Though a relatively new term, User Experience Design or UX Design doesn't refer to a new idea or development. In simple terms, it means making a product, service or system simple and gratifying to use, enabling the user to derive optimum benefit without hassle.
The term was originally coined by Donald Norman, vice president of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple, because he "thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person's experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual."
Today, UX is a familiar term throughout the IT industry, referring to a user's interaction with computer technology — a website, an application, software or a device.
Why are UX Design skills in high demand?
UX design is one of the most sought-after tech skills today, which is hardly surprising given the rapid growth of mobile and web development. As the ways in which users can access websites and interact online continue to expand, so also does the need to ensure a seamless, quick and pleasing interactive experience. For a business to stay ahead of the competition, it's critical to keep abreast of ever-evolving user needs and wants, as well as to know what competitors are offering and focus on enabling optimum user experience.
This is where the user experience designer comes in. The onus for designing a positive user experience based on an alignment of user needs and behavior with the company's goals is on the UX designer. As Andrew Kucheriavy of Intechnic says, what's important is "what customers actually need" — not what businesses assume they need. A business stands to lose if a competitor can deliver a superior user experience.
What do UX designers do?
User experience design is a vast field, encompassing all aspects of the design process. Not surprisingly, being a relatively new job description, there's a lack of clarity on what the job really entails. Expectations vary from company to company. Often, it's up to the UX designer to explain user experience design and its role in enabling the company to realize business objectives to the management.
Depending on whether you work at a startup or a corporation, you could be the sole UX designer who handles all aspects of the process, or you could be responsible for one small part of it. The key aspects of the user experience design procedure are:
Design strategy — The first step is to know what to design, for whom and why, based on knowledge of the company's goals, an understanding of users' needs, emotions and culture as well as the path a typical user follows through a site or application. User research and analysis are critical elements of this phase. The UX designer creates user personas and defines system objectives.
Formulation of the design — Defining what the system will contain and what it will do, how data needs to be organized and functions performed. This encompasses specification of content and functions, outlining the structure of the system, navigation, interaction design, and usability testing. The result is a skeleton that would include wireframes, task flows and content-specific information.
In order to evaluate whether a product will meet user expectations on functionality and usability, it's necessary to test a low-fidelity prototype on a group of potential users. Testing before implementing a design helps to eliminate problems that weren't foreseen during design formulation.
Implementation — Once the design is approved, developers and graphic designers work on developing and designing the interface. The UX designer needs to collaborate with developers and visual designers so as to motivate them to create an uncluttered, functional and easily navigable interface.
UX skills and knowledge
As Steve Jobs reportedly observed, "You"ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology — not the other way around."
A user experience designer who is responsible for seeing the project through from start to finish needs to first understand what the user really wants, as well as what frustrates and inspires him (or her) in order to be able to connect with those feelings. The objective is to design a site or application that works well for both the user and the company, and that appeals to the user's eye.
User experience design is multi-disciplinary, involving communication, psychological, research, analytical, technical and creative skills. Depending on skills, interests, experience as well as the company, a UX designer could be leading a design team or handling all aspects single-handedly.
A UX designer needs to understand all aspects of user experience design whereas a team member might be a specialist performing a specific role. An understanding of web technologies and graphic design as well as hands-on experience with design and testing tools will enable a UX designer to get her ideas across to the team.
To be an effective user experience designer, it's crucial to have a combination of knowledge and soft skills. Expertise alone can't help one empathize with the user and all other stakeholders, including each member of the design and product teams. Understanding human psychology makes it easier to motivate different personalities to work together to achieve a common goal.
Areas of expertise include: User research, the effectiveness of which hinges on a deep understanding of cognitive psychology, data analysis, usability testing, information architecture, web technology, interface and graphic design.
Besides knowledge of the elements and processes, empathy and adaptability are essential. So too are strong communication, problem-solving, time-management and leadership skills.
Regardless of whether you're the chief UX designer leading a team, or working solo on all aspects of the design process at a start-up or handling one aspect of user experience design, you need a user-centric approach.
The best certifications for aspiring UX designers to pursue?
Although there currently are no officially recognized accreditation systems for UX design certification in the United States, a number of universities and companies do offer certifications. Perceptions about the value of these credentials vary.
The good news is that some recruiters consider certification an indication of a candidate's motivation to remain current in a fast-evolving field. Still, many experienced UX designers agree that learning on the job is the best way to hone relevant skills.
UX Design certifications offered in the United States include:
- Bentley University's User Experience Center offers a UX certificate program designed for beginners and experienced UX professionals.
- Certificate in User Experience Design from the University of Baltimore could be useful for professionals interested in usability analysis, information architecture and interaction design.
- User-Centered Design Certificate from the University of Washington — this onsite program has a substantial practical component. It's on offer at the Seattle campus.
- General Assembly's User Experience Design Immersive program is a solid 10-week program, where students build their portfolios as they learn.
- The UX Master Certification from the Nielson Norman Group can be tailored to suit different skill levels.
- The Certified Usability Analyst certification (CUA) from Human Factors International (HFI) introduces students to UX design concepts.
- The UX Certified User Experience Analyst (CXA), also offered by HFI, is a more advanced program.
User experience design is a fast-developing field that will prove rewarding for creative, analytical, adaptable and empathetic individuals. If you resolve to develop relevant expertise, acquire knowledge and hone your soft skills, then UX design offers ample scope to chart a path to career success.