10 Secrets of User Experience Designers
While you may be able to recognize and appreciate the work of graphic designers, fashion designers, and architects in your everyday life, you may not think too often about experience designers. But user experience (UX) designers have a huge impact on the products most of us use every day, especially digital products like smartphone apps and websites. A UX designer is in charge of how you interact with a product and the overall experience: What features does it offer? When you click a button on an app or website, where does it take you? Can you find that button? How many clicks should it take to put in your credit card information or sign up for a new account? How easy is it to figure out how to share a link or invite a friend? It’s a UX designer's job to figure that stuff out.
Mental Floss interviewed four people who work as UX designers to find out more about their job. Jonny Mack, a Seattle-based freelance designer, previously worked at Google designing products like Chrome OS and has since worked on projects such as Coinbase Wallet, a cryptocurrency app. Rob Hamblen is a design director at the Berlin design agency AJ&Smart and has worked with clients like Adidas, Twitter, and Mercedes-Benz. Talin Wadsworth is the senior UX design lead for Adobe XD—the user experience design software that UX designers use to create prototypes—and Nina Boesch is a senior interaction designer at Local Projects, a New York-based studio that designs (among other things) museum experiences for institutions like the American Museum of Natural History.
Here are 10 secrets you might not know about the job, from the user features UX designers hate to the reason they hope you never notice their work.
1. THE DEFINITION OF A UX DESIGNER VARIES A LOT …
Not everyone who works as a UX designer has a similar job description. Some handle a wide breadth of tasks, from coming up with product features to prototyping to designing user testing to writing code. Others might be more specialized, overseeing other designers, researchers, and engineers as they work on individual aspects of the design process. Some are also involved in user interface design—known as UI—creating the visual look and feel of a product. “The range of skills across UX designers is pretty varied,” Mack explains. “Some people call themselves UX designers and they’re extremely technical. They’re actually doing a lot of engineering and front-end development. There are other people who call themselves UX designers who don’t write code and don’t even design much, who are doing a lot of research and usability stuff.”
"At a startup, I would define a UX designer as a generalist,” Mack says. “They would be working with a product manager and an engineer to define what the product even is.” They will help figure out what features a product will have and what features it won’t have, and might create a prototype. They’ll do interviews with potential users, asking them to test the prototype to determine whether people can actually use it as the designers envisioned. They might even be writing the code and designing the interface of the site or app.
“In a large company like, for example, Google, you had specialists for each of the things I mentioned,” he explains. There would be a dedicated usability researcher who would conduct those interviews and user tests as well as a team of prototypers and visual designers who would actually make the product, among other roles. In that kind of environment, the UX designer acts as more of a manager, helping determine what the product should be and guiding the project through the creation process.
2. THERE ARE A LOT OF MEETINGS.
Designers don’t spend all day at their desks sketching out ideas. It’s an intensely collaborative job—sometimes to a fault. “When I worked at Google,” Mack says, “I spent very little of my time actually designing—probably four to six hours a week at most, and that time happened either early in the morning, late in the evening, or on weekends, because all day was filled with meetings.”
Wadsworth, too, spends a lot of time meeting with other people rather than working on his own. His team typically has daily check-ins or critique sessions together. “The perception of the lone designer is not true,” he says. He tries to carve out an hour here or an hour there to work through ideas on his own, but says the rest of his time is spent collaborating and talking about ideas in meetings or on Slack or during formal research sessions. For him, that’s not a bad thing. “Some of my favorite moments are when someone’s passing by and I just grab them and get them to give me their take on something—that’s where a lot of the more ‘aha’ moments come from.”
3. IF THEY DO THEIR JOB WELL, YOU NEVER THINK ABOUT THEM.
The UX designer’s role is almost entirely behind the scenes. While you may admire how pretty an interface looks, you probably don’t think too much about the process that helps you get from Point A to Point B in an app. And that's a good thing.
As Hamblen puts it, “If you have done your job properly, you can design an interface where the user has no friction whatsoever. If the UX designer has done their job as well, [users] will be able to achieve their goal without thinking about it.” That goal might be buying something on a website, checking your account balance on your bank app, finding that “share” button, or otherwise understanding how to navigate the product you’re trying to use.
“In a way, we are working on deliverables, no one, other than our team or the client, will ever see,” Boesch says. “We are putting diagrams and storyboards in front of clients, we are providing our developers with wireframes and sitemaps,” but the end user isn’t going to see that work. Unless, of course, they do their job poorly, and their product or experience is hard to use—at which point a user might start to wonder what's going on behind the scenes, and why the product isn't easier to navigate.
4. THEY HATE TUTORIALS.
Mack hates to see multi-step user tutorials pop up the minute you open a consumer app, calling it “aggressive handholding.” Ideally, users should be able to figure out how to navigate and explore the features baked into an app or website without any special instruction, just by intuition and context. “I get the impetus to teach people, ‘Hey, here’s what this is,’ but you can teach people through use,” he says. “If you’re having to train people, it’s probably a failure of design.”
