« Continued from UX Defined.

What User Experience Designers Do

User Experience Designers, like Web Designers before them, usually have a visual design background. There are many exceptions. Yet without fundamental skills in this area one can not well produce the artifacts of User Experience Design. UX/UE Designers need to be competent in a number of internet/software design-related disciplines, but the most indispensable ones are those listed in Garrett’s diagram:

  • Visual design
  • Interface design
  • Navigation design
  • Information architecture (IA)
  • Information design
  • Interaction design (IxD)
  • Functional specification
  • Content requirements
  • User research (user needs)
  • UX strategy (site objectives)

After UE/UX Designers discover a project’s context as fully as time and experience allows, an approach to design aspects of it is formulated. This normally involves developing a set of documents that progress from representations of isolated design elements in low-fidelity (sketch or rough draft) form, to the integration or “layering” (metaphorically) of such elements, which coalesce in progressively higher-fidelity representations, resulting finally in a set of comprehensive screen mock-ups. The artifacts of each stage can (and should) be iterated as advanced discovery results from representative user feedback collected at planned intervals. Some draft design documents can be used for early sampling of end-user feedback, but most are for internal/team use only.

Communicating design in abstracted, element-specific vocabularies (visual and written) can be quite a challenge in itself. Though just as with web/application design, knowing the target audience and their needs and limitations is a hinge factor.

Design specification documents can include any of the following, and others including those synonymous with them, here as sub-bullets to Garrett’s Elements of UX in order of probable sequence:

  • UX Strategy
    • Contextual analysis
    • Competitive analysis
    • Concept model
    • Business rules/requirements
  • User research
    • Usability rest plans
    • Usability reports
    • Personas
  • Information architecture
    • Content inventory
    • Content analysis
    • Content outline
    • Content map/model
    • Content requirements
    • Information hierarchy
    • Meta-data schema
    • Controlled vocabulary
    • Thesaurus
    • Taxonomy
  • Navigation design
    • Wireframe
    • Mock-up
  • Interface design
    • UI specification
    • Wireframe
    • Mock-up
  • Interaction design
    • User flow diagram
    • System flow diagram
  • Information design
    • Wireframe
    • Mock-up
  • Visual design
    • Color palette
    • Design specification
    • Wireframe
    • Mock-up
  • Functional specification
    • ” a.k.a. FSD

Though few User Experience Designers are also programmers, they must also have a solid grounding in interactive media technologies. “Web 2.0” emerged largely from “mashups” of javascript, css, xml, and LAMP (Linux, Apache, mySQL, PHP) technologies (a.k.a. AJAX). Common Javascript frameworks such as Prototype, Dojo, jQuery, YUI and others are the basis of contemporary web application interaction patterns. And as such can be seen as the essential ingredients of the UX Designer’s recipe… the players on his stage, the colors on his palette, etc.

As engineers and developers are among primary consumers of design specifications, the result of them is usually a working (interactive) prototype of the application. From this point the designer is often involved in quality assurance efforts, too.

Web Job Titles – A Short History

One seldom discussed reason for the adoption of the User Experience Designer title has roots deep—as deep as they go—in web design history. In the beginning was the intrepid “webmaster,” who, ideally, possessed a Swiss army knife-like skills set. But before long professional web designers, coders and developers needed to differentiate themselves from the fray as markup and script generation software (GUI/WYSIWYG tools) “democratized” the production of web basic websites. At one point it seemed everyone with a creative impulse sought a career in computer graphic design, which in turn led to web design opportunities.

As the scope and complexity of websites grew, labor appropriately divided and skills became specialized. As people entered web design from various media disciplines, their native tongues (professional vocabularies) were imported with them. And like high technology, elevated language can insinuate some mystery, magic and power of its own. Really, we just wanted to be taken as seriously as we took our work. Web Designer didn’t hold up. And any title with “master” in it that is not nautically related affords it’s bearer little added worth.To further this historical point, indulge me, momentarily, in a little reminiscence. The Amazing Web Job Title Generator is now long-gone; cached not even by archive.org. But in its day (ca. 1995-7, last seen on webreview.com) it was amazing. It not only offered a seemingly infinite number of randomly generated three web-related word combinations, it reminded us that we were in a profession so new and multi-disciplinary that inventing job titles seemed arbitrary. Some good humored javascript programmer just made it so. The web was, and still is sometimes, wonderfully subversive. Many of us loved it for that.

Today The B.S. Job Title Generator holds fast. And some of us can still use the wry humor, such as colonized peoples do. The intent here is certainly not to imply that our jobs are B.S. I don’t condone the generator’s title, or those it generates. But to review web job titles in current listings is to see that, though stabilized, the confusion continues. I.e: “Web User Experience Development”, “Product Designer”, “Usability Catalyst”, etc. (Src. BayCHI Job Bank)

Good humors aside, finding accurate and beneficial titles for our vocations and studies has proven difficult for good reason. Communications software and web application design are, in fact, complex undertakings. In all we just want to advance the profession and communicate our intentions. Though some will abuse new and poorly understood terms, User Experience Designer, like Interaction Designer, seems to have helped more than hindered people’s sense of what we intend, and do.

Engaging Debates

Lastly, I want to address two reasonable debates within the User Experience Design community. One is which design disciplines UXD may apply to. The other is if a user’s experience can really be designed.

For which design disciplines User Experience Design applies to, it is primarily associated with interactive media, especially internet-based hypertext webs, and web-based software. It would have a wider definition if other design or arts and crafts disciplines laid claim to it, but such is not the case. The rare exception is within design firms where both “physical” (non-digital) and digital products are designed. In other words, where we find the term used, a web designer is close at hand. The differentiating word is “user,” because of its clear association with computer science and human computer interaction. Without “user” prefixed, Experience Design may fairly be applied to other design disciplines, such as architectural, environmental, industrial or product design. However, applying it or User Experience Design, or Interaction Design, to anything except web/software services diffuses and diminishes its meaning, reducing the already misunderstood term’s utility: it is a disservice to the professional User Experience Design and Interaction Design communities.

It seems a great pretense to say one can ‘design’ the experience of another. Human experiences are personalized. Each of us perceives the world in each moment according to our preexisting perceptions, beliefs, assumptions, emotional state, and conscious as well as preconscious thought processes (i.e. past experience matching). And we obviously design interactive systems, not people. So the argument is valid. But it is not an important or useful one for two reasons. One, because it is just from a grammatical confusion. Does the phrase “one eyed purple people eater” refer to an eater of one eyed purple people, or a people eater with one eye, who is purple? Same sort of problem. The most a User Experience Designer, UI Designer, or Interaction Designer can do is design interactive systems that elicit statistically predictable responses (the science) and influence people’s behavior and level of enjoyment (the art). Language has limits, as well as power, and this is a fair example of the former.


In sum, User Experience Design is the practice of integrating user-centered design methods, collecting, interpreting and applying meticulous user research, process management for testing elements of a system independently in gradually increasing levels of fidelity, and integrating multiple symbolic systems (languages) to affect and influence users of an interactive system in a predictable and measured way, according to the user’s own criteria for success and happiness.

Is this the definitive definition of User Experience Design? Probably not. Language that evolves, lives. My motive in sharing it is that it serves and supports your efforts usefully, as it has mine, after striving daily to understand, define, share, and apply it for many years now.

You’re formally invited to advance this definition constructively, or expand it, even add your own, via comments.

If definitions of others interest you, here are the Top Seven Definitions of UX Design I’ve discovered »

Show 4 Comments
  1. I like this article. I would like to cite your UXD definition in a report, but what is the author’s name?.

  2. When you write a nice article like this, you should proudly stamp your name on it so we can quote you elsewhere. An interesting read Michael (assuming that Zerot is right)

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