What's in a Name | April 18, 2005
Most mature industries have pretty fixed job titles and roles. Take the construction industry for instance. You’ve got Architects, Engineers and Draftsmen. You’ve got Electricians and Carpenters, Bricklayers and Plumbers, Foremen and Site Inspectors. Each one has a defined role and if you met one down the pub, you’d have a pretty good idea what their job entailed.
The movie industry is the same. Every film will have a Director and a Cinematographer. There will be Producers, Actors, Special Effects people and Stuntmen. Each person knows roughly what the other does and how all the roles fit together to produce a great – or not so great – movie.
Because the web design industry is pretty new – practically it’s about 10 years old – we are still in the process of defining our roles. There is also a size issue at play here. To work efficiently, large organisations need to be able to define roles. However in smaller companies, roles are often blurred as people are forced to wear multiple hats. While there are a few large web design companies, over 70% of web companies in the UK employ ten or less people. The smaller companies make up the bulk of the industry and it’s these people who are shaping the industry.
Until recently I wasn’t particularly bothered about having a title. I worked full time for a small web design agency and never really needed to succinctly describe what I did to another person. When people asked what I did for a living I’d usually tell them with an embarrassed shrug that I was a web designer.
I say “embarrassed shrug” for a couple of reasons. Firstly where I live, everybody is either a “web designer”, a “musician” or a “DJ”, and usually all three. Secondly, the term web designer has developed a bit of a stigma of late. In the late 90’s, being a web designer carried some social currency. It meant you were young, smart and professional. Now everybody “does” web design from the 14 year old next door to my hairdresser. Web design has been devalued from a professional endeavour to a trade at best and a hobby at worst. This may sound a little elitist. It’s not meant to be. I love the fact that web design is so accessible. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be here today.
If you work for yourself or a small company, the title web designer is probably sufficient. However when you want to move to your next job or market your skills to a wider audience you need to do two things. Firstly you need to be able to explain to potential employers and clients what you do as succinctly as possible. Secondly you need to be able to differentiate yourself from potential competition, and the hordes of hobbyists out there.
Before going freelance, I thought long and hard about exactly what it is I do. The obvious choice was visual design and front end development. Obvious because it’s such a nice, distinct and easily marketable package. I come up with visual designs and then translate them into XHTML and CSS layouts.
However, that’s only a fraction of what I do on a daily basis. One of my big interests is usability. At client and internal meetings I’m the person thinking about how the system is going to be used. I’ll work with the client and my team to make sure the goals are set and the system is actually doing what the client wants it to do, in the simplest possible way. I’ll work up use-cases, user flows, wireframes and navigational schema. I’ll write user survey questions , plan and implement usability tests.
Related to this is Information Architecture. I’ve always thought of Information architects as creating taxonomies and controlled vocabularies. Yet a large part of what I do is pure IA. Planning site hierarchies and naming conventions, running card sorts and contextual surveys.
I know many people in the web design industry who do similar work to me, but no two people seem to share the same job title. Some people would call this role a Producer, although others would say that a Producer is more like a Project Manager. Some people would call this role an Information Architect, although I personally think that Information Architect doesn’t necessarily convey the scope of the work done. Some people have started using the terms “Big IA” and “Little IA” to make the distinction, however I feel that belittles the more academic side of IA somewhat.
Currently there seem to be so many job titles floating around. Some of the ones I’ve toyed with in the past include:
- Information Architect
- User Experience Designer
- User Interface Design
- User-centred Designer
- Interaction Designer
- Information Designer
- Web Producer
- Project Manager
- Senior Designer
- Team Leader
- Creative Director
The term I currently favour is User Experience Designer. It’s a term that focuses squarely on the user and is closely related to User-centred Design. The User Experience Designers role is to manage the strategic vision of the project. It’s their job to work with the client and design/development team to define the project and then make sure that definition is met. They write the specs, create use-cases and wireframes. They act as the first port of call when clients want to discuss technical or strategic issues and are ultimately responsible for the success of the project.
What does your role entail and what’s your current job title? Do you feel this accurately describes what you do, and if not, what title would you choose?
Posted at April 18, 2005 8:51 AM