For instance, if you’re spending a ton of time trying to figure out how to buy a train ticket from a machine in the station, it’s the designer’s fault, not yours. “Most public kiosks, such as ticket machines at subway and train stations, hurt my eyes and my faith in the respective authorities,” Boesch explains. “If it takes me more than a minute to understand the interface and get my ticket then the UX/UI design failed. Most ATMs are pretty awful, too. In a perfect world, it wouldn't take more than 20 seconds to get money out of an ATM.”
One app that Mack says does this especially well is Todoist, the to-do list and task manager app. “It’s so simple at first glance, but it’s like an iceberg of complexity.” You might open it thinking you’re just going to write down a to-do list, but then realize you can assign priority to certain items, share them, comment on them, nest tasks within other tasks, assign deadlines and then snooze them, and more. “If I were to write all these features down in a document, you’d read it and you’d say, ‘This is the most complicated to-do app ever.’ But when you’re looking at it, it just looks simple and easy.”
5. DESIGNERS HAVE TO WORK VERY QUICKLY.
For Wadsworth, creating a new prototype for Adobe XD usually takes between three and six months, but that doesn’t mean the team is working at a leisurely pace. “The pace at which we work is pretty frenetic,” he says. While students in design school have the luxury of developing concepts and ideas for projects over a long period, professional designers have to make those decisions much more quickly. “We’ve committed to developing features every month” with Adobe XD, he explains.
Hamblen’s work at AJ&Smart is particularly fast-paced. The firm specializes in “design sprints,” a five-day, intensive prototyping process that’s designed to be an accelerated way for companies to solve a particular problem or come up with a product. In that environment, the initial UX design might need to be completed within just one day so that the design can be prototyped and tested by users by the end of the week.
6. THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE AS MANY USER TESTS AS YOU THINK.
User testing is a vital part of the design process. Designers might create something they think is genius, but if a normal user can’t figure it out, it’s worthless. But while you might imagine that a new product would be tested with dozens of potential users, in all likelihood, it’s a lot less than that. The standard size of a test group is just five people.
“It might not seem like that’s enough people, but there’s a lot of field research that’s gone into [that number]," Hamblen says. A group of five people is big enough to generate useful feedback, but small enough to support tight budgets and quick turnarounds. After two or three user reviews, you start to see patterns in the feedback, but the fifth user might not see something blatantly obvious to others—representing a population that’s not all that tech-savvy, for instance. These test reviewers are typically recruited based on what the hoped-for user base of a product, which could be something like "parents of small children," or "20- to 30-year-olds," or "people who use online banks," or any other kind of characteristic or demographic the company is looking to target.
7. THEY NEED AT LEAST SOME TECHNICAL KNOW-HOW.
UX designers often work very closely with developers, so they need to at least understand the basics of writing code. “A designer needs to understand the core concepts of code for whatever platform they’re designing for,” Wadsworth says, in order to have an idea of the constraints and possibilities of a particular product. “I myself have taken an iOS development boot camp,” he explains. “I’m not doing that as my daily job, but it helps me be a better designer.”
“You do have to have a good understanding of the tasks a developer would have to do," Hamblen says. You can create the most beautiful interfaces in the world, but if your engineers can't translate it into code, it's not going to happen. "I’ve seen designers create stuff that’s impossible to build or just makes the developers' lives so much harder."
8. USERS CAN BE VERY PASSIONATE.
When you’re working on updating a design that’s part of something people use every day, even little tweaks can be a big deal. When Wadsworth and his team change something about Adobe XD, it impacts how creative professionals do their jobs. “People have very strong opinions about that,” Wadsworth says. “More so than just ‘They changed that button from green to blue,’ they’re like, ‘You changed something that was a built-in part of my process and now I’m going to have to relearn something.' There’s a lot of pressure.”
“Whenever I’m out there talking about my job, I show a picture of a woman who has the toolbar from Photoshop tattooed on her arm,” he explains. “That’s how strongly creatives take their tools.”
9. YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO SEE THEIR FINGERPRINTS IN UNEXPECTED PLACES.
Good UX design may be subtle, but that doesn’t mean UX designers are totally invisible in their work. “I’m in the tutorial file of [Adobe] XD,” Wadsworth says. If you open the sample file designed to help you learn how to use the software, you’re following along with his work. “I’m the designer you can jump in and design along with,” he explains, and the app you watch him create has a personal connection for him. "I’m originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, and so the app that we designed to be the app you learn along with me inside XD is all based on my formative years growing up around national parks in the West.”
10. THEIR WORK ISN’T BUILT TO LAST.
“My life’s work will be gone when I’m old,” Mack says. “I will look back at all the work I’ve done as a UX designer and I won’t be able to go and touch any of it or use any of it—it will all be redone.” Regular product updates, aesthetic trends, and technological change mean that when you’re creating something for the web or mobile devices, it’s not going to stay the same for very long. If you create a website now, you probably aren’t going to be able to go back and look at your work in 10 years. That ephemerality isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. “There’s something I like about it,” he says. “It’s like theater.”