UX Design Defined

By Ritch Macefield

Published: June 18, 2012

“In the field of user experience, people often confuse terms like information architecture, interaction design, visual design, usability engineering, and UX design.”

Unfortunately, in the field of user experience, people often confuse terms like information architecture, interaction design, visual design, usability engineering, and UX design. In some cases, people use these terms almost interchangeably. This article provides a lexicon of these terms and more clearly defines the role of the user experience designer.

Information Architecture

Information architecture (IA) focuses on the organization of data—that is, how data is structured from a user’s perspective, as opposed to the system, or technical, perspective.

At the level of an entire Web site, or application, information architecture determines what data is on each page and how pages relate to each other. For example, defining a site map is an IA activity. At the level of an individual page layout, information architecture ensures that data is logically grouped and interrelated.

“Information architecture (IA) focuses on the organization of data….”

A major concern of information architecture is defining and using taxonomies—for example, information hierarchies—and classifying data within these taxonomies. So, defining menu and navigational structures is an IA issue. Doing this work successfully often requires eliciting information from users and domain experts, using techniques such as structured interviews and various types of card-sorting exercises.

Information architecture also concerns applying existing taxonomies when doing new development. Taxonomies may be proprietary—such as how to classify products a particular retailer offers—or standards such as the UK’s Local Government Category List (LGCL). So, ensuring that a navigation bar at the left of a page is wide enough to contain all of the terms a particular taxonomy uses is also an IA issue.

This means that specialists in information architecture often come from an information management or library studies background. My experience is that some technical data modelers such as those who are excellent at Entity-Relation modelling with relational data bases—for example, with Oracle—or defining class hierarchies—for example, using the Unified Modelling Language (UML)—can also make superb information architects. This is not just because they understand how an information architecture maps to a technical implementation. Rather, it is because they have excellent generic skills in eliciting data relationships from users and domain experts, logically organizing data according to defined rules and principles, and abstracting key patterns in the data they’re working with.

Interaction Design

“Interaction design concerns the controls, mechanisms, and processes that users require to perform their tasks on systems….”

Interaction design concerns the controls, mechanisms, and processes that users require to perform their tasks on systems and so meet their goals. For example, an interaction designer determines whether to use a menu rather than a set of tabs, whether to use a drop-down list rather than set of radio buttons, and the process, or steps, for setting up a new email account using a wizard. This inevitably means that interaction design is about creating affordances—including defining what controls do and how to communicate what they do to users—that is, designing affordances.

Visual Design

“Visual design focuses on the aesthetics of a user interface, ensuring that it looks good, communicates the right image to users, and conforms to any brand guidelines.”

Visual design focuses on the aesthetics of a user interface, ensuring that it looks good, communicates the right image to users, and conforms to any brand guidelines. This means that good visual designers often come from a graphic design background—whether print or online—and often have excellent related skills—for example, illustration, animation, or photography—that they can integrate into their interface design work.

It is interesting to note here that the ability to design good layouts is a prerequisite for good visual design, good interaction design, and good information architecture, but each of these specialties uses the term layout in ways that are qualitatively different. This is because their rationale and goals for a layout are very different—visual design seeks good aesthetics; interaction design, good workflows; and information architecture, good groupings of information. Sometimes these things are synergistic, sometimes they’re in competition with one another, and sometimes they’re a bit of both.

Usability Engineering

“Usability engineering is primarily about planning and executing various types of usability studies that test how well people can use a user interface….”

Usability engineering is primarily about planning and executing various types of usability studies that test how well people can use a user interface, then making recommendations for how to correct the problems that these studies identify. These recommendations may be very specific—like “make the OK button a stronger shade of red”—or very general like—“the IA needs revisiting.”

To conduct usability studies, usability engineers must have skills in questionnaire design, interviewing, test facilitation, and the use of usability testing software such as Morae. The best usability engineers also have a good grounding in statistics, so they can apply the correct statistical methods and tests to quantitative study results. They may also be familiar with relevant standards such as ISO 9241 and the Common Industry Format for Usability Testing (ANSI/NCITS 354-2001).

Having skills in secondary research methods is also important for usability engineers, enabling them to avoid the time and expense of executing a new, or primary, study when a similar study has already been published. Usability engineers need to be able to identify relevant studies, assess their credibility, and determine the degree to which their findings are relevant to a system they’re evaluating.

All of this is more difficult than it may sound, which is why the best usability engineers often have a very strong academic background or may still work mainly in academia.

