What is a UX designer?

There's a certain amount of terminology used on this site that assumes a reasonable level of previous exposure to the roles of a UX designer and Information Architecture (IA). This can be a little presumptious as many people I meet are in fact still quite keen to simply get an answer to a common, fundamental question which boils down to 'what is a UX designer?'

One of the key considerations in my role as a user experience designer is to make sure that the site or application I'm designing makes sense to the target user groups, and phraseology and terminology form a large part of this.

With this in mind, the remainder of this page is my take on some of the common terminology associated with the realm of UX design in the hope that it may help those getting acquainted with this field.

One important caveat when trying to help with definitions related to the UX space is that things are evolving at a rapid pace and so an open, flexible mind is important as the concensus of opinion amongst thought leading UX practitioners on this subject is in a constant state of flux (although the core principles are now established and pretty much set in stone).

My interpretation of UX design / IA terminology

User experience designer

Information architect

User centred design

User testing

Usability expert review

User experience specification

Personas, user journeys, and task based design

User Experience Designer (UX Designer)

The term user experience designer, UX designer, user experience architect, user experience consultant are all used to describe pretty much the same thing. Often it's just a question of who you speak to or what company you are working with.

Having said that, the term User Experience designer is sometimes used as an all encompassing role title (as in fact is Information Architect, but increasingly less so now), incorporating all aspects of user focused design considerations including information architecture, user centred design, user testing, interaction design, and even aspects of visual design.

One subtle, possibly growing difference, (we'll see over the coming months/years) is that a UX designer (as opposed to an information architect) may suggest to some a more creative outlook in terms of visual design considerations and incorporation of both documented and less defined aspects of a given company's brand.

So to some, a user experience designer differs from an IA in that the practitioner has an added focus on a creatively lead brand experience as opposed to an approach based solely on solid usability principles and the organisation of information.

Conflicts between creative and usability view points are well known to UX designers and so there is likely to be growing pains as some organisations seek to apply more and more of a creative/visual aspect to UX design.

It's very important to note that the term 'creative' needs to be handled with care in this sense as it's my firm belief that the best (and still quite rare) user experience design allows for the combination of impactful creative presentation of information in a way that preserves and optimises usability. Combining these 2 sometimes competing disciplines (along with the overarching principle of 'usefulness') is in my view an act of high level creativity, often resulting in world class design solutions.


Information architect (IA)

An IA is responsible for ensuring that the organisational structure and presentation of information on a website or application makes sense from a user's perspective. There's a lot that needs to be done behind the scenes to achieve this, however in a nutshell, the objective is to ensure that the right information is presented in the right way, in the right place, at the right time.

If you've ever been on a website and felt frustrated because you can't seem to complete what you thought was a simple task? (we've all been there), chances are the site you were struggling with needs the attention of an experienced information architect who is well versed in the core aspects of designing for website usability.

Conversely, have you ever been to a site and completed the task that you went there for quickly and easily? Hopefully so. Such positive experiences are not so easy to remember, and it's a tough fact of life for information architects (and other usability related professionals), that if they've done their work well, users will never notice they've even been involved.


User Centred Design (UCD)

User centred design is the application of a user focused methodology which incorporates activities (in any combination depending on the practitioner) such as focus groups, user/call center/stakeholder interviews, analysis of user data/demographics (often sourced via an organisation's marketing department), creation of user personas, creation of task based user journeys, creation of User Experience Specification documentation (site map and wireframes as a minimum).

Essentially, this approach aims to craft a solution based largely on key user goals (usually those belonging to the target or most common visitor types). UCD can be a very successful approach as focused attention on user needs is a healthy thing and helps to shift the focus away from potential stakeholder pre-conceptions and pressure to design in ill-advised 'cool' features, visuals, or functionality that would add noise and clutter to the design and so detract from the user experience overall.

As long as all elements identified during the UCD process are produced to form a united, well balanced solution, then users are likely to enjoy a smooth streamlined user experience, greatly enhancing the chances of repeat visits and growth though positive word of mouth.


User testing

As the name suggests, user testing is about testing the web site/page/application with real life users. There are different ways that this can be achieved depending on project approach, testing time available, and budget.

Experienced user focused professionals have often seen the great benefits gained from user testing and will generally be in favor of a robust usability testing plan being factored into a web project as early as possible. Resistance to this approach is often a source of frustration to usability professionals as they try in vain to convince project sponsors of the considerable merits of the early application of usability testing.

Some common types of user testing are:

It's critical that the user tasks to be tested as well as a moderators' guide are produced by an experienced usability practitioner. The role of testing moderator itself requires key skills in order to draw out the common patterns of comprehension and behavior from the testing candidates.

The key benefit of user testing is that testing design concepts on users prior to full technical build allows the design team to bring the usability of a new design from an initial point of "nice idea, no idea if it would work with our customer base" to "proven idea backed up with a proven design". The proposed design can then be refined and polished to as high a level as the projects' usability testing time constraints and budget allow.

The powerful business case is quite simply that it's much much cheaper to fix usability problems iteration by iteration before the final solution is built and launched (at which point it's sometimes passed the point of no return).


Usability expert review

With a usability expert review, an evaluator explores a product or web site in detail and assesses its usability against a set of principles, best practice guidelines, and/or knowledge and experience gained over time. Expert reviews are popular because they are much quicker and cheaper to carry out than a usability test.

User Experience Specification

This term is used to describe the documentation that a user experience designer / information architect produces as their key deliverable towards the end of the design phase of a web project. It is most commonly comprised of site maps and page wireframes as a minimum, however other aspects that can be included are:


Personas, user journeys, and task based design

A persona is essentially a fictitious user, described in varying amounts of detail, the majority of which is ideally based on marketing/demographic data, interviews with client interfacing staff members, experience from previous projects, and general insight gained during the earlier stages of the project.

A key aspect of a persona is the identification of their site goals/objectives/tasks which allow the usability practitioner to work out the optimum user journey to allow the persona to achieve their on-site goals. This helps drive the formulation of a suitable site map and eventually the page/component wireframes.

The number of personas developed for a given project depends on the complexity of the project and the amount of information available about a given organizations' user base. I have found that the application of between 2-5 personas is best in most circumstances.

I hope you have enjoyed what has simply been my take on what is clearly a set of constantly evolving terminology that you will find within the UX / IA arena and that I have at least to some extent helped to answer the common question 'what is a UX designer'?

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