Are you a user experience designer? No really though, are you? After dozens of designer applications and interviews, I’ve heard practically everything. And knowing how to use UX Pin or Balsamiq doesn’t even begin to qualify you. Good try, though.
With new professions come new pitfalls, and being an often misinterpreted role, the job title “User Experience Designer” is becoming one of the most abused titles in the tech industry, full of fancy User Interface (aka, graphic) guys who’ve added wireframes to their portfolios and claim to be UX experts.
Sounds harsh? Perhaps, but it’s not your fault. Your ‘fake it ’til you make it’ attitude is the right one because there isn’t a clear standard for User Experience Designers to match themselves against, and it’s our job as an industry to define one.
So what makes you a user experience designer or, for the sake of this article, what doesn’t? How can you not only evaluate your own ability as a UX dude or dudette, but translate it to the layman? How can you convince the HR team and the product gurus that your abilities extend beyond a few Balsamiq sketches?
I have created a list of 7 things you need to know—and that recruiters should be looking for—in a world of UX wannabes. So own up! And if you don’t agree, I would be up for some healthy debate in the comments section!
1. “I’ve made wireframes”
Wireframing is the best way to fake it. Not only is wireframing important to effectively design and iterate a product, it’s also the go-to visual portfolio way to tag yourself as a User Experience designer. The problem is, both employers and designers tend to forget what wireframes are for, so let’s set the record straight:
Wireframes are developed to prototype distribution of existing site content for testing and iteration before the graphic interface and code are developed.
Got it? To break it down another way, wireframes should be quick to build and built to frame existing content. They are used to test and iterate before the interface is designed and the site coded.
So if you’ve ever bragged about designing Wireframes in Illustrator instead of a dedicated wireframing tool, you may as well put your foot straight in your mouth, because unless you’re faster than me with UXPin, you lose.
Secondly, content comes first. If you’re wireframing before you even have a draft of your content, you need to have a serious chat with yourself and your team. Your job is to structure the most effective experience for what needs to be communicated. It’s an iterative process. Brands must learn to define their voice and image, while UX designers need to push for processes that make sense. Unless you are the product manager, communications director, copywriter and branded elements designer all at the same time with 12 hours to build a website, the content comes first. Always. Period.
Finally, wireframes are quick so you can get data quickly. Any decision you’ve made as a designer that lacks data to support its effectiveness takes you one step farther down the “faking it” route. Data is UX’s best friend, so learn to get it, log it and use it.
2. “I’ve designed an App in the App Store”
Out of 40+ discussions with potential User Experience hires in the past year, this is the second most common answer to the question, “What makes you a UX Designer?”
As a response to the question, mention of the App Store is like name dropping celebrities “you know” on a first date with a girl you picked up in a Porsche you rented that cost almost as much as the silk boxers she will never see because you’re so full of it she leaves without dessert.
Don’t get me wrong. If you have this in the bank, that’s awesome. Really awesome, and you should link to it in the comments so I can check it out, but it doesn’t make you a User Experience Designer unless the process you used to get there is as articulate as the product.
3. “My Process Is My Own”
Do you hear the buzzer? Because if you’ve said anything like this in your life I’m slamming the “wrong answer” button like a monkey on speed. A User Experience Designer is defined by their process; a structure within which yourself, other designers and clients can all operate in. So it has to be easier to explain than singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”.
There are few things as important to user experience design as having a clear process; going from business goals, to information architecture, to content development and wireframing, through to testing, iteration and the many levels there-after. At CareerFoundry we greatly emphasize this in the user experience course we have developed, because if we can guarantee anything, it’s how to turn those million and one steps into a blazed trail instead of a game of psychedelic hopscotch.
Without a process you’re just an idealist, and while creative problem solving is important you need the data to support it.
4. “We learn when it’s live”
You’ve probably never gone out for the night without checking the mirror. But ensuring your hair is perfectly gelled has distracted you from the fact that your fly is wide open and that your last pair of clean boxers (the Mickey Mouse ones) are sticking out. A fact that your “buddies” and bar patrons proceed to notice and make fun of you for. A third party opinion would have been helpful before the public display, don’t you think?
