What is UX? 3 Design Pros Explain Everything.

Thinking for the user

The UX Files

If you want to work as a UX designer, you’ve got to learn to be the voice of the user. But just what does a UX designer do all day?

The role of UX, or user experience, in many companies has moved past part of the design team’s responsibilities to become a specific expertise. As technology becomes more complex, UX designers are charged with making it simple, or at least simple for the user.

“The UX designer is looking for a way to create an interactive experience that is simple, effortless, invisible, powerful and memorable,” Matthew Bassett, a principal at Armchair Studios, told us. His full-service digital and branding agency has worked with everyone from P&G Beauty and Princeton University Press, to Samsung.

“The role of UX designer is continually evolving and becoming exponentially complex, and yet it is still fundamentally the same,” said Bassett, who works with individual UX designers and UX teams at Armchair.

“We expect UX designers to understand a complex blend of strategy, culture, industry, content, and design as well as understanding the purpose of the product, nuances of the end user, the sales and marketing implications, technical solutions and limitations, and on and on. It can be an incredibly complex role.”

We spoke to some of the people working in these incredibly complex roles.

Hana Schank

After working for Ogilvy and Mather, Hana Schank, now owns her own company, Collective UX. They’ve worked with brands like Delta Airlines and JP Morgan Chase. Schank is currently working for US Digital Services.

What does UX design mean to you?
When I started in the field, I was called an information architect. Since then I’ve worked as a UX strategist, a UX designer, a content strategist, a user researcher, and probably a few other terms I can no longer remember. Each of those titles has different nuances, but the general idea is the same. People working in user experience are there to be the voice of the user. When you build a site or an app or a tool the team working on the project can be pretty big, and there are a lot of people responsible for distinct parts…The UX person is the only person on the team whose sole responsibility is to deeply understand the people who will be using the thing, how they’ll use it, and how to best design it so that the user can easily accomplish whatever he or she needs to.

What’s a typical day like for you?
At my company, my days vary pretty widely. If I’m conducting research, I might spend all day on the phone or WebEx interviewing people, or I might be grabbing people in a store to interview them, or I might be interviewing someone while they use a system to do their job. (Incidentally, people seem to love this, which makes it really fun. Imagine if someone just showed up at your desk and spent an hour there asking you why you do everything you do and taking notes and was especially interested in all the things that drive you crazy. You’d feel pretty good about it, right? It’s kind of like free therapy.) Other days I’m writing proposals, or running working sessions.

Today most people know the words “user experience” and they like to throw them around a lot, but real user-centered design comes from actually talking to people. You can’t sit in a room and guess what people want.

Do you have to have a graphic design background to work in UX design?
Not at all. My graphic design experience amounts to a single continuing education course I took at the New School in 2000. I think it helps to have some basic design sense, but there are some UX designers who barely design at all. I think most UX-ers come from either a design or writing background. Before I was an instructional designer I had been a writer and a press secretary. Probably the most important qualification is being able to ask good questions and an innate curiosity about what makes people tick.

Have you seen the role of UX design change since you’ve been a part of the field?
Yes. In my first true UX job I had to start off every meeting by explaining who I was, why I was in their meeting, and what I would be doing. That doesn’t happen quite so often. I also think that there’s been a shift away from just locking a designer in a room and expecting them to produce something with zero inputs, and more of an understanding that research is a part of user experience design. But at the same time, there has been a consolidation of sorts. I’ve seen a lot of job descriptions asking for someone who can do UX, code, and also do visual design. Some of the people who have all of those skills may be great, but it’s hard to be an expert in all of them.

Ryan Nance, ux designer

Ryan Nance does UX consulting for established companies and startups, is the founder of 5 things I learned today, and writes about experience design on Medium. Until recently he was the head of product design at Flipagram.

What does UX design mean to you?
UX design is user experience design. It is really shorthand for designing the ways that the people using your product will experience it. Experience design, and its sister discipline user research, work to understand the needs and contexts of the user.

How long have you held UX design positions?
Before I had even heard of UX design, I was working as an experience designer, as a web editor. Back in 2002 or so, the job of information architecture and navigation strategy often fell to the web editor. Since that first IA project (a tourism website for the state of Wyoming, of over 60k pages), I’ve had titles including interactive producer, director of digital design, user experience designer, experience designer, director of experience and product design, and head of product design.

Have you seen the role of UX design change since you’ve been a part of the field?
Ten or fifteen years ago, UX design was a very supportive role, and now, depending on the company, experience design is often the leader, the Steve Jobs of the product. There is an increasing occurrence of product managers and experience designers working together, often with very conflicting points of view. The conflict is often between whether discipline or data should be the decision-making rubric. Of course, both are needed, just as both experience designers and product managers working together result in the very best products and the very best experiences for the people using the products.

Saskia Ketz
Photo Credit Chris Jadatz

After freelancing in the design and UX space for Timberland, Juicy Couture and Ikea, Saskia Ketz now runs a boutique branding studio, MMarchNY, whose clients include e-mail marketing automation startup Bluecore. She also runs A Women’s Thing a print and digital publication for women.

What does UX design mean to you?
UX is showing another human being how you want him or her to read and interact with your story and product.

Does the role of UX design change from company to company?
The UX role doesn’t change from one company to another, but it’s treated differently. To some companies, it’s very important. “UX” is definitely still a trendy term—I get emails from clients specifically asking for it all the time. But other companies have so many other priorities that they don’t focus on it enough. Like with everything in design, time and attention are what makes it good.

What’s more interesting to me is how the role of UX design changes between mediums and types of applications. Mobile or desktop? Mobile or print? Company-internal or external usage? How do you interact with a mobile app versus a website with ads on it? If we think of UX as a story, the question I like to keep in my mind is, how do we continue the storyline or tell it better based on the medium and the audience?

Have you seen the role of UX design change since you’ve been a part of the field?
Since 2009, when UX and UI slowly started to take off as their own design fields, things have changed drastically. I think it’s wonderful because its making important design questions part of the conversation from the beginning: What’s the purpose of this thing that we’re creating? What’s the story behind everything and how are we telling it? And who is it for? These were questions that a designer used to have a hard time talking about with clients.

While it was always a part of a designer’s research and understanding to do UX study during her process, now she can charge for it. New design positions have been created, and things have become more specialized. All that amounts to us holding better products in our hands.