Have you ever been frustrated by the way something works – like a website, an appliance, or software app – and thought to yourself: "Geez, I could do a much better job designing this?" Maybe you should be a user experience designer. Everything we touch and interact with gives us some kind of a user experience, and getting that experience right is a make-or-break proposition that requires a very particular kind of expertise.
"To me, user experience design involves making a conscious decision during the design process to think about how the user of your product is going to perceive the experience," says Gary Smith, a 24-year veteran experience design at companies including Autodesk and Intergraph.
Thinking about and implementing a design using a broad spectrum of tools and techniques is what user experience design, or UX, is all about. It’is not the same as user interface design.
Whitney Hess, a noted UX expert and prolific blogger on the subject writes:
"It’s not uncommon to confuse ‘user experience’ with ‘user interface’ – after all it’s a big part of what users interact with while experiencing digital products and services. But the UI is just one piece of the puzzle."
Hess also stresses that UX isn’t just one milestone in the product development process, but a part of every step. "We need to keep listening and iterating. It doesn’t have to be a rigid process, but it does need to exist."
Says Smith: "You can easily design an interface to a software product, or even a physical product, without regard to how the user will experience it." UX is at a higher and more holistic level that involves information architecture, interaction design, visual design and prototype engineering.
UX Expert Skills
Wallace Jackson, a UX Designer for immersive 3D virtual worlds and CEO of Mind Taffy Design says, "open source is where it’s going." He cites many of the same tools as Smith, but adds XML, Python, Lua, JavaFX and JavaTV to the list.
And it’s not just on the desktop. The inherent constraints of small mobile devices have opened up a new set of UX issues. "A good user experience is required for this new generation of mobile apps – just as it’s required for any app," says Smith. "In theory, there should be no difference in the design process." What will differ is how UX experts apply their design philosophies given the particular needs and constraints of mobile devices.
eyond coding, UX can also encompass psychology and the burgeoning science of Human-Computer Interaction. "When I started doing my design work, a specific position with ‘user experience’ in the title didn’t exist at many companies," Smith recalls. "Microsoft’s apps were typically used as the model since most apps were being targeted at Windows PCs. With a number of Human-Computer Interaction courses now offered by universities, many of today’s UX professionals have degrees in cognitive psychology or some other ethnographic background. But ultimately, creating a good user experience is all about understanding your users."
Given the multiple disciplines UX encompasses and the unique way of thinking it requires, it’s obviously not for everyone. But if you have the ability to listen and understand a customer’s problem, the skill to identify and synthesize patterns among them, the creativity to propose effective and efficient solutions, as well as an artistic flair, you might find success in this fascinating and challenging field.
– Chandler Harris