I'm David Little, a user experience researcher and designer

So, when you say UX designer …

Posted: January 18, 2014

I don’t generally post on “personal” topics on this site, preferring to keep it to more strictly professional matters. However, I’ve just come out the other side of a recruitment process which I admit I found frustrating on a personal level, but which I also think highlights a more interesting wider issue about job titles and descriptions within the UX field. So, I thought it was worth jotting down some thoughts on it.

I should state up front I don’t want to use this as a forum for simply being critical of an organisation who decided not to hire me; of course that’s their prerogative and it just so happened I wasn’t the right fit for the particular job they wanted to recruit for. Admittedly it might have saved me a little time if they had decided exactly they were looking for (essentially a visual designer) before the recruitment process began, but hey that’s just the way it goes sometimes; and maybe the process itself in this case helped them refine what they were looking for.

However, taking some positives from the experience, it’s made me think more about the term “UX designer”. It can be a notoriously difficult to pin down what this means as “UX” by its very nature is a reasonably vague term. Definitions of the term are fluid and it seems you can’t go more than a day or so without discussion about constitutes a UX designer cropping up (as opposed to a UI designer, service designer or “insert term here” designer).

So, if it’s hard enough for us practitioners to define it must be harder still for employers to articulate what they are looking for in a UX professional. I’ve certainly worked in environments, including my current one which is primarily engineering and research-led—not a criticism, just a fact–where user experience issues may be described as “user interface” or simply “front-end”, or maybe encompass anything developers don’t like doing (including training or documentation). Again, it’s not a criticism of anyone, I think it just demonstrates that non-UXers (quite understandably) may understand UX differently from us. In which case it’s up to us to explain and educate our colleagues, even when their eyes start to glaze.

I personally see UX as an umbrella term, and usually describe it as such in lectures on interaction design I’ve given, using Dan Saffer’s UX venn diagram as an example of it containing a number of sub-disciplines, all ultimately concerned with the way people interact with a digital product (or maybe just “product”).

But I do wonder if the term “UX designer”, both by its vagueness and current trendiness is becoming slightly meaningless. I’ve certainly seem it refer to a whole range of jobs, from more research-oriented roles, ones with a marketing orientation through to more visual design and front-end development roles. In the worst cases I think it’s become a replacement term for “web designer” (maybe with some more references to usability or user-centred design added).

So, what are the core competencies for a UX designer? I’d say they should include the following (but not necessarily be limited to them):

  • understanding users and user needs (e.g. through research)
  • interaction design, including user-centred design and usability testing
  • user interface design (i.e. visual design)
  • information architecture

Other competencies that could be added might include content strategy, accessibility or in some circumstances coding.

I’ve struggled to define myself professionally–although I will often describe myself as a UX designer, I tend use the term “interaction designer” as I do on this website, resumé and LinkedIn as I feel it aligns to the key competencies in my “t-shaped” skill-set.

Personally I feel if any of the main competencies I list above are being stressed more than any other in a job specification then it’s questionable to describe that job as a “UX designer” job; and there are plenty of jobs that are described as “interaction designer”, “information architect” or “UI designer” (or “visual designer”) as well as the odd remaining “web designer” role. Of course it’s a balancing trick too: if too many skills are being requested or if the UXer is expected to perform miracles, then we’re heading right into unicorn territory.

Or maybe it’s time to do away with the title “UX designer” altogether and just use more exact titles? The problem of course, is that UX designer has become a kind of short-hand for a multitude of roles and skills, some of which might be performed by one individual, particularly in smaller organisations.

What do you think?




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