Making Matters 2 - What does a UX Designer actually do these days?

Chris and Thomas attempt to answer the question of what a UX designer actually does these days. Spoiler… We have no idea!

Thomas and Chris attempt to answer the question of what a UX designer’s job is meant to be in this crazy future-world we live in.

  • How is the role of UX changing?
  • Do designers need to specialise? 
  • How are ‘zero interface’ experiences changing our jobs?
  • Where should you get your first UX job?
  • What on earth is UX these days, anyway?

Transcript

Chris

Well, they said it would never happen, but screw the cynics because we’re back with Making Matters episode two. A podcast where we talk about UX, web design, development, and all other kinds of digital stuff.

My name is Chris Myhill and I’m a UX designer.

Thomas

(Sips tea) My name is Thomas Edwards and I’m a technical director.

Chris

So, today we thought spend a bit of time talking about what the hell it is a UX designer actually does. Because the role of a UX designer is constantly changing, or at least it feels like it is, and how to we make sense of it.

Thomas

Now I fortunately, maybe, get to sit outside of this community somewhat, because I don’t regard myself as being a “UX designer”…

Chris

…or are you?

Thomas

Or, well, quite! This is the thing because while I spend most of my time messing about with the more technical aspects, technical in a programmatic sense, actually every decision that I make will probably eventually affecting the user, and if a user experience designer makes a request, eventually it’s going to have to be developed at some point. So a role as a technical means that you lean into [UX].

I’ve kind of noticed there’s a lot of talk at the moment about the role of a UX [designer], and job titles, and things like that. But I wondered is this new? Has this always been a problem? There’s a lot of chatter, but is that just because people realising there’s a change?

Chris

I think UX design has always been a jack of all trades type role, it’s a very broad discipline that’s actually made up of quite a lot of different things. It’’s not just research, you’re also dabbling in user interface design. You’re also taking on some elements of copywriting, content strategy. Before you know it it, you’ve got about five people’s worth of jobs in this one catch-all role called UX design.

I’ve often thought that the role of a UX designer in a digital sense has always been spread a bit too thin. But that’s been made even more complicated by the fact that UX is now empowered to be at the heart of the business, not just the product.

I think something we talked about earlier is how, rather than just being a marketing function, businesses are treating UX as part of the core offering.

Thomas

Yeah. It’s to do with the website being less of a marketing function and more just a part of how the business works. The businesses that a lot of people reference all the time like AirBnB - it is just a website. It doesn’t exist outside of the web. But even with traditional product companies, the website is becoming more part of their operation.

Chris

Right, the website is the product.

Thomas

Yeah. I think from the UX point of view, the way I see it is that we’re going through what web development went through ten years ago.

We used to have a role called webmaster. Do you remember webmasters?

Chris

[laughs] It’s a great job title!

Thomas

It is! You used to be a ‘webmaster’. And you were a person who made the website. They would do everything. But now, you’ve got DevOps, you’ve got back-end developers, you’ve got front-end developers. The disciplines are splitting out so much.

I feel like what might be happening is that this is hitting UX. People are realising that there is more we can do. We can make this better. The website is no longer just a division, it’s an operational part of the business. It’s as important as having electricity.

Suddenly people realise that the more we invest in it [UX], the more we get out of it. We’re now asking what more we can do? You go back ten years and there might have been a UX designer in an organisation being annoyed with everything, because they’re one person and there aren’t enough hours in the day. Now they’re being given permission to split and divide, creating all of these new roles.

Chris

Interestingly this used to be more the case. I remember about five years ago the term UX designer was relatively new. Traditionally we had subdisciplines of what is now UX being more distinct job roles. You had user researchers, information architects, interaction designers… These were all fairly distinct roles. Over time we’ve seen them all get squished together, forming what is now the UX designer position. This person is was then expected to be a bit of a jack of all trades.

Now UX is getting to be a big deal, and businesses are growing their UX departments, we’re seeing that role start to break apart a little bit once more. Even just within the remit of a single website, there’s just far too much going on for one person’s job description to cover all of the different responsibilities of making a good user experiences.

Thomas

Businesses who are doing that are actually leading the way slightly. Companies like AirBnb are doing such a good job that they’re starting to intrude on other businesses who were just trundling along.

Take the holiday industry [in that example]. [AirBnb] have this incredible experience that is really easy and reliable. If you go to a high-street holiday company and go through their experience - it’s out of date and not very good. Somehow AirBnb is so much more useful. They’re realising they need to have to step it up.

I think this maybe is where the customer experience, which would traditionally come under marketing, it’s merging into UX. There was a line, but that might need to go?

Chris

Right.

Thomas

So, [as a user] I go to a website, looking at holidays. I need more information, or there’s something that just doesn’t come across from the website. Whatever. I see a phone number, and I call it. At what point does the user experience stop? Is there a line any more?

Chris

Exactly. Historically customer experience and user experience were two very different fields. Or at least they didn’t come into contact too often. What businesses are realising is that a user’s journey very rarely exists on just one platform.

