Do UX designers exist?

I have been UX designer for a few years now and I have come to a realisation that this role doesn’t exist. UX design exists but UX designers don’t.

What do UX designers do?

UX design emerged as a need to help address the gap between the systems we were building and the people using them.

In the past designing software was the challenge but now it is standard. To stand out today, companies need to be designing software for the user. We now compete on user experience. To manage this transition, developers and product teams needed someone to help them get in touch with users. Enter the user experience designer.

Here is a small list of what an user experience designer is expected to do: user research, interviews, usability testing, information architecture, visual design and interaction design. To be an expert in each of those areas would require much time in each area to be proficient.

It’s too broad

With all of the expected tasks, no wonder some job applications for UX designers also include the word “unicorns” and “ninja”. Both are hard to find.

UX designers are all different because they come with different backgrounds. Some are better visual designers, better coders, better system analysts or better strategists. This expectation of knowing broad range of topics but being a specialist in one is known as a T-Shape designer. This means that each of us has our own special skill combination.

This means that one UX designer who did well in one scenario might be unfit for another due to the skill mismatch. It is hard to capture what a UX designer is.

My dilemma with the title “UX designer”

Some say we are the ones in the team who put the user first in our designs but when we design don’t do the actual visuals or code things up. Are we just a bunch of designers who were not technical enough to be developers or not creative enough to be designers?

Are we just a bunch of people who were not technical enough to be developers or not creative enough to be designers?

The world does not exist in grey boxes. It is in colour, it moves. A design that may work well in grey boxes as a concept but may fall apart when the visual design does not work. The design can fall apart when implemented and the experience does not behave as desired. Is it better to describe an interaction in words or as a prototype?

People think that having a UX designers means that they can solve it all. The biggest disservice to the title of “UX designer” is that some designers with this title think they can do it all, even when they can’t. It is worst when they can’t and try push their ideas as gospel because they are the UX designer.

Shouldn’t all of these areas be the responsibility of the whole team rather one single individual?

I feel that the way UX designer works overlaps with what a business analyst, information architect, product manager, user researcher, visual designer or interaction designer may do. If your team has all of these roles filled, then you don’t need a UX designer.

What can UX designers do now?

If you still want to call yourself a UX designer, it is time to get real. Do you do strategic planning, product management, user research, interaction design or content strategy?

UX designers that I have worked with are creative, highly logical and systematic thinkers but we need to ask ourselves, What are you good at? What are you not good at?

Stop presenting designs with lines like “I think” or “I feel” without with evidence or data to back it up.

If you say you focus on the user, then do it. Doing user research is a real thing. Go out and talk to users. Go out and get data. Without it you are just pretending to know. Empower members of the team to make the right decisions by giving them the right motives. Share the results in a way that each person on the team can understand. Long reports and documents mean nothing if no one reads them.

True collaboration

There is a need for teams understand their users. User research is fundamental for product managers to set the direction for the right product. UX designers can help by facilitating methods and activities that get the team thinking about the user better. Is design thinking different than normal thinking?

Is design thinking different than normal thinking?

Whenever we disappear to go sketch without getting people involved, we are doing it wrong. Whenever we design something without caring how it will be implemented, we are doing it wrong. We should be facilitators rather than dictators.

How can you add value by to your team with actionable information about the user today?

What’s next for me?

In a few years time, I don’t think the role of UX designer will exist. My hope is that all members of a team will be contributing to improving the experience for users.

What we’re doing is just design. Let’s accept that and stop trying to separate ourselves here.

What about my role as a UX designer? I am at the crossroads again but this time there is more choice: business analyst, user researcher, content architect, interaction designer or product designer.

Whatever it is, I know I will be involved with making useful products for real users.


Why I became a UX designer

I enjoy coding because it allows me to make digital things with both hardware and software. I studied computer engineering at the University of Waterloo then I was a developer for 8 years. I worked on software which dealt with automotive manufacturing to investment banking. However coding wasn’t the favourite part of my job. The part of the job that I enjoyed the most was gathering information on the business problem and working on what the solution should be.

In an enterprise environment the role of gathering of business information was designated to the business analyst. I did that for a while and produced documents which listed the functional and non functional requirements. Although I learnt a lot about the business, I was missing out on the other side of the applications — the users.

What inspired me?

Most designers I worked with, I never saw. I gave them the requirements and they gave me a design back. The designs missed out the real purpose and was just putting the lipstick on my Visio diagrams. I didn’t like this process but was there a better way?

