UX Design Practice Verticals

Finding Our Way

Navigating the practice of Information Architecture

A column by Nathaniel Davis
August 4, 2014

Have you ever wondered how you’ll ever wrap your head around what seems to be a never-ending list of UX design skills? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. All information architects and UX designers question this once or twice in their career.

In this column, I’ll describe a powerful model that I’ve developed as part of my research for the DSIA Research Initiative: the UX Design Practice Verticals. This has been a useful model for me and thousands of other UX professionals because it offers a snapshot of the activities that are necessary to architect and design human-computer interactions (HCI). Since their creation in 2011, the UX Design Practice Verticals have rendered many valuable insights—I’ll summarize a few of them here—and provided an indispensable reference guide. In this review of the UX Design Practice Verticals, I’ll do the following:

  • discuss the origin of the UX Design Practice Verticals
  • provide definitions for the eight practice verticals
  • list some important facts about the practice verticals
  • suggest how you can begin plotting your path to UX design competency

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Origin of the UX Design Practice Verticals

The UX Design Practice Verticals grew out of the industry’s short history as a maturing practice over the last quarter of a century or so. By the mid-’90s, UX design had become a significant HCI practice and was beginning to reveal its boundaries as well. These boundaries were both broad and deep, and the knowledge of diverse fields and subfields contributed to this practice. In 2000, Jesse James Garrett captured the breadth of UX design with his now-famous illustration, “Elements of User Experience,” shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience”
Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience”

Copyright 2000 Jesse James Garrett

According to Garrett, the subject matter of each horizontal plane defines the foundational components that let us understand a problem space and craft an intentional user experience design solution for it. In other words, this is not the entire list of subjects, but includes the fundamental subjects whose branches comprehend many other areas of interest. For example, the User Needs element might trigger conversations regarding accessibility, usability studies, ethnographic research, contextual inquiries, and other methods of gathering qualitative and quantitative insights about the human experience and computer interactions.

In 2004, amid the continuing debate about information architecture’s dominion over the elements in Garrett’s UX-centered diagram, Peter Boersma brought additional clarity to the conversation with a perspective that resonated with a large audience. In his 2004 blog post, “T-Model: Big IA Is Now UX,” Boersma expressed how, as a practice, UX design leverages only a part of each of its related fields, as Figure 2 shows. Then, in 2006, in in a paper titled, “User Experience: The Next Step for IA’s?” it appeared that Boersma was reducing Garrett’s ten UX design elements to nine. He used a vertical metaphor to illustrate what I’ll call the Boersma assertion, summarizing it as follows:

  • UX design leverages methods from several pre-existing fields.
  • UX design consists primarily of the shallow methods of each field.
Figure 2—UX design overlaps other fields
UX design overlaps other fields

Copyright 2006 Peter Boersma

Figure 3 is a more abstract version of Boersma’s illustration, in which the gray area (A) in each column represents the overlapping interests of UX design across what Boersma refers to as the shallow methods of any given field. The gray area located outside each vertical (B) represents new HCI architecture and design methods that originated in the practice of UX design.

Originally, the conceptual motivation of Boersma’s diagram was to show a delineation between the core activities of information architecture and those of UX design, which evolved into distinguishing UX design from other fields as well. However, Boersma’s T-model diagram offers, at best, only an abstract delineation of where UX design methods overlap with other fields. Because his T-model diagram does not explore each vertical intersection more explicitly, in the manner that Figure 4 suggests, it leaves the identity of the overlapping methods of UX design and each respective field in question. Likely, this is a question for which many UX professionals are seeking an answer—and this is where the UX Design Practice Verticals come in handy.

Figure 3—An abstract representation of UX design’s intersections with other fields
An abstract representation of UX design’s intersections with other fields
Figure 4—A granular view of potential UX design overlaps
A granular view of potential UX design overlaps

While other models exist that illustrate the range of UX design, there are few, if any, that originated as a result of scientific inquiry—as the DSIA UX Design Practice Verticals have. The benefit of a scientific inquiry is that its result will either produce more evidence, a proof, or more questions, or falsify some prior assertion such as a belief or theory or knowledge such as an established empirical observation or practice.

