Some people have it easy.
At a cocktail party, when asked, “What line of work are you in?” they can answer in a couple of words without fear of getting quizzical looks or blank stares. “Accountant.” “Tax attorney.” “Kindergarten teacher.” “Truck driver.” “Software developer.”
Then there are user experience (UX) designers…
Unless the cocktail party is at a software development conference or similar get-together, UX designers likely will have to follow their answer with an explanation, which might or might not be effective.
For the benefit of everyone who might run into a UX designer at a cocktail party, let’s explain UX design so you can confidently respond that you “know all about it.”
UX Designer: The Job Description
Formal job descriptions for UX (user interface) designers generally contain one or more phrases:
- Communicate design ideas and solutions to cross-functional stakeholders
- Design features for mobile apps
- Guide developers and business stakeholders through the design process in an agile environment
These aren’t helpful to anyone who isn’t already a UX designer but aspires to be one.
UX designers spend a good deal of time interacting with end users in order to understand them. It’s important to know the answers to these questions:
- How do you interact with other groups (departments, vendors, customers, government)? What tools do you need to support these relationships?
- In what kind of physical environment do you work? (office, laboratory, hospital, factory, warehouse, construction site, home office, etc.)
- In what ways does your physical environment support or hinder the use of a device?
- What are the technical aspects of your environment? Electricity, a wired network, Wi-Fi, cellular? 3G, 4G, 5G?
- What are your pain points? What are you unable to do well (or at all) with your current tools? What problems are current tools causing?
- What business processes do you perform?
- What types of devices do you prefer? (Laptops, tablets, mobile devices, special-purpose devices…)
Gathering this information involves in-person meetings or web conferencing. It may include site visits to see the user’s environment. UX designers sometimes need a crash course in a user’s industry, if they aren’t familiar with it.
UX designers can’t always take what the users say at face value. Often, what users think they need and what they actually need are quite different. The UX designer can gently guide users toward the reality of what they need by asking good questions and offering reasonable alternatives.
But even that isn’t enough sometimes. In many cases, users are convinced their way of doing things is the only one that makes sense. They want an application that re-creates what they now do. A good UX designer knows this is a recipe for missed opportunities and unmet expectations. UX designers can help users “think outside the box” and examine their processes critically, eliminating pieces they don’t really need and streamlining others or make them scalable for anticipated growth.
Understanding Technical Requirements
To go along with the understanding end users and their needs, the UX designer also should know something about the technical architecture of the proposed solution. According to the designer’s understanding of the users’ technical and business environment, the system architecture might require modifications. Some choices may need to be revisited regarding the technology stack.
For example, if the system is going to be used at least part of the time in a low-bandwidth environment, it should be designed to minimize data transfer or delay until a more reliable connection can be established. Software developers might not understand these constraints without the help of the UX designer.
UX designers spend lots of time in front of their computers, putting together interface designs and prototypes of various types. (That’s the “designer” part.)
Designers draw on knowledge gained from interacting with the users as well as their understanding of the technical architecture. For an initial release (as opposed to an update of an existing application), a designer also needs to understand what features constitute the minimum viable product (MVP).
Building a prototype can be tricky. It requires the designer to balance several (often competing) interests, such as:
- MVP feature set
- What the budget can support
- What the developers can support
- What technical architecture can support
- What the users really want
- What works best in the expected user environment and devices
Making appropriate tradeoffs among these influencers is an important part of UX design. In many cases, there’s no single best solution. The UX designer must develop and present several alternatives for stakeholders to consider.
UX designers also need to be skilled in the use of different prototyping tools. In an agile environment, rapid prototyping, or the ability to churn out new prototype designs and modifications to those designs in short order, is an essential skill that can keep a development sprint on track.
Prototype design is necessarily an iterative activity that requires designers to understand and incorporate user feedback as fast and accurately as possible. Limitations and constraints must be considered at the same time.
Prototypes can have varying levels of sophistication, from static images showing the location of buttons and fields on a simulated screen to almost fully functional interfaces with clickable buttons and fillable fields. Which type the designer chooses depends on several factors, such as:
- Audience (end users, project managers, developers)
- How “life-like” it needs to be
- How quickly it needs to be built
When getting feedback from the end users, it helps for the prototype to be as realistic as possible. “Suspension of disbelief” goes only so far in application prototypes.
Becoming a UX Designer
Being a successful UX designer requires a broad range of essential qualities and skills:
- Ability to attain a deep understanding of business processes
- Ability to balance competing priorities
- Deep knowledge of usability principles and best practices
- Excellent listening, communication, and negotiation skills
- Knowledge of software development methodologies (especially Agile) and techniques
- Skills and experience with multiple prototyping tools
- Understanding of various technology stack elements and how they work together
As a group, UX designers have diverse backgrounds, including:
- Computer science (of course)
- Graphic design
- Human factors engineering
- Technical communication
…among others. It’s a fairly new field, and few colleges offer degree programs, but there are certificate programs and online courses available.
UX design requires special skills and a knack for solving tricky technical and design problems. It’s also highly satisfying: Seeing your designs come to life and helping people do their jobs more efficiently and effectively can be quite rewarding.