Are We Taking the “U” Out of UX?

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What is a UX designer?

I recently saw a great ad for a senior UX specialist from MathWorks. Some excerpts:

  • Work with the development team to follow a user-centered design approach as you work collaboratively to brainstorm and design innovative solutions to complex problems.
  • Make recommendations to team members about which usability methods to use to answer their questions about users and design directions based on projects’ needs, goals, and constraints.
  • Work closely with team members to conduct user research, identify pain points, develop user profiles, and create task lists.
  • Collaborate on paper and functional prototypes.
  • Run usability tests, conduct interviews and site visits, organize surveys, and perform other usability assessments you think are appropriate.

It outlines exactly what I would expect in a UX job. We learn everything we can about a project from stakeholders and competitive products, find ways to research what users want and need, evaluate those needs with stakeholders, modify the project plan, and create solutions which are validated with users before finalizing the product.

But when I was looking for a new gig, that was the exception. Many of the job descriptions I saw asked for a wide array of UX skills, with some even asking for more than listed above. But it seemed that they really wanted a visual designer who could prototype.

From a senior UI/UX designer ad:

  • Experience with testing and usability labs and rapid prototyping experience
  • Ability to create clear and engaging visualizations
  • Deep knowledge in understanding what engages and motivates users

Sounds like they are looking for someone well versed in research, usability testing, and prototyping. But the more urgent need is reflected in the request for “perfection” below:

  • Project work demonstrating strong UX process and perfect detail for visual and interaction design principles (IA, IxD, typography, layout, hierarchy, color, composition)

Do you think they’ll hire someone who can conduct user research, wireframe, and test? Or someone with a stunning visual portfolio?

Perhaps that reflects the ‘UI’ part of this want-it-all job description. Let’s look at a pure UX designer spot which asks for:

  • Excellent analytical skills
  • Extensive experience in practical user research, information architecture, interaction design, and user-centered design process, as well as user experience principles and techniques

Sounds great! But its true colors are shown in the next requirement:

  • Translate ideas/concepts into premium visual designs

User experience is a huge buzzword these days. Although seemingly self-explanatory, some companies aren’t getting the point—they’re still overlooking behavioral experience in lieu of look and feel. Many of the ads I saw reserved their most specific and vivid language for the visual design end of things. It left me scratching my head and wondering if only the most sophisticated—and largest—companies truly wanted UX and had the budget to support it. Are other companies just paying lip service to the current buzz by hiring visual designers and labelling them ‘UX’?

A drift away from research?

User researcher Alan recently left an Atlanta-based company with a large UX staff. In his first two years there, he had participated in many different types of user research around the country. However, in his last year, he found his research marginalized.

“My new boss didn’t care about doing research. It seemed the company as a whole was giving it less importance. Instead, they would run design thinking workshops and go straight into development. Any research or usability testing was left to the end, to rubber-stamp the solution.”

This is especially jarring as the company is known for taking UX seriously.

Buzzwords—such as UX—can suddenly zoom into prominence, and I can’t think of any in the industry bigger than ‘design thinking.’ According to Google Trends, web searches for design thinking have quadrupled in the past five years.

Chart showing increase in design thinking searches from December 2012-June 2017.
Searches for ‘design thinking’, December 2012-June 2017 (Source: Google Trends)


The first step of the design thinking process is empathize, where you engage and observe users to learn how they talk about work while watching them to learn how they truly approach tasks. In other words, it is user research. And who does research? UX folks! It’s not difficult to imagine IT project leaders and stakeholders bypassing this step and moving straight to steps 2 and 3, where they define the problem and brainstorm solutions. That’s their comfort zone.

In “Five mistakes of beginning design thinkers,” Dana Mitroff Silvers, a design thinking facilitator and digital strategist, writes, “I’m frequently asked by clients to skip this phase and jump straight into problem-solving.”

She also describes an experience I’ve had many times, where companies block access to users—and a research phase. Many times, Silvers’ clients ask if they can skip this phase because they “already know what their audiences need and can speak for them.”

This makes sense to me. Teams bypass the unfamiliar empathize phase and jump straight into defining a problem and its solutions. This is how development has worked in the past, and, without training and coaching in empathy or a full understanding of its benefits, it’s easy to skip empathy. I checked this out on my next interview, with a company that told me they needed a hybrid UX/visual designer. I asked them if they were using design thinking, and the director of product answered, “yes.” Did they skip the empathy step? They sure did.

If a company just follows the last four stages of design thinking—design, ideate, prototype, and test—what does a UX designer look like? I think it’s a visual designer who can prototype.

