Are there UX designers?

29 November 2015

A few years ago web designers who cared about the people they were designing for started calling themselves UX Designers. I resisted for a while because I thought if you were a good designer you should be caring about your audience by default. Essentially that was the job. You couldn’t do good design work and not be a UX designer.

I was a freelancer at the time though and realised potential clients were looking for ‘UX Designers’ specifically and I was risking missing out on work by not prefixing my job title. So I did. And I continued to do exactly the same work I had been doing as a vanilla designer.

In another few years I think we’ll see the removal of the UX prefix to job titles.

Right now the culture of UX is still filtering through businesses. More quickly through some than others — but give it a few years and I think the vast majority of companies will have absorbed the user experience mindset. There will be no need for individual UX ambassadors to pick apart and rebuild projects to make them user friendly. The user experience will be considered by default from the initial idea, through planning, development, launch and ongoing support — by everyone.

I work for a company now where everyone will admit we’re not perfect about researching, testing and validating user experiences — but we’re also pretty good. And I do mean we. I get named as the UX person because I’m responsible for designing the front end, but the focus on user experience is taken up by everyone.

Not having to argue the case for doing something differently and in a way that might take a bit longer because it is going to provide better UX is refreshing. It’s also made me more aware of my design process and in fact highlighted points in the design process where not thinking about UX can be beneficial.

We’ve been refining the design & build process over the last few months and we’re settling into something that is working pretty well.

We’ll begin a project with the business owners (also responsible for sales and product management), development team and designer (me) in the war room for a day or two. In this time we create a story map of the feature we’re going to build. The story map is all about the user journey through the website (or that part of the website at least) and breaks the project down into each unique component the user is going to have to interact with. Thinking about it from a user first perspective helps refine the business model too. In discussion — some assumptions about how the feature might be run to meet the business goals are shown to be flawed and we have to figure out how we can achieve the business goals and be a user friendly experience.

From here I know exactly what new pages and/or modules need to be designed.

For a while here I find it’s best to not give too much thought to the ‘UX’ part of design. It’s not an absolute on/off state — but there’s a creative benefit in not consciously thinking about it too much.

If you start designing an interface thinking too much about UX, you end up falling back on existing, tried and tested, formulas. Not bad, but not great either. I’d prefer to innovate here, try something new and then think about if it’s user friendly. This approach does take longer and it’s harder to judge your new ideas — but I think it’s ultimately worthwhile.

I’ll talk a bit more about my working process. But note it’s just my preferred process — one of many and I’m not suggesting it’s any better than anything else you might already be doing.

I design almost entirely in the browser. As a result my first page prototype is normally very basic. Not much more than a wireframe. From here I layer in design and interaction ideas, one idea tends to lead to another and I start to get a better feel for the design direction.

Over a period of hours or days depending on complexity of the page I’ll have a fairly detailed, fully responsive HTML template. Probably with too much going on. It can be hard to filter ideas when you’re in the flow of trying them out. Or a good idea initially proves to be less effective when combined with another idea later in the process. So I treat it all as an iterative process.

Often the problems in the design are picked up by colleagues before me. I have a gut feeling something’s not quite right — but need to give myself a bit more distance from the creative process to be objective about what is and isn’t working (and why) in the design. Because the whole team has been involved in the planning process and we all have the innate user experience mindset — the feedback is valid and helpful. It’s not a simple ‘I don’t like that’ — it’s constructive and relevant. Helpful.

Once we have a general agreement that the design is working well, I’ll return sporadically to the design to review and test. At this point I’m not thinking about the visual design, to my mind that’s set, I’m focussing on the usability of that design. So the template goes through a period of mini-revisions. I can go through the designs more objectively and better pick up the usability issues that had previously been missed.

While I said I consider the visual design to be set at this point — it actually will still evolve considerably as these UX focussed revisions are made. I think this is a great way to produce visually different designs that are also intuitive.

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