focus groups
Collected data is analyzed and converted into quantitative and qualitative information. This valuable information will be used for decision making.
2. Creating Personas and Scenarios
Based on the product research results, the next step for a UX designer is to identify key user groups and create representative personas. A persona is a fictitious identity that reflects one of the user groups for whom they are designing.
Persona is a fictional character that highlights behaviors, needs and motivations of the target users. Image credit: xtensio
Personas aren’t the users they want, but the users they actually have. And while personas are fictional they should represent a selection of a real audience and their behaviors. The goal of creating personas is to reflect patterns that they’ve identified in their users (or prospective users).
When a UX designer has identified personas, they can write scenarios. A scenario is a narrative describing “a day in the life of” one of their personas, including how their website or app fits into their user’s lives. Whether they’re designing an app or a website, and whether this is a new product or a redesign of an existing product, it’s important to think through all of the steps that a user might take while interacting with their product.
An example of a user scenario presented in a format of a storyboard. Image credit: Chelsea Hostetter
4. Information Architecture (IA)
Once a UX designer has done the research and created personas, it’s time to define the Information Architecture. Information architecture is the creation of a structure for a website, app, or other product, that allows users to understand where they are, and where the information they want is in relation to their current position. Information architecture results in the creation of navigation, hierarchies and categorizations. For example, when a UX designer sketches a top level menu to help users understand where they are on a site, s/he is practicing information architecture.
An example of information architecture. Image credit: Behance
5. Creating Wireframes
Once the IA has been determined, it’s time to create wireframes. A wireframe is a design deliverable most famously associated with being a UX Designer. Basically, a wireframe is a low fidelity representation of a design. Wireframes should represent each screen or step that a user might take while interacting with a product.
Wireframes have following properties:
- Wireframes are the backbone of a product design — they typically used as a guide when development starts and should contain a representation of every important piece of the final product.
- Wireframes should be created quickly — UX designers have to represent UI objects in a simplified way (e.g. using simple placeholders that represent objects such as crossed rectangles for images).
- Wireframes are hardly used for product testing (although they may help UX designers to gather feedback on design in initial research, they won’t replace the actual interaction with the product).
A well-created wireframe communicates design in a crystal clear way. Image credit: Behance
A lot of people use the terms “wireframe” and “prototype” interchangeable, but there’s a significant difference between two design deliverables — they look different, they communicate something different and they serve different purposes. While wireframes are similar to architectural blueprints (e.g. a building plan), prototype is a middle to high fidelity representation of the final product.
Prototypes have following properties:
- Prototypes give you a taste on how to interact with a product. That’s why it’s better to avoid showing static images of interactive designs and use an interactive (clickable) prototype instead. With modern tools for prototyping like Adobe XD you can even record prototypes as videos to guide viewers through how your design functions.
- Prototypes can be used to their full potential in user testing. Prototypes should allow the user to experience content and test the main interactions with the interface in a way similar to the final product. While the prototype might not look exactly like the final product, it should be very similar in intention.
A prototype is a simulation of the final interaction between the user and the interface. Prototypes should be clickable, although they don’t need to have full functionality.
6. Product Testing
Testing helps UX designers find out what problem users experience during the interaction with a product. One of the most common ways that a UX designer might do product testing is by conducting in-person user tests to observe one’s behavior. Gathering and analyzing verbal and non-verbal feedback from the user helps UX designers create a better user experience. Not to say that being in the same room while someone struggles to use your product is a powerful trigger for creating empathy with users.
User testing session. Image credit: Toronto Public Library
There are a lot of other testing methods available. If you’re interested in learning more information about user testing, read about The Top 5 User Testing Methods.
UX Design is a Never Ending Process
UX design is a process of constant iteration. A UX designer’s work doesn’t stop with the product release, in fact, UX designers continue to learn which drives future updates. They launch with the best possible product, but they’re always prepared to learn and grow.
UX Jobs — What’s Out There?
If you overview different UX designer job descriptions, you’ll find that the list of responsibilities on each can vary significantly — in some descriptions, the UX designer role is all about research and usability testing, while in others it’s more technical role, responsible for building the prototypes and working more closely with the engineering team. All because the role of a UX designer depends heavily on the nature of the company and the difference between one UX designer role and another can be dramatic. The biggest difference is between startups and big companies:
- Within a startup, a UXer is likely to be responsible for every part of design process, due to small teams and limited resources. Thus, if you want to be involved in every phase of the UX design process, then a startup may be the right fit for you.
- Larger companies typically break UX designer role down into a few roles that focus entirely on one section. That’s why when you browse job descriptions you can find job titles like ‘Usability Specialist’, ‘Information Architect’, ‘UX researcher’. Thus, if you enjoy one particular phase of UX design (e.g. research) then working with a team at a larger corporation could be a good match.
While the UX designer role is complex, challenging and multifaceted, UX design is really fascinating and satisfying career path which could take you in many directions.