10th Jun
Category: User Experience , Industry news , Top Tips and Advice

What does a UX professional actually do?

The term User Experience has been around for a while now, we have mostly all heard if it and perhaps had some experience in dealing with a “UX person” and all have a vague idea as to what it might be, but UX is still a relatively new industry and exactly what a UX person actually does differs from agency to agency, and role to role, so can be difficult to understand and define sometimes (even for people who work in it!).

Having attended a BIMA event on UX 2.0 last week I thought it would be worth sharing a few thoughts.


What are clients 'actually' paying for?

There are many different ways which agencies describe and charge out for their User Experience people, although a common question which will arise from most clients when they look at a cost proposal is ‘what does this part of the project that I am paying a reasonable amount for *actually* mean in practise, and what will the person/people working on this part of the project *actually* be doing?' Its easy to understand from a clients perspective what a designer or developer will be doing but what is this line item in your costs for UX and what will they actually be ‘doing’ and how does that look in practise? 

The answer to these questions would normally lead onto an agency describing the actual 'hard' outputs which the UX person/people will be working on, so perhaps something along the lines of anything ranging from a suite of low fidelity wireframes, to a high fidelity prototype, to user flows, user research, to personas etc. But is this really what UX people actually do and the value they add, or is there more to our role than that? From listenting to the panel at the BIMA event, and talking to other UX people in the room, it seems that there is more to UX than simply the hard outputs which we deliver. 

There is more to UX than simply the hard outputs!

As well as being good at the “hard skills”, a good UX person also needs “soft skills” such as empathy, the ability to negotiate and sell your ideas into your clients, a good creative eye, an ability to spot the right trends, as well as of course an understanding for the end user. What clients are really paying for in the UX stage is not just a hard output, its the time to question/analyse/research/understand and uncover the problems to be able to propose potential solutions. But why is it difficult to actually get clients to pay for something like this, rather than the harder outputs?

Is there something we can learn from consultants here, they charge for their thinking/research time, so why is it harder for UX people to talk about what they do and charge for their time like this? UX after all is not just about selling a hard output like a suite of wireframes, as without the experience/empathy/business and user understanding which a good UX person needs, the wireframes are useless. So really the UX stage of a project is a process which enables the UX person to uncover and understand the nature of the problem, and once we have understood the problem we can create a solution. So when providing proposals/meeting with clients, its up to us as agencies to get this accross better, and not just list the deliverables/outputs of what we do.


UX 2.0

Another comment that came out of the discussion was that good User experience needs to apply across everything and not to think of it as just an interface, so whilst a client is most likely paying an agency to come up with a solution to their problem and present the solution back in a slick User Interface, a good overall User Experience needs to be much more than this.

So take Sky for example, its not just about how good their User interface is to be able to find their programs on your TV, its also about the customers experience over the phone/in person with the sales/installation staff, how quick/easy it was to get Sky setup and installed, whether the after sales support is good or not etc etc. For businesses and for UX professions we need to be thinking about User Experience as more than simply 'interfaces'. Designing the User Experience of a voice application such as Siri is much more than simply the interface. 

What skills does a UX professional of the future need to have?

This is very hard to define for the ideal UX person as each UX role requires different skills sets and experience based on what is needed for the role/the client/the project. With a developer you generally look for a person with a high IQ who can solve complex problems and who has a good computer science degree. With a visual designer you look for someone with a great looking portfolio, a creative eye and probably some form of design degree. However, with UX professionals, at the moment there can be people who haven’t come from design backgrounds that are generally more business savy, strategic and are better at understanding the project/business/user requirements and needs, but on the other hand there are UX people from a design background who are very good at producing creative and innovative interfaces but perhaps lack the business/strategic experience and understanding.

The conclusions from the BIMA discussion was that the best UX professionals are a hybrid person that is able to understand the business and users needs, gather the requirements, understand and know what is possible technically and within the project scope, AND they have the creative ability to translate this into some form of actual output either a wireframe, or an HTML prototype. The best of both for a UX professional is the theoretical understanding for gathering requirements and the creative ability to translate this into the design within what is technically possible. The individual with multiple skillsets will be more useful, and a fairly evenly centred brain rather than someone who is predominantly left of right brained.

The panel generally also thought that UX people needed to understand how programming works and the constraints, but don’t need to actually code themselves. This gives the UX person an ability to weigh everything up including the understanding of what is possible with the budget, the technical constraints of the project, as well as the business and user problem, and then armed with this understanding and experience the UX person is then able to present their solutions. This is also the reason why you should keep your UX person as close to the project as possible so they walk with the project through from start to end - they are the person/people on the project with the broadest understanding and can input from a user/business/creative/technical perspective to ensure what is produced at each stage is as good as it can be within the constraints of the project.


UX education:

Interestingly within the UX field at the moment, there isn’t one leading type of university degree which a UX person would ideally need, and lots of people come to work in UX from a different backgrounds. There is not one degree which dominants, design, marketing, computer science, psychology are all fairly equally in terms of being the degrees which UX people have. This therefore leads to the question of should there be a UX degree? The overwhelming majority in our BIMA discussion said no, as by the time a person has completed their degree, the thinking is out of date so its much better to learn UX on the job based on 'real' project based experience in actual projects rather than in theories.

So if a degree isn’t the solution to better education UX people, then maybe doing lots of short courses is. Short courses are quick (sometimes just 1 day long), and I have done a few of these myself with Advanced training in Axure (a leading high fidelity prototyping/wireframing application), as well as a more phycological course on User Centred Design. I have personally found these very helpful in aiding and enhancing my knowledge. 

Whilst a UX person doesn’t seem to have a typical degree, the one thing that does seem common is that plenty of real project experience on different types of projects is vital. So hiring a UX graduate doesn’t really work, as do you choose the graduate photoshop expert or the phycology grad who can’t design but is good at listening and understanding user behaviour? The UX role simply isn’t suited to the junior graduate stright out of uni as they don’t have the experience to be able to handle multiple user/business/creative/technical challenges that working on the UX part of a project brings. For these reasons the panel thought a UX degree wouldn’t work as you need a wide range of real project experience. One of the panel also commented that a UX person needs “3years, plus a masters” worth of time / experience on the job to actually be useful and to be able to do this job.



So a UX persons role is very wide and varied, and people who come into UX need to have previous experience. There are also lots of different skills needed to understand what is required to to create a solution. A hybrid of business/user/emotional intelligence with a creative eye for layout and trends on the web seems to be the perfect UX person. A UX person needs to be a ‘business analyst’ and a ‘designer’, someone who can understanding business needs AND empathise with the users needs, and someone who also can understand what is possible within the scope and technical constraints. UX is a craft which brings together a unique set if skills, in a wide and varied role which can be hard to define and which varies depending on the client/agency/project needs.

There is more to UX than simply the outputs of what we deliver, and we as a profession need to get better at actually explaining what we do and the value it can bring to clients businesses / projects. If we as an industry still don’t really know how to describe what we do, or know what the right job title is to describe what we do, or how to best articulate what we are actually charging for, then how do we expect clients to understand what it is that they are actually getting for their money. After all surely a major part of UX is simplifying things so it is easy to understand.

Another panel member at the BIMA event asked the question

'When is user experience going to come to the boardroom?'

This answer to this is maybe once we actually work out how to communicate better about what it is we actually do.

Blog written by Ed Kemp