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You’re not a user experience designer if…

The UX field is booming. It seems like the number of user experience practitioners has doubled in the last year — from newbies who’ve just entered the workforce, to mid-career changes, to folks who’ve been doing this all along but finally found out what to call themselves.

It’s incredibly reassuring to finally see a long overdue interest in user experience practice; after all, that’s what many of us have spent our careers fighting for. I started this blog to give greater insight into how we think, how we work, and how we benefit customers and companies alike. I consider myself lucky to be among many professionals who speak at conferences around the world in an effort to bring UX into the mainstream. And it’s working!

There’s just one problem: not everyone calling themselves a user experience designer is actually a user experience designer. Unfortunately the designation isn’t as clear cut as a doctor or a lawyer. Most professions are certified and regulated, so you don’t see impostor behavior often — and when you do, it’s typically in the form of a news article about someone going to jail for fraud. Perhaps more analogously, even those in non-regulated occupations like writers and programmers would have a hard time passing themselves off as such without actually writing or actually programming.

But how does a user experience designer demonstrate their user experience designing? I’m not talking about quality or level of expertise here; I’m merely referring to the veracity, the legitimacy of the title itself.

Regardless of what they choose to call themselves, how can you identify someone who isn’t actually practicing UX at all, who’s only hitching their wagon to a rising star?

You’re not a user experience designer if…

  1. You don’t talk to users. If you design entirely based on intuition without ever gathering intel from a single human being who might at some point in their life come into contact with your business, I’m sorry, but you just aren’t a user experience designer.
  2. You can’t identify your target audience. If asked who your site is intended for and you say anyone and everyone, you are wrong. If a product is designed for everyone, it works for no one. A user experience designer would know that and narrow the target.
  3. You don’t define the problem before trying to solve it. If your boss tells you what to build and you don’t start the project by first determining why — the specific pain point that people are currently experiencing that your product aims to eliminate — you’re a lackey, not a user advocate. Nine times out of ten, understanding the problem changes the solution dramatically.
  4. You can’t articulate your users’ goals. Maybe you kinda get the problem people are having, but unless you can communicate (in your own words) the objectives your target users are trying to accomplish both in their lives and their work, how can you craft a solution that will truly support their efforts?
  5. You design in a vacuum. No user experience designer works alone, so if you are, you aren’t one. Even a UX team of one relies on stakeholders, visual designers, developers, marketers, the guy in the next cubicle , etc. for feedback. A user experience designer knows the product isn’t meant for them, and always tests its effectiveness with other people.
  6. You make design decisions based on your personal preferences. If your coworker or client asks you, “Why did you choose to use checkboxes instead of radio buttons?” and your answer is, “Because I’ve always liked checkboxes better,” please dear God don’t call yourself a user experience designer.
  7. You don’t consider the business objectives. Surprise! If all you want to do is protect the consumer, join the ACLU. A true user experience designer understands their company’s goals just as deeply as they understand their constituents. That allows you to determine which of the constituency’s needs should be addressed by the product, and make a case to the powers that be how doing so will positively impact the business in the long run.
  8. You don’t use UX methods. User interviews, usability tests, personas, scenarios, card sorts, affinity diagrams, concept models, sketches, flow diagrams, sitemaps, wireframes, prototypes, web analytics, A/B tests, the list goes on and on. If you don’t have a systematic approach for articulating what you learn about your users to others on your team, or even a loose process to iterate on your ideas for what they’ll experience, you might be trying but you aren’t a user experience designer.
  9. You don’t design for conditions and edge cases. If you map out best-case scenarios and how-we-want-it user flows, but don’t take the time to craft branches and escape hatches for alternative needs, user errors, system errors and general curiosity, you don’t understand people very well and you’re not a user experience designer.
  10. You only think about the interface. If you’re focused exclusively on what the user sees and does on your website/mobile app/desktop app/kiosk/whatever, but never plan for how they’ll get there, what they’ll do when they leave, how they’ll come back, and most of all, how they’ll feel about it a week later, you’re a user interface designer, not a user experience designer. There’s a big difference.

I might sound like I’m contradicting myself

The above slide is from my presentation DIY UX: Give Your Users an Upgrade Without Calling in a Pro. So yes, I am partially to blame for this trend. But I didn’t really mean for people to start putting the title on their business cards and anointing themselves User Experience Designers without actually putting in the hard work.

