Visual Designers Are Just As Important As UX Designers | July 19, 2011

As I explained in my previous post, user experience design is a multidisciplinary activity which includes psychology, user research, information architecture, interaction design, graphic design and a host of other disciplines. Due to the complexity of the field a user experience team will typically be made up of individuals with a range of different specialisms.

On larger teams you’ll find people who focus on one specific area, such as user research or information architecture. You may even find people who specialise in specific activities such as usability testing or wireframing. This level of specialism isn’t possible in smaller teams, so practitioners tend to group related activities together.

Conceptually I believe you can break design into tangible and abstract activities. Tangible design typically draws on the artistic skills of the designer and results in some kind of visually pleasing artefact. This is what most people imagine when they think of design and it covers graphic design, typography and visual identity.

However there is also a more abstract type of design which concerns itself with structure and function over form. The output from this type of design tends to be more conceptual in nature; wireframes, site-maps and the like. One type of design isn’t any more valuable or important than another, they’re just different.

When products and teams reach a certain size or level of complexity, one person can’t undertake all these roles. When this happens, natural divisions occur. So in small to mid sized teams it’s quite common to describe people who specialise in tangible design as visual designers, while those who focus on more abstract activities are known as user experience designers.

Now we all know that visual design is an undeniable part of the way people experience a product or service, so it may feel a little odd that user experience designers don’t actually design the entire experience. It may also be confusing that when user experience designers talk about “the UX” of a product, they are often referring to the more abstract essence of the product as described through wireframes, site maps and the like.

This ambiguity can lead many visual designers to misunderstand what user experience design is, especially if they’ve never worked alongside a dedicated user experience designer. This has also led a lot of visual designers to mistakenly believe that because the work they create results in some kind of user experience, that makes them a user experience designer. While this may be true in the purely philosophical sense, this isn’t what people mean when they talk about user experience designers (try applying for a senior UX position without understanding user research, IA and Interaction design and see how far you get).

The term user experience architect was coined in 1990 but the roots reach back to the 1940s and the fields of human factors and ergonomics. We’ve had dedicated user experience consultancies for the last 10 years, and internal divisions before that. We’ve got numerous professional conferences attended by people who have been working in UX for much of their professional life. In short, User experience design is a distinct and well understood discipline that stretches back many years and isn’t simply a new buzzword to describe “the right way to design”.

Over the last 12 months I’ve come across far too many visual designers describing themselves as user experience designers because they don’t fully understand the term. Instead they’ve seen a few articles that explain how UX is the new black and decided to rebrand themselves.

I’ve also come across many fantastic visual designers who feel pressured into becoming user experience designers because they think this is the only way to progress their careers. It seems that due to a lack of supply, user experience design has somehow come to represent a higher order of design, or design done right. At best this is nonsense and at worst this is actually damaging to peoples careers.

So here’s the truth. Good visual designers are just as hard to find as good user experience designers. They have exactly the same status in the industry and earn pretty much the same rates. So you don’t need to became a user experience designer in order to take your career to the next level. Instead, surround yourself with experts, hone your skills and take pride in your work. With so few good designers out there, don’t go throwing away much prized and hard earned skills under the mistaken belief that you must become a UX designer in order to grow, as that’s just not the case.

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What's in a name: The duality of user experience | July 6, 2011

As somebody who has publically stated that they “don’t care about user experience” and is fed up of “defining the dammed thing” I find myself being drawn into discussions about the term far more often than I’d like.

Some designers think that user experience is just a made up name and that we’re all user experience designers really. Others think that User Experience is a term used by consultants to trick clients out of money and would prefer it we all just stuck to the title of web designer. Some feel that user experience is simply common sense design while others see it as a land grab to own the fun bit of the design process. This is all complete nonsense of course, which is why I keep getting drawn into an argument I don’t really want to have and one that isn’t especially beneficial to the industry.

It’s obviously nonsense to argue that the field of UX design doesn’t exist as there are hundreds of books and conferences devoted to the practice, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people with UX in their job title and an unfathomable number of blog posts about the subject.

I think one of the big problems is that user experience isn’t one thing; it’s several. On a basic level every item that has been designed creates an experience through use. So some people naturally assume that every act of design is in fact an act of user experience design. After all, if all design results in an experience, aren’t all designers user experience designers?

The answer of course is no. It’s entirely possible to design something without thinking about how it’ll be experienced. In fact I believe this is still the way most things are designed. Bad experiences are rarely the deliberate choice of the designer. Instead they are usually the unfortunate outcome of an ill-considered process.

So does this mean that to be a user experience designer all you need to do is think about the outcome? Well in the broadest sense of the term, possibly; but in the sense that it’s used by most web professionals, definitely not.

You see, as well as being a measure of the quality of an interaction, user experience design is also a field of practice. Or more specifically an umbrella term that covers several fields of practice including Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Usability, Interface Design, Information Design and several more I’m probably forgetting. All of these practices go into designing good user experiences, so are part of the user experience cannon.

As all of these are effectively aspects of good web design, I can see why experienced practitioners who have gained mastery over many of these fields no longer see the distinction or think it’s necessary. So for them, web design (or simply design) makes sense as a title. I understand this point of view and agree with it to an extent.
However there is a danger here that relates to the popular notion of the web designer and something called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The popular notion of a web designer is that of a graphic designer, possibly with some technical skills, whose sole focus is designing the look and feel of a website. During the early days of the web this was very much the norm. Sites weren’t especially complicated and many of these advanced skills were yet to have been adopted or even invented.

Today, the vast majority of websites are still designed and built by talented generalists, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s just that some of the larger and more complex sites do require composite teams of specialists with a singular focus. Experts in information categorisation, human computer interaction or interface design. They also need people who specialise in specific programming languages, databases, security, or application architecture. The history of all human progress can be counted by the increased specialisation of individuals amongst a group, and I see this as a good thing.

So we have this strange dichotomy that the term webdesign can be used to describe both a novice and an expert, a neophyte and a master. This is where the Dunning-Kruger effect comes in. If you’re not familiar with this concept it’s the observation that novices suffer from the illusion of superiority and tend to rate their skills much higher than experts because they don’t fully understand the breadth of the field they need to master. Or to use a much quoted aphorism, “they know what they know, but they don’t know what they don’t know”. By comparison, experts tend to know more, but are also more conscious about what they don’t know, hence making them less sure about their expertise.

I’m currently seeing this all the time when it comes to designers discovering User Experience for the first time. Many designers have started calling themselves user experience designers because they have discovered usability testing and wireframing. However these skills are simply the tip of the iceberg and do not a user experience designer make. Because of this I think it’s important for experts to hold mastery of complex skills aloft, rather than convince people that we’re all effectively doing the same thing, when many of us clearly are not. So it’s useful for us to separate skill sets and be able to tell people that what they are doing isn’t in fact user experience design, at least not yet.

Being able to define yourself and differentiate yourself is useful in other areas like recruitment and sales. For instance if you recruit for a Web Designer rather than a Senior User Experience Designer you will end up with a very different class of applicant with a very different range of skills.

Like all job titles, they are much more useful for people progressing through their careers than they are for people who have already reached the pinnacle. So just because you no longer see a need for a job title doesn’t mean that the others don’t or that the title or practice no longer exists and we’re all just interconnected balls of design energy. Sometimes hanging out a shingle is the only way to separate yourself from the person down the road selling inferior goods.

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