On a visit to family, I came to realize that even though I have been working at my profession for almost a decade, my loved ones are still kind of at a loss at how I fill my time. In between lovely catch ups, I finally got how questions about my day, my schedule, my life really meant that they were sincerely trying to understand what things like this mean in my world:
- I’m working with a client.
- I’m building/designing a digital interface/web/app thing.
- I’m onsite/offsite/remote/collaborating for this project.
- I have a call with [fill in the blank].
- I am a UX person doing UX/product/design/strategy/content things.
- I just build a project for [insert client].
And since they are most likely not the only ones, I thought this might be helpful for anyone out there. So let’s begin.
What’s My Job/My Title?
That’s a moving target. When I first entered the field in the early aughts, “User Experience” was just starting to become a keyword. The title was replacing terms like “Interactive Designer,” “Experience Designer” and other ones. “Graphic designer” was still a pretty popular title; in fact I came across UX because I was studying to be a graphic designer, and the course was folded into the program. “Info architect” was still around a lot. “Content strategist” wasn’t around yet or I probably would’ve become one because of my content background. It was probably a year or two before “Lean Startup” hit the field and all the “lean” things started happening.
Since then, UX has or has not (depending on who you talk to) become the umbrella term that does/or does not (depending on who you talk to) include or overlap into the following specialties (which are or are not specialties in their own right [depending on who you ask]):
- User Experience
- Human-centered Design
- UX Design
- UX Strategy
- UX/UI Design
- UX Research
- Product Design
- Product Strategy
- Product Management
- Interaction Design
- Service Design
- Info Architecture
- Content Strategy
All of these titles/specialties, I believe have their place, and I think a lot of the generation of these titles (including super focused ones like UX engineer, UX writer, etc. or new ones working their way into being like Design Strategy) have to do with larger companies getting on the UX bandwagon. In these larger companies, you need all these specific people to keep the UX/product/design process spinning across ALL THE THINGS. There’s just a lot to do, and it can’t be relegated to 1–3 people alone. But that is for a different article, and if you’re super confused as to the correct title, you’re not alone. However, I believe it’s best to just accept that Experience Designer is/still/can be just as legitimate as UX or Product Designer today. That all titles are moving targets, especially in our contemporary world where all careers and professions are pretty much making themselves up as they go along. And rather than be reactive, just lean into the evolution. Don’t be afraid to change call signs when you feel like it, and that it’s your privilege and power to define a role based on your process and skills as opposed to bending yourself into what a job description says you should be. You set the expectations of what you bring to the table and what you’d like to learn. Your employer gets decide whether that’s a good deal for them. It’s super fun.
So Why Do People Hire Me?
I am hired by people to do the design process in order to help them build products (apps, websites, content, other things) that will be useful and usable and desired by their customers. The design process is the same no matter the specialty. It’s basically some version of research, design, test, repeat. In a sense, every job is a design job. Doctors take down symptoms, hypothesize a diagnosis, create a treatment plan, then see if it works, repeat. Artists think of an idea they want to communicate/explore, try to make it in several ways or through several iterations (think Monet’s haystacks), and repeat. Teachers consider what they need to teach, create and design a lesson plan, test it out on their students, and then repeat. And product makers ideate on a product, do research on how to make the product, make it, test it in the marketplace, and repeat.
What distinguishes an industrial designer from an interior designer from a brand designer from a service designer from a logo designer from a UX designer is the specific lens through which they are trying to solve the design problem. That lens will also define how, why, when and what part of the design problem they will solve. A UX person specifically attempts to solve design problems by including the user (the people who will use the product) in the design process. Therefore, when a client calls me up and says, “Yo, can you help us?” A lot of my pitch is about how we need to talk to users, have user data, do user research, tap into the user perspective, or just be more user-friendly and then iterate on what we learn.
That’s an important thing to understand: The design process is iterative. Therefore, I work at my design process in a way that is always considering how I will research, design, test then take what I’ve learned to research, design and test again. Some iterations are short while some are long. Sometimes, I only get to be part of one iteration, but that’s my battleplan for every project: I will iterate through 1 or X more revolutions of the design process to get to a better and more useful, usable and desirable product for customers and the business. The longer the project timeline, the more iterations — HOORAY!
What Do I Do on Projects?
I do the UX version of the design process. How that goes down depends entirely on the project itself, but it will be some permutation of research, design, test, repeat. There’s a lot of professional discussion about the right way to do the design process, and agencies and companies and teams spend a lot of time trying to hash out the best articulation of that method to codify and sell as the best way to get it done. There are popular ones like design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test) or lean (build, measure, learn) or agile (plan, design, build, test, review). Whether you ascribe to one completely or not is up to you or your company.
My overall professional and personal opinion is that as a designer you are constantly learning new tools, adapting those tools and creating new ones to do the good design process. I’ve used and recommended the methodologies I’ve listed or their tactics individually on projects because they made sense at the time or I was asked to do that method. And should you ever need to acquire clients, you’ll spend a lot of time thinking, drafting and rewriting how you explain your process to people who aren’t you or your colleagues.