Let’s take that example of booking a holiday. The user starts on the website doing some research. They might find a package they’re interested in and call up someone to speak to, to book the thing. That’s still a single user journey. You’re still the same customer, interacting with the same business. The user should have consistency in their interaction between the website and the salesperson.

Even down to the way that they speak, and the language they use. That’s all part of the brand, and part of the experience. So we need to be thinking about those things and we can’t be shifting the responsibilities for that offline part onto a separate team.

Thomas

That’s really relevant. I can’t remember the name of the brand, but there’s a company who’ll inject an [extension for the] telephone number into the page that’s based on your session. This means that when you call them, they already know which hotels you’ve been looking that. The operating already know’s what you’ve been looking at. The experience goes all the way through.

You can get really clever there. If you call the telephone number and they know exactly what you’re talking about, you don’t need to explain anything. The user will be impressed… If not slightly creeped out.

You’ll be more likely to make the sale. The return on investment is huge.

Chris

And there are so many levels that you’ll need to plan for that experience. The website part is the bread and butter. We’ve always been doing that. But then you also want to plan the way the sales rep is talking to the customer. Traditionally that would have been a customer experience role. But then you also want to be planning what that sales rep is seeing, what system they’re using. That whole platform, that needs to be designed too. This is so that the sales rep is getting the right information.

All of a sudden you’ve got all of these different jigsaw pieces of an experience coming together, and they can’t all be siloed out to different teams.

Thomas

That’s the problem.

You know, I think with this podcast we’re potentially asking more questions than we’re answering….

Chris

[laughs]

Thomas

I think that’s ok though. Businesses need to ask themselves ‘do you have these separate teams?’. These kinds of questions are coming up, and they need addressing.

There’s two topics here. There’s the use of internal tools ; like, you’ve sorted out your customer but actually your internal teams need a good experience too. I think we’re going to talk about that quite soon in another podcast. But the other thing (that is relevant to us in agencies) is that [teams] are changing. When your projects stop being a marketing function and becomes your everyday ; should they be bought in-house?

Are we at the point where all of this [the user experience] needs to be brought in house, because the agency model just isn’t working anymore?

Chris

I think you have to, to some extent. A lot of businesses, even if they lean on agencies, are looking to bring those specialists into the businesses. Working on a more contract basis. Rather than the old model of working on things on a project-by-project basis.

If you’ve got several agencies all working on their own producing different products, even if they’re doing a great job, they won’t be aligned.

Thomas

One arm won’t talk to the other leg and you’ll end up with a situation where there are confusing or conflicting products, and the customer will get annoyed.

I think I agree. This type of work is so crucial. It’s not that agencies are particularly bad at it, it’s that the model doesn’t work anymore.

[the idea of] having one single project that has a start and a finish doesn’t really work anymore. You can build a team around an idea, but once that idea is finished, you don’t want to disband the team and lose all that learning.

Chris

Businesses are starting to understand that when they interact with users, they’re not just doing it using one platform, like the website.

They [the user] is hopping around between different services, different channels. Consistency is really valued.

Thomas

Yeah.

Chris

Coming back to the role of UX, and what we do… We need to start looking more holistically across the different channels. That might not just be user interfaces.

I think that user interface is a bit of a low hanging fruit when it comes to user experience. We can make sure we’ve got a design system in place across all of our ‘screen based’ services (and that’s awesome), but it goes it a level up from that.

We need to make sure we’re speaking consistently across different platforms. We need to make sure that sales staff are talking to users the same way the screen based interface would. We need to be thinking about chatbots, too.

Thomas

Right, what happens when you don’t have a screen?

Chris

Right, exactly.

Thomas

I think the zero interface thing is really intriguing. There’s a lot chat around it. There’s a few chatbots around there, we know they work quite well when humans do them. A lot people like being able to chat, like a text messages. Phone calls are quite inconvenient. You have to hold, you have to wait. They’re quite irritating.

Just being able to chat using text message, why can’t you interact like that? And just like that, you suddenly have this interface that not only isn’t controlled (because you can’t control what the messaging app looks like), but actually you’re getting to this AI point. How does the messenger behave, and how do you make sure the interactions are just right?

There’s a whole world of experience there, you just don’t have any say over how it looks [visually].

If you’re fresh into the industry and you know you enjoy this idea of user experience, and problem solving - how do you go about finding what you enjoy? Maybe five or ten years ago you would just say ‘I like UX’ and someone would say, ‘ok, here’s a UX job!’. But now it’s so disciplined! Do young people coming into this industry feel like they need to specialise?

Is it still ok for someone to apply for a job saying ‘I want to do UX’? How do they progress from there?

Chris

It depends on the size of the business, to be honest. [With] smaller agencies, I think there’s still a place for a UX designer who is expected to wear ten different hats, and switch them depending on the job they’re working on.

Increasingly though, that’s getting more unrealistic because of these complex problems we’re talking about. To be honest, I think we are reaching a point where at least in bigger organisations you will be expected to specialise a bit.

Perhaps on smaller projects and tasks there is still plenty of room to be handling the UI design and also thinking about tone of voice, microcopy and other areas of UX… But there are UX teams of hundreds of designers working at places like Facebook and Google. They need to specialise.

