If you’ve found your way to this blog, you might be asking yourself what a UX designer actually does on a day-to-day basis?
If you’re a UX newbie, don’t worry, you’re not alone! Because of the relative newness of the term and the varied nature of the work, it can be difficult to pin down in succinct terms the exact function of a UX designer. Not to mention the fact that UX is routinely mixed up with UI design, only serving to add to the confusion.
If you’re reading this and you’re already in a UX design role, you’ll be familiar with the task of trying to distill your job description into easily understandable terms for family, friends and maybe even some of your co-workers!
In this article, we’ll explore the particularities of a UX designer’s day-to-day responsibilities, as well as take a look at the skills you need to excel in the industry.
What is UX design?
First things first, to explain what a UX designer does, we have to have an understanding of what UX design (or user experience design) entails.
In simple terms, Don Norman, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group Design Consultancy and cognitive scientist credited with coining the term ‘UX design’ sums it up as follows; ‘
User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products’.
Ok, but what does good user experience entail? Norman breaks it down further;
“The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use.
True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features. In order to achieve high-quality user experience in a company’s offerings there must be a seamless merging of the services of multiple disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design, and interface design.”
Hence, a UX designer’s role in the process of a product’s overall design is to ensure that it’s useful, usable and enjoyable for its users at all stages of interaction.
Although UX design principles can be applied to any kind of product, UX designers typically work in a digital space, in the design of digital products like websites or apps.
What does a UX designer’s day-to-day look like?
Bottom line – as with many career paths, it depends.
There’s a varied skill set that goes into being a UX designer and the answer to the question of what one does on a daily basis reflects this.
The size of the company, the team, the project as well as the level of UX maturity in any given organisation are all elements that can greatly influence the number of responsibilities a UX designer is expected to take on.
There is however, a general UX design thinking process that all UX designers, regardless of the organisation they work for follow. Let’s take a look at this process in more detail.
What does the UX design process look like?
1. Product research
The first step of the process for any UX project is product research, which includes both user and market research.
The purpose of this stage is for the designers to generate a picture of the kind of user for whom they are designing. It’s about considering the product and its functions and how it might better serve the customer.
Both desk research and primary data collected via online surveys, focus groups and in-depth one-on-one interviews with users and key stakeholders help UX designers to make informed design-based decisions and avoid making assumptions about the product user.
The goal of the research stage is to either confirm or discover the user’s needs, goals and motivations for using the product. In achieving this, the UX designer is in a better place to identify opportunities to improve an existing product’s features or, in the case of a new product, uncover the main features needed for a minimum viable product.
2. User personas
Using the results from the product research, the next stage of the process involves distinguishing key user groups for the product and from them, developing user personas to represent each of those groups.
A user persona is an imagined identity profile of the kind of person that would use the product being designed. Its purpose is to create a tangible way for UX designers to visualise user behaviours and patterns identified from the research. In personifying the end-user, the designer can better empathise with that particular persona’s experience with the product.
Once a user persona has been created, the UX designer will use it to write different user scenarios.
User persona scenarios are written up to illustrate example occasions in a persona’s life where they might interact with the product being designed.
Scenarios are important because they help the UX designer to envisage each step that the user might take on their journey with the product, what they need it to do, why they’re using it and so on.
Scenarios help particularly in the design of apps and websites, as they aid in informing the design of the information architecture; that is, how the app or website’s information is structured for the user’s accessibility.
3. Information architecture
Information architecture refers to the way in which a website or app’s information is organised. For the architecture to be successful, a user needs to be able to easily understand where they are on a site at any given time and intuitively know how to get from point A to point B to achieve their desired goals.
Therefore, in designing the information architecture, a UX designer needs to have a good idea of site navigation best practices, hierarchies and categorisations to create a coherent and efficient user map.
Wireframes are to UX designers what mock-ups are to art directors. They represent a quick, rough representation of how the ultimate design will function.
A set of wireframes will demonstrate each step of a user’s journey; for example, each screen the user will see while attempting to complete a goal on a website.
Wireframes are a crucial part of the UX process because although they’re created quickly and crudely, they serve as a blueprint of sorts for web developers and UI designers when the design moves into the development stage. So it’s vital that every key step carried out during the interaction process between a user and the product is considered in the wireframes.
5. Prototyping and user testing
Following wireframes comes prototypes.
The simplest way to describe a UX prototype is to think of it as a more advanced, more polished and most importantly, interactive version of a wireframe. Prototypes are the last step before launching the completed product, so it’s important that they exhibit a high fidelity representation of the finished product. This way, test users can get a real feel for how the product will actually feel and function, rather than just a conceptual idea. Prototypes come before significant investment into visual design and development.
UX designers use modern prototyping tools like Adobe XD to help create these prototypes to present their ideas. Though prototypes might not function exactly the same as the final product should or will, they should be very similar.
Once an initial prototype has been created, it’s time for user testing.
User testing is exactly what it sounds like – it’s testing your prototype on potential users. The purpose is to weed out any problems that the user might experience while using the product in order to either remove or fix them. A prototype can go through many iterations and multiple rounds of user testing before a UX team is satisfied and a final functional version of the product can go into development.
There are a few different ways to carry out user testing, including moderated usability testing, remote user testing, one-on-one interviews and focus groups among others.
6. Product launch
You might think that a UX designer’s job is done at the product launch stage, however the opposite is the case. UX design is a constant iterative process.
Though good UX designers make every effort to launch a product offering the best possible experience, over time customer feedback helps to inform the design for future updates for the product. As they say, there’s always room for improvement!
What kind of skills does a UX designer need?
