A User Experience Designer Might Not Be What You Think

A user experience designer is not the same as a user interface designer. Their tools are collaboration, research and design thinking. Not Sketch or Photoshop.

What is your job title? Is it representative of what you actually do? When I set up Boagworks I had to decide what to call myself. After much agonising I decided to go with the title of UX (User Experience) designer. But it turns out that this is a job title with a lot of confusion attached to it. How ironic is that!

User experience designer is a confusing title

For a start you often see UI (User Interface) designer and UX designer referred to as the same thing. But in my mind at least, they are different roles.

Also, every single word in the title carry confusing connotations.

  • User. What is a user? How do they differ from customers? Is user experience and customer experience the same thing?
  • Experience. Is it actually possible to design an experience? Where does the experience start and stop? How much control do we really have over the entire experience?
  • Designer. In most people’s mind a designer is somebody who produces an interface or visual of some kind. Yet most of my work does not involve Sketch, Photoshop or some other graphics application. I don’t even spend that much time creating prototypes or wireframes.

Of course the answers to these questions are subjective. But I wanted to share with you my interpretation and why I chose to call myself a user experience designer.

My definition of user experience

I have built my view of the role on two simple observations:

  • The experience of users does not stop at the edge of the screen.
  • Users are customers who use digital tools to interact with your organisation.

If you start from this definition of UX, the difference between this and UI design is obvious. A UI designer is a specialist in improving the user interface. This contributes to the experience, but is not the whole thing. Therefore a UI designer is less concerned with the broader elements of the experience.

This definition also helps to explain the difference between UX and customer experience. User experience is a specialism within customer experience. A specialism that focuses on customers who choose to use digital touch points. Of course, today this describes the majority of customers. This means the line between these two disciplines is blurring.

Understanding the relationship between customer experience, user experience and user interface is important.
Understanding the relationship between customer experience, user experience and user interface is important.

Being a designer is not what you think

This provides some clarity to user experience. But we are still left with the role of designer. What does it mean to design a user experience? Is this even possible?

The answer to these questions depends on your definition of designer. If, as I said before, a designer is somebody who produces visuals, then you cannot design an experience. But I have a different definition of what a designer is.

To my mind a designer is somebody who applies design thinking to business challenges. Design thinking refers to a set of practices and methodologies. Practices that range from rapid iteration and prototyping to user research. In short, design thinking is a problem-solving approach.

This means you can apply design thinking to almost any business problem. From the creation of a user interface to products or even entire companies.

What does a user experience designer do?

Based on this definition of the user experience and role of designer, what does a UX designer actually do?

There is no single answer to this question. But in all cases it will involve a degree of user research. Before you can design a user experience, you must first understand the user. From there you can identify problems and pain points in the existing experience.

It is at this point that things become more complicated. Depending on where weaknesses exist, the UX designer could be doing many things.

He could be working with a UI designer or developer to improve a digital touch point such as a website. Or he could be working with a marketer to improve the social media experience.

But a UX designer is as likely to be working with senior management on company strategy and policy. He might be working with HR to encourage cross departmental collaboration. Or speaking to finance about improving the payment experience.

Finally, a user experience designer is there to represent the user. To educate colleagues about user needs. To encourage everybody to work together to create a better experience.

In short, he will work on any touchpoint the user has with an organisation. Or any system that support those touchpoints. There is rarely a part of the business that they will not talk to because they all contribute to the experience.

A generalist looking at things from the users perspective

Being a user experience designer is a wide-ranging and collaborative role. UX designers are generalists who work with specialists in different fields. But in everything they have a single aim. They seek to reduce friction in how companies interact with their connected customers.

But does your boss understand UX design?

So you are a UX designer. But do your colleagues and management team understand the value of what you do? Working in a company who doesn’t get user experience design is frustrating. Fortunately I have written a book that will help.

Learn more

  • Anthony Dry

    Hmmm. Surely there’s blends and shades of grey going on here? As a UI designer I am expected to put the user first in my thinking with regards to layout and interactivity.

    I am expected to consider space, choices, affordance, accessibility, visual signposting, typography and interactivity to name just a few. I don’t think UX is mutually exclusive, it runs across the whole piece.

    I do agree however that because of the many facets of UX the title UX Designer is not clear enough. For example I work with a UX designer that researches the project, interviews and produces user journeys and personas. But the responsibility falls on me to take that information and use it to its fullest to shape the UI from sketching, wireframes and prototype to final UI. My UX colleague will dip in occasionally as we bounce thoughts and feedback off each other.

    Maybe I’ve got the wrong end of the stick?

    • I don’t think you got the wrong end of the stick so much as I failed to make myself clear enough. You are absolutely right. A UI designer cares just as deeply about user needs as a UX designer. The differences that the UI designer focuses on the user interface while UX designer looks at the broader experience. Hence the illustration showing UI design as a subset of UX design. That said, even this is too rigid to describe reality. As we specialise more and more there is an increasing amount of overlap between roles. The edges are fuzzy and that is okay.

      • Anthony Dry

        Thanks for this Paul, and thanks for your website, it’s very insightful. I picked up one of your books up many years ago so i must revisit it. It’s always time, time and more time that i can’t find. So would you say for my position – do you think it is worth me exploring UX in a broader sense that transcends the typical role characteristics of what i do? Or does that just cause more problems with the so called Unicorn model?

        • If it interests you then definitely explore it further. I always believe that following your interests is more important than some arbitrary definition of a role.

  • iApe

    “The differences that the UI designer focuses on the user interface while UX designer looks at the broader experience. Hence the illustration showing UI design as a subset of UX design. That said, even this is too rigid to describe reality.”

    Here we go again.

    The facts are that these are just names/titles to further try to define design in the online/business world. They are titles that people want to define themselves by in order to get bigger paychecks or feel self important. Anyone who calls themselves a “Designer” by profession, should take all the things into consideration that this article mentions. Whether you are designing a logo, internet portal, banner ad, email, landing page, flyer, presentation etc., you better be asking yourself the same questions and collaborating with all facets of your company and clients.

    A designer needs to do the necessary research to understand the end user/consumer. Design is communication. Designers must be strategists, working with senior management and any other business units in order to get insight and buy in and to make sure they are communicating what needs to be communicated or else a “pretty design” is just that and you might as well hang it up on the wall as a decoration.

    Design in the business/communication world is not and should not be approached as fine art. It is strategic, calculated, researched, tested and thoughtful messaging. Fine art comes from an internal place and design in business comes from an external place.

    Whether you call yourself or position yourself as a UI Designer, a UX Designer, or a Designer, I found that in 99.9% of the cases the title has become a way to negotiate a better salary. These titles have just blurred, not defined what it means to be a professional Designer in the business world.

    If we are “specializing more and more” how can there be an “increasing amount of overlap”? That statement just go to show that the statements that are being made in this article and I assume in the book, are based on the flawed logic of someone who does not truly understand design and is looking to position themselves as yet another “expert”.

    Does a Designer no play a “wide-ranging and collaborative role”? Does a Designer NOT “seek to reduce friction in how companies interact with their connected customers” ? Are a Designer’s tools NOT “collaboration, research and design thinking”? If not, well than I submit that such a person not call themselves a Designer.

    A book written to justify these titles is just self serving and profit driven. It does nothing to further qualify or define the role of a designer- UX, UI or otherwise.

  • Margus

    Thank you, Paul, for the article. I’ve struggled to find a good explanation, how my approach to CX/UX is different compared to the average front-end developer’s or designer’s understanding. We both deal with user experience, but I do it on the strategic level, where you change not only the things you see on digital screens, but also processes, products, company strategy, if necessary for better customer experience.