Why There Is No Such Thing As A UX Designer

Molly Stevens via Flickr

Photo credit: Molly Stevens via Flickr

User Experience is a term you hear thrown around a whole lot lately. For some people it means the way a site looks and feels, for other it’s all about a site’s architecture, but for most of them it’s just an empty buzzword that doesn’t mean anything at all.

User experience is all that and much more. It literally is what users think and feel while using your product.

UX is everywhere

If your site has a painless sign-up process, that’s part of the user experience. If your site uses gorgeous photos, that’s part of the user experience. If your site is unbearably slow, that’s UX too. And if your site is perfect, but there’s a bug in your code and you end up charging people twice as much for your product, well guess what, that’s also part of their (very bad) user experience.

So “user experience design” can include web design, photography, speed optimization, coding, to say nothing of copywriting, branding, security, interaction design, or information architecture.

We’re all User Experience Designers

It logically follows that someone who calls himself a “user experience designers” should be involved in every one of those aspects. But instead, actual “user experience designers” usually come in during the early stages of a project, and use wireframes and prototypes to plan out design, architecture, and interactions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s not a real job. But I feel like it should be called something else, like maybe “Prototype Designer”, or “User Experience Consultant” if the person comes in at a later stage to analyze an existing site.

In my mind, the title of “User Experience Designer” does not belong to a single person. Instead, it should be embraced by everybody contributing to the project, whether they are a designer, coder, photographer, writer, or systems administrator. Because after all, their work is what ultimately defines the user’s experience.

“Can you add more UX to it?”

Why is that important at all? Isn’t all this just a question of semantics? Well, yes, it is. But bad semantics lead to bad communication, and that in turn leads to bad results. It’s not uncommon to hear clients asking if you “do UX” or asking a designer if they “focus on UX”. UX soon becomes an empty buzzword that can mean whatever the client wants it to mean.

User Experience Professionals have done a great job of promoting UX as a concept. But I feel it’s now time that designers reclaim that term and make it clear that “UX” is not a mysterious new idea, but instead part of what every designer does every day.



36 Responses to Why There Is No Such Thing As A UX Designer

  1. David Ruzicka says:

    Je suis d’accord avec toi: y’en a marre de ces UX à toutes les sauces.
    D’un autre côté, c’est bien que les clients prennent conscience de cet aspect-là du métier et tentent de réfléchir à cette question aussi pour leur site.
    Il y a le graphic designer, le webdesigner et le user experience designer. Bien sûr là-dehors il y en a qui savent très bien faire les trois, comme toi peut-être, mais pour une agence par exemple la question peut se poser autrement: ne serait-ce pas intéressant de séparer les 3? Si ce n’est juste afin de pousser le client à prendre conscience des ces aspects-là de la création de son site.
    Car la réflexion qu’il est nécessaire de faire autour d’un wireframe ou d’une hiérarchie d’informations ou d’un menu n’est pas l’apanage des graphistes. Même un webdesigner, qui va plutôt se focaliser sur les effets, les modes de transition à petite échelle (déroulements, slide, défilements, focus, hover active etc), n’est pas nécessairement intéressé par ce que l’utilisateur va vivre à l’échelle de plusieurs pages.
    Dans ton raisonnement, tu dis que tous ceux qui participent à l’expérience utilisateur devraient être regroupé sous un terme générique. Ne serait-ce pas comme de dire que tous ceux qui participent à la construction d’une maison devraient être appelés architecte?

    • Sacha says:

      I’ll answer in english to accomodate the non-french-speaking readers :)

      I personally think good designers and even good developers generally don’t need to rely on a separate “UX person”. For example, Hipmunk is often lauded for its great UX and UI, but most of it was created by developers (at least until I joined in).

      I think great design-oriented companies see design/UX/whatever you want to call it as part of every aspect of the product, not just one specific person’s domain.

      So to answer your questions, ideally the designer would “do UX”, so would the developer, and if there needs to be a “UX Designer” on top of that then why not, as long as we know that they are not the only person responsible for User Experience.