The point of that slide in particular is to get people to realize that no matter what their role is, if they touch the outcome of the product in any way, shape, or form (as a designer, developer, copywriter, business analyst or marketer), they are ultimately affecting the user’s experience with the product, and as such, must take responsibility for doing right by them. This means learning who they are, listening to their needs, understanding their behaviors, and getting their feedback each step of the way. Otherwise you have no right to call yourself, or let your boss call you, what you’re not.

If you have the title of User Experience Designer and you want to do these things but aren’t being allowed to, don’t stand for it. Send the culprit this post if you’re feeling ballsy. Or let me know how I can help, either in the comments or via email. It’s one thing to claim to be something that you’re not just to be in vogue and make yourself more appealing to prospective employers; it’s another thing altogether to try doing the job and having roadblocks put in your way. What user experience designers do is honorable, compassionate, and valuable to businesses’ bottom line. When it’s actually practiced.

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  • http://www.mohanarun.com Mohan Arun

    The best UX designer is the user. Agree/disagree?

    With experience comes ‘conditioned thinking’. Agree/disagree?

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      The user is NOT a designer. They can only help you comprehend the problem; they’re not best positioned to derive the solution. They don’t understand design patterns and standards, and they also don’t know the business objectives. It’s a UX designer’s job to use input from the user as intel to then craft the right experience for them.

  • Maarten de jager

    Your list seems very subjective.There are always people doing their jobs well and people doing their jobs poorly. I don’t think a list of “requirements” is going to help. If you would have said: “to achieve X in your UX design project, you might want to look into Y, because Z” it might have promoted understanding of UX processes, but I think this is just a spew. You obviously think that there are people polluting the good name of the UX profession.
    Don’t be so mad, cause “what’s in a name” anyway? You should have more faith in the quality of your own work.

    • Gabby Hon

      Well, of course her list is subjective, Maarten: she’s a person with an opinion. Whence shall we draw an objective list or imagine that such a thing even exists?

      And if a list of requirements doesn’t help improve the evaluation or performance of self-identified User Experience Designers, what, pray tell, do you propose instead?

      Perhaps, Maarten, you live in a magical land where recruiters don’t routinely post UX job descriptions that do not bear any resemblance to what the work actually entails. Be grateful for your good fortune in that regard. The rest of us, however, have been fighting an increasingly frustrating battle with charlatans and the clueless.

  • http://about.me/geewhizkid Android GeeWhizKid

    Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant!
    You wrote a well-balanced list.

    Thank you for validating several of my feelings on user experience designers.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thanks so much, WhizKid! I’m glad to see it has resonated with so many people.

  • http://ryandc.co.uk RyanDC

    Agree whole hardily with this. I wrote a post about the rise in people claiming ‘UX’ as a skill a while back – http://www.ryandc.co.uk/ux-is-not-a-skill-it-just-part-of-design/,

    I don’t claim to be a UX professional, but i think most people simply get confused and think it’s just another skill to add to the C.V./Site/Resume

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Totally agree with you, great post. And I LOVE the treatment of your blog post titles. Nice work.

  • http://www.coroflot.com/abinash Abinash

    Really nice article with good & specific reasons :)
    Thanks for sharing!

  • http://peterburnham.wordpress.com/ Peter Burnham

    I shared this article with a few junior UX designers I’ve worked with and it gave them a good mark to set the bar. It’s hard to tell what qualities make a pro when your just getting your start.

  • Carol Bales

    I like all your points – a refreshing point of view.

  • http://www.michaelaleo.com Michael Aleo

    Ha, I love this article. Full of unapologetic truths! Great work Whitney.

  • http://stormchild.net Stormchild

    Good article. Many great points.

    Just wanted to mention though: you tried to use the word “anoint” as if it means something like “appoint”. It does not. This is another one of those “jive/jibe” things. The word you wanted is “appoint”.

  • m

    in an ideal world you are right.

  • http://dkeithrobinson.com/ Keith

    (Following up my tweets, as requested!)

    I read this post as needlessly defensive and, well, sort of territorial, which bothers me. Then again, it just rubbed me the wrong way, because it doesn’t jive very well with my own experience, so take the following (and the preceding) with a grain of salt.

    A great experience takes the diverse talents of many to create, and while I do see that the role you define here as one that would be a great part of that, it’s rarely, if ever, so cut and dry.

    I don’t have a ton of specific issues with the points made here, but I do have a big general issue:

    I want my work to be defined by the experiences I design, the products I deliver, the impact on the businesses and organizations I work for and the delight of the people using things I made. And that’s it.

    To me, you are a UX Designer if you design user experiences. The rest is all a means to an end. Defining those means in detail only limits your options. Those means can are very important, they cannot, in and of themselves, produce a great experience.

