What Does a UX Designer Actually Do?

Caroline White, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

What is UX design, and what does a UX designer actually do? It’s a question I’ve been asked frequently since completing the CareerFoundry UX Design Program. Surprisingly, the question comes not only from friends and family, but also from employers and people who work in the tech industry.

There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the field, which is why, as a UX designer, you’ll often find that your first task in a new job is to clearly explain the value you’ll be bringing to the company and how you’ll do so.

The purpose of this post is two-fold. If you’re new to UX, it will provide a clear explanation of what is UX Design and what it involves.

If you’re a UX designer, it aims to equip you with a clear and concise answer to that all-too-frequent question: What does a UX designer do?

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. What is UX design?
  2. What does a UX designer do?
  3. What are the typical tasks and processes of a UX designer?
  4. What skills does a UX designer need?
  5. UX designer job market and salaries
  6. Wrap-up and further reading

If you’re more of a visual person, you’ll find a beautiful infographic towards the end of this post, explaining the role of the UX designer in a nutshell.

So what does a UX designer actually do? Let’s find out.

1. What is UX design?

Before we explore what a UX designer does, it’s important to first establish what UX design actually is. UX design focuses on the interaction between real human users (like you and me) and everyday products and services, such as websites, apps, and even coffee machines.

It’s an extremely varied discipline, combining aspects of psychology, business, market research, design, and technology. If you’d like to look at these in more depth, we’ve produced a handy guide to the different areas of UX design.

As you can see, UX designers are expected to wear many different hats! We’ll take a closer look at what a UX designer does in section two. First, let’s consider where the term UX design comes from and how it has evolved.

UX is not new. In fact, the term has been around since the early nineties, coined by Donald Norman when he worked for Apple as a cognitive scientist.

Norman was interested in all aspects of a user’s experience with a product or service, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, and physical interaction.

To encompass all of the different elements that determine how a user feels while interacting with a product, he came up with the term “user experience.”

You can delve deeper into the history of UX design in our article on it. If you’re looking for a really in-depth exploration of UX design, then I’d recommend this UX guide—or simply watch this short video for a more gentle introduction from my fellow designer, Dee:

Since the term came about, UX design has grown to be synonymous with good business; only those products and services that provide a seamless user experience will succeed on the market.

Want to see it in action? We’ve gathered five brilliant, real-world examples of great UX design.

UX design in action

So we know that UX designers are important, and we have a working definition of the term “UX”—but what does it actually look like in action?

Let’s imagine you’re shopping for a pair of shoes online.

You find yourself in the “shoe” category, and there are over three hundred different pairs to browse—great! Then you realize there’s no way to filter the results, meaning you have to scroll through hundreds of unsuitable shoes before you find what you’re after.

You get there in the end and add them to your basket. You’re ready to make a purchase and, as a new customer, you have to create a new account.

Ok, no problem—until you see that there are at least ten mandatory fields to be filled in! Buying your shoes on this website is starting to feel like more hassle than it’s worth, so you decide to abandon ship and look elsewhere.

A customer journey map depicting the process a user goes through when ordering shoes online

That’s what you call a bad user experience. UX doesn’t only apply to websites, though–any kind of product or service you come into contact with evokes a certain type of experience.

Is it easy to use? Does it enable you to complete your desired tasks with minimum effort? Is it logical and efficient? These are all indicators of a good or bad user experience.

Now we’ve established what UX design is, let’s return to our original question: What does a UX designer actually do?

A list of the typical tasks carried out by UX designers

2. What does a UX designer do?

If you’re considering a career as a UX designer, you’ll want to know how UX designers work on a day-to-day basis.

What kinds of projects can you expect to work on? What is your role within a company? What does a UX designer actually do?

“How do I explain what I do at a party? The short version is that I say I humanize technology.”
— Fred Beecher, Director of UX, The Nerdery

We find Fred Beecher sums up the role of the UX designer rather nicely. As a UX designer, you’re there to make products and technology usable, enjoyable, and accessible for humans.

UX designers tend to work as part of a wider product team, and will often find themselves bridging the gap between the user, the development team, and key business stakeholders.

As a UX designer, it’s your job first and foremost to advocate for the end-user or customer.

Whether you’re designing a brand new product, coming up with a new feature, or making changes to an existing product or service—the UX designer must consider what’s best for the user and the overall user experience.

At the same time, you are also responsible for making sure that the product or service meets the needs of the business. Does it align with the CEO’s vision? Will it help to increase revenue or retain loyal customers?

As for the kinds of projects you’ll work on, this will vary dramatically from company to company, as will the size of your team, and your priorities.

If you want to know more about this, I’ve covered in more detail the different ways in which a UX designer works in different kinds of firms. You can also learn about the differences between working as an in-house UX designer, at an agency, or as a freelancer in this guide.

You may find yourself designing websites, mobile apps, and software, or even designing for voice, AR and VR devices! Some UX designers focus on service design rather than tangible products, such as designing the overall experience of using public transport or staying in a hotel.

There are lots of specialist roles under the umbrella of UX design. We’ve broken down some of the most common UX job titles and what they mean in this guide.

When it comes to everyday tasks, these will also vary depending on your role and the company you work for.

My experience of working in UX has involved elements of research, testing, business analysis, project management, and various psychology principles, as well as the more hands-on design tasks such as wireframing and prototyping.

Despite the variety the role offers, there are some general functions that a UX designer can be expected to perform, including:

  • Conducting user research
  • Creating user personas
  • Determining the information architecture of a digital product
  • Designing user flows and wireframes
  • Creating prototypes
  • Conducting user testing

It is important to be aware that UX designers are not typically responsible for the visual design of a product. Rather, they focus on the journey that the user takes and how the product is structured to facilitate this journey.