  2. Jason says:

    Unfortunately this is a dangerously misleading and very uninformed article. UX has nothing to do with design, fonts, how quickly a page loads, or if your site functions on the backend the way it should. Yes, these affect the user’s experience in a literal sense, but these are not concerns of the UX designer. The UX designer’s role is to draw up the structure and behavior of the site, not control how the programmers and designers do their jobs. If you have incompetent programmers, that is not the UX designer’s fault. If your designer comes up with terrible fonts and color schemes, this does not concern the UX designer (from a structural/behavioral standpoint). If the site is laid out correctly and performs the way it is delineated in the wireframes and prototypes, then the UX designer has done his/her job.

    I think you are confused because you may be used to working in smaller shops (or with controlling UX designers) where one person tries to take on responsibilities outside of their scope and/or design and UX happen at the same time. Just because you’re a designer doesn’t mean you’re good at UX. Sure your designs can be gorgeous but if the user can’t find the navigation, your UX sucks (while your design may be great).

    If you can realize that UX and design are not the same thing, this may start to make sense to you.

    Ironically, a great example is this exact website. As you mention in your footer, you are the designer and coder of this site. The design is beautiful, and from what I can tell it is well-coded. However, when I tried to submit this comment (before I started writing these last paragraphs), I didn’t really know what to do. Do I hit enter to submit? No, that gives me a new line. Is there a submit button somewhere? No. Hm. Well it must be that blue check mark. Is that even a button, or just an indication that everything I’m about to submit is valid? Whatever, I’ll click it (wtf no title text telling me it’s the submit button?) Oh ok that worked, wait, I have to fill in my email and name? Where did it say anywhere I had to do that? Also, that takes me to another PAGE telling me I have to do this? What about my super long comment I left? Did I lose that whole thing? How do I get back? Do I just hit the back button and hope my browser cached my comment??

    A good UX designer would have accounted for all of these gotchas BEFORE you started designing, and you could have avoided this painful comment submission process.

    • Sacha says:

      Leaving aside the usability of my comment form, you illustrate my point perfectly:

      “[design, fonts, how quickly a page loads] affect the user’s experience in a literal sense, but these are not concerns of the UX designer”

      Doesn’t that strike you as wrong? Things that affect user experience are not the concern of the UX Designer?

      Doesn’t that mean at the very least that UX Designers need to find another job title?

    • Tyler says:

      “your UX sucks (while your design may be great).”

      Then your design is not great. Design isn’t just pretty pictures. Good design should work from function, through to aesthetic.

    • Tyler says:

      For the record, I had no problem figuring out this comment form. Seemed pretty straight forward to me. I would hate my return button to always submit when I need a line break.

      • Marc Rapp says:

        The term works well when you’re surrounded by people who understand collaborative environments and rapid prototyping.

        Everyone is not a User Experience Designer. Being able to articulate a problem as well as a solution is a strength and skill set. Otherwise it is just an uninformed opinion.

        The problem I truly see is in that people’s skills and talents (within the professional agency, shop, boutique) overlap more than ever. And some choose to work in a silos, instead of harvesting and collecting as much insight as possible–iterating from there on.

        And sometimes, budgets and crazy clients make it hard, too. ;)

        • Pierre Minik says:

          “The term works well when you’re surrounded by people who understand collaborative environments and rapid prototyping.”

          I know what you’re saying and I might agree a bit. But reading “…people who understand collaborative environments…” makes me think of the responses in Bill Gates’ blame email about the horrible experience he had trying to install Windows Movie Maker from their web site.

          I’ve never worked on a web site that had more than 5 people involved but I’ve worked with management for stuff like concerts and events that had large teams. It’s far from the same as making web sites but it does have a lot of resemblances in terms of management. You can impossibly know all the technical details of the whole process but you need to know enough of every area to be able to end up with a holistic result.

