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Feb. 16th, 2009 | 04:31 pm
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In the last few weeks, I've been asked questions about the field of user experience design by both friends and a few strangers. Instead of writing my responses out over n' over, I figured a blog post might come in handy. Below is my own personal take on the basics of UX in FAQ form:

1. What is "user experience" (aka "UX")?

In a broad sense, this field examines both improving existing products and the creation of new ones that solve some sort of human problem or fulfill a desire. More often than not, this mainly involves the design of web sites, web applications, and client software (programs that run on a computing device vs the web).

This narrow definition reflects the field as its practiced in techy areas like Seattle and Silicon Valley, but on a greater scale, "UX" means a whole lot more.

If you really boil it down, anyone who prepares anything for someone else to consume is a UX designer... so by this definition, we are all UX designers. Telling someone a story: that's UX... DJs stringing together songs in a pleasurable way: that's UX... the sushi chef who prepares an omakase style diner: definitely UX.... filmmaking = UX. No matter what the particular example, these all share the common thread of understanding an audience and satisfying some kind of desire (to be informed, entertained, etc).

2. Where do "user experience designers" work?

Going by the definition above, someone with this printed on their business card can follow any of the following routes:

A. working for a big corporation like Apple, Google, IBM, Oracle, Amazon, etc
B. working for a startup or small company like Twitter
C. working as a freelancer that goes from project to project with various clients (like my friend Sally)
D. working for a design firm that also has multiple clients (Adaptive Path & ZAAZ are popular ones)

A person in this role will spend their time thinking about how to make a given experience easier to understand and generally more appealing, hopefully even pleasurable!

3. How do I know if UX is something I'd want to do for a living? (aka, "you might be a UX designer if...")

A good litmus test is to look at how you live your daily life. Are you constantly looking for ways to improve the environment around you? Are you the type that gets enjoyment from optimizing your closet? Do you look for ways to make your daily routines more efficient? When you run into the inevitable bad user experience, do you only complain about it or do solutions to improve the frustration come to you naturally? The answer to these questions should give you a sense for whether UX is something you'd enjoy and be good at.

4. How does UX differ from graphic design?

One of the most common misconceptions about the field is that it's the same thing as graphic design. I understand the confusion as the two are very related. To put it as plainly as possible... one could have really crappy graphic desgn skills yet still be a great UX designer. Having art skills is certainly helpful, but it's not a requirement. Some of the best UX work is illustrated by stick figure diagrams and white board drawings covered in post-it notes. In fact, focusing too much on the visual details can often hinder a UX designer depending on the needs of the project (more on this later in the post). While graphic design is certainly a part of good UX, it's a subset which resides along side things like information architecture and usability.

5. So I get it, UX does not equal making pretty graphics... what skills are needed then?

-- Domain knowledge (behind the scenes)

Many people in the tech UX world have degrees in computer science, even though they may not write a single line of code. Why is this useful? On several levels, but most importantly, without a fair bit of knowledge about the constraints of the thing being designed for, the designer will either:

A. design something that's completely impossible to implement (aka "too wild")
B. will miss out on possible design solutions because they didn't know what all was possible (aka "too conservative")

The other component of domain knowledge is the ability to discuss the specifics of a design with the programmers who'll be implementing it. Having a shared language and understanding of the basics under the hood helps tremendously in getting ideas into the real world.

-- Domain knowledge (frontend facing)

The section above talks about knowledge of the underlying systems that make UI's work... this part is more about what the user actually sees and interacts with. The more a UX designer is exposed to different kinds of UI and experiences, the greater their capacity to come up with solutions. There's obviously a law of diminishing returns here, but my point is that if you're designing one particular kind of experience, it's good to look at experiences outside of that particular niche (e.g. web designers looking at video games for inspiration) as a way to broaden the potential solutions to a problem.

-- Empathy & understanding "audience"

Perhaps the most important trait of a good UX designer is the ability to empathize with others. If you're unable to see the world through the eyes of someone else, the only person you'll be able to solve problems for will be yourself (and those who are just like you). One of the mantras of UX is "you are not the user" and it's important to be reminded of this regularly.