User Experience Design

“A visual designer would have a role that is similar to that of an interior designer—choosing the carpets, curtains, and furniture, so they coordinate well, are in keeping with the character of the house, and satisfy the home owners’ personal taste.”

So what is user experience design (UXD)?

Circa 2000, Melisa Cooper published an article that unfortunately no longer seems to be available online. It drew an analogy between a User Experience Architect—a more common term than UX Designer in the 1990s—and that of a conventional architect who designs houses. I have adapted and extended her analogy to make it more comprehensive and contemporary, as well as to put my own spin on things. When designing a new house:

  • An information architect would ensure that the master bedroom could accommodate a double bed, two bedside tables, and a large wardrobe; that the kitchen is next to the dining room; and that the only bathroom is not in the garage!
  • An interaction designer would ensure that the cold water tap is always on the right, the stairs have banisters, and the light switches are on the correct side of doors.
  • A visual designer would have a role that is similar to that of an interior designer—choosing the carpets, curtains, and furniture, so they coordinate well, are in keeping with the character of the house, and satisfy the home owners’ personal taste.
  • A usability engineer would inspect the house after each of the key stages in the building project—that is, after conceptual design, using the architect’s visuals and models; after the planning stage, referring to the technical schematics; once the building shell is completed; and once the entire building is completed.
  • A UX architect conceives the whole experience of the home owner. This means having overall responsibility for the design, leading and briefing all of the people in specialist roles, and representing the home owner—not the builders—throughout the design process.

Managing Overlap and Conflict

“There is a high degree of overlap between the roles of the information architect, interaction designer, visual designer, and usability engineer, so potential for conflict exists across all of them.”

Clearly, there is a high degree of overlap between the roles of the information architect, interaction designer, visual designer, and usability engineer, so potential for conflict exists across all of them. For example, the positioning of links on a page may relate to an IT system’s information architecture, interaction design, and visual design; and usability engineers would, of course, test this positioning. Likewise, a visual designer might design an icon that looks fantastic and is on brand, but which has very low affordance and usability.

A classic example of overlapping responsibilities—and the conflict that can ensue—occurs in the definition of style guides. Visual designers often have sole responsibility for style guides—mistakenly in my opinion. Of course, it’s essential that a style guide meet all visual design requirements; however, establishing style guidelines is also vital in, for example, communicating hierarchies, which is an IA issue, and affordances, which an interaction design issue.

This is why a key responsibility of a UX Designer or Architect is managing such overlaps and resolving conflicts across these areas whenever they occur—which they always do!

The UX Designer’s Skillset

“Does a UX designer (UXD) need to be highly skilled in all four of these areas: information architecture, interaction design, visual design, and usability engineering?”

Does a UX designer (UXD) need to be highly skilled in all four of these areas: information architecture, interaction design, visual design, and usability engineering? Well, there are certainly UX designers who are highly skilled in all of these areas, but such a skillset is extremely rare in my experience. After nearly 20 years working in this field, I can count the ones I know on one hand!

However, in my opinion, a UX designer needs to be highly skilled only in information architecture and interaction design—not necessarily in visual design or usability engineering.

Visual Design and UX Design

A UX designer must be able to conceive the vision for the aesthetics of a user interface and manage the visual design process, but does not necessarily need to be skilled enough to actually undertake the visual design.”

It is often a perfectly viable approach for a UX designer to craft a gray-scale wireframe design that is excellent in terms of information architecture and interaction design, then brief a visual designer on skinning it appropriately. This is analogous to interior designers weaving their magic on a new building. The activity takes place late in the design process after key design decisions have been made—that is, after the building has gone up.

Of course, this means UX designers do need to have a good appreciation of visual design, know a good-looking user interface when they see it, and be able to communicate a brief effectively to a visual designer. UX designers also have to be able to recognize—and know how to fix—the sorts of information architecture and interaction design problems that commonly get introduced during the visual design process.

To summarize here, I’m arguing that a UX designer must be able to conceive the vision for the aesthetics of a user interface and manage the visual design process, but does not necessarily need to be skilled enough to actually undertake the visual design.

Usability Engineering and UX Design

“If a UX designer is like a chief aeronautical engineer who has overall responsibility for the design of a new fighter plane, the usability engineer is like the test pilot.”

Let’s look at another analogy that describes the relationship between usability engineering and UX design. If a UX designer is like a chief aeronautical engineer who has overall responsibility for the design of a new fighter plane, the usability engineer is like the test pilot.

