Over the course of my career, I have seen many job postings for User Experience-based roles. I've been contacted on a number of occasions by recruiters looking for a general "UX person." One site simply listed a "UX Expert" under their open positions. When pressed for details, more often than not, I was handed a long laundry list of skills and tools.
You could say the recruiters were looking for the UX equivalent of a "Full Stack Developer," someone who was intimately familiar with the entire UX process, who could not only interview users and analyze the results of usability studies, but also create pixel-perfect designs and implement them with precision using the project's existing frameworks.
Such a person is not impossible to find — those in a UX field often have multiple disciplines and concentrations — but generalist job titles like "UX Expert" and "Full Stack Developer" have always put me on guard (the latter position is a more heated topic that I will not dive into today). Needless to say, I like to think that UX specialties are a more nuanced than many company job postings might imply.
UX is still a relatively new field in the grand scheme of things, and roles can fluctuate due to new tools and trends in the industry. However, in my mind, there is a "Triad" of roles that have (thus far) withstood the test of time (at least, in the past decade or so): UX Analyst, Designer, and Developer.
Today I'll be exploring the responsibilities of each of these roles, as well as the difference between UX positions and related roles outside of UX.
Fields of Study
Before we start looking into the "UX Triad," I would like to review the potential fields of study that a UXer might pursue. Originally, I was going to list potential academic majors for each of these roles, but it occurred to me that any of these majors could potentially steer someone into any UX role. Alphabetically, potential starting points for a UX practitioner could be:
- Computer Science
- Graphic Design / Interactive Media
- Human-Computer Interaction
- Information Technology / Systems
...and more. I once knew a UX Designer who began his career in music before switching gears to focus on the web. The point here is that UX specialists come from a variety of backgrounds. This mix of experience can bring unique perspectives to their work.
Involvement of UX ideally begins at the start of a project, in the Planning and Analysis stages of the software development life cycle. This is where a UX Analyst (sometimes also called a UX Researcher — more on this below) comes in to help define the requirements of the project from both the client and user perspectives.
They do this by creating a variety of assets based on their research, such as:
- Personas: Fictional stand-ins for a users that represent goals, challenges, skills, behaviors, and other aspects of individuals who will be using the product. This helps to create empathy between the project team and potential end users by putting "a name and a face" on what would otherwise be a more hand-wavey and nebulous group of "the users."
- Journey Map / User Flow: These are two examples of diagrams that may result from user research. Journey Maps focus on the emotional experience as users complete the stages of a multi-step workflow (such as a buying a car or going on an international vacation). A user flow focuses on the actions a user takes as they complete a workflow. They may be as simple as a flow chart or may include wireframes or designs of the site with arrows indicating the steps.
- Wireframes: Concept sketches that illustrate the base layout and/or functionality. Usually done in black and white, they offer a general overview of content placement.
Business Analyst vs. UX Analyst
Business Analysts usually focus more on the requirements set out by the client, who often is not the end user. They are interested in what the product should do: allow students to register for their courses, enable shoppers to place an order, or read articles on a news site. These "what" questions are posed by the business to extract value in the form of sales, subscriptions, and so on. User input may be taken into account during this process, but it is not at the forefront of the analysis.
A UX Analyst is driven by not by the question of what, but how — the interaction of that student, shopper, or reader with the web page: their feelings, challenges, victories, wants, and needs. The ultimate goal of a UX Analyst is to ensure that a product is not only easy to use, but also pleasing and even delightful.
Another title that you may come across is that of a UX Researcher. It is sometimes used synonymously with an Analyst, but it can also refer to a UX Analyst who focuses more on quantitative research than qualitative. UX Researchers may look at raw numbers, such as Google Analytics data, to understand more metrics-based user patterns from page views, clicks, time spent on a page, and so on.
The most common result in job postings, UX Designers specialize in taking wireframes and user study research to produce high fidelity comprehensive or composite layout (more often referred to as a comp or simply a design). At minimum, the designer provides the design in the form of a static image, though they may also provide rough working prototypes in the form of interactive images or styled (but not necessarily fully functional) web pages.
These comps and/or prototypes are what developers will ultimately reference to produce the final application. As part of this work, designers may also provide specifications (specs), including typographical choices, imagery, and colors. They may even go as far as supplying a detailed style guide that illustrates the various components of a design down to elements like individual button styles or headings.
Graphic Designer vs. UX Designer
While both Graphic Designers and UX Designers have a firm grasp of the elements (line, shape, color, etc.) and principles (ex. balance, contrast, repetition) of design, the former will be more focused on the look and feel — the pixels, taking directions from other departments such as marketing or sales — than the overall experience. Often times, a UX Designer will be working off of a wireframe (created by a UX Analyst) that has already been user tested, whereas a Graphic Designer may create the wireframes themselves or start directly from scratch at the design phase. A UX Designer will use a wireframe to flesh out the final aesthetics and may then follow up with another usability study to ensure that the workflow, color choices, and content still makes sense.
This is one of the more rare positions I have encountered in my job search. A UX Developer's primary focus is implementing designs, though they may also conduct and analyze usability tests (of prototypes or live sites) and provide small, quick design mockups if the design requires changes.
Surprisingly, "UX" is often absent from job titles for developers, and it is more common to find position for Front-End Developers or UI Developers with "user experience" listed as a skill — a side effect, rather than a main focus for the role.
Those postings that I have encountered with "UX" in the title are usually listed under "UX/UI Developer" with no clear delineation between the two. Let's take a moment to explore this.
UX Developer vs. UI Developer
One of my favorite explanations between the two is this ketchup meme that's been circling around the community for the past couple of years:
First, you have your standard glass ketchup bottle. It has a cylindrical body with a narrow neck and twist cap. With a bit of effort, it performs the basic function of delivering tasty condiments to your food of choice. It does its job, albeit to mediocre satisfaction at best. You might have to tip the bottle upside-down and give it a few smacks or use the old butter knife trick to coax out the stubborn stuff. Furthermore, if you're not careful, you could end up with far more ketchup than you needed (or even a huge mess).
Compare this with a squeeze bottle. With a wide lid that allows it to be stored upside-down, there's no need to wait for the last bit of ketchup to ooze onto your hotdog with the urgency of a snail. The narrow opening makes it less prone to exploding and more easy to control the amount of ketchup. Beyond being easy to use, it can also be fun — you can draw smiley faces on your burgers or even (if you're artistically inclined) craft a portrait of Adele on your plate. Beyond providing a simple service, it can even allow for creativity and emotional expression.
Granted, this is a fairly simplistic example and doesn't fully articulate the complexity of an iterative UX process, but I think that, at a basic level, it helps to illustrate the difference between UX and UI. The difference between a UX Developer and a UI Developer is somewhat similar. UX Devs don't just want to code — they want to be involved a process driven by the human element from start to finish. The same can be said of UX Designers and UX Analysts.
Beyond simply delivering a functioning product, UXers ask questions, conduct in usability studies, and stand in defense and support of the user to create an experience that is both practical and enjoyable.
Ultimately, involvement throughout the software development process and the importance of the user speaks to all three disciplines. The job of a UX practitioner is not limited strictly to analysis, design, and development. What separates UX roles apart from others is advocacy and empathy for the person on the other side of the screen — a splash of psychology and humanity on top of traditional Business Analyst, Graphic Designer, or Software Developer roles.
In jesting summation, when thinking of UX roles, think of Tron: "He fights for the users."