          It might be because making web sites involves such different fields that are all at a high technical level that you need titles as “UX designer”. I can’t tell for sure because the teams I’ve worked with all had an idea of what the goal was. They knew the purpose of what they were trying to achieve.

          I see people in the comments getting at this site’s design because it’s not “good UX design”. It’s true that some of it is not great usability – like the > on the hover menu making you think there’s supposed to be submenu’s but leaving you thinking it’s broken or the commenting form and so forth. But UX is far from being about usability alone. The commenting form is very fitting for the audience of this site: the graphics provide great learnability and it’s sophisticated which the target audience most likely will appreciate very much. The comment form is a little bit of “branding” as in it communicates the identity of the site owner which the audience can relate to.

          As with branding, design in general and UX: it’s not something you add as a step, it’s something you put at the core of the whole process and consider it through every step.

          From what I read about the different opinions of what a UX designer should do, honestly sounds like what the project manager should do (if you disregard those who think it’s interface prototyping / I’d never consider UX “designing” to be prototyping or interaction designing).
          A project manager should be able to make the team work together and so they can do their part in making the final product. He/she is to prioritize the importance in the decisions and is the person responsible for communicating the purpose of the final goal and maintaining the vision of it.
          If that person is unable to do that because of having too many other tasks I’d add in an assistant planner or something and not a UX designer or whatever you want to call it. If the person is not capable of understand the aspects of the final product, integrating the different team members in the work and steering the project to it’s destination perhaps he/she should not be the project manager.

          As for the responses in the Bill Gates’ email I think it really shines through who’s to blame. In every single response to the mail you see people trying to blame someone else and all their “corporate talk” makes it clear they have forgotten what the purpose of what they are doing is. Bill Gates himself is to blame with lack of leadership. Had he clearly communicated responsibilities and maintaining consistency within the production, it had not come as far as it did.

  3. Jason says:

    No, this doesn’t strike me as wrong. What I said was choices the designer makes (design and fonts) and how well the site is coded (how quickly the page loads, which may not necessarily be the programmer’s fault if the user is on a really slow connection) are not what a UX designer is hired to do. I don’t think you really understand their job, which makes sense why you would write an article like this.

    No, they don’t need to find another title either. They are hired to *create* the skeleton (structure) and *design* the muscles (behavior) of the site. Nowhere in their job description does it say anything about being artistic or developing code.

    Before you criticize something that a lot of people do for livings and is a crucial piece in the development of large, complex websites, you should really understand what you’re talking about.

    • Sacha says:

      I do understand what I’m talking about. I think you should re-read my post and my comments. I never said that UX Designers should code or become designers. I said that “UX Designer” is a misleading title since designers and coders have as big an impact on actual “user experience” as so-called “UX Designers”.

    • Helge Fredheim says:

      Loading time, etc. might not be the responsibility of the “UX designer” (I prefer intaction designer too). Neverheless, loading time is probably a lot more important factor to UX than the look and feel of a website. It relates to whether the product gets the job done. For many users, this has a number one priority.

      This article is in line with many authors’ point of view, including my own: UX cannot be designed. After the interaction designer has done his job, there are lots of other factors what affect UX. This applies independently of whether the interaction designer’s job includes responsibility of loading time.

      As UX cannot be designed, there is no such thing as a UX designer.

  4. Jason says:

    So this is all about changing someone’s title? To quote Billy Shakespeare, “What’s in a name?”

    What would you name them, then?

  5. Marjolein says:

    Hi Sacha, I enjoyed reading your article. I agree with you in many ways. User experience is everyone’s concern when developing a site or an application. It shouldn’t fall to any one individual or job description.

    Depending on the scale of a project, the tasks often associated with a user experience designer such as user research, the development of site structure, interaction, and low-fidelity prototyping can be one person or many people if a site is especially deep or has complex back-end functionality.

    You’ve probably read this article already but your post reminded of something Roger Johansson (of 456 Berea Street) wrote some time ago: Are we designers or developers?.

    Job titles in the industry are still confusing, I find. There’s a trend now to use the term “product design” which may describe what we all do more accurately: building things for people to use.

