By Tobias van Schneider Published January 20, 2020
I've written about this before, either passively in older articles or scattered across Twitter in tweets with obvious subtext. But before we dig into it, let's have a look at what UX design is.
UX design has become trendy only within the past five or so years. Compared to other professions (even within the design industry), it's a very new term. Over the last 2-3 years, UX design has likely drawn more interest than any other area of design.
Everyone wants to be a UX designer and every company wants to hire one. But few know what it means and if they need a UX designer – or if they already have one. Like most trends, there is a lot of talk with little clarity.
According to Wikipedia, UX design is defined as "the process of manipulating user behavior through usability, accessibility, and desirability provided in the interaction with a product."
But how can it be that UX design and its responsibilities gained so much importance within such a short amount of time? Does it mean that previously, before we coined the term "UX design," we didn't care so much about things like usability or desirability? Have we just now discovered the magic of manipulating user behavior?
If we put our ego aside and be honest with ourselves, none of this is new to design as a whole. UX design simply rebrands certain parts of the general designer's job. This leads to two points of confusion:
1. Newcomers to the design industry are often confused about the responsibilities of UX designers. The difference between this role and other superficially created counterparts (it appears we invent a new title every other week) is unclear.
2. UX designers seem to be incredibly sensitive and protective of their field. This is likely because it's still a young term, and they feel a certain responsibility to own and advocate for it. It may also be due to friction with other, more traditional senior designers who haven't jumped on the UX train yet – even though that's what they practice.
"Design is the tool we use to influence our user or audience to believe and act on our message. Everything we do as designers seeks to manipulate our users, one way or another."
So what's the difference between a regular designer and UX designer?
In theory, there should be no difference. In reality, we've created a difference. We started breaking up the responsibilities of the designer as our industry has grown into one of the most lucrative fields to work in right now.
If you look at the definition of UX design, it is the exact same definition you could give any designer's work, regardless of their area of focus. Design at its core is communication. And communication design involves using long-established tools of graphic design and copywriting (which are deeply rooted in psychology) to manipulate user behavior.
We manipulate user behavior for a number of reasons. And yes, the word "manipulation" has a negative connotation. But in truth, all we do as designers is manipulation to some degree. Design does not exist for the sake of it, like art. We have a goal when we design: We want someone to use our app in a certain way. We want the user to buy a certain product, to feel a certain way, to vote a certain way, whatever it might be.
It's one of the reasons I believe you can't separate UX design from "visual design" or any other type of design for that matter. Design is the tool we use to influence our user or audience to believe and act on our message. Everything we do as designers seeks to manipulate our users, one way or another.
For example, we know good typography improves readability. Good typography dictates hierarchy through layout and composition, informing the user of what's important and what's not. Good typography conveys and even guides emotion through individual letterforms. In the same way color, layout, composition or writing play a role, good typography is a central part of influencing user behavior.
A designer, when tasked with developing a way-finding system for an airport, may be concerned about making it look great. But they're as much concerned about making it work. After all, a way-finding system is designed to help airport visitors get to their destination as quickly as possible. It's about manipulating the user to achieve a specific goal.
"If I am unconcerned about the user experience and purely focused on the visual aspects without relationship to how it works, I am more likely an artist than a designer."
Art is open to interpretation. Design is not. Design, by definition, must be usable, understandable and actionable. If I am unconcerned about the user experience and purely focused on the visual aspects without relationship to how it works, I am more likely an artist than a designer. And if I'm a UX designer who's blind to how the long-established tools of graphic design can influence user behavior, I might be just a bad UX designer.
Any work we do as "designers" is done intentionally to achieve a particular goal. By that definition, UX design and design overall are the same. UX designers cannot ignore the "design" part of their work. If they do, we might as well just call them user researchers.
Should an architect who designs a house be concerned about the usability of the house? Or should they just focus on making it visually pleasing? A good architect considers both. They will design a house that's visually attractive, but also practical and enjoyable for those living in it. An architect who only focuses on the blueprint and doesn't care about making the house a joy to live in, or isn't the slightest concerned about the feasibility of the construction, is likely a bad architect or closer to an artist.
The chef who cooks delicious food but fails to make it look healthy or attractive will probably not see the success of one who does it both. As we say in German, "Das auge isst mit" – which roughly translates to, "what looks good tastes good."
What does this mean for newcomers entering the field of UX design?
It means: Don't let yourself get confused by the terms and the hype.
It means: Focus on becoming a great designer, which automatically includes all responsibilities of a UX designer.
Terms and buzzwords are part of the natural progression and maturity of any industry. Sometimes, we create them to make our work feel more important (which is reasonable for a field that struggles with subjectivity), and sometimes to create a gate-keeping system to fend off outsiders and self-regulate the community. Sometimes, we don't know what we're talking about ourselves. It's natural human behavior, but it shouldn't stop you from pursuing your own clarity.
And if you've already been working in the industry as a successful designer for many years, you might as well just call yourself a UX designer. That's what clients are asking for right now, so why not? In the end, you're the same person, just with a new hat.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!