This week I spoke on a panel at General Assembly titled But I’m not a Designer: The Many Paths to UX. It was an informal Q&A for people who are interested in a UX career. I’ll save the suspense and give you the short answer – no, you don’t need a background in visual design. In fact, the three panelists illustrated just that – my background is in music, and my fellow panelists came from banking and neuroscience before they made the career switch and became UX designers.
While we had a wide range of really great questions from the audience, I’ll just paraphrase what I said here on the topic, because the conversation hit on a lot of things that come up often when I’m talking with potential clients who are trying to understand the difference between UX, UI, visual design, and front-end development, and struggling to identify what it is that they need.
User experience design is simply informed design. The output can be whatever best helps you build and launch your product or service, be that recommendations, workflows and wireframes, high-fidelity mockups, clickable prototypes, or fully functioning front-end code. Your UX designer’s output will depend largely on their strengths and preferences, but also on what works best for your team. Dealing with a large organization where there are lots of stakeholders and departments who need to buy into the concept each step of the way? Then you probably want some sort of written documentation that you can pass around to get everyone’s sign-off on what you’re building and how it will work before you sink a bunch of time into building it. Working on a small, agile team with nothing but a back-end developer and no money to hire a front-end developer? Then you probably want someone who can deliver somewhat functioning front-end code on a rolling basis.
The point is that whatever your UX person is delivering, it hasn’t been designed in a vacuum, and it hasn’t been designed purely in service of some other objective such as “I like the way it looks” or “this was the easiest way to code it up” or even just “this makes sense to me.” This is why I prefer the term “user experience designer” to “interaction designer,” even though the two titles are basically interchangeable. And, this is why I’ve found that, while not essential to every team, it’s often preferable to have somebody who, at least for some dedicated period of time, is focused solely on designing the best possible experience for your users, without a lot of other distractions.
And this isn’t just because that’s the way that I prefer to work. In fact, the majority of my clients over the past two years have come to me with a story that goes something like this:
Well, we had an idea of how it should work, so we brought in a visual designer who said they ‘know a little UX.’
(Whatever that means.)
Our designer created mockups, but once the developer started building it we realized that there were all of these things that we hadn’t thought about. We did the best we could to fill in the holes, but mostly we just left it up to the developer to figure it out, and we went way over deadline and over budget. Now we have a few thousand users, and everyone loves how it looks, but they’re not doing what we want them to do.
So, not only do I not have a background in visual design, I actually think that, in most cases, it’s kind of an advantage that I don’t. What I do need is the ability to communicate effectively with whoever owns the visual design of a product – be that a graphic designer developing the branding for the first time or a front-end coder working from an existing styleguide. I need to understand their unique goals and challenges so that I can ensure we’re creating the best user experience, much in the same way that I work with developers or content creators.
At the end of the day, my success is determined by how what I design works and gets used, not by how it looks or what technology it was built with. Does it need to look good? Maybe. (Honestly, it depends on your brand, your product, and your audience.) More importantly, the way it looks needs to be in service of the how it works and what it does for the user, not the other way around.
The UX designers I know have come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some of them do visual design, some write code, some are product managers, most do some form of strategy, and a few just do research. If there’s anything they all share in common, it’s a healthy curiosity about technology, an ability to understand both the strategic vision and the intricate details of their products, a desire to build things that solve problems, and the ability to understand and empathize with the people for whom they’re building them.