I am a UX Designer. But, that may not mean a whole lot to some people. There are varying definitions of this profession and one question I get often is: Just what is UX? Maybe you’ve heard the term once or twice. Maybe you’ve heard it a lot. Or maybe you think you have an idea of what UX is, but don’t know what it encompasses or what discipline it is steeped in. Or perhaps you are a practicing professional well aware of what it is since you live, breathe and sleep UX day in and day out. Well, regardless of where how well or not you understand UX, it is an evolving field combining a number of disciplines and the definition differs from organization to organization.
Let’s start with the abbreviation. UX stands for User Experience and most job descriptions couple it with designer (i.e. UX Designer). I have been in some positions where it was referred to as UX Architect, but am seeing that less often these days. UX Designer – or User Experience Designer – is something of a misnomer in terms of a job title. I am often in contact with colleagues who share the same job description as I and yet their work is much different. This because UX Design encompasses approximately 5 different practicing disciplines and is steeped in a number of academic disciplines.
The practicing disciplines of a UX Designer are:
Usability Research – This involves the upfront research (and testing) to develop user-centered requirements and needs as well as the backend testing of products in development.
Information Architecture – Is mostly about the structure of a site, navigation, the organization, the labeling and how the site might fit in with an existing system or systems of systems.
Interaction Design – is about the actual interface and the development of a functional design that meets the user’s needs and is user friendly. This aspect of UX Design is often coupled with prototype development today.
Prototype Development – involves the construction and development of a working (or in most cases a semi-working prototype) that can either be used for testing or demonstration purposes. This is often done with proprietary software such as Adobe Fireworks/Photoshop, Axure, iRise or a similar platform allowing a wireframe to be developed into a dynamic design.
Graphic/Visual Design – is the final look of the interface – the skinning if, you will. While it is not uncommon for many UX design persons to have a graphic design background, it is becoming rare to find them working as UX Designers without further training beyond graphic design such as a Master’s in Human-computer Interaction (HCI).
Steve Psomas outlines something close to the above in his 2007 article on the Five Competencies of User Experience Design. Suffice it to say: UX is a field that is very multidisciplinary and encompasses a wide range of skills.
In terms of academics, you won’t find a degree specifically in UX. The pathway to this profession comes from a number of other disciplines that feed into into it. By far, the most popular path comes from the HCI field and there are a number of graduate programs now offering a Master’s in Human-computer Interaction. But this is not the only path to the profession. Informatics is an overarching discipline that encompasses HCI and it involves the study of how humans interact with technology, how it influences our behavior and how it shapes our societies. The Library and Information Science field also feeds into UX through Information Architecture. The organization of information and knowledge naturally derives from the library and information sciences – a field that primarily is concerned with “making things findable.” Human Factors also is an overarching discipline for HCI and UX. It involves more of an engineering perspective and human factors engineers can be found constructing dashboards in airplanes, working in factories to increase the usability of production lines or in organizations creating better workplaces. It’s a very diverse field. Finally, graphic design feeds into UX and is obviously most concerned with visual design and what is aesthetically appealing.
All of these perspectives are combined to make up the UX Designer. So in asking “what is UX,” one must consider it can be very different from one organization to the next. But, it will usually encompass one of the five skill sets above and the UX Designer will have probably come from one of the academic disciplines I outline above.