    You can’t just hire a UX pro, have them go through a process and be guaranteed a great product or experience. I’d be willing to bet that many amazing experiences have been created ignoring one or more of the points you make here. Are there great experiences out there where the designer chose personal preference over data? I bet there are, not that I’m advocating that, just sayin’.

    What’s more important here is what’s not defined. And trust me, I don’t want to add further definition, but here are a few examples:

    A great experience requires vision. It could require rock solid engineering. It requires hustle and elbow grease. It often requires massive amounts of creativity. I could go on. Those things could be more important than whether or not you designed for edge cases, for example.

    You start to define something as nebulous as “UX” and it quickly turns into a rabbit hole.

    Anyway – is that kick-ass engineer who built your new iPhone app a User Experience Designer? Maybe not by title, but their work could very well have more impact on the experience than much of what’s outlined here.

    It’s the experience that matters. It’s the end product–what the user sees and does with the product, etc.–not the titles, methods, tools, processes of the people that made it, that matters.

    If “User Experience Designers” let the experiences themselves speak for themselves, they wouldn’t need to define and defend what they do with words.

  • Eric k

    This post is great. Reminds me of ” punk rock love” by Aaron comet bus. Punk rock love is… Having the same ex girlfriend. Punk rock love is… Dumpster diving on your first date. Etc etc

  • http://hdragomir.com Horia Dragomir

    I think the problem also comes from the title itself.
    It has “Designer” in it, so any designer that knows how to whip up a wireframe feels entitled to said title.

    These designers also tend to produce very high fidelity wireframes that focus more on layout than on IA or flow.
    Oh, and they don’t to actual flow charts because they’re ugly and they don’t do personas because they don’t like to type. Pah.

    Thank you for this post!

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Yeah, I definitely get your perspective here. I’ve struggled with the “designer” aspect of the title myself. But is architect or planner or analyst any better?

  • Nigel

    Only problem I have with this is proper #ux work can still be a tough sell to clients as it effects timelines and budgets. This is a truth from small design shops, startups, to large agencies. User experience designers may want to practice their skills to the fullest however are governed by budgets, timelines and politics. Good design is not always practiced on the front lines, it’s just the reality. As spoke persons for users, our job is to shift this thinking, which I believe is slowly happening. Better experiences will bread a push for better experiences. I just hope this article does not discourage those passionate about their UX position but not able to practice it on a level they wish to. Keep pushing, it will come.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Nigel, I definitely take your point to heart. But as an independent consultant myself, struggling against the budgets, timelines and politics of my clients, I consider it my responsibility above all to educate them on good UX practice and demonstrate how making time for the right approach is actually much more cost effective in the long run. Would love to talk to you about this more.

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  • Ben

    When I rotate my phone, this website explodes into a user experience nightmare.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thanks for letting me know, Ben. What kind of phone are you using? Can you please send me a screenshot?

  • Hilary


    I read this article at around 8pm and am writing this at 2.38am as it’s left shrapnel. Sadly, I don’t feel any kind of solidarity with the author on the topic – I’m assuming this is the opposite affect of what was intended. I am happy to officially end my association with the title “UX”, something I was officially trained as, and called myself legitimately for about 6 years but have been moving away from recently as it appears I no longer fit the description. And, judging by comments by other designers I respect, I’m not alone.

    It is a reality that most of us don’t have the luxury of time or money, nor the arrogance to stomp our foot and demand workplace changes to work by these 10 points. We’re lucky to get the chance of using a couple at the best of times. And yes, those of us working as designers in digital for well into double digit years do have the experience to simply design elegant solutions out of our heads, and we do a really good job of it.

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  • Probably the opposite is more true…

    While all too common I think this viewpoint is fundamentally wrong. Users want vision. Designers have a responsibility to provide that. Failure to do so leads to stagnant, boring products….and on a broader level, stagnant, boring schemas. This obsession with ‘the user’ and ‘the problem’ in the UX industry is disturbing, cowardly and frankly a copout.

  • http://welcomebrand.co.uk James

    Great bullets. I’ve noticed the terms UX and UI being used a great deal more these days and I wonder if it’s either the industry growing up and specialising or just, as you said, people wanting to hitch their wagon to something *new* and exciting.

    A lot of those points didn’t really grab me as something I’d say were specific requirements of a “UX” designer though. Just a good designer, is there really a significant difference?


  • swiss

    wonderful post – among reactions to reading this….relief. Realizing I’m not the only ux professional who believes these things as the bare bones basics of what we do. thanks much!