    In our case, we build things for people to use online. A user’s experience should be inherent in every decision we make regardless of job title.

    Cheers! Nice work by the way. I love hipmunk.

  6. The term I use as a job title is ‘User Interface Systems Architect’ which may sound like a mouthful but is the most accurate way I can describe what I do. But in casual conversation I have no problem using the term UX designer even though I know it doesn’t capture my role precisely. For my on line presence I use the handle ‘User Advocate’.

    I read a blog post once where the author claimed the term ‘User Advocate’ was meaningless as well, saying that advocating for users would not be concerned with UX design as much as winning arguments with developers. But I’m ok with that. Guiding developers is precisely what I do and that’s why I spend half my time actually building code – so I can stay in synch with that side of things.

    I agree that no one can control exactly what a ‘user experience’ is going to be. As ‘guides’ we have to understand where users want/need to go and help the developers build the pathways to get them there.

    As a UI professional and a developer I know that I cannot effectively work out UX design (it is a handy phrase) issues when I have my developer brain going. Unfortunately not all deveopers realize that user interface design (the classic term) is not the same thing as user interface implementation. They probably don’t eat enough of their own dog food.

    I also agree with Jason that the depth of the problem can vary tremendously. Some jobs may be resolvable primarily through graphic design skills. But others require deep strategies (beyond the strategy of visual language) in order to properly represent extensive usability requirements at the level of system architecture.

    Finally I do want to say I think it’s worth asking these kinds of questions about the meaning of terms. They do evolve and change afterall. My own vision of usability incorporates pretty much every experience in life, as I try to capture in my blog called ‘UX Observer’ (www.tuag.ca/uxo).

    Michael Keara

  7. Jenius says:

    I do agree with you when you say that designers and coders usually have a large influence on and/or completely take care of the user experience aspect of a product. This is exactly the problem – designers and coders are not trained in user experience, and should not be in the role of doing this. Having a coder or a designer also design your user experience is generally a *very risky choice* for a super important interface.

    Developers work on how the code operates behind the scene. Designers work on the interface’s visual style. Both of these are important, and are essential parts of the user’s experience with the interface. And when you say that ‘user experience designer’ is perhaps too broad of a term, I agree, but it is the term that has come to stand for the architecture and interaction models behind the interface’s organization in today’s language.

    See these Wikipedia articles for more details:

    I personally prefer the term “Interaction Designer”, and you will find this is often used to represent the same job.

    UX/Interaction Design is a very significant field with huge amounts of research behind it and lots to study, as much as it is sometimes mis-named. For anyone who is interested in learning more, I would recommend Alan Cooper’s fantastic book About Face 3 (http://www.amazon.com/About-Face-Essentials-Interaction-Design/dp/0470084111) as an introduction.

    And @Michael Keara, I think the term you were looking for was “implementation model” – this is the way software often turns out when the UX is designed by a developer/programmer.

    Also Sacha, I’m excited to be somewhat involved in the development of Locomotive – I’ve been talking with Sean and with my company (Carrot Creative) recently and we’ve had some very productive sessions. I also snagged a copy of the locomotive source and am planning on making a couple little front-end enhancements and shooting them back your way. Cheers!

    • Sacha says:

      I like the term “Interaction Designer” much better. I’ll probably start using this instead of “UX Designer” from now on.

      But don’t wholly agree with your vision of Interaction Design as something completely separate from either development or design.

      It seems to me that most start-ups are either started by developers or designers, and not so much by interaction designers (I’d love to be proved wrong by the way). So by saying that developers/designers are not supposed to care about Interaction Design, we are discouraging the creation of products like Hipmunk, where interaction design is a huge part of the concept from the start.

      If we want to see more innovative products, we should make developers and designers care more about interaction design, not tell them it’s not their role.

      (and by the way, very excited about you guys joining us on Locomotive/Bushido as well!)

