What is the role of a UX designer?

User experience (UX) designers think deeply about the interactions between people and products. You are involved in planning how websites and applications are designed and built — from the moment someone purchases a product to how they continue to use (and ideally love) it. The role can also include user research — you need to deeply understand customers before you can design for them.

Users who cannot find what they need may abandon online shopping carts and cancel product subscriptions. As a UX designer, your goal is to help eliminate points of friction. That means paying attention to the overall product experience as well as the fine details — from user flows to navigation to visual design. Your decisions and designs influence how users think, feel, and experience the product. So it is easy to understand why you are so essential to product development.

UX design is a rapidly growing field and UX designers are in high demand. Here is what you need to know if you are considering a career in UX.

What does a UX designer do?

Your primary role as a UX designer is to advocate for the customer experience (CX). You obsess over customer pain points and continually push to make the CX more useful, enjoyable, and accessible.

Cross-functional collaboration is key to your work — you will sync with product managers on customer feedback and the product roadmap, then work with engineering to bring designs and solutions to life. Here are some of the areas you own:

  • Improving website and application usability

  • Providing clear design requirements for the development team

  • Testing concepts to validate before committing to code

  • Simplifying user experience across every customer touchpoint

UX designers typically have fast-paced and varied roles. You might dig into customer feedback, attend a sprint meeting, test a prototype of a new feature, and review product analytics — all in one day.

While the specifics will vary depending on your company, team, and priorities, here are some focus areas you can expect to contribute to:

Focus area

Description

Information architecture (IA)

Organizing and structuring content so users can easily find the information they need to complete a task

Think navigation menus, search systems, and how resources are organized.

Interaction design

Making it as simple as possible for people to use your product

This requires careful thinking about everything from how user actions might trigger specific sounds in the app to how your product works with tools like styluses and touch screens.

Prototyping

Drafting an experimental version of a product or feature — usually to share with stakeholders and get their feedback

Prototypes help you explore ideas and design concepts before investing time and resources in development.

Site mapping

Creating hierarchical diagrams that show how pages are prioritized, linked, and labeled on a website or application

Sometimes these maps are visible to users who want to navigate your site — other times site maps are meant to help web crawlers index your site.

Usability testing

Evaluating real-world user experiences with your product

You can prepare a demo environment for users to test on their own or have them use the product in front of you. Either way, this is a great way to solicit feedback on their experience.

User interface (UI) design

Creating the visual design of pages and views — taking into consideration everything from typography to color schemes and animations

UI design considers how visual elements impact the psychology of a user's experience of your product.

User research

Uncovering information about customer needs, problems, and preferences

User research informs persona development and helps you frame design decisions based on real users.

User story mapping

Visualizing the steps users take to navigate and complete tasks within your product

In user story mapping, you plot user's interactions on a timeline or journey map to understand how a user experiences your product. This helps you focus on desired user outcomes, rather than just feature specifications.

UI sketching

Visualizing the UI before any wireframing, prototyping, or development

This informal sketching is key to brainstorming and iterating on new layouts and functionalities.

Visual design

Considering how the text, colors, and images on your site or within your product enhance its design and user interactions

Visual design incorporates both large and small design decisions such as imagery, typography, space, shadows, and more.

How do UX designers approach their work?

Let's take a step back from the detailed work and consider the larger context. Everything you do as a UX designer is meant to help and delight customers. To accomplish this, you need to center the user's experience in everything you do.

This is why many UX designers practice user-centered design — the iterative process of focusing on users and their needs in each phase of design. User-centered design is not a linear process. Rather, designers move in and out of five main stages: researching customer needs, ideating concepts to meet those needs, refining concepts into designs, developing optimal designs, and testing.

Some designers apply a related, but slightly different, lens to their work. Design thinking is a similarly iterative approach that focuses even more on brainstorming and creative innovation. This approach can be broken down into the following stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

In some organizations, design thinking is applied to problems and situations beyond UX design. While this might be done with the best of intentions (who does not want to infuse more innovation and creativity into their problem-solving?), not all problems require design thinking. When over-used, design thinking can end up slowing down innovation when teams spend too much time and energy on process versus delivering viable solutions.

That being said, let's look at design thinking from the point of view of a UX designer:

Stage of design thinking

What UX designers do

Empathize

Approach empathy like an investigator. It is all about setting aside your personal assumptions and deeply understanding what your customers need, want, and experience.

During this stage, designers:

  • Conduct user research

  • Facilitate usability testing

  • Host focus groups

  • Consult with subject matter experts within and outside the organization

Define

Begin to establish the core problem you are trying to solve. The clearer you get now, the more fruitful the rest of your design process will be.

During this stage, designers:

  • Organize learnings from the empathize stage

  • Analyze observations

  • Define the customer's core problem

Ideate

Time to get creative. Now that you better understand your users and have pinpointed a problem, you can start brainstorming solutions.

During this stage, designers:

  • Brainstorm solo and in groups

  • Encourage creative thinking by asking "what if..." and thinking boldly

  • Document ideas for future reference

Prototype

Before fully investing in one solution, it helps to create several scaled down versions of the feature set or functionality. These prototypes are then shared cross-functionally for review and feedback.

During this stage, designers:

  • Build prototypes

  • Experiment with different versions

  • Solicit feedback to assess usability

  • Identify the best solution

Test

Prototype testing requires taking your product to real users for feedback. This is not the end of the design thinking process. Rather, you will use the results of the tests to revisit, ideate, create new prototypes, and test again.

During this stage, designers:

  • Share prototypes with users

  • Collect feedback and observations

  • Iterate based on testing results

What other skills does a UX designer need?

While it is critical for UX designers to build role-specific skills like user research and prototyping, your career growth also depends on developing "soft skills." After all, UX designers often work at the intersection of several key functions — you are often seen as a leader on your team and the design expert within the larger organization.

Find opportunities for mentorship and growth in the following areas:

  • Empathy: UX designers are problem solvers who care deeply about what customers need. It is not enough to research customers from a distance. You need to become skilled at immersing yourself in their experiences.

  • Curiosity: Empathy requires curiosity. You must be able to move beyond your own personal biases and ask the questions that will help you see things from a different perspective. Curiosity is your biggest asset during user testing — every bit of feedback and user action is an opportunity to gain valuable insights that will help you improve your product.

  • Leadership: Your customer knowledge is critical to the product — and to the business as a whole. Get comfortable with answering questions from executives, presenting in front of teams, and communicating how the value of your designs.

How can I become a UX designer?

As consumer expectations for products continue to rise, so does the need for excellent UX designers. And there is good news — the majority of UX designers enjoy their jobs. Glassdoor ranked UX designer in their top 50 best jobs in America based on salary, job openings, and job satisfaction.

While UX designers are often part of the product team, larger organizations generally have dedicated UX departments. The field is evolving and you may encounter different types of UX designer titles as you skim through job listings — including director of user experience, UX manager, senior UX designer, and product designer.

You might find enjoy a role in UX design if you are excited about the potential of impacting a product's success by improving the customer experience. UX design might also be a good career choice if you enjoy a variety of tasks — everything from research and testing to prototyping and visual design.

There are lots of different ways to prepare yourself for a UX role. You can pursue an advanced degree, internship, or certificate in UX design — including courses from the Interaction Design Foundation or Google's UX Design Certificate. Create a portfolio showcasing your UX projects and work on building your UX network. Each of these steps gets you closer to working alongside a product team to build lovable products.

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Product management dictionary