The web industry is in the midst of an identity crisis and there is a good chance you are either part of it, or accidentally contributing to it.
It’s incredibly reassuring to finally see a long overdue interest in user experience… There’s just one problem: not everyone calling themselves a user experience designer is actually a user experience designer.
Between ambitious start-up culture, lack of agency knowledge, and genuine misunderstanding about what UX actually is, things are running amok. AMOK I say! It is just too damn trendy to have “UX” or “UI” in your job title these days. But trendiness is ok if people respect it. The problem is, people don’t.
As trendy as it is, User Experience is a very misunderstood area of digital work. I meet and interview a shocking number of people who really don’t do UX, even though they think they do and say they do. Even bosses. Even teachers. Especially designers.
That’s a problem.
Your job title isn’t supposed to define what you want to do. Your job title is supposed to reflect what you actually do. And as Whitney Hess points out, we’re not like doctors and lawyers who have to be certified, so people can get greedy with trendy titles. Sometimes they just straight-up lie.
You don’t want to be a liar, do you?
This is the tricky part: choosing a title that actually describes what you do.
Job titles you might hear around agencies and start-ups include words like information, interaction, experience, and interface. That sounds impressive already! Let’s take a quick look at what these words actually mean.
UX vs. UI
First of all, UX and UI are not the same thing. And it isn’t a subtle difference.
UX stands for User Experience, and UI stands for User Interface. If anybody has any confusion about the difference between an interface and an experience, I could sum it up by saying this:
UX doesn’t happen in Photoshop. Technically it could be done completely on paper. UI, on the other hand, is made of pixels.
If you want someone to create a beautiful interface, ask for UI. If you want someone to improve conversion and usability, ask for UX.
The title UI Developer, for example, makes complete sense and is also called a Front End Developer. They write code for stuff you can see, click, and use.
There is no such thing as a UX Developer. If that is your job title you should change it, unless you literally program human minds (“I know Kung-Fu,” etc.).
If you’re writing the questions for a survey, you’re doing UX. If you’re designing the text field where people will type their answers, you’re doing UI.
Information Architecture (IA):
When someone designs the structure of information or content, they are organizing the structure of the site or app itself. This is a very underappreciated part of web design, because most people don’t know what information architecture is.
The categories in the main menu and the pages that are needed for the content are all part of the information-related roles. This is done with the goal of making content easy-to-understand, follow, and find.
In a small project this can be a relatively trivial task, but in a giant site or global corporate intranet, an Information Architect is a make-or-break role.
To test whether your role is an “information” role or not, ask yourself this: if you planned the structure of a printed newspaper with post-its, would it be a normal part of your role? If yes, you’re an information designer. If not… keep reading.
A company that is very good at information design (and typography, and usability) is iA. But that isn’t all they do.
Interaction Design (IxD):
When your work is more concerned with how the site/app/product will work on a buttons-and-layouts level, that is now “interaction” design. It doesn’t even have to be something digital, if you want to get technical about it.
If you choose button colors because of what the colors mean (red for warnings, etc.) or if you position a call-to-action in the top-left because of the F-Pattern, or if you discuss whether animations and sounds provide affordance… you are doing interaction design.
It is very important to understand that you are not an “interaction designer” because you design interactive things. You are an Interaction Designer because you design the interaction itself. In general, an interaction designer will sit with wireframes for a significant portion of their time at the office.
If you can design forms on paper and feel like your job is complete, you could be an interaction designer. There is a lot more to IxD than that, but form design is almost pure interaction. An information designer could make it more coherent; a UX person could optimize your design… but before all that an interaction designer could almost work alone on a form. Almost.
A good example of interaction design would be an agency like Frog Design, who design products, digital and otherwise.
User Interface (UI):
Interface designers are responsible for all the beautiful icons, buttons, typography, textures, menus, and the other aspects of digital creations that get all the glory and attention. Ironically, these are the people designers want to be when they start calling themselves “UX”. But UI is not UX.
Many people think “user experience” refers to the look & feel of digital stuff, but those people are incorrect.
Of course, a beautiful interface can add invaluable emotional affect, but a beautiful interface isn’t necessarily easy, smart, or useful.
Interface design is a whole skill set by itself, just as User Experience is a skill set. Both are valuable. Especially in combination.
But to assume that a beautiful re-design will improve your business could be the most expensive mistake you ever make.
One of the best UI companies, in my opinion, is Fantasy Interactive. They genuinely spend time to get their icons, buttons, and details to be exactly the way they want them, and it shows. However, when recently hit with financial troubles, the first people they dumped were their UX team, which says a lot about their priorities. I know this because two of them applied to me for a job.
User Experience (UX):
UX does not include UI design at all, although many people do both.
If you work with the psychological aspects of the design, user-focused strategy, statistical analysis, and user studies, that is UX.
UX professionals often do the “information” and “interaction” aspects as well since they are so related, and if you “do it all” this is the title for you.
If a project were really large, you could easily separate the information, interaction and “user experience” roles completely, with no overlap. And none of those people would be required to do UI design.
In real life that isn’t practical and a single person often handles most of it.
Experience is something you feel, but make no mistake; it is a science, not an opinion.
It might include engagement, loyalty, or frustration. Design and content play a role in those things of course, but there is more to the experience than how it looks or how clever it is.
In a nutshell, we’re talking about cognitive science.
UX tends to be multi-disciplinary, so examples could range from eye-tracking companies like Tobii, or user research like OkCupid does for their blog, or consultants like user-centered Whitney Hess or data-oriented Luke W.
I do more than one!
You may relate to more than one of the descriptions above. If you do information and interaction and UX, go with “UX” as a job title.
In real life UX tends to be more inclusive than the other titles. If you do interaction and interfaces, maybe something like Interaction/UI Designer is best for you.
If you don’t draw site maps, or wireframes, or do user studies or statistical analysis… you’re not in the club, sorry.
I don’t do any of those?!
If you don’t do any of those tasks, you’re probably not actually a UX or UI role. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Art Director or Web Designer or Graphic Designer are very professional titles and don’t require you to design pixel-perfect icons or user-tested wireframes.
Those types of designers usually work more in advertising-related projects and traditional agencies, rather than more functionally- or technically-oriented projects. When those people try to step into technical environments they often stand out. Like last year when I watched a senior partner from Ogilvy New York explain — at an iPad conference — how they chose Flash to make an iPad app.
For IBM. …yeah.
If you aspire to be a UX designer, that’s fantastic! We’re extremely happy to have you! We need you. Just remember that you don’t automatically gain expertise because you change titles. Start learning first, and then change your title when you’re ready.
Hopefully this article has clarified what these titles and roles actually do and which one of them you are (or should be).
If you want help or guidance about which one to choose, I am happy to help: joel AT thehipperelement.com.