by Chris Myhill
Director of Experience
I’m a UX designer. By saying this, I’m admitting to being a generalist. A jack-of-all-trades. A career spent in digital agencies has meant regularly switching roles based on the kind of project I’m working on at that time.
Despite this, there are certain parts of the design process that I find myself gravitating towards more often. Nobody can be an expert in everything. Over time I’ve gotten to grips with where I’m more capable, and where my skills are weaker.
Over the course of a designer’s career, they are likely to dabble in most (if not all) of these different specialisms. Some choose to remain generalists like myself. Others will focus solely on a particular domain. These specialists are likely to have that domain reflected in their job title.
It’s important to understand these different specialisms. Because each project can call for different skills, we need to know who’s skills are needed.
On small or medium-size projects, a single generalist designer will often suffice. For more complex projects we often need multiple designers, each focusing on a different part of the process.
What are these specialisms, I hear you ask? There isn’t a single industry census for how this all breaks down, but broadly speaking it looks something like this :
For each of these specialisms let’s take a look what that person does on a project, and the skills involved.
A user researcher gathers insight to drive decision making. Rather than creating the ‘what’, they instead focus more on ‘why’. There are loads of research methods than can be drawn upon, both quantitative and qualitative. The research they conduct guides us during the design process, and helps to inform the solution.
A big part of the user researcher role is to communicate findings to the wider project team. For research outcomes to be useful they need to be clear and actionable. The rest of the team will ideally be referring back to these assets throughout the whole design process, to make sure we continually deliver against the user’s needs.
A content strategist ensures that the information on our websites is fit for purpose. After all, what is a website but a vehicle for information? The content strategy specialism ensures that the right messages are getting to the right people, in the right place, at the right time. They set guidelines for how we communicate, ensuring our content is helpful and purposeful.
Content strategy is about planning. The strategist engages with users and organisational stakeholders, making certain the content we create meets everybody’s collective needs. They establish what the website needs to say, often making decisions about messaging, structure and tone-of-voice. They also think about the broader points of content governance. Who needs to write what, and how should content be managed in the long term?
An information architect looks at the product from a birds-eye view, planning how things should fit together. They’ll piece together how users move through a site or app, without getting bogged down in the minute details of presentation.
For complex products, there can be a huge amount of information to deal with. The information architect balances user needs & business objectives to plan the most logical user journey. For example, an e-commerce website can classify products in a dozen different ways. Which of those should be presented as navigation? Which pieces of information need to be be presented most prominently on the page? What options need to be available to customers, and when?
The information architect’s objective is to answer these questions, and create the informational layouts for the product. We call these wireframes. Think of them as the blueprint for a website or app. This specialism takes us from a product vision to something a little more tangible.
A UI designer brings the interface to life by applying a brand’s ‘look and feel’ to the system. They’re responsible for creating the visual language for a site or app. They will design the detailed nuance of presentation and interactivity. In a nutshell, they make sure the product looks and feels great.
I encounter a lot of confusion between the terms ‘UX’ and ‘UI’. It probably doesn’t help that these acronyms are terribly similar! To clarify, the broad field of UX covers overall experience of using the product. UI is a more focused discipline, specialising in the visual elements that a user encounters. The UI designer’s goal is craft a product interface that is usable, delightful and stays true to the brand.
You should now have a grasp of each UX specialism, and the types of skills they can offer to your project.
If you’re a designer, you’re likely to dabble in all of these specialisms throughout your career. Whether you choose to specialise or remain a generalist, it’s always good to have an appreciation for the wider field of UX. You never know when you might need to play a different role.
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