    • Jenius says:

      Ok, fair enough – I never really said or meant to say that we should discourage them from learning it, I just meant that it’s a field that should be taken seriously and not just passed off to someone who has not studied it.

      For example, you could say the same thing between designers and developers – it would be great if you could just hire one person who could do design and development. And sometimes you can – I can both design and develop a simple app myself. But when you have a really serious job, it would be a real gamble to hand me the development lead position with no guidance. You know what I mean? And it might end up working, but probably not as well as if a true professional had done it.

      So I agree, we shouldn’t tell them it’s *not* their role, and learning about interaction design is a great thing that everyone should look into. But when it comes down to a complex and important interface, the interaction design shouldn’t be delegated to someone who has not been well educated and is not qualified for the job.

      Interaction design is a very young field, but I think over the years, more interaction designers will start getting out there – the more complex the interface and interaction is, the more useful they can be : )

    • Sacha says:

      Agreed. I guess the idea is that designers and developers should care about interaction design in addition to interaction designers, not replace them.

    • Brian says:

      User experience design (UXD) is a subset of the field of experience design that pertains to the creation of the architecture and interaction models that affect user experience of a device or system. The scope of the field is directed at affecting “all aspects of the user’s interaction with the product: how it is perceived, learned, and used.”

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  9. anonymous says:

    Why should anybody take user experience advice from a guy whose primary navigation on top of their site is a prime example of “mystery meat navigation”?

    I mean, you’re obviously a talented graphics designer, and the site looks pretty, but icons instead of text for the main menu? Seriously?

    • Sacha says:

      Why should anybody take advice from a guy who doesn’t even give his name?

      I mean, you’re obviously a smart person, and your comment is well-written, but posting as “anonymous”? Seriously?

    • Michael says:

      I am a web developer/designer.

      I find the whole issue of UX highly frustrating. I personally feel that whilst there is a need for the understanding and application of UX, it’s one of those subjects where those who proclaim themselves as “UX Experts” seem a little self-important.

      UX is important but for a lot of website it’s not. For a lot of websites, the user just wants to do a specific task in an easy and quick fashion. We can ALL achieve that.

      I feel that UX is taken more seriously by those who vouch for it then those for whom it actually applies – the users. Who remember MySpace circa 2003? MySpace was a UX “designers” nightmare. The menus were messy, the layout confusing.

      The reality is none of that mattered because nobody using it cared.

      For me, UX is web design, and web design is UX. The whole point of web design from the ground up is that you’re turning a bunch of text and images into a functional, easy to use and attractive website. And those in turn surely encompass everything that you classified to be UX. In fact, as I waffle on, I think I may just be re-iterating what you’ve already said.

      Basically, UX is a part of web design, and therefore all web designers should know UX and all UX experts are basically “re-packaged” web designers.

      In other words, Hear! Hear!

    • Tony says:

      I’ve been in the “industry” for over 13 years. I started out as a graphics guy, then web designer, AD, CD, Information Architect and now A UX Architect. I work on large enterprise sits both for internal and public facing, most recently the redesign of the FCC.gov site and mobile app, as well as a new mobile app for the United States Post Office. Most of my enterprise projects run over $10MM US.

      I feel that as an architect I have to take a number of things into account. I have to know what the business is trying to accomplish. I have to identify who the target demographic is and develop the user personas and stories. I have to think how I can make the site, mobile app, mobile site or whatever I’ve been asked to architect work for both parties. I have to take into account how it will be coded, the framework used, about how long it will take and more. I can also code so I’ll do the Html, CSS and Jquery dev as well. As an “UX Architect” I have to know all of these areas and what it will take to pull off what I’m proposing.

      I like the term Visual Designer for the person doing the look and feel. I might do this as well if the team is smaller and I just need to step up.

      I can say though that by calling myself an “architect” my hourly rate jumps up big time and my yearly salary is at least $30,000 over a UX Designer, Visual Designer or Web Designer.

  10. Andy says:

    This is a really interesting article and debate. Whilst I agree the term UX Designer would seem to cover a multitude of areas I also believe this has been in part because of systematic misuse across the industry.