Segregating research and design

UX architect Alyssa recently had a user research contract with a large telecom firm. She found it disappointing that the designers seemed to have no accountability to follow the research findings. Instead, researchers performed a new usability test every week or two and threw them over the transom to the designers, with no sense of whether designers would follow the recommendations

That doesn’t seem right.

I’ve noticed more and more companies splitting their UX practice between researchers and designers. Problem is, “UX designers” are usually expected to handle not only interaction design, but visual design as well. Although the advent of easy-to-use tools makes it easy to create clickable prototypes, these are two different skill sets. I’d expect interaction designers to analyze behavior and workflow and act as user advocates; visual designers promote the brand.

The split of the design teams into researchers and designers might be hampering effective software development. To truly understand the user, designers need to develop empathy. They, and other team members, can gain this by conducting user research or usability studies—or just by being present during research efforts. This locks in the user’s successes and difficulties and gives the designer a sense of what is truly important, which will pay off in more targeted designs. Besides benefits to the designers, regular user research keeps a company informed of user expectations and behavior. If these benefits were widely understood, wouldn’t companies pay more than lip service to empathy and user research?

Prototype and test falls short

Alan Cooper, creator of Visual Basic and UX-guru author of “The Inmates are Running the Asylum,” decried the “Proto&Test” mindset in a Twitter thread “Prototyping and testing is not interaction design.” Cooper writes that Proto&Test makes management happy because it never rocks the boat. Although it creates small improvements, keeping the designers and their bosses hopeful and happy, it never truly supports the user—or the product—by going for the big change.

We’re still misunderstood

We’ve seen that under the banner of design thinking, companies may be skipping the empathy stage and returning to a comfortable, self-contained design process. Design thinking does bring in a valuable prototyping/testing phase, but cutting corners on user research turns back the clock and misses a chance for specific insights and innovation that can put a product over the top. And failing to conduct at least intermittent research just prolongs the mindset that we “know what our users want.”

Segregating research and design, although emphasizing visual design skills, may cause companies to pass on those cognitive-oriented designers that created “UX” in the first place. Visual design provides an important initial impression, and a number of studies have shown that people rate attractive sites higher on usability at first glance. But visuals are only one part of the UX equation. How will a user who regularly uses your product truly form her opinion? Visuals will play a part, but I think it is more likely to depend on a great workflow—the process users need to follow over and over.

So what do we need?

I’m not certain what’s wrong, but I suspect we haven’t made our case sufficiently. We all implicitly understand the value of a true UX process, but does the Director of Development or Marketing?

We may be victims of our own success. We’ve improved the state of UX drastically—examples of great design can be found on any smartphone. Improved development tools take advantage of interaction patterns that we’ve pioneered, and toolkits make digital artifacts that look great. Perhaps development leaders feel that they’ve seen enough good design that they believe they can just do it. When hit with another tight schedule, why go through a research phase for deliverables—and benefits—that can’t easily be quantified?

I wrote an article for my last company on the benefits of user research. It was hard to find case studies that offered explicit value that everyone could understand. In most of my own projects, user research underscored reasons to change the direction of a project, find the optimal task flow, and place the right information in the proper hierarchy on a screen, but I lacked a solid ROI case.

I think we need to make an effort to create studies showing the value of research that immediately resonate with stakeholders. Perhaps we need to create and publicize a regularly updated library of case studies that clearly demonstrates ROI. This would be a great project for UXPA, CHI, or IXDA, and I’d be happy to help.

I fear that if we don’t, we all may need to be visual designers who can prototype.


  1. Nice post. “Visuals will play a part, but I think it is more likely to depend on a great workflow” – have to agree! On first notice, visuals are most important as it is your first impression but a great user experience is what makes you stick with a product.

  2. It could be the the future of the field will indeed need to integrate user research skills and visual design skills into the same professional. I used to be a career counselor – a very pure example of a field where user research and empathy skills need to exist in the same human. Most people in the field of counseling were not a good fit for the speciality, but for those who also had a research & information gathering bent, it was ideal. Rather than fight the trend, it might be time to round out our skill set to match what employers want.

  3. Yup. All they mostly want is a great web designer. The trouble I see is: they DO understand what UX is, they just don’t want it because it argues with their opinion. Classic HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion). And visual design is NOT as important now. It’s all mobile and hyper clean- let the content be the design, etc. no design at all is what some apps are going with. But UX still wins in the end so don’t waste time with companies that don’t get it. Any successes they have will be short-lived. I am at a bad job but trying to hang on long enough to help change their ways. That’s actually the #1 skill a UX person needs I think: evangelism.

    1. Can’t disagree about evangelism. But most of the jobs we see here in Atlanta specifically call out visual design, even though your point about content is true for many apps. My point, similar to Alan Cooper’s, is that instituting a prototype and test phase allows companies to claim that they are ‘doing’ UX, when they are instituting only part of it.

