What is a User Experience Designer?

“What do you do for a living?” People have been asking me this question at parties or family gatherings since I started working full-time around ten years ago. Usually, I would say I am a web designer or a user experience designer depending on who was asking. But as soon as I mentioned the word “designer”, relatives and friends would get excited and say things like “oh you make things pretty!” or “no wonder your glasses match your outfit.” If I tried to clarify that I did more than just make pretty things, my audience would often lose interest and change the topic quickly.

So what do I really do? Let me start by defining two things: user experience and design. There are a lot of definitions for user experience, but Wikipedia’s definition is the simplest: “User experience is the way a person feels about using a product, system or service.” How do we feel as humans? We feel by seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. There are also the other senses including perception of time. As with anything related to feeling, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. The parts are elements that a product, system, or service consists of. They can be placement of the laundry room of your house, labels for the navigation menus of a web site, or the number of buttons on a microwave oven.

There are even more definitions for design. To a lot of people, design is all about aesthetics. When I started working as a freelance web designer after graduating from university, I got many requests from companies saying that they had developed an awesome web site or application and they wanted me to create a “skin” for it (or to make it “pop”). Design is a lot more than the makeup you put on a product or a web site. To me, design is solving problems creatively. And there are gazillion ways to achieve that. Visual design is just one of them.

Now, you probably have a pretty good idea of what user experience design is about — it is the creation of solutions and the arrangement of things that affect the way people feel about using a product, system or service. In my case, it is most likely a public web site, an intranet, or a mobile application.

Let Me Know Your Story and I Will Tell You Mine

Most of the things I do in a typical day evolve around stories. I love going to my clients’ offices to talk to the front-line staff, subject matter experts, or the end-users because the best stories come from actually seeing and hearing all of the small details in the environment that the users are most comfortable in. In the research phase of a project, activities like workplace observation, one-on-one or group interviews help me understand more about the people that will use the system that I design — their background, how they obtain and use the information they need for their tasks, how and why they say certain things, and their emotional response when they tell me their stories.

When it is not possible for me to be there, I find stories by reading site analytics, search logs, or records of support calls. They tell me things like which pages people visit most frequently, how long they stay on those pages, or what common frustrations people have. The stories I collect help me to understand the users’ priorities, make informed design decisions and also form the basis of tasks I ask participants to do in usability tests.

It is very possible that if you walked by my office during the day you would see me just staring at a blank Photoshop canvas or the ceiling. Or you would see me making some rough sketches or wireframes on a piece of paper. In my mind, all the user stories I collected in the research stage are floating around me and I am trying out different layouts or design elements to put happy endings to those stories. Sometimes this process takes just a few hours. Sometimes it takes days or even weeks if the problem is very complex and I keep changing design details to find a better solution.

When I present prototypes or finished designs to clients, I often use stories to connect the research that was done with my design ideas. Stories make it easier to explain why a design will work.

Hopefully now you understand more about what I do. Would you like to know more? I cannot wait to hear your story.