UX Design, UI Design and No Design  —  Oh My!

Can I share with you that I am not that fun at parties. For those of you who have met me in person, that will make sense, and you won’t be surprised that my go-to small talk question (a party faux-pas) is “what do you do for work?” I actually love learning about what others do, but I haven’t really figured out the best way to reply when the softball question is tossed back at me “…and what is it that you do?”

What do User Experience (UX) Designers do?

I usually get one of two reactions when I tell people what I do. Either people hear “design” and think I do User Interface (UI) design like a visual designer would, or they chuckle because they have been on too many poorly designed websites to believe that my role actually exists. Both of these are fair reactions, but they are both totally inaccurate.

So let’s talk about what a UX designer does and how it is different from what traditional UI designers (who I’ll call visual designers) do, and compare that to a designer-less scenario. To demonstrate, I’ll walk through what the website design process looks like from each perspective.

A UX Designer, Visual Designer and No-Designer Approach to Website Building…

Step 1: Starting Out

From the starting blocks, UX and UI designers approach a new project differently. As a user experience designer, I immediately start identifying a user’s wants, needs, and jobs to be done. I’ll create things called “empathy maps” and “journey maps” as a result of my research to capture things from the user’s perspective and plan for the website project.

Alternatively, visual designers will start with mood board exercises for inspiration and then decide on color schemes and typography.

The designer-less process usually starts with a Google search for a pre-built, generic template.

2. Creating a Layout

Moving into site construction, a layout needs to be created as a skeletal backbone. As a user experience designer, I start with thinking about how a user will be interacting with the site relative to their environment and identifying the “hot spots” for important information (for example: placing things along a F or Z reading pattern, or keeping touch targets within reachable zones for mobile devices).

Alternatively, visual designers tend to start with getting a grid framework set up and start to think about layout in terms of design principles (for example: composition ratios).

The designer-less may know enough to add “bootstrap” to their Google template search, or these guys are known to be guilty of using html tables to build their layouts.

3. Content Approach

Something actually has to go on the website, right? Yes, and we use the word “content” to describe any and everything (text, images, you name it) that goes on the site. As a user experience designer, I put a great deal of thought into this step — warning, jargon ahead:

1. I will do Information Architecture (IA) exercises to understand what information exists (or needs to exist) and how it relates to other information both logically and in magnitudes of importance.

2. The IA work feeds into the site’s structure (taxonomy if you want to be fancy) so that navigation is intuitive while allowing users to access the information they need.

3. I will also work on defining a shared language (for the fancy, we call this the lexicon) so that words on the site are used in the same way consistently, and are things that make sense to the given audience.

Alternatively, visual designers do a lot of jargon-related work that I can only begin to summarize by saying “make it look good.” They will put lorem ipsum as placeholder text for what should be on a page, and then focus on making the overall display a treat to the eyes.

The designer-less let their template dictate what content goes on the page (“there are four icons, so we need four points to match”) and choose some familiar free stock photos for images.

4. Interaction Design

Interaction design takes careful consideration (and some have even turned it into its own discipline) since there is a lot that goes into how parts on a page move and respond as a user interacts with it. As a user experience designer, I think a lot about making interactions frictionless and intuitive (for example: ensuring anything that can be clicked looks that way, and that non-clickable things do not look like links), and to use interaction to help [not hinder] a user achieve their goals.

Alternatively, visual designers incorporate interactions as a way to add to the feel of site with motion and animation.

The designer-less end up with sites raining popups and with high load times (ironically, this is usually due to slow-loading scripts trying to log user behavior which will never be analyzed).

5. Final Review

Before launching or shipping anything, a little quality control test is always good. As a user experience designer, I will do user testing as a way to review the design to make sure it resonates with users. This means recruiting people within the target audience and observing them use the site as a way of gathering feedback.

Alternatively, visual designers will take their work to peers or a creative director for review before considering the site final.

The designer-less may or may not run through a basic review for links loading, but we will give them the benefit of the doubt here.

So Now I Need Two Designers?

With “no designer” off the table as an option and the understanding that a UX designer and visual UI designer do completely different things, you may be thinking, “which designer should I hire for better ROI?” And I think approaching UX and UI as an “either/or” decision is doing yourself a disservice. I also think having one person multitask priorities of both user experience and visualization (which then earns the person a title of “unicorn” for doing both) means you will get mid-grade attention paid to both areas.

So, yes, it is great to talk about UX and UI designers as having two different roles and tasks, but it is not great to talk about projects with only one of those areas focused on. Should your product be usable or attractive? Both. Should you invest in UX and UI? Yes.