In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at the UX design process and some of the key tasks that a UX designer will perform.

3. What are the typical tasks and processes of a UX designer?

As a UX designer, you’ll go through each step in the UX design process to make sure that any and all products are designed with the user in mind. So what kinds of tasks can you expect to carry out on a day-to-day basis? Let’s take a closer look.

Conducting user research

The initial stage in the UX design process is where the research (magic) 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 fast food chain “Foodies” as an example. Imagine Foodies approach you because they want to design a new app.

Firstly, it would be the UX designer’s role to 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 identify opportunities and pain-points, and doing competitor research to see what else is out there.

These tasks enable the UX designer to pinpoint the core features needed for the Minimum Viable Product (in other words, the first iteration of a product that you’ll release) and to start creating some initial user personas. For Foodies, the core features might be a menu, the ability to make online reservations, and a local branch finder.

In a nutshell, the user research phase is when you scope out the project, identifying exactly who you’re designing for and what the users’ goals and challenges are in relation to the product. You can learn more about the importance of user research and how to do it in this guide or by exploring this set of free UX research tutorials.

User personas

Based on extensive user research, UX designers might then create user personas. This is where you delve deeper into what tasks each persona wants to perform and why. Personas are key in the process.

A typical persona for Foodies might be Samantha, a go-getting 20-something who likes eating artisan salads on her lunch break. An example task for her persona might be:

“Samantha likes to pre-order the Moroccan Lamb Salad via the mobile app as it saves her time between meetings.”

Another popular approach which might be used in conjunction with (or as an alternative to) user personas is jobs-to-be-done (JTBD). You can find a full comparison between personas and JTBD elsewhere on the blog.

Information architecture

Next, you’ll start thinking about the kind of content needed and how it will be structured across the website or app. This is what’s known as information architecture; working out the most logical layout and organization of the content.

Good information architecture makes sure that the user can easily find what they’re looking for and intuitively navigate from one page to the next without too much thought.

User flows and wireframes

UX designers use a range of tools to map out the user’s journey through a product, including user flows and wireframes.

User flows are basic flowcharts which visualize the complete path a user takes when using a product, from entry point right through to the final interaction. You can learn more in this introductory guide to user flows.

While user flows map out the entire user journey, wireframes provide a two-dimensional outline of a single screen or page. We’ve covered the wireframing process in more detail in another piece—and if you’re keen to get started, you can find a guide to the best free wireframing tools.

a ux designer making wireframes

Prototyping and user testing

With the product layout mapped out, the UX designer will then create prototypes and run some user tests.

A prototype is simply a scaled-down version of your product; a simulation that enables you to test your designs before they get developed. Prototypes range from the simplest of paper models to the more realistic, high-fidelity interactive prototypes which closely mimic the final product.

Testing your prototypes on real users helps to highlight any design flaws before you create the final product. Several rounds of testing could take place before the design is completely right.

Once you know the design is actually meeting users’ needs, 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.

Visual design

You’ll notice that none of the above tasks are concerned with the visual design of the product. While some UX designers will also specialize in visual design, it tends to fall under user interface (UI) design.

So, the final imagery, color schemes, icons, and typography will usually be taken care of by a UI designer. If you’re confused about the difference between the two roles, read our guide explaining the differences between UX and UI design.

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.

The UX design process is highly iterative, and a career in UX is as much about collaboration and coordination as it is about design.

A ux designer works with a ui designer at a desktop computer

4. What skills does a UX designer need?

With such a varied range of tasks, UX designers need to have a very diverse skill set. Besides technical and design skills like wireframing, prototyping and interpreting data and feedback, UX designers also need certain “soft” skills.

Adaptability, communication, empathy, problem-solving and teamwork are all essential soft skills. As a UX designer, it’s important that you can collaborate effectively with those around you—from clients and stakeholders to developers and fellow designers, all the way through to the end user.

Business knowledge also goes a long way in the UX design industry. It’s important to understand both the goals of the company and the needs of the target audience, and to align these when coming up with design solutions.

Keep in mind that if you want to be a full-stack designer, you’ll need to cross-train in other specialties by training in web development or UX writing, for example. This is especially true if you work as a UX designer in a startup.

What is UX design, and what does a UX designer actually do? A visual overview

As promised, we’ve created the role of the UX designer in a visual nutshell for you:

An infographic explaining what UX design is, and the key skills and tasks of a UX designer

5. UX designer job market and salaries

As we’ve said, good UX has become synonymous with good business, because happy users are good for business!

The demand for UX designers has radically increased—and, as the tech industry continues to evolve, UX designers are more crucial than ever. This is especially true for UX designers who are on the cutting edge of their field, and participating in the trends that keep UX design so relevant and necessary.

This demand is also reflected in the overall increase in average UX designer salaries.

In other words, the outlook for a career in UX design is excellent. That said, it can be a very competitive job market! If you want to really stand out in the market, we recommend cultivating a relationship with a UX design mentor and finessing a truly job-winning UX design portfolio.

6. Wrap up and further reading

As you can see, UX is a fascinating, varied, and highly satisfying career path that could take you in many directions. Hopefully, you now have a good idea of what a UX designer actually does, and how to explain it to anyone who asks!

If you’re keen to learn more about what it’s like to work in UX, check out the following videos about a day in the life of a remote UX designer and an on-site UX designer, and then we recommend getting in touch with us to find out about how we can take you from complete beginner to a hired UX designer in as little as six months with the CareerFoundry UX Design Program.

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