UX Essentials Lesson 2: What UX Designers Do


In the previous post, we defined User Experience Design in many contexts. For a refresher, please re-read Defining User Experience Design.

In this lesson, let’s dig into the real-world applications of what UX Designers do. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the UX field, practitioners need to be able to think at a high level but also drill down into detailed work. This is why, time and time again, I find that the architecture analogy is the best way to explain what UX Designers are.

The roles involved in building a house aren’t too different from those involved in building digital experiences:

Building a HouseArchitectInterior DesignerDrywaller & Brick layerElectrician & PlumbingReal Estate Agent
UX DesignUX Designer, Information ArchitectUser Interface / Visual DesignFront-end DeveloperBack-end DeveloperProduct and Project Manager

(Above diagram heavily adapted from SlideShare seen here.)

When I get asked what I do as a User Experience Designer, this is usually the explanation that “clicks” with people:

You know how architects create a plan and blueprint for a house, and real estate developers & construction build the house? I do that for websites, apps and digital experiences. I work with developers and designers to build the final product.

(Aside: Another point of confusion for UX Beginners is the plethora of UX job titles. To clear this up read How to Navigate the Ocean of UX Job Titles).

Of course, the architecture analogy isn’t perfect. But it serves as a good starting point for furthering that conversation.

So What Do UX Designers Do?

To understand what UX Designers do, we put their activities in two major buckets: discovery and design.

Discovery encompasses all the research, background information, competitive analysis and more that UX Designers would gather in order to design in a more informed and user-centric way.

Design is the encompasses all the activities of designing actual parts of your product, armed with the information you’ve gathered in the discovery phase.

(Note: I’m not advocating that it’s always a linear process from Discovery to Design; it’s  of it more like a cycle).

Here are some deliverables to paint of picture of the activities that UX Designers might be responsible for:

User InterviewsSketches
Mental ModelsUser Flows
Stakeholder AnalysisWireframes
Competitive AnalysisPrototypes
Business Requirements DefinitionUser Interface Design
CardsortingCoding (maybe)

User Experience Designers have many responsibilities, but the key idea is that UX professionals go through the phases of discovery and design in order to create user-centered products.

What Tools Do UX Designers Use?

It helps some UX Beginners to understand what UX Designers do by seeing the tools used in the industry. Again, these are not hard-and-fast rules but UX design tools can be  bucketized into different design activities:

ResearchUI DesignPrototypingAnalytics
Google FormsAdobe IllustratorAxureGoogle Analytics
Survey MonkeySketchInVisionCrazyEgg
UserTesting.comAdobe PhotoshopFlintoKissMetrics
Eyetracking ToolsOmnigraffleHTML & CSSUsabilityTools.com

This is just a sample of some of the tools UX Designers might use. Some tools can be used across different design activities. For example, I used Axure for all my UI Design and Prototyping, and even to make sitemaps.

There’s new tools released everyday and the key is to remember to define what problem you need to solve first, then use whatever tool that gets the job done.

Really, there’s no need to feel bad about not using every latest tool on the market. What’s more important is to go through this type of thinking:

  • “Hmm, we need to gather more feedback on this interface from users in another part of the country.”
  • Googles “remote user testing
  • Finds UserTesting.com, uses a free trial to get feedback.

For a deeper discussion on this topic, read How to Move Beyond UX Tools.

There are some tools that a designer may use repeatedly and invest more time and training in, such as prototyping software like Axure or Omnigraffle. Many of the tools used depends on where a UX Designer works. Which brings us to our last point…

Where do UX Designers work?

User Experience Designers work in many different environments, which most often fall in these buckets:

  • Startups
  • Agencies
  • In-house (typically bigger corporations)

I wrote an in-depth post about the realities and expectations of working in each type of environment here: How to Evaluate UX Jobs at Agencies vs Startups vs Big Companies.

The important thing to remember is that each environment has its own processes, tools, and of course culture. If you work at a great place, the employees there will be open to using new processes and tools – but you might need to justify or demonstrate the value of those tools if you’re proposing them.

Let’s recap we’ve covered:

  • The architecture/house-building analogy for explaining User Experience Roles
  • What UX Designers do (the Discovery and Design phases)
  • Tools used in UX Design
  • Different work environments for UX Jobs

More and more, design thinking is valued at companies; people want UX Designers. It’s exciting to see operations from governmental agencies to non-profits get educated about UX and desire UX talent.

Regardless of where UX Designers work, there is an increasing body of work, knowledge and process that a designer can apply anywhere.

We’ll start digging into the first step of this process in this next lesson with Strategy. Stay tuned!


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