    In many respects the web design industry is an infant, comprised of individuals and organisations who seek to define it in a highly structured and disciplined manner and those talented individuals who wear many hats and do a little, or a lot of everything.

    For freelancers, contractors and small agencies the term UX designer can either seem pretentious or an umbrella term covering everything they already do. In contrast large agencies or those developers engaged in sizeable projects with many contributors view UX Design as a focussed and specific discipline taking place in isolation of design and/or development.

    This is perhaps analogous to the role of an architect. Such a person would specify clearly the functional parameters of a building but would not necessarily determine the suitability of given building methods or load requirements, for this a structural engineer would get involved.

    Additionally contractors, electricians, plumbers, glazers, interior designers, health and safety inspectors and building inspectors would line up to do their bit.

    Whether or not the lifts functioned or there were enough fire exits or the building was warm enough would really have anything to do with the architect but one would expect each subsequent trade to uphold the elements within the architects specification and hence deliver a safe, usable and efficient solution.

    In contrast if one considers a small building firm carrying out a house extension, a project such as this can be delivered comfortably without many of the experts mentioned above.

    If UX Designer fails to correctly frame this role then perhaps UX Architect would be closer to the mark but I tend to agree with earlier comments – the name is not really important.

    What is important is whether or not these specific roles fit into the type of work or projects you are engaged in. Smaller agencies or freelancers needn’t be pre-occupied with negating the contribution these highly specialised roles have to play; any more than builders should suggest architects are invalid.

    We should determine the roles and specialties required for our project and call them whatever we want to to get the job done.

    PS – I agree with earlier comments, this website is cosmetically stunning but scores negatively on a handful of UX items. I dare say the involvement of a dedicated UX designer would help negate such things. But hey, we’re all learning…

    Thanks for a great piece…

    • Sacha says:

      Very interesting comment. But just to address that last point, I am perfectly conscious of the usability downsides of having “mistery meat” navigation. I made that choice because I thought it looked better, and that’s what I wanted to put the accent on for my blog.

      You’ll notice there are also no comment counts, timestamps, and all the other things that “normal” blogs have. In fact, the whole site is probably a pain to browse.

      But oh well, if I have to choose I’d rather have bad usability but good looks, rather than having a perfectly usable but bland and forgettable site… It’s selfish, I know!

  11. Andy says:

    On balance I think given the target audience you get away with it and having just glanced at some of your other work I sense you are conscious of this anyhow; since other material seems more audience sympathetic.

    After all, if you can’t enjoy a little self indulgence on your personal site where can you???

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  13. Liam says:

    There seems to be a misconception floating around that a web designer’s job is only aesthetics, which is not the case. As with a toy designer, product designer and interior designer, a web designer’s job is how people interact with their creation, and how it is perceived.

    Understanding how colour & layout* influence people emotionally and psychologically is the first step of good interaction design, but the step after that is how you use content and interactive* features to guide a user to the desired goals painlessly and efficiently.

    It’s both of those things combined that a web designer has knowledge of. If you only know colours and layout you are a Graphic Designer, if you only know interaction you are a Interaction Designer.

    User Experience is everything, interaction is just one aspect.

    * roles simplified

  14. AmmoniaBinge says:

    Ya know Jesus loved the UX Designer but,like the dinosaurs they ate each other to death spawning a rash of incomprehensible and crappy interfaces.Ironically, many users seem to enjoy Stumbling really ridiculous sites that argue over the self-important names these people assign themselves.For goodness sakes just make to function.

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  16. Excellent article. I’m sure this will stir up a bit of discussion. We have similar thoughts about the term “branding”. Branding and UX are all part of the same device: controlling a customer’s perceptions of a business. The difference is really just between a more passive medium (like advertising for branding) and an active one (like the web for UX). In the end, someone how calls themselves a brander can’t handle all of the avenues in which a customer is exposed to a brand (although we try), just as a UX expert can never truly control the entire user experience.

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