The implication here is that, although there is considerable overlap between the knowledge of UX designers and usability engineers, their skill sets are actually quite different! This is why there are many UX designers who would freely admit that they are not fully qualified to undertake usability studies. Likewise, there are many excellent usability engineers who would not dream of undertaking responsibility for UX design.

Rather, the essential skill for a UX designer is the ability to communicate well with usability engineers, ensuring that the right interactions get tested and that they fully understand the findings of a study and its associated recommendations. Again, just as in the aircraft analogy, a UX designer and a usability engineer being able work in close cooperation and have mutual respect for one another’s specialist skills is essential to a successful design process. There is certainly no room here for a UX designer taking feedback from a usability engineer as some kind of personal criticism.

The best UX designers also have reasonable secondary research skills in usability engineering, so they can reuse tested design patterns that have already been proven to work in similar contexts and avoid those that have failed under usability testing.

We should also recognize that UX designers may also need to call on specialist information architects to help them with particularly challenging parts of a system’s information architecture. This may be because a specialist in information architecture can simply work more efficiently or because they have expertise in a particular domain or taxonomy. In my opinion, UX designers should not see this as an admission of weakness in their skillset, but rather as their leveraging a strength: the value that a UX designer adds in recognizing when someone else has greater expertise in a particular area and having the skills to integrate that resource into the overall interface design process.

The UX Designer’s Profile

“In … mentoring senior UX designers …, I often ask them to rank themselves on a scale of 1–10 in each of these areas, so they can define their UX profile.”

In this article, I have identified four key areas in which UX designers may possess skills: information architecture, interaction design, visual design, and usability engineering. These UX skills are, of course, in addition to the generic professional skills that any senior IT professional should have—for example, good communication and project-management skills.

In my work coaching and mentoring senior UX designers in major corporations, I often ask them to rank themselves on a scale of 1–10 in each of these areas, so they can define their UX profile. I explain that a 10 in usability engineering means, for example, that you have published 20 plus papers on usability studies in major international journals such as the Journal of usability Studies (JUS). A 10 in visual design would mean that you’ve led the visual design work on something as great as the iPad user interface. A 10 in information architecture might mean that you’ve led navigation schema design at eBay. A 10 in interaction design might mean that a wizard you’ve designed gets users through the entire UK online tax return process successfully more than 90% of the time! A 6 in any of these areas means that you are qualified to undertake these roles in a major commercial context.

Maybe you can take some time to define your UXD profile?!

Credits

Many thanks to Melisa Cooper for the original inspiration to write this article, to Dr. David Travis of Userfocus for his feedback on the initial drafts, and to Pabini Gabriel-Petit for her help editing this article.

11 Comments

Nice. I particularly liked the house metaphor that you use to describe the individual roles that sit within UXD.

I agree with the “overlaps and conflict” paragraph, and as a UXD, I would consider overlaps and conflicts to also occur in other areas such as business requirements, stakeholders, budget, deadlines, and all other people or processes involved in a project.

I often describe my role to colleagues as that of a mediator. I take inputs such as user profiles, brand guidelines, business goals, technology, and other variables and try to create a solution that balances all these requirements in an appropriate way. The end result often becomes a negotiation of all these factors.

Thank you very much for writing this post! I think your descriptions of the various disciplines are almost spot on. With my increasing professional maturity, I’ve been finding it increasingly annoying that people call themselves UX designers without having the slightest clue what that entails or the skill set to actually back it up. If our industry now only had a body to certify each of those skills, the professional body as a whole could become a lot more honest.

One little addition I would like to make to your characterisation of the Interaction design discipline is that an interaction designer has to establish a very strong picture of the underlying workflow first, before they can design the necessary affordances. Although you mention this in a sub-clause, I actually believe that creating this strong understanding is one of the key abilities a good interaction designer has to have. Therefore, good interaction designers also have to have a certain skill set around extracting such workflows. This touches a little bit on the skills of a business analyst, but is also about co-design, workshop facilitation, and interviewing techniques.

I do appreciate the effort and thought that you put in to this article. My own experience matches much of your analysis, but I believe there are some key pieces missing.

Information architecture is more than structure; it is about understanding and comprehension. That may sound like a fine distinction from what you have presented, but it takes the definition beyond the mechanical description you provided.

The same is true for IxD and Visual Design. IxD is concerned with operation, and visual design is concerned with perception.

I use understand, operate, and perceive because it allows the disciplines to find depth within their own fields and appreciate what the other disciplines do.

As for UX architecture, I believe the role of the UX architect is much like you described, but at a higher level within an enterprise. He or she focuses less on individual projects—an app, a Web site, a print ad campaign—and instead focuses on the broad experience across channels.

