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I've been in the process of gathering up my clients, my portfolio, and my wits as I consider a move from consulting back to an agency type environment. As a result, for the first time in half a decade, I'm looking at job boards. The UX stuff is... god... it's really confused.

I've found that fully 80% of the time, people hiring a "UX Pro" are actually looking for a product designer with about 4 years of experience and not a true UX practitioner. What's the difference?

  • A product designer is a light-duty front end engineer and graphic designer, for web & mobile, who has a secondary understanding of UX principles as they apply to his or her craft. S/he generally comes from an entrepreneurial background. S/he excels at coming up with the presentation of the big idea and executing on it. The role is most analogous to advertising's creative director.
  • A UX designer is someone who comes from a research position, who has a secondary understanding of how front end code works, and often has prior agency training. S/he is rightly considered the project team's conscience and ensures that all work remains accountable to the needs of the end user. S/he excels at coming up with the big idea in the first place, then articulating it to creatives and engineers. The role is most analogous to advertising's account planner.
  • Both typically have some formal training in visual design, although the product designer is more likely to have an actual bachelors in graphic design.

In reality though, what's going on is that people are getting hired into UX roles, having never learned the UX process, as articulated by Garrett and others. Instead, they're getting paid 15%+ less than the title should warrant, and treated as glorified wireframe monkeys. This is blurring the public understanding of what user experience seeks to accomplish, while promoting people who haven't been fully trained into a role they may not be fully qualified to hold at the senior level when they go to apply for their next job.

True, there are those who can write PHP, CSS3, JS, and also understand the difference between a card sort and a conjoint analysis, but that's something above and beyond the early-career stuff that makes up the bulk of HR requests. You'll see postings from this type of creature in here from time to time, but they're generally considered unicorns, especially if they have Agile experience to top it off.

I would pose the question to this group - what can we do about it? Should we do anything about it? Is it ok that UX and product design are so often viewed under the same umbrella, when there is actually a fairly large difference between the two?

Eventually, the issues will resolve themsleves. They certainly did in advertising's field of account planning, which is a very close allegory to the role of a modern UX designer.

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2 Answers 2

If you look at UX Design as an agnostic discipline (the way most of us were taught), the definition becomes clear. I think it is the 'U' that makes it confusing. Saying the word 'user' makes people think of digital product (something rendered on a screen), whereas if you say 'customer' you are actually closer to the truth. We are even considering the removal of the term 'user' from our marketing to address this confusion - we would then be called 'experience designers.'

My agency works in BOTH physical AND digital product - and for now, we call ourselves UX'ers.

For example, we just completed a headphone review where we looked at style, beauty, form factor, feature set, functionality, build quality, connectivity, etc. There is no digital interface for these headphones, yet we changed almost everything about the product through classic UX research to the delight of our client (competitive analysis, lab testing, field testing, marketing language, packaging, distribution, etc.). After our review, several tweaks were made to the product and it is leading its category in sales. It probably wouldn't have done nearly as well if it hadn't been tested by trained UX'ers.

Most of our partners come from a UI background, but what's interesting is that the protocols Garrett and others talk about are completely applicable to ALL PRODUCT and ALL SERVICES. People have an emotional reaction to everything they come into contact with, and this emotion is measurable and actionable. Behavior, too, is nearly a constant across all product, and is also measurable and actionable at the user/customer level. Do you have an 'experience' with headphones? Yes. Is going to a concert an 'experience?' Yes. Do you have an 'experience with an app?' Yes.

True UX is the study of PEOPLE. Its value is universal as every company sells to people. And you're correct, it will only get more valuable as time goes on and we get clear on the definition. Wouldn't you like to know what your customer wants before you start building… anything? That is what UX offers across all products. I don't really care if people want to call me a product designer or a product planner or a UX Pro - I study people, and that study is directly applicable to design.

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Thanks for the reply Brian. I think you're right that "experience" is the root of the trade. It seems to me that "User Experience" denotes a digital experience, "Customer Experience" denotes a service experience, and product experience is often indicated by the umbrella title of "Experience Design". Ultimately, I think you do a good job of illustrating the key point - that designing experiences is at the root of UX. Thus, if the average UX Design job is asking for a front end engineer / graphic designer we have a real problem. –  Imperative Jun 25 at 21:17
    
Maybe "Human Design" would be a better term? –  Mike Chamberlain Jul 3 at 9:43
    
Ha, my tagline is "Designed for Humans" –  Imperative Jul 4 at 1:02

I like to think of a great product in terms of a layered cake, and the roles as individual layers this includes Researcher, Information Architect, Content Strategist, Ui Designer, and engineer, to name a few.

User experience on the other hand is the actual satisfaction derived by devouring that cake.

With that said the success of each product is derived from the combination of all those layers.

The real issue of confusion stems from clients who lack the understanding or budget to find the individuals to fill those layers. They either fail to clarify the role they are searching for, or look for someone who can do a bit of everything in which case they are risk delivering a cake to the market that tastes flat.

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Ok, now I'm hungry. I'll go cook something while I think about my response :) –  Imperative Jun 30 at 4:58
    
There was actually a lot of really diverse discussion on a near clone of this post that I put up in my UX group on LinkedIn. What you are describing was identified as an agency process, where the developer can afford to have a large team on multiple projects. In a lot of cases though, the UX person is working with a smaller team and, as such, needs to practice a broader skill set. S/he also needs to rely on non-UX team members to be more familiar with UX design philosophy, whereas in an agency environment, the JS engineer doesn't necessarily need to know UX to do his or her job well. –  Imperative Jul 4 at 1:05
    
So does that mean you believe a UX person should handle the Research, Wireframing, Visual Design, And the development. And while we're at it lets throw in content strategy, and business strategy for good measure. They should also be able to entertain clients by performing circus tricks, juggling is a good one. –  Stan Grinapol Jul 13 at 16:49
    
As a result of several of these threads, I’ve come to two simple conclusions. First, no two companies define UX the same way. Second, no matter how good you are at design, code, writing, or research; you’ll always be asked to do whichever task you feel least proficient in. As Morpheus once explained, fate is not without a sense of irony. I think this was the point of the entire conversation though - that UX is a process, but the interpretation depends on the job. If, as professionals, we want a core set of principles that guide our craft, we're going to have to impose them ourselves. –  Imperative Jul 14 at 23:03

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