What does a UX designer actually do? I’ve been asked that a lot since I completed the CareerFoundry UX Design Course and those asking have ranged from my Mum to people at networking events to, more worryingly, business leaders and people who work in IT. There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the field, which is why, as a UX designer, you’ll often find your first task in a new job is clearly explaining the value you’ll be bringing to the company and how you’ll bring that about.
I’ve got numerous examples of company owners and directors who see the ‘business’ and the ‘user’ as separate and unrelated entities. While I’ve met others who believe a UX designer’s sole responsibility is to create endless wireframes without thinking about what the user actually needs from the product.
The purpose of this post is two-fold. If you’re a UX designer I hope to give you a concise and clear answer to this question, so that you can answer it succinctly when it gets thrown at you at parties or events. The second purpose is for those of you who are genuinely still unsure what a UX designer does, you will definitely know by the end of this post!
Let’s dig a little deeper…
The State Of UX Today
To give you some background, UX has been around for years. The term is believed to have been coined in the early Nineties by cognitive scientist Donald Norman when he joined technology giant, Apple. Interest in the field has grown exponentially in the last 10 years, particularly with the development of mobile and wearable technologies, apps and increased internet usage worldwide.
Because of this interest, the number of businesses taking on UX designers is looking to significantly increase over the next decade, as more and more companies realise the value they bring to both the customer and the business. And the results speak for themselves: research company, Forrester report that businesses who are customer experience leaders are far ahead of their rivals in terms of revenue growth. UserTesting also report that every dollar invested in UX can return between $2 and $100 (US). This correlates with a rise of UX positons opening up - in fact working as a UX designer was ranked 14/100 in CNNMoney/PayScale’s careers with ‘big growth, great pay and satisfying work’ chart. They predict an 18% growth in positions opening up in the next ten years.
So it’s a booming industry, but how do UX designers work on a day to day basis? If you’re thinking of a career in the field, what can you expect to be doing?
Well, your projects will differ dramatically from company to company, as will the size of your team, and your priorities. From a personal perspective, my experience of working in UX has involved elements of research, testing, business analysis, project management and psychology as well as wireframing. Despite the variety the role offers, their are some general functions a UX designer can be expected to perform irrespective of the company she works at. Let’s take a look at them now.
This is where the research happens. Generally a UX designer will get a brief from the client or their manager asking them to do some project research. Let’s use the fictitious restaurant chain Foodies as an example. If Foodies wanted a new app, then the UX designer would combine desk-based and field research to get a full picture of who they are designing for. This might include reviewing what the current website has to offer, interviewing existing users to look for opportunities and pain points and doing competitor research to see what else is out there. These tasks will enable the UX designer to pinpoint the core features needed for the Minimum Viable Product and start drafting some initial personas. For Foodies the core features might be a menu, ability to make online reservations and a branch finder.
Personas and Information Architecture
With the core features decided on, it is time to delve more into what tasks each persona wants to perform and why. One of Foodies personas might be Samantha, a go-getting 20-something who likes eating artisan salads on her lunch break. An example task for her would be:
‘Samantha likes to pre-order the Moroccan Lamb Salad via the app on the phone as it saves her time between meetings.’
Once this process has been completed for each persona, it is then possible to refine the content needed, working out the information architecture and site map and beginning paper prototypes. Paper prototypes are very rough sketches which can be shown to colleagues and quickly and easily improved.
Wireframes and User Testing
After paper prototypes come wireframes, user testing and plenty of iterating. Wireframes typically go through many stages and there is no right or wrong way of doing them. They often start as very basic black and white designs moving on to interactive designs where users can navigate between the different pages like they will with the final product to high-res designs which give the user a really clear idea of what the final product could like. Each stage is punctuated with user testing and iterations.
Next comes the visual design where wireframes are converted into mock ups. Mock ups include the final imagery, colour, and typography. The main focus is the look and feel- they should be pixel perfect and show exactly what the design will look like when brought to life so they can be used as a guide when development starts. Some UX designers do the visual design themselves using programs such as Photoshop but others may liaise with a digital designer or a front-end developer to get the design just right.
Usability Testing and Beyond
With the visual design in place, there is a working prototype of the product which can be fully usability tested by participants who match the identified personas. Read my beginner’s guide to usability testing for more information. Several rounds of testing could take place before the design is completely right- once it is, the new product is finally ready to go into development. UX designers also attend sprint meetings, overseeing product development to make sure there aren’t any feature creeps (which often happens in my experience!) and helping to make small refinements to the design as and when necessary.
One final point to make is that a UX designer’s work is rarely finished after the product launch. There will be refinements, small changes, new releases, feedback to gather and analytics to discuss with the team. Technology is constantly evolving and it is essential to to keep up-to-date with the latest developments or get left behind.
UX is a fascinating, varied and satisfying career path which could take you in many directions- hopefully this article gives a good taste of that. A course such as the Career Foundry UX Design Course gives a really grounding for any sort of career in UX and as a past student- I really recommend it.