However, what defines your UX process is how you strategically move forward to a useful, usable and desirable product that encompasses the user perspective. After all, a strategist considers how they will move to and how far away they are from point A to point B. Therefore, I constantly re-evaluate the tools and tactics I use for each project based on what I understand is the current team, budget, tools and other restrictions and resources to go from no product or old product or not-working product or kind-of-working product to better product or to even better product. I pitch that to a client or evolve those tactics in collaboration and with consent from the client while I’m on a project. There are some tools and tactics I use all the time, and others that I use depending. But whether they are constant or not, I’m always adapting, revising and changing them to fit the needs of the project and team with whom I’m working. And that’s because a lot of the things I do on a project are meant to be useful and usable to other team members so that we can all make useful, useable and user-friendly products together.
So What Do I Do Daily on a Project?
Remember the UX process distinguishes itself by specifically trying to bring in the user’s perspective into the design process. But my process is also distinguished by my particular skills, background, perspective and expertise. These are tactics and skillsets in my own toolbox that distinguish me from other designers UX or otherwise. And they also play a part in the reason why a client might choose me out of everyone else because of how I will solve a problem with those skills. For example, my background is in writing, editing and content creation, and I call myself a content strategist and can do things like content development and UX writing and other things because of it.
Another thing to remember about my process is that I am a consultant. I’m invited into teams to be the UX expert. As such, I also get to set strategy, define value propositions, reset scope and do research, which intersects with product strategy, business strategy and product management stuff. And because each project I take on has different objectives, timelines, resources and restrictions, I just need to be flexible. But I like facing new product environments and teams. It’s pretty much been a steady characteristic of my career since I started.
Therefore what I do daily depends on what part of the process I’m working on, what kind of product I’m working on, who I’m working with, and who I am making the product for. On any one project, I could be conducting research, drawing designs, building roadmaps, analyzing and setting business requirements, ideating design concepts, pitching potential product ideas, writing content, evaluating and rebuilding internal system processes, and/or collaborating and setting strategy and scope with entrepreneurs or designers or developers or other people.
For example, on the current project I’m working on I’ve been through multiple iterations of the design process in order to build out a fully realized interactive storytelling experience. Just this week, I started out by heading out with my creative team (writer and creative director) to a conference where we gathered business requirements from multiple client-side stakeholders by getting their perspectives on the project. Then I broke off from the group to hunt down my users because we had a specific design problem within the entire product to solve. Mainly the question we wanted to ask was: If we build this specific section of the digital interface, would it be useful, usable and desirable to these people? At the conference, I interviewed 20 of our intended users (go UX!). When my team got back together the next day, we compared notes based on each of our objectives to see how they affected each other. I wrote a research summary with the writer to share with our research strategy team who would share it with the client on the outcome of the day and tests. Then, we got word that our deadlines had shifted. I spent one day designing wireframes/storyboards/wireflows/user flows (see tool adaption!) and modifying the earlier iteration with our research results. I came in the next day and went over them with my creative team to get their input because we are each solving the same design problem through our specific lenses (i.e. the writer is writing the script and figuring out the narrative while the creative director is figuring out how this will all be visually handled and I am figuring out the best way a person can navigate through these things). That took about half a day of heads-down collaboration and decision-making about how we thought we should move from Point A to Point B. Then I went back and took two days to integrate all our collaboration, and I finished the week with the first draft of a 100 page document. This document will be used by the production team, development team, marketing team and client to do the jobs that they need to do to make the product. As we move forward from here, I’ll advocate for the work done and that needs to be done, continue to do more research, compile team analysis, integrate it into our overall understanding of the product, evolve that vision through my work, and produce documentation for other teams to use.
Or last year, I was invited to evaluate the content and communication strategy of a nonprofit arts organization. I had a month to complete the work. So the first week, I audited all of the content of the nonprofit — websites, social media channels, print collateral (posters, brochures, postcards, etc.). I interviewed everyone on the client team because I wanted to understand how they understood their jobs, how those jobs contributed to the creation and distribution of content, and how they saw their strengths and weaknesses. The second week, I did research. Working closely with the brand designer on the project, we defined the questions that would be the most helpful to both our work. I then worked with the brand designer and the nonprofit team to do that research — we did onsite interviews by catching people as they left the gallery space. We interviewed longtime members at a gallery opening that week. The brand designer and I touched based multiple times during the month and even strategized together to maximize both our efforts. The third week, I reached out to several professionals in parallel fields to the nonprofit to discuss how they overcame similar issues in content design and strategy. Based on all this research, I then designed out a strategic roadmap for the nonprofit team — a summary and step-by-step approach for several of the nonprofit teams members on how they could support their efforts. I’m happy to say it’s working; and I continue to work with them in a lighter capacity designing out some of those tactics into actual website concepts.
So that’s what I do. I get to work with teams on products that are meant for other people. My responsibility as the UX person is to build the best version of that product within the timeline, budget and resources of the client and for the person they are ultimately trying to serve. I do that by doing the design process, and my design process can seem different based on whoever I’m trying to help.
But what I love about my career is that everyday, I get to problem solve how to do this, and because the problem is always different, so is the math to the solution. And that means I get to walk into every project and treat it as the unique thing it is. What is the same no matter what is the process: I will always do research. I will always try to understand my client and what the business wants to achieve. I will always advocate for the user perspective and input. I will always build my design based on my understanding of these things to the best of my ability. I will always attempt to iterate the best version of the design within the time I am on a project. And I will always work to learn more!
Hope that all helps!