Thomas

Do you think there was a point where you realised that you wanted to specialise, and you knew what you should be specialising in? Did you have a eureka moment, or did you just fall into an area?

Chris

I guess I’m lucky enough to have gotten into [UX] at a time when we were still in that ‘all hands on deck’ period. I was expected to just ‘do the UX’.

Thomas

[laughs]. ‘Do the UX!’, yeah.

Chris

[laughs - impersonates a manager]. ‘We need a UX!’

Thomas

[laughs]

Chris

I started to realise that my strengths were more in information architecture and interaction design, and I’m probably less strong in research and content strategy. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t all be familiarising ourselves with other specialisms. You hear about this idea of a ‘T-shaped-skillset’. Sure I specialise in information architecture, but I can do a bit of user research, I can do a bit of UI design.

I think it’s the same with any other job really, this isn’t exclusive to UX.

Thomas

Yeah, the web is the same. There’s so many different disciplines for programmers or developers. In fact, there’s even a question as to whether you call them programmers or developers.

Chris

Or a UX developer!

Thomas

[Laughs]. If you go into that industry, it seems that you’re expected to know what you want to be already. It is difficult, because when you’re junior you don’t really know what you want to be doing. So it’s very difficult to know if you want to program, or if you want to make things look great… or anything inbetween.

If I were to give the same advice to someone fresh out of school… I think go into a small company where you can be ‘full stack’ (not that you know what the stack is, you’re still learning!). Yeah, work somewhere small, somewhere cute. And try to wear all the different hats. Eventually you’ll find the one that fits.

I guess there isn’t a sorting hat of UX and web development. Nobody can tell you what role you should be. You have to go and figure it out.

Chris

I do think that starting life in a smaller agency product team is probably the best way to do it. Like you said, you get to wear a lot of those different hats.

If I’m on a small team where I’m the sole UX designer, I have to do everything whether I like it or not, and that forces me to try everything.

To give an example, when I first started out in UX I was in a small agency. My first project was an ecommerce site for selling carbon monoxide alarms to elderly people. That’s not a very sexy project. But it did let me work on a small team. There was one of me doing the web design, and a couple of developers. And between us we had to make the product.

A lot of people who have aspirations of being a web designer think ‘yeah, I’d love to go work for AirBnb or Uber’.

Thomas

Because it’s cool and sexy.

Chris

Yeah! But if you end up there, fantastic, but you will be expected to specialise very quickly.

Thomas

Yeah. You’ll end up looking at a button for two weeks.

Chris

Or you’ll just be doing the user research, and getting feedback one this one feature for a long time. And that’s just the way that team is structured. However, if you are prepared to go for some slightly less glamorous work for the initial part of your career it may really benefit you. You might be taking on a lot more responsibility. And a lot more components of the product.

Thomas

I completely agree, and it’s the same for most other industries. I think it’s true that it’s nice to work where your hands are slightly tied. You haven’t got much budget. People worry a lot about scaling, but the better question is ‘how much can we save?’. Thinking about how quickly and affordably we can do these things is a far more useful skill to have.

Chris

I think it’s also why education is these areas is getting more important. Curriculums in technology and digital have always been naff. But there’s more pressure to step it up now that [the industry] is getting huge.

There are a lot of courses out there now for UX Designers. I know General Assembly do one. There’s a couple of others as well. That’s a great opportunity to learn about all of these different disciplines. It’ll give you a good chance to figure out which area you have a taste for.

Thomas

Yeah.

Chris

So, there’s more reason than ever to be a formally educated designer or developer. And it’s something that i feel like a few years ago, when there was less specialism going on in our field, people could float into the industry. You might train as an accountant, but really want to get into web development and muddle into it.

But an education is getting more important, because there’s a lot to learn and a lot to figure out now.

Thomas

Yeah. This is kind of an entire podcast, as it’s a complicated topic. A lot of people our age and older, we grew up as the web was growing up. It’s a challenge now because suddenly you’re expected to have caught up on 20 years of web development. Which accelerates at an extraordinary pace. Like no other industry. That’s probably quite intimidating for anyone starting out!

Chris

It’s intimidating for me!

Thomas

And me, I still don’t know what I’m doing. [laughs].

Chris

So Thomas… What the fuck is UX? Have we figured it out?

Thomas

…I don’t think we have, have we?

Chris

[laughs] I don’t think we’ve done very well! We had a good go though.

Thomas

Yeah, we set out in this podcast to ask what the role of UX is. I don’t think we’ve figured it out… But anyone who is thinking about getting into it, there’s some advice there for them.

Chris

So until next time, we’ll bid you adieu. If people want to follow you Thomas, how can they do it?

Thomas

You can follow me on twitter @thomasedwards.

Chris

And you can follow me @justuxdesign.

Thomas

So until next time… Cheerio!

Chris

Goodbye!

Found this useful? Why not share it?

Chris Myhill, an incredibly handsome UX designer with over 8 years of experience

Chris Myhill

Chris heads up Just UX Design with over eight years of experience.

He’s worked on loads of different projects, using UX wizardry to help businesses make better products.

Learn more about Chris

← back