So if UX designers don't design for themselves, they have to figure out who then it is that they're designing for. Sometimes the answer to this is obvious (e.g. cancer patients aged 60-80 who speak English and live in America), but more often, it's quite ambiguous (e.g. all users of the internet). For the latter, this is where things like market and usability research really come in handy. There are a myriad of resources out there to help the UX designer understand the audience better, but nothing is a replacement for someone who inherantly knows lots of different kinds of people and who can use their imagination to picture how others would react to a particular experience.

Having general knowledge about basic limitations of human memory, vision, and other cognitive abilities also helps in this regard.

-- Communication skills

This goes for written, verbal, and visual communication skills. All of these modalities are just tools in the toolkit to get one's ideas across. Also worth mentioning... even though designers rarely write marketing or help copy, tech writing classes can be helpful as they improve one's ability to communicate crisply and concisely which is imperative in tech UX interfaces.

-- Collaborating with others

While many programmers have good social skills, this isn't a requirement in their particular field (writing great code is), but in UX, it's essential. A designer can have the greatest ideas and designs, but if they're unable to involve the rest of the team, nothing they come up with will see the light of day. This reminds me of a particularly thorny part of UX... unlike coding which requires highly specialized knowledge that no one else can provide, everyone can have input on user experience (which can be a blessing and a curse). Because of this, it's important for a designer to gain the team's respect and confidence with their expertise and designs, but not at the expense of shutting out the ideas of others.

-- Vision

Being a good UX designer requires the ability to see into the future and envision a world that is better than today (however small the scale may be). It's easy to copy from tried n' true products, but if the designer's goal is to actually improve on stuff that's already out there, this requires imagination and the ability to understand the big picture that encapsulates any particular user experience.

-- Patience

Great UX doesn't come to life over night. There are few eureka moments and arbitrary constraints can often shape a UX in ways the designer never intended. There are definitely compromises and trade-offs to be made, which lead to time consuming iteration. While most UX designers would prefer to get the best experience out there at the cost of doing something sooner, it's important to also remember that shipping something that's not 100% baked can be useful as a way to get the feedback that will eventually lead to a great product.

6. How do I get into the field and make it into a career?

Well, it depends. Let's revisit the job types from question 2:

-- Big companies

A degree in some variant of Human-Computer Interaction is extremely helpful (if not mandatory in some cases). If not available, computer science, graphic design, and industrial design can also work.
There are exceptions here, but for the most part, big companies use the degree as a weed out tool since they get so many resumes and consider school a decent gauge for vetting candidates. Next in line is relevant work experience and portfolio.

-- Small companies & freelance

It's all about the portfolio. No one really cares which program you came out of, it's more about what you've done and what you can do for the client. If this is where a designer wants to wind up, improving one's portfolio and pulling all the pieces together into a clean, easy to understand website is key.

7. What does a typical UX designer's average day look like?

We can be in a fair amount of meetings to discuss the ins and outs of various design decisions, but most of our time is spent doing any of the following (depending on what phase of a project we're in):

-- Whiteboarding/brainstorming

This is where I like to spend most of my time (although in practice this rarely happens). In this phase, we're just having fun with ideas. The cost to sketch something out is super cheap, so there's a lot of freedom to play around and collaborate on tough experience problems.

download flow

-- Wireframing

At this stage, a UX designer is taking their sketches and turning them into a digital format that consists solely of lines, boxes, arrows, and text labels. We call this "low-fidelity" and it keeps the team focused on a particular solution's "main idea" vs which colors and graphics are used.</i>

-- Prototyping (aka "mocks")

Here, we're taking an idea and prototyping it so that it looks real. Prototypes can be static (a series of images) or dynamic (typically done as Flash animations or animated gifs). Unfortunately, to get buy-in from execs and other stakeholders, UX designers spend the majority of their time here on ideas that aren't quite ready since wireframes take longer to explain and understand. This dichotemy between high and low-fi prototyping is a never-ending debate in the field which I won't go into in this post. You can read more about it here.