If you consider having a “good time” at the bar as the revenue from good preparation, then this awful analogy from a night out in Boston 6 years ago is my reminder that no product should go public without first having controlled third party input.
Data is a user experience designer’s best friend. Every step, every idea needs to go beyond you, because while art is subjective, successful UX is defined greatly by numbers, and you can be as creative as you want (my hair that night was amazing) but if you’ve left holes the public will always find them, so its critical to close as many as you can before embarrassing yourself.
5. “User Testing… Yeah, Like A Focus Group”
I’m looking for one little word combo here—”User Interviews”. Those of you who are former or active marketers try to put user experience testing in the context of mass, while those who have never done it before get hung up just asking people a single question. When looking for feedback, what you really need is raw uninfluenced detail. And marketer or not, if you’ve tried it before you already know that testing digital products in a focus group setting is akin to asking cats to chat about politics. The response is so obscure and difficult to translate that your learnings become purely the interpretation of the focus group holder.
While surveys and question-response tests can be effective for highly targeted issues, when it comes to testing your on-site user experience, or specific user journeys, the only way is to sit down with someone and watch them screw it all up. And trust me, they will, and rarely in the way you expected.
As per my experience at the bar, had I asked someone how I looked before walking into an evening of friendly abuse, I would have expected and hoped for comments on things I had paid extra attention to—my hair. But what I would have likely received was the one thing I needed—a quick snort and a finger pointed towards my crotch, bringing attention to what in effect would be the most important detail of the evening.
6. “I’m a creative person, not a technical one.”
If you don’t think of yourself as a technical person, then you should never ever call yourself a user experience designer. Ever. No wait, maybe… Nope… Nope, never.
You might take this for granted, but I encourage you not to. The ability to be creative and use your “informed opinion” is the driver behind so much of what we do at any level of design work. and although we’re all entitled to our wrong opinions, how your work translates to reality, how that translates to UI designers and developers, how that translates to a live site and its optimization, these are all technical and operative skills.
Since I’ve been pushing data driven decisions this whole article, let’s put the discussion in a similar context. Do you know how to use Google Analytics? I don’t just mean the basic readouts, but setting and defining goals, experiments, user funnels, segmentation and split tests. Do you know how to install the different analytic codes on a site and check if they negatively impact the site’s performance (speed)?
If you do then you’re on the right track. If not, you should, you need to put yourself in a situation where you are training and actively learning from it immediately. But it goes beyond just analytics (Google or otherwise). Do you know how to distribute information within a design to not only complement the efforts of marketers and designers, but incorporates the lightest code load possible? What about defining full loads vs. enhancements for fast loading and mobile?
In all honesty, knowing this stuff, learning this stuff, even applying this stuff is no harder than reading this never-ending article, but it’s crucial and ever changing. Your job is to keep up with the technical requirements involved in implementing and enhancing upon your “informed opinion”, which you should always hope is right, but always assume is wrong. If you can’t drive process and interpretation, your job is driven solely by assumption and nice ideas, and that’s not what UX is about.
7. “Once the product is built, I’m ready to move on.”
Not sure what sweet, hot Panda love has to do with user experience design? Read on.
To wrap up this article I’ve chosen the one thing that is probably always true because a user experience designer’s job is never done. It can’t be, as there is no such thing as a completed product, a perfect product, an unchangeable product. Once a product is built, your job is now interpretation testing and iteration, interpretation testing and iteration. As much as you’d like to think you are (and I know I do), you are not a secret agent; in with a mission, and out through the window as a product explodes into the world behind you. You’re more like a panda sexologist, trying to figure out why Shoofoo won’t mate with Takeshi on your journey to initiate the equivalent of a panda love-in.
That is probably the worst analogy I have ever made, but what I’m trying to say is that pride as a user experience designer comes not just from the development of a product, but from proving its success over and over and over again. And if you’re the unfocused type, like me, remember that there are business goals associated with a product and your job is to help get it there, not just by getting your initial job done, but by helping make it easier every step of the way.
So remember, when you’re lost or unsure, just pretend you’re a panda sexologist.