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Phew, me too! Thanks so much, Swiss.

  • Mani

    “Willingness to accept criticisms and take them in the right sense”.

    This is the one that’ll encourage people to give you more feedback on what you do.

  • http://www.gonocturnal.com David Elliott

    Great article, and I agree with your points. As a web designer and front-end developer there are often times I have to think like a ux designer, but certainly not to the same level or degree, and I would never claim to be as such.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thanks for the note, David. I appreciate your sentiment.

  • Nigel

    Don’t read this exclusionist nonsense. You are a UX designer if you design UX. Good ones, and bad ones. Now we’ve cleared that up, go and read a book that advances your craft. Or a blog article that discusses a UX problem and walks you through the author’s solution.

    This. This is something written by a threatened consultant seeking to differentiate themselves from the body of a growing market.

    To the author, spend less time defining what other people aren’t, and more time demonstrating what you are.

  • http://www.myintuition.ca Sorin Stefan


    Now, Whitney please tell me what’s no.11 because all other 10 fail if you’re not good at story-telling ( … well, not quite ;))

    I mean, convince them (in their own words most of the time) that what you do is good and it’s worth it.

    Some UX work needs to be approved before doing it, and it will affect further steps etc. and in that moment it’s time to get your favorite pillow pet and start narrating :)

    I know, there are books and articles on this subject, but I just wanted to mention it because the further you practice UX from NY, California or UK, the more you feel like a Master Degree in English Language is your Holly Grail :)

    Thanks and see u in DC @ AEA :)

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  • Mara

    Good reminders for sure! A more constructive approach would have been to write the title as “You are a user experience designer if…” and list what to do instead of what not to do.

  • Bill

    Since when is a re-tweet a “comment”. I hate it when UX designers (or anyone for that matter) have a heading saying “646 comments so far”, and most of those are not actually comments. This is a comment. Am I the only actual comment? UX starts at home, on your own turf. Accuracy of headings and labels means you’re taking care to present information. “642 comments” is completely misleading and inaccurate.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      I completely agree, Bill. I only turned on this plugin yesterday, and there’s a glitch. I’ve been waiting to hear back from the BTCNew folks on how to fix it. My sincere apologies for a totally unreadable comment stream.

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  • http://inspirationfeed.com inspirationfeed

    Haha, what an awesome article!

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  • http://www.maiconweb.com Maicon Sobczak

    A north for everyone look at before add the tagline “UX Designer”. With this article I saw how long will be my path to gain this title.

  • Eric bieller

    Well said.. Especially the last part.. Thanks for the advice!

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  • http://codeobsession.blogspot.com David Adsit
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  • Lucretia Pruitt

    Holy Feedback, Batman!

    I had no idea your post has generated so much traffic and debate until I read your follow-up.

    My first reaction to it was “oh yay! Another list post!” ( I react poorly to list posts as they are usually oversimplified or just link-bait.) but, I read it and thought “pretty solid – all of those are citical points to a *good* UX designer.”

    But the reaction is somewhat disproportionate! Who are these people so offended by this list? Why do they take it so personally? There are times when every programmer is (by default) part of the UX design and s/he may be doing it in a void. Not every shop is going to have the resources or time to employ good UX methodology. But if you’re in that situation? You should be calling yourself a coder, not a UX designer. The guy building the house doesn’t call himself an architect, does he? Even if he didn’t employ an architect and built a beautiful house ground up – if he doesn’t know how to create a draft, use CAD to generate blueprints, and all of the other myriad skills an architect learns – he’s still simply a builder, no matter how amazing the end result is.

    At some point, there will end up being University degrees and codification of the UX Designer gig – then wheat and chaff will separate. But until then, perhaps it’s better to look at this list as “don’t hire someone as a UX designer unless they can and have done these things.”. More of a caveat to employers than an attempt to exclude people from a group.

    End of my 2 cents.

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  • http://www.petemachine.co.uk Pete Trainor

    I think this is a great great starting list. I have to say I’m not surprised some people got all defensive about it because it’s probably exposed them quite a lot. You make all the right points & you make them well. We should be 100% Objective in UX (that’s what UX is) and anything subjective makes you just an IA or a Designer.

    What I would say is that every situation and circumstance differs… so some briefs rely on some of the above… some on a few… sometimes none and we can revert back to type and just be designers and IAs occasionally crafting subjective work because of time constraints or client pressures.

    Great stuff. Well done of raising the points and stimulating so much needed debate.

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  • Jay

    You aren’t a user experience designer if you only design for people using websites.

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