Until 2011, the Boersma assertion was only a loosely supported belief that many had adopted, and Figure 2 shows its most highly developed representation. However, in 2011, I investigated the informational integrity of Boersma’s assertion by exposing greater granularity in each vertical to reveal the explicit intersections across the shallow areas that Boersma predicted. This was the first effort to corroborate Boersma’s original idea.

While my assessment resulted in a recategorization of the fields that Boersma had delineated and reduced the number of fields to eight, it also proved that it was possible to model Boersma’s assertion. The UX Design Practice Verticals distinguish A—the shallow overlapping methods of other fields—from B—the unique UX design activities.

Now that you have a historical overview, I’ll explain the practice verticals.

Definitions of the Eight UX Design Practice Verticals

The UX Design Practice Verticals provide clear guidance that will help you to wrap your head around the practice of UX design for human-computer interaction and the skills that this field requires. As the diagram in Figure 5 shows, the UX Design Practice Verticals model comprises eight vertical columns: the practice verticals, each representing patterns of practice, or areas of interest, that are vital to the UX design process.

Figure 5—UX Design Practice Verticals
UX Design Practice Verticals

Copyright 2011 Nathaniel Davis  |  DSIARI

Download the PDF version of the DSIA UX Design Practice Verticals diagram.

Each practice vertical has a subject heading, or name. Table 1 provides a definition for each of these subject headings, which are part of the DSIA controlled vocabulary. (Note—I created these definitions to reconcile the respective concepts to the practice of user experience design. I make no claims regarding their acceptance beyond the DSIA Research Initiative.)

Table 1—DSIA Research Initiative definitions of the UX Design Practice Verticals
Practice Vertical Definition

Business Context Analysis

A practice whose goal is understanding the primary domain of activities and is informed by the constraints, influencers, and the scope of the intended human-computer interaction

Usability Engineering

A field of research that studies how human behavior and situational context impact the design of effective human-computer interactions

User Experience Planning

A practice that creates a strategy and plan to enable meaningful human-computer interactions and optimal engagement across digital-media channels

Content Publishing

A practice that creates and distributes consumable communications

Information Architecture

A practice that organizes and relates information in a way that simplifies the way people navigate and use content in Web environments

Interaction Design

A practice that develops the sensory-afforded structures and behaviors of an interactive object

Visual Design

A practice whose goal is to achieve functional, pleasurable, and meaningful visual aesthetics in support of interactive objects’ effective communication

Computer Science

A scientific and practical approach to computation and its applications

Copyright 2011 Nathaniel Davis  |  DSIARI

See also the 54-term glossary for the UX Design Practice Verticals.

Some Facts About the UX Design Practice Verticals

Here are some facts that will help you to better understand the UX Design Practice Verticals and some distinctions between them.

  • Each practice vertical has six areas of interest that offer unique and vital contributions to the UX design approach to HCI.
  • The first area of interest for each practice vertical, in Row 1, is the most concrete area of interest—that is, the one with the most tangible of the deliverables in that practice vertical. The work in this area of interest is usually the easiest to perform, but is difficult to do well without reflecting its constituent, vertical interests.
  • The last area of interest for each practice vertical, in Row 6, is typically the most abstract area of interest—that is, the least tangible area of interest within a practice vertical, but is by no means the least important to a vertical’s sustainability.
  • Each area of interest may 1) trigger activities, 2) require the use of various methods, and 3) possess additional sub-areas of interest. The UX Design Practice Verticals diagram represents only the root areas of interest of UX design. If the modeling of the practice verticals is sound, all other possible areas of interest should find their place as sub-areas of interest.
  • The User Experience Planning vertical, in Column C, is native to the practice of UX design. Boersma did not consider a vertical specifically for UX design. The IA modeling that I performed on the areas of interest naturally revealed this vertical.
  • The first three areas of interest—in Rows 1, 2, and 3—represent the most tactical activities of each vertical.
  • The last three rows—Rows 4, 5, and 6—represent the most strategic activities of each vertical.
  • Individual projects typically do not explore every area of interest. Many factors might prevent or delay the adequate consideration of any particular area of interest. When this happens, view it as a gap.
  • In the wise words of Jesse James Garrett, “This model does not describe a development process, nor does it define roles within a user experience development team.”

