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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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