So, as we’ve seen, the UX process is a many-stepped one, and asks a lot of its designers in terms of skills.
As with any profession, UX designers require a mix of both soft and hard skills in order to excel in the career. Let’s take a closer look at some of those key skills.
Soft skills needed to be a UX designer
Soft skills refer to a combination of desirable qualities in an employee that don’t necessarily depend on acquired knowledge. They include personality traits, people and communication skills, attitudes and emotional intelligence.
The list of people that a UX designer interacts with over the course of a UX project is lengthy; from clients to stakeholders, fellow team members to other teams in the organisation, to test users and so on. Here are the top soft skills a UX designer can use to great effect:
In a role that focuses on a holistic, user-centred approach, it’s unsurprising that empathy is a key desirable soft skill in a UX designer. Empathy is core to UX design. It’s all about anticipating user wants, needs, pain points to improve experience.
As Colman Walsh, CEO of the UX Design Institute puts it;
“The classic soft skill needed to be a UX designer – and it’s cliché but so true – is empathy. You really need to be able to not just engage and listen to your customers but actually try and put yourselves in their shoes. It’s also really important to be able to empathise with the rest of the people on your team and the relationship between UX designers and developers is particularly important.”
Empathy is a key determiner in making informed design decisions.
2. Effective communication skills that tell a story
From the different steps listed in the UX process above, you may have surmised that a lot of a UX designer’s job revolves around communication.
UX designers need to have a flair for narrative storytelling in order to be able to take interested parties along the UX journey in a cohesive manner; whether that’s in communicating ideas to clients and stakeholders or through conducting an in-depth interview with a test user and beyond.
Colman illustrates the importance of good communication and teamwork;
“It’s not just about getting to the punchline and saying ‘this is what we need to do,’ it’s taking everyone on a journey and making sure that everyone arrives at that punchline with you. So, communication is really important and a narrative style of communication really helps, particularly because that’s what the whole job involves. The UX process requires you to bring people along the process with you. You need to be a good team player”
3. Critical thinking and problem solving skills
The purpose behind most types of design is to solve a problem and UX design is no different. In order to deliver the best user experience possible, the UX designer must interpret (sometimes disparate) information from many different sources from the beginning of the research phase of the design and be able to translate it into something meaningful.
It’s about looking at the data and identifying patterns, pain points, wants, needs of the user and finding solutions from this information rather than jumping to conclusions based on assumptions.
“In order to solve a problem, you have to be prepared to understand what the problem is in the first place. I find that a lot of people are quick to say ‘Yeah, this is the solution’ but that’s not really problem solving because you haven’t actually figured out and gone through the thinking process to work out what the initial problem is. Problem solving skills go hand-in-hand with open-mindedness because even when you figure something out, you might be wrong so you’ll need to be prepared to go back and go through that process of working through the problem again.”
Hard skills needed to be a UX designer
Hard skills are those that are acquired through structured learning and work and unlike soft skills, are role-specific.
There isn’t a set number of hard skills required to be a UX designer because as previously discussed, UX designer responsibilities from company to company can vary greatly but the following should give you an idea of the kind of hard skills expected of a competent UX designer.
1. User research skills
Much of the success of a good user experience is predicated on thorough research as this is where user needs are discovered.
Primary data is collected via usability tests, interviews, questionnaires, surveys, focus groups and more. Therefore, those looking to advance in the UX field (and especially those keen to specialise in UX research) should focus on building strong interviewing and moderation skills as well as founding a solid understanding of statistical analysis.
2. Information architecture
In order to carry out tasks associated with the information architecture part of the UX process (as discussed above), a UX designer needs to have a solid understanding of website navigational structures to create and implement site maps and labelling systems in ways that intuitively make sense to a user.
3. Wireframing and prototyping skills
There are many tools in existence that are designed to help UX designers make wireframes and prototypes. Becoming familiar with a few of these programmes will help you to become more credible as a UX designer.
Check out a list of some of the top tools wireframing and prototyping tools.
Do you need to be able to code to become a UX designer?
On the subject of hard skills, one of the most frequently asked questions made by those looking to get into UX design is “Do I need to know how to code?”
It’s a debate that’s waged in UX debate forums for years. However, both Dejan Karin, a UX designer here at the UX Design Institute, as well as our CEO Colman Walsh agree that although coding skills aren’t necessarily crucial to a UX design role, the best UX designers have at least a baseline understanding of coding.
It’s about being able to understand the limitations of your design before it goes to development.
Colman makes a building analogy to illustrate the point;
“I don’t think that to be an architect, you need to be a bricklayer or a plasterer or be good at carpentry but you have to understand those things really well and the limitations of brick laying. You can only build a house so many storeys high out of bricks before you have to put in steel frames, you know? You have to understand that or else you’d have no credibility. It’s the same with UX design and development”
Dejan links an understanding of coding back to empathy;
“Essentially, the whole idea of understanding [coding] is to be able to empathise with and comprehend the developer’s job. It’s about clear communication and being able to gauge what is possible to do as well.”
How to become a UX designer
If you’re new to UX design but you like the sound of everything you just read, you should check out our Professional Diploma in UX Design course.
You can study from the comfort of your own home, it takes just 6 months to complete and will teach you all the skills you need to become a university credit-rated, certified UX professional.
And don’t take our word for it! Take a look at Jenny Bjorkman’s story; she graduated from the course last November and landed her dream UX role almost immediately.
Interest in UX careers is rising and it’s no surprise when the barriers to break into the industry are fairly low and the salaries are this attractive.
Find out more about our Professional Diploma in UX Design:
Prefer a shorter course? Find out more about our intense 2 day UX Foundation classroom courses: