UX : Who the Hell does what? (part 1)

UX who does what?

I’ve been a UX practitioner, evangelist and campaigner for over a decade now and it’s often been an up hill struggle to make more traditional management teams accept its critical importance and competitive advantage, however, in the last year or two I’ve watched it’s acceptance accelerate at an amazing pace, propelled by business case after business case (though I’d argue that common sense should require no business case).

But now that everyone seems to recognise the importance of UX, we hit the next hurdle: We’re seeing a lot of confusion over UX roles: who does what, where the UX expert’s responsibilities (and skills) start and end and which UX job title this comes under, and this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem, leading to confusion from the employer as to what type of practitioner they need and confusion from the practitioner as to how they should title their skills. It doesn’t help the recruiters in the middle either, as they have to match two together correctly some how.

Below is a list of just some of the more common UX role titles that I hear thrown around in the market place at the moment, and a rough description of their responsibilities. There is still a good deal of overlap in responsibilities as well, due to the fact that this is an ecosystem in a state of rapid evolution. These will start to consolidate but I believe we really need to help this process along as we are only just getting out of the bad old days where UX was a dark art that most decision makers viewed in the same way they view voodoo and homeopathy. I for example, fall into at least four of the roles below (Information Architect, Interaction designer, UX Architect and Business Analyst) though I really do it all as one job and carry out some responsibilities from almost every role below.

NB: I should also add that someone else did the work of producing this list, not me, and when I saw it I took a copy, but for the life of me I cannot remember where I found it (so if it was you, let me know and I will give you the credit you deserve). I should also add that I regularly have roles offered to me that require the skill set of one of these but are titled as another. I (SMc) have also added a couple of notes to the roles below based on my experience.

UX Roles

UI (User Interface) Designers :

are specialized graphic designers concerned overall with how web pages and application screens look, with focus on branding, color, balance, elegance, typography and other purely visual factors. Their skills will be primarily in Photoshop, Fireworks, Illustrator and other graphics programs. Their primary deliverables will be solution mockups and visual assets like buttons and banners.

UI Developers :

(SMc: Often referred to as front end developers) they create, maintain and troubleshoot the actual scripts and code that makes the page or applications appear and function correctly on the screen. They’re a little different from other types of developers in that their primary focus is on this “presentation layer” – as opposed to the databases, server configuration, and other more complex programming that makes the overall system work. Their primary deliverable is usually HTML, CSS, and Javascript.

Information Architects :

are specialized UX practitioners who help turn business and technical requirements into planning documents for digital experiences. They create the “blueprints” for application and website designs in the form of artifacts like Sitemaps, Wireframes, User Flow Diagrams, Customer Journeys and sometimes prototypes.

Interaction Designers :

are specialized UX practitioners whose primary focus is on what happens when the end user taps their mobile device, mouse clicks on a button or link, or enters data – usually calling for the display to change or move on to another part of the overall task. In addition to process diagrams, task and navigation flows, interactive designers may deliver prototypes and/or Flash content. (SMc: I would argue that this is not a role that generally exists in isolation. I always carry out interaction design as part of the user experience and wireframing/prototyping development. Even if there are some roles for this, it will inevitably be a rightful expectation of the employer that you carry this out in all serious UX architecture roles)

User Researchers & Usability Analysts :

are trained practitioners who focus solely on the end users of the software or website. They will often survey, observe and interview potential users before the solution is ever created. They evaluate early solution concepts to identify strengths, weaknesses, precedents and potential, and test out these concepts with users throughout the development process. Their deliverables may include personas, heuristic evaluations, card sort exercises, and written reports documenting the planning and results of usability testing. (SMc: I always carry this role out as a natural part of Business Analysis or, if you prefer, the Discovery phase of any project as the end user’s needs are the single most important part of any successful solution)

Business Analysts :

work with the business stakeholders to help determine the definition, usefulness and efficacy of the software solution that is being proposed, created or revised. They usually guide and deliver the business and technical requirements documentation, and often participate in the development of the project’s visual style guide.

UX (User Experience) Designers :

usually perform most or all of the above types of tasks within their role, with more emphasis on one or the other depending on the size and scope of the project and the needs of the team. “UXers” are often the diplomats at the meeting table, and need to be able to moderate the needs of developers, marketers, business stakeholders and visual designers, as well as providing a voice for the end user when dedicated Usability experts are not available. (SMc: in my experience this is the most misrepresented and general of all UX role titles “UX Designer” and can mean anything from UX architect to UI designer. It is the catch all for UX work. I do not agree with this role definition as a result)

Project Managers specializing in UX :

will coordinate communications, documentation, schedules, budgets, and resources for the project.  They should be highly familiar with the UX skillsets and responsibilities described here.  They guide the overall development process, and ensure that all of these interdependent tasks are progressing smoothly and efficiently toward the desired outcome. (SMc: this is actually the evolution of the PM’s skill set to incorporate an understanding of UX on the delivery process, much as good PMs did when they became ‘digital’. I don’t believe any PMs should be UX specialists; they should all understand UX)

UX Architects :

are UX practitioners who, in addition to the skills described above, serve as strategic advisors providing thought leadership and proposing solutions to business stakeholders. They act as UX team leads and mentors for junior level team members, and often participate in content development and social media activities for their projects.  They should also provide proactive UX expertise and evangelism to their project teams.

UX Developers :

are, theoretically, folks who provide all the skills and activities listed above while still managing and owning the actual coding and development of the site. Usually, when you see this term, you should have a conversation with the client and determine the size and scope of their project, how many individuals are actually needed, and which specific specialized skills will best suit their needs. (SMc: from my experience, these are the same as UI developers and front end developers, and like them, they must have an understanding of UX – not something you usually have to convince developers of)

Conclusion

There are clearly too many roles to remain sustainable, if for no other reason than their remit often overlaps significantly and I am always asked to carry out the skill sets of 4 or 5 of these roles under one or other title. These tasks can be carried out comfortably and it is a very natural transition from one thing to the next, but what should an employer look for and what should we call ourselves to be found or interviewed, and without wasting our time or the employers?

Tomorrow, in part 2, I’ll talk about Who the hell should do what…

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