  4. This is something I’ve been saying for the longest. As a job seeker trying to find a job in the profession, I’m mostly rejected because companies are looking visual talent. During interviews, I’ll display my knowledge to my would be employers. However their response is “I appreciate your holistic understanding of UX, do you have a portfolio to look at?”. Clearly visuals are what they look for the most and bypass your knowledge. I think it’s a insult honestly. I follow a Four D process during development and UI falls under that umbrella like you already said. It’s hard to convince companies that doing your research is important, because we already do it when we’re looking at things to buy as consumers. That’s like going into a restaurant because the food looks great, but it taste horrible. You’re going to write a review for how bad the food taste and false advertising… remember looks can be deceiving. I can go on and on but these are my frustrations being a designer and looking for a job. It’s not that I’m inexperienced, it’s just because there is no clear definition of UX so companies don’t know what it truly means.

    1. Your frustration is my own. I recently redid my portfolio to give it improved visuals. However, I’ve seen some portfolios without great visuals that showed off the process (not all of us are recent students who have saved all our artifacts). While it may not work in many cases, having a portfolio that shows off your process at least puts you on somewhat of an equal plane. Some places get it, although it seems that most small companies are looking for that all-in-one person and visuals are most urgent as well as the easiest thing to evaluate.

  5. You can thank UX boot camps for pumping out visual designers that did not have to go through traditional education channels coupled with their young age (ageism yay!) and hunger to prove theirselves for little pay, peddling the latest and greatest design trends in their neatly curated portfolio they spent 10 weeks and $10k+ in some hipster gentrified inner-city near you.

    PMs/POs don’t have the power to delay tight release deadlines so they do some cursory market research into competitor offerings and make the scope encompass the bare minimum to check off the MVP checkboxes so they can deliver on time and get their bonus and go home.

    Survival of the fittest (and youngest), if you want to survive in the next 5 years better start learning how to prototype and follow design trends… until design systems and ai trained algorithms make developers and thus designers irrelevant so that Product management can just tell the black box system its parameters for a product and the algorithm will spit out every superior permutation of a design that you humanly could have never even thought of, let alone explored in an 8 hour day (ai works overtime 24/7 while you sleep).

    Yes the future looks bleak, I’m not even 30 yet. At least you UX veterans got to save up a bit and not be crushed by student loan debt and not able to afford houses like us millennial UXers. Thoughts? sorry it’s late and my patience is thin when it comes to this topic and the lack of respect for my HCI background I struggled to earn and sacrificed many years to obtain.

    1. Great post, Mark! As a designer who used to work at Mathworks, I can tell you that research there is the top UX skill. Usability Specialist is what they used to call us, back when “UX” was a frowned on term, perhaps seen as “too visual”. Design had a long way towards gaining acceptance in those days.

      Samantha, are you looking for work by any chance? Located in the Boston area, mayhap? I’m trying to connect with other UXers who have IA and IxD chops, with visuals being “nice to have” skills – but not the focus.

    2. The future is not bleak! This is just evolution – the future of UX has never been brighter. Don’t give up – and remember that us veterans spent many years being underpaid and undervalued too!

  6. I’m so glad to see that I’m not imagining things: I was once a print visual designer and I went into user experience design because I was more concerned with the research, strategy and rationale of some of the work I was doing. I have been a UX practitioner for 9 yrs now and it recently took me nearly a year to get a new job–I discovered the visual interface design “gotcha” was the problem. I’m in the Charlotte area and I am seeing the same thing: Companies really want a VISUAL designer and don’t understand that UX is NOT UI. To combat this, I have begun to educate every single recruiter that reaches out to me. I make sure they understand the differences and THEN I ask again, “are you sure that I am the candidate your company is looking for”?

  7. Nice post! Thanks for sharing the useful information about the UX designers. this post is too helpful for the beginners designers.

  8. This is a combination of lack of understanding of the process and value of good UX (and design thinking) and plain old cheapness or cost control to be less pejorative). Why pay for two professionals when we can shoehorn these tasks into one role? I think you are right that we need to make the case better, and stop accepting jobs that don’t match our skills and experience.

    I don’t expect many of the “unicorn” posters found the person they were looking for – probably had to compromise on one or the other skill set…

  9. As I’ve searched for work in West Michigan, I’ve experienced similar confusion. “Visual designers who prototype” seems to be what organizations want. One side benefit of frequently perusing job listings is determining fairly quickly the rare org that understands and values UX.
    I’ve taken to marketing myself as a UX Researcher, although that doesn’t necessarily solve it. It does keep me from being pigeon-holed in visual design roles that I have neither the aptitude nor desire for.

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