This all changed when I worked closely with one designer who did interviews and workshops with users before he even touched Illustrator. He gathered information about the business and produced documents in a visual manner with sketches and wireframes. The business were more responsive in reviewing the requirements of the project and provided more insight on what their needs were. I wanted to create the same collaborative process.

My colleague recommended that I read Undercover UX by Cennydd Bowles and James Box. This book was helpful by showing me where and how I can incorporate user experience design processes into a process which did not have it initially.

What did I have to do?

Over the next two years I refined my process as a developer to include some of these practices of sketching, wireframing, interviews and workshops in my day to day role. I knew I was doing something right when traders who are strapped for time were asking for wireframes so that they can discuss concepts for new features. Working in this environment also meant that I didn’t create huge amounts of documents but just the necessary ones.

The next step was making the jump from developer to designer. All I had at the moment were financial trading applications, how could I relate this to other types of apps? I needed a wider breadth of experience. I invested personal time into a few personal projects and helped out a start up designing a mobile payment experience. I managed to get a job at an UX agency which focused on financial services.

Once in my new role, I knew there was still much I had to learn. Using different tools like Omnigraffle and Axure were easy to learn but the major ones was handling design critiques, design principles and presentations. Thanks to the feedback from people I have worked with, it has helped me improve along this evolving journey.

How do I feel now?

Moving from being a developer to a designer allowed me to keep solving problems. Instead of the how, I am now approaching problem solving by focusing on the why.

There are a lot of similarities and parallels between the worlds between business analysis and UX designer. User stories and system diagrams versus personas and experience maps. Data flows versus user flows. For a while we have treated these activities as being separate worlds. But the software we build have those two sides — the business and the user. One can’t be without the other. It is one product.

The biggest lesson to date for me is that UX design cannot be done alone. It requires business, technology and user research to come up with the right user experience. This makes me wonder how this industry will evolve in the future as we become more collaborative.

For more stories of other UX designers who came from a development background, here is an excellent write up from Boon Chew about his journey.

What is good design?

In my early design interviews, I was asked “What makes good design”, I answered “Good design is design that create delight”. Coming from the development world looking into the world of design that’s what I thought. I was wrong.

“Good design is design that creates delight.”

Delight to me were the little animations that appear in page to pre-filling a form on a page. But are these moments of delight good design if the overall experience had no purpose?

As a developer I was copying the latest trends in design when designing my user interfaces. Round and shiny buttons? Yup did that. Flat design? Yup did that. Following these trends taught me how to use design tools better. I thought that if I knew how to create the latest designs then I would get validation on Behance or Dribbble that I was a good designer. But is it good design if people like the way it looks?

Design is about more than just aesthetics. So what makes it good or bad? How do you evaluate design?

As a hobby I like to cook. Watching how the great chefs describe how they cook and how they can make simple ingredients shine. Every ingredient brings a certain flavour to the dish. Every ingredient has a purpose.

What is the purpose of a design element? For each design element the purpose of it is to be useful in solving a problem. The hypothesis driven design approach from Maximilian Wambach has changed the way I approach design. It is how I frame my design tasks:

If [action]
Then [outcome]
Because [customer need/problem]

Design hypotheses focuses the design so that each decision to add or remove an element has to contribute to solving the problem. If it is not helping solving the problem, then it has no purpose. If it has no purpose then why have it?

“Good design solves problems”

This way of approaching design works no matter if you are working with shiny buttons or flat ones. Delight can only come after you first make the design useful.

Design works when you are solving problems.

Multiple levels of done and design

The definition of done is core to agile but can you have multiple levels of done? I came across this blog article that expresses this idea.

Seems like if you don’t know exactly what you are building then this method works. With development you have clear criteria of what needs to be done but design can be more subjective. Not every task with the design process results in the same output. Sometimes it is exploration and it is the learnings that are results. Sometimes it is design assets and it is the actual assets that are the results.

How can you apply a single definition of done to such different outputs?

Most of the comments from the blog article didn’t agree with Mike Cohn (the author) but I agree with him.

Can technology prevent our always on culture by being always on?

Last year I flew on a plane over Christmas and finally got to watch the movie Her. I took notes about the movie relating to technology being immersive into our lives

  • Immersive games – Real time feedback when talking to characters
  • Empathy systems – What is it to be human, Writing for others
  • Adapting to change – Contextual images

What I thought was interesting was the the email filter when the OS said “hey this looks urgent”.  By being always on and processing, it can filter the noise in our daily alerts and notification and only alert us when immediate action is necessary.

Can technology prevent our always on culture by being always on?

A scarier question is do we need human interaction?  Can we avoid human interaction because we can emulate and simulate human interaction? How to you build profiles/personas to capture emotion? Is it that simple? Can you program real love?