-- Email / specs

Much like everyone else in tech, UX'ers spend a lot of time writing and reading emails, but much of the emails written are used to describe some aspect of an experience in conjunction with any combination of the items above. Depending on the company's culture, these descriptions can go directly into emails, as seperate docs (called "specs"), or into bug tracking systems.

more on UX deliverables here and here.

8. What is the difference between user experience design and usability?

Usability researchers spend their time uncovering UX issues and do things like lab studies, surveys, ethnography, etc. Designers spend their time more on the other side of the equation coming up with solutions to UX problems. They both need each other and work towards a common purpose, but the skill sets and deliverables involved are different.

9. How else can I get my foot in the door?

If finding a UX role is proving difficult, look for entry level product or project management jobs. There are more of them and can help you get your foot in the door (and usually involve some component of spec writing and design). You'd gain some UX experience in a role like this and could then shoot for more UX-specific roles later on. These kinds of positions often require CS degrees, so if you don't have that, then just do stuff on your own... find open source projects that have crummy UIs and make them better. Work on the design of your own site/blog. Write blog posts about UX... in particular things you see that have room for improvement (and how you'd specifically improve them). Find local businesses that have crappy sites and offer up your services... non-profits are usually dying for this kind of help. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination! :)

Above all, I recommend "doing UX work" as much as possible and then the job will come along as a byproduct of that. Reading books and UX blogs is a good thing too, but designers looking for work should make sure they're spending more time designing than reading. Another way to get traction is to find others who are like-minded and collaborate with them on a project (particularly great if the partner's skill set is complimentary like someone with strong web development skills).

10. What are some resources I can check out to learn more?

There are countless books on the subject, two of the most referenced are About Face & Don't Make Me Think.

More on general UX stuff here:


and these are collections of UX related links that came in handy to me over the years...


If there are other UX related questions anyone has, fire away in the comments! I know many of you work in UX, so if you have anything to add, I'd love to hear your feedback too.

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Comments {7}

zap book

(no subject)

from: kguppta
date: Feb. 17th, 2009 02:22 am (UTC)

This was great.

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(no subject)

from: 8bitpixelrobot
date: Feb. 18th, 2009 02:54 am (UTC)

used to be called UI design if I remember correctly.

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(no subject)

from: gleemie
date: Feb. 19th, 2009 10:34 am (UTC)

this is awesome. thanks, ario. i just shard it with a master's student here at uci that was asking me this.

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(no subject)

from: interimlover
date: Feb. 19th, 2009 07:14 pm (UTC)

werd! I know it'll save me time... glad to hear if helps others too :)

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(no subject)

from: mooflyfoof
date: Apr. 16th, 2010 07:41 pm (UTC)

Thanks for this! I have recently been wondering if UX is a field I want to get into and this post has helped immensely. :)

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(no subject)

from: interimlover
date: Apr. 16th, 2010 08:32 pm (UTC)

cool, any verdict so far?

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(no subject)

from: mooflyfoof
date: Apr. 16th, 2010 08:58 pm (UTC)

Unsure -- more research is in order! I need to get a couple of books and read through all the resources you link to.

On the one hand, UX seems really interesting and I feel like I'd be intuitively pretty good at it. On the other hand, I'm a bit intimidated by the social aspect of it. I think of myself as being a pretty socially skilled person, but then this sort of deliverable scares the poop out of me (I'm not the best storyteller).

It's also kind of scary for me because I've always worked in a "hard" (as opposed to "soft") field. As a UX designer, my work would be thinking, brainstorming, being creative, and communicating the outcome of those thoughts -- rather than delivering a concrete, finished product. It'd be a huge paradigm shift for me! And while I have intuitive knowledge from having been a web dev for several years, but putting everything into concrete terms is completely new for me.

I also have no portfolio or explicit UX experience -- but you give some great advice on how to build one. Thanks again!

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