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The role of a UX designer can vary a lot depending on the company size, the industry you’re working in, and your level of experience.

Even the most experienced UX designers can struggle to define exactly what they do.

In this article, we look into what a UX designer does, where they work, how they progress in their careers and how they spend their time.

What is UX design?
UX stands for user experience, it focuses on how it feels to use a product, app or website.

The world has become increasingly reliant on software, from ordering a pizza to checking your bank balance to booking a hotel. UX design helps create the products that make these things possible.

A well designed product should be simple to use. It should evoke positive feelings like confidence, trust and enjoyment in the user. A poorly designed product on the other hand can make a user feel confused or distrustful.

If you take shortcuts in the UX design process, it will affect the overall product quality. That’s why good UX designers carefully follow the UX design process.

What does a UX designer do?
The UX design process can determine a UX designers’ day-to-day responsibilities. It’s broadly categorised in terms of research, design and validation of design but here’s what’s generally involved.

Conducting user research
Listening to, observing and trying to understand users is the foundation of good UX design.

Various research techniques from surveys to usability tests can help UX designers learn about their users’ behaviour and figure out what their problems are.

Defining user problems
After a UX designer has conducted user research they will move onto the analysis phase. This is where they try to make sense of the user research. They will analyse and articulate users’ problems, behaviours and goals in workshops. Items like affinity diagrams, customer journey maps and personas are important here. This analysis will help define the design problem(s) and inform design decisions.

When UX designers have finished analysing their user experience and uncovered potential problems or barriers, they will move onto the design phase. They will have done a huge amount of work before getting to here. This involves different projects like creating flow diagrams, prototypes and wireframing.

UX designers create flow diagrams to give a bird’s eye view of how different elements of the product interconnect. They map out how users reach their goal and how they move through a website or app. They are made using UX tools like Figma and Adobe XD.

Prototypes validate UX design decisions, helping companies avoid making expensive mistakes. Once these prototypes are finalised, UX designers will make wireframes to hand over the designs to developers.

User testing
Design validation doesn’t stop once the wireframes are handed to developers. UX designers should continually test and gather feedback on their designs.

This feedback is essential whether you’re designing a new feature or improving an existing one. UX designers should regularly conduct A/B tests, polls, surveys and usability tests to improve and optimise the user experience.

UX designers should understand the full UX process even if they’re not involved at every stage. It’s important to keep collaboration going and avoid working in silos.

Where do UX designers work?
New UX designers should consider where they would ideally like to work and if they want to be permanent or freelance. Here’s what can be expected.

A contractor or freelance UX designer can expect to be contracted out to different companies to work on specific projects for short periods of time. Many UX designers love the flexibility of the contractor lifestyle, plus they can work on different kinds of projects.

A UX consultant is generally self-employed. They lend their areas of expertise to advise different companies for fixed periods of time. UX consultants often help businesses achieve their business goals with UX.

For UX consultant, Angus, he works on “helping clients understand where they are and where they fit within a market.”

A UX designer in an agency will likely be exposed to many different projects. They may work with big business or work with smaller companies who don’t have UX resources. Agency environments tend to be orientated towards either mobile or web design.

Cassandra (UX designer) gets to work on a diverse mix of projects at her agency, Pomegranate: “I recently worked on a research print for a YouTube star which has been really, really fun.”

In a big multinational company, UX designers can expect more defined roles and responsibilities. They don’t tend to stray outside the remit of their job description, and can work alongside UX researchers, UI designers and UX writers. These defined roles allow large companies to operate more efficiently.

In a startup or smaller company, a UX designer could expect to take on all of the roles within the UX design umbrella if they’re the only designer. They can expect roles to become more defined if their team expands.

Alessio (User Researcher/UX Designer, IES Ltd.) could be described as a UX generalist at his company. He told us, “my job title is User Researcher/UX Designer. So my main focus is user research but I also look at the full UX design.”

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding UX job titles in different companies. Many companies have product designers, service designers and experience designers with obvious UX design responsibilities.

Jade Grainger (Career Services Advisor, UX Design Institute) addresses this confusion: “don’t worry, companies always alter job titles. It comes down to a company’s focus and needs. Sometimes these UX professionals work across different teams from marketing to customer support to product.”

She says to keep an eye on what software is listed in the job description too, “this can give you a huge understanding of what the role entails. If you see Figma, Sketch or Adobe XD it likely involves UX design.”

Here’s what our community thinks

What’s the difference between a junior and senior designer?
Many companies don’t differentiate between junior and senior designers in their job titles. Factors like experience and transferable skills can influence what you’ll be working on.

Junior designers can be expected to take on more organisational or supportive responsibilities like planning workshops and putting final touches on items like personas and customer journey maps.

Even if junior designers aren’t making final decisions like a senior UX designer, they should be contributing ideas throughout the design process.

A good UX manager should provide opportunities for new designers to learn about different stages of the UX design process. If they don’t come your way, grab opportunities where you can learn. Sometimes this means doing less exciting work like coordinating research activities, coordinating invitees, and supporting sketching sessions.

It’s important to find an environment where you can learn.

Senior UX designers tend to have more responsibilities than junior designers. The senior designer may also delegate tasks to the junior designers and coach them. They may also take on a broader, more strategic view of both UX and business goals than a junior designer. A junior designer might be more focused on specific tasks.

Junior and senior designers should both be empathetic towards users and have strong collaborative skills.

These soft skills can be developed with time and experience. A senior designer might have an easier time with stakeholder management and defending their design decisions.

How do UX designers advance in their careers?
When you’re considering switching to a new career, it’s worth considering how your role can evolve in terms of long term development opportunities.

Many UX designers prefer to be generalists, but others may want to change focus over time. It’s worth noting that there are more opportunities to advance and specialise in companies with mature UX teams.

Specialist areas like user research or UX writing have become more commonplace in larger UX teams. As designers progress in their career, they may develop a natural inclination towards certain areas of UX.

For example, a UX designer who is drawn to interviewing users could do user research specifically. UX designers with strong visual design skills could enjoy UI design.

UX specialists should always have a holistic view of the UX process. For instance, a user researcher should have a good idea of how UX designers are applying their findings. A UI designer should have a good grasp of the user research.

There are also opportunities for senior designers to become team leads or managers. Many designers don’t want this but feel that managing people is the only way to progress. Sometimes they move into management because it pays better.

The truth is that many great designers can make bad managers. Thankfully, many companies are challenging this outdated idea and they’ve developed IC (individual contributor) tracks for senior designers to become design leaders. These paths are just as financially rewarding as team leads.

Senior designers who are interested in managing people should try out coaching less experienced designers to see if it’s a good fit for them.

It’s a common misconception that UX designers should code and be full-stack (a UX designer who can do everything). This is unrealistic. Businesses who expect professionals to be incredibly skilled in many areas, from UX to visual design to coding will have a difficult time finding the perfect employee.

The UX Landscape: What a UX career looks like in 2021 report
In our latest report, UX leaders from companies like HubSpot and NASA discuss what a UX career looks like

How can I break into UX design?
UX is a great conversion career because it welcomes skills from different disciplines and backgrounds. There are many ways to get started.

Learn five tips to break into UX here or click below to start learning UX today.

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