User experience encroaching on visual design

There is no such concept of a homogeneous user experience designer. Identifying as a “user experience designer” is more or less useless to peers, clients or employers and only loosely associates you with the underlying principles of evidence-based design, user-centred design & design thinking. If that.

There are people who label themselves as information architects who I would consider more experienced in interaction design than those who call themselves interaction designers, or UX designers who are little more than self-aggrandizing visual designers, believing that the ‘X’ in their job title makes them superior.

In reality, every designer – just like every user we interview during research – has a unique set of skills and motivations, a unique background and history of experience both work and life. Some are more artistic, some more analytical, some like blue, others know the 216 web safe colours off by heart. Some like to try a thousand different things, some like to stick with a design challenge and work through it like a puzzle. Some know Photoshop, some don’t. Some designs come from a social science background, some from a programming background and some jumped straight into UX as their first career. Some know what the XMLHttpRequest method is, some don’t. Some enjoy doing housework and exercising regularly, others enjoy their downtime on the couch watching TV.

All these things influence how designers work and what drives them towards the solutions they develop.

I embrace designers of all backgrounds with their varying attitudes and motivations as long as they’re committed to producing good quality work that contributes to the achieving of user and business goals. One pattern in the industry that I have noticed that peeves me somewhat is this:

User experience designers are not visual designers

Just as I started writing this blog post I came across this video about Motion Design. Watch it. This is the work of talented visual designers and artists.

Before I discount the creative talent of people who label themselves UX designers, I want to add a disclaimer that I know several people who do a great job of wearing the hats of both the analyst and the artist. However, generally speaking there is a clear distinction both in modes of thinking (the ‘hats’ metaphor) and skills & experience of people who fall into the research and synthesis camp and the artistic visual designers.

We shouldn’t discount the validity and effectiveness of designs created by visual designers just because we think we know more about Gestalt psychology or because we read Universal Principles of Design. In many cases we’re also user interface designers – except those who focus exclusively on user research and usability testing – so it can be easy to slip into taking on the entire responsibility. There’s a lot about visual design that UX designers don’t know, that experienced visual designers do. If we cut them out, we’re diminishing the value they could bring to the table.

Frankly, I find visual designs created by many UX designers where a visual designer / artist has not been greatly involved to generally be boring, unimaginative, pattern-based and unremarkable. For a role that’s supposed to be mindful of business objectives where the concept of remarkability, beauty and competitive advantage should be forefront in our minds there’s an awful lot of lacklustre work being launched. I’ll put my hand up as one of the offenders, and its something I want to change.

UX design staked out territory in web design & software development in order to do a better job of delivering solutions that met user needs, that were usable, efficient and met business objectives. We shouldn’t overstep that mark and claim territory that rightly belongs to visual designers, the artists whom we should only influence to ensure the integrity of the design without inhibiting creativity. It’s not about making pretty designs, it’s about creating works of art that people are in awe of, that people love and enjoy interacting with. Ok, so ‘awe’ may be a bit strong for a insurance or health services website but you get the idea.

I don’t want to see visual designers relegated to a diminished role of just slapping colours and type onto our detailed wireframes. They should be right up the front, working alongside UX designers, shaping the solution, bringing their artistic perspective unfettered by our preconceived ideas.

There are teams out there who get this; visual designers working alongside analysts, researchers, user interface designers and front-end developers all working to bring their unique skills and perspective to bear. There are one-man bands who also pull all this off successfully by themselves.

Maybe I’m wrong and maybe UX designers should dominate the playing field. We do have the fancy scientific-sounding heuristics to lend us credibility after all …

I would like some discussion around this topic from UX designers who are analysts and researchers, those who focus on user interface design and wireframing, those who cover the full spectrum of design and the visual designers and artists.

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  1. As it happens, I started out in web application development before getting into UX but identify more as a business analyst & strategist than a visual designer so I’m good at the initial phases of a project and the nitty gritty of front-end interactive component design but not at the middle area of whole page or screen design. Now, wrap that up in a single three-word job title for me.

  2. I have a background in development and visual design, UX design was a natural extension. I no longer work in the area of dev and visual design.

    So, I am one of “those” UX designers.

    I do agree in part, in someways I feel that UX is a still like a tack on with a project.

    You talk about identifying with Business Analysts. Now I’m really not sure what a BA is anymore.. it just seems to be on most projects there are only devs and BAs. If you are not a dev you are a BA.. So that area is a little grey as well.

    Over all the responsibility for the UX (just like accessibility) is with the entire team from the project manager to the designer and developer. Every role should collaborate with the overall UX, each person will have different skills and perspectives that should be taken into account.

    I feel that the time of the UX consultant in the design/dev process is going to be limited. Say in 10 years when UX is well understood and all the team roles get UX, then we may well find that a separate UX role will not exist.

    • Gary, you were the main person I had in mind when making an exception for “those” designers who do it all!

      As for the 10 years time thing, yeah I hope UX as a job title disappears and we have dedicated usability / user testing folk, user researchers, some sort of UCD/BA hybrid thing, human factors consultants, experience strategists and brand strategists. I hope that UX diverges and specialises the same way the “web master” role did back in the early 00′s.

  3. It does seem like Jobs quote:”“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” is timely for this discussion.

    All the varying self-important labels are kind of borin, no? perhaps just “designer” is all that is needed. The title “experience strategist” as well as “user experience designer” are kind of embarrassing if one thinks about it for a second. With the rise of service design (what happens on either side of the continuum away from the screen (if appropriate)), one might ask if “user experience designer” is the right term for someone looking at the bigger picture? Which perhaps we all should be.

    • It’s a good point – but for the majority who associate design with graphics or as you mentioned the “veneer” of products or fashion, we are doing ourselves a disfavour to just go by the label “designer” but you’re right it would be nice and simple. There are many people out there who call themselves strategists who don’t have a clue about strategy and experience architects who write HTML code. That’s not helping us either.

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  1. [...] Afterall we as UX professionals don’t control the projects, the devs do.   Now maybe we should be training and mentoring developers in the UX cause not designers. Which is opposed somewhat to what Nat Boehm has to say. [...]

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