Plotting Your Path to UX Design Competency

The good news? The list of skills for UX designers does have an end. The bad news? The list is still a little intimidating. There are more than 27 core areas of interest.

Your baseline skillset as a UX designer encompasses the gray area of the diagram—the shallow methods of each field that overlap UX design practice—plus, the entire User Experience Planning vertical in Column C. Oh, here’s some additional good news: No one, not even a so-called UX unicorn, would find it feasible to be fluent, at a senior-level proficiency, in the entire range of interests that make up UX design practice.

The best way to gain a realistic set of marketable UX competencies is to start by identifying your core practice vertical—the one in which you would like to build the greatest subject-matter expertise. While vertical expertise is useful on large-scale projects that require a particular specialization, it’s not so useful on smaller projects or in small organizations. However, being both broad and deep in your skills is a highly marketable combination and a classic signature of the T-shaped UX professional.

Next, ensure that you acquire high proficiency, from the top down, in each area of interest of your core vertical. Also, seek proficiency in the first two rows in each of your non-core verticals. Then, continue working your way down or across—either as necessary for your job or as your interests dictate.

If you’re inclined to select User Experience Planning as your core vertical, you should be aware that you can do this job successfully only once you have acquired broad skills and senior-level proficiency in one or more practice verticals. It takes many years to accomplish this. User Experience Planning is accountable for UX strategy and UX design process. It embodies leadership and mastery of collaboration and requires balancing business objectives, the needs of people, and the use of technology in the architecture of human-computer experiences.

Finally, when practicing UX design, it’s useful to be able to code your designs of complex interactions—though not necessary to fully engineer them. So, don’t be intimidated by Front-end Code (H1) and Database Design (H2). However, these are acceptable gaps in your skillset. You can close these gaps by becoming familiar with rapid prototyping software like Axure, UXPin, Balsamiq Mockups, or Flinto.

In Closing

Once aspiring UX professionals realize the expansive nature of UX design, they sometimes find themselves in a state of paralysis. Your need to define conceptual boundaries for UX design practice and to determine your approach to maturing professionally while remaining productive can momentarily stall your career aspirations. But you can use the UX Design Practice Verticals that I’ve described in this column to help you to project your path to a successful career in UX design.

In this column, I’ve described the modest scientific origins and attributes of the UX Design Practice Verticals and demonstrated how to use them as your reference guide in understanding the boundaries of UX design practice. I’ve also identified the intersections between UX design and eight other disciplines, and suggested how you can use the UX Design Practice Verticals diagram to plot your path to building valuable competencies.

Use the UX Design Practice Verticals model in the field to validate your career path. Give it a go! Whether you find success or encounter difficulty in using the UX Design Practice Verticals, please share your insights in the comments section. 

Founder at Methodbrain

Franklin Park, New Jersey, USA

Nathaniel DavisNathaniel has over 25 years of experience in human-computer interaction and is a leading advocate for the advancement of information architecture as an area of research and practice. He began practicing information architecture in the late ’90s, then focused on information architecture as his primary area of interest in 2006. He has made a study of information-architecture theory and how that theory translates into science, workable software, and methods that improve human interaction in complex information environments. Nathaniel was formerly director of information architecture at Prudential. His information-architecture consultancy Methodbrain specializes in UI structural engineering.  Read More

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