Oh, and a final note on usability. I do not believe it is an independent UX discipline. I believe that everyone in the design field should be able to deploy usability testing methods. I don’t believe that usability engineer is a valid role outside of the largest corporations where a team is required to run their own lab.

Hi Ritch,

I appreciate your effort to define UX design. Many have fought that battle unsuccessfully.

While you bring up some interesting thoughts, I’m afraid this article has to be counted among those that fall short—although at a high level, you are correct that experience design is an overarching practice. Unfortunately, there are at least five primary and significant problems within:

  1. The complete lack of covering the need for informative user research and generative design—and all that it includes)
  2. The reduction of interaction design to proper widget placement—partially touched on in two of the previous comments.
  3. The reduction of visual design to a primarily aesthetic function.
  4. The equating of usability testing to being the test pilot.
  5. The measurement scale used to judge UX design contributor’s abilities.

Each of these issues is worth a solid discussion that I might come back and give my view of. For now, though, I have to leave this with a warning that other readers should be aware that there are major disagreements with this article in the greater UX community.

Hi Designoutloud

I’m afraid I don’t recognize that you—as you seem to imply—speak for the entire UX design community and are unilaterally the determiner of failure in the body of literature for UX design. It also seems that there are at least three UX designers for whom you do not speak!

I think you also need to recognize that a Web magazine article cannot always be as comprehensive as some might desire and that experienced authors, such as myself, need to balance readability issues with comprehensiveness and detail levels.

In response to your specific points:

  1. A UX architect conceives the whole experience of the home owner. This means having overall responsibility for the design, leading and briefing all of the people in specialist roles, and representing the home owner—not the builders—throughout the design process.
  2. This is covered ” I admit at a highly abstracted level” within my text: A UX architect conceives the whole experience of the home owner. This means having overall responsibility for the design, leading and briefing all of the people in specialist roles, and representing the home owner—not the builders—throughout the design process.
  3. I think you will find I did not define interaction design as widget placement.
  4. See point 2 above.
  5. You’d need to explain specifically why this is a problem - interesting since make an overcharching criticism of the article that it lacks depth!
  6. See point 4.
  7. I look forward to your publishing your own in-depth article, which, no doubt, will represent the opinion of all the UX design community. ;-)

Great article. I was encouraged by it.

Could Systems Engineer (Usability) be a useful term these days? At my company, Business Analysts are requirements gatherers and stakeholders for our clients and their systems, but they’re not supposed to wireframe and mock up new screens. The UI person is. By what title can you call the UI person who is in the room with the BAs, also interprets requirements from a usability perspective, is involved in creating the IA, and does the interaction and visual design?

“I do not believe it is an independent UX discipline. I believe that everyone in the design field should be able to deploy usability testing methods.”

The most helpful usability engineering I have encountered has come from user feedback. When they can’t find something or fail to see the affordance of some control, that’s where the fine-tuning of usability engineering comes in. That being said, I believe usability engineering can be both a practice and a role. If a team is taught usability principles, they can watch out for those issues and provide valuable insights. It’s a skillset that any Web developer could add. But a well-trained and experienced cognitive scientist who comes to an existing system and provides user-centered design both plays a role and applies a practice.

Ritch,

What’s the common name given to Web-based UI designers who work very closely with business analysts (BAs), interpret policies and functional requirements documents from a usability perspective, are in involved in the information-architecture discovery process, are the interaction designer, the visual designer, and oversee and apply changes as a usability engineer, based on user/help-desk feedback? (Feedback on UI elements and workflow changes, based on users being unable to find things, too many callers needing help doing something, and so on.) Does the word Analyst come into play in our field, since analysis is a key part of a UCD role? What would be the best title for such a position: Systems Engineer, UX Architect, Usability Engineer, Usability Analyst?

A great article. Thanks for taking the time to lay out some of these concepts. I think it’s a great start, and the previous discussions show that there is still room for interpretation. To add a little to that debate, I would consider information architecture to include more than just data—the information ecosystem includes data at the most granular level, through to information (meaningful data) and knowledge (instructive) and potentially even more… Of course, you may be using data as a synonym for these, but it’s not immediately clear from the descriptions.

Either way—it’s good to get this down for others (and me).

I learned a lot from this article, and I agree with some of designoutloud’s points. I do get the sense that you’re describing the division of labor under IA/UX—appropriate for institutions, but maybe not so for an agency. Personally, I think a talented visual designer (aka artist) ought to work closely with the person directing the project.

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