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Of UX, UI, User Experience, UX Research, Design, Design Thinking & everything in-between

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

Manoj Kothari, June 2, 2022


Preparing for the future - Image used for the illustration of the theme only


UX or User Experience is what Design Thinking was to the business world 5 years back. What Design Thinking did to management consultants and MBA colleges, UX is doing to designers and the design colleges. While UX is not rocket science and that is where also the problem lies. It gets complicated when spoken in one breath 'UX/UI'. Over the past few. years we must have interviewed hundreds with the title 'UX/UI designer'. These have been people with degrees in diverse streams of design, diverse streams of engineering, liberal arts, and management as well. We also came across people from myriad streams, who picked up a fancy to the world of 'UI/UX', undertook a course on Google/Coursera etc., and pitched themselves bravely in the ongoing saga of the digital boom, where it is a sellers' market literally. The good news is that everything is selling as long as 'design' is a suffix used. This exactly was the case in the software industry, which started with hiring computer engineering grads in the beginning and then ended up hiring any 'engineer' who knew a bit of coding.

I do end up getting calls from acquaintances whose wards are now studying design currently and would like to discuss their career prospects. Often the discussion involves questions from their side - "And what about UX/UI? What is the scope?" 'UX/UI' has now become a catchphrase to its disadvantage. In my view, UX is inclusive of UI. In the purest sense, every industrial designer/product designer is a UX designer. Why connect UX only to the digital world? However, it has come to be recognized as the 'digital only' professional stream. As India presses ahead to the top of the IT services pyramid and the pandemic makes the digital transformation a defacto corporate strategy, 'UX' is a hot currency in the design practice.

The world is currently reeling under 'great resignation' and the UX design profession, being a part of the IT industry, is also in the thick of it. With some 'never before' salary raises (courtesy of VC money in the funded startups, which has started dwindling now), there has been a lot of shuffling in the UX fraternity. This upswing has pumped up the muddle of confusion between Design/UI/UX/UX-design/UX-research for people outside the domain furthermore. Here is a quick primer below.

Decoding the blur of UX/UI/research/design

Design - a verb and a noun, has been one classic discussion in design pedagogy. Design is about making 'beautiful things' and that is possible only through a 'beautiful process'. Design Thinking was born out of this positive tension in a world dominated by technology. The world has now recognized and largely adopted Design Thinking, the process of creative problem solving/opportunity mapping, as one of the key anchors of business growth in disruptive times. While the digital revolution is forcing a UX tsunami of sorts, the food we eat can't grow in the digital world nor can we get treated for a disease only digitally. The physical paradigm is a persisting reality. So the conventional streams of design - product design, fashion design, communication design, interior design etc. have their place and with changing consumer base+needs, these streams see an increasing relevance.

UX design as a phrase ideally includes 1) UX research+ 2) UX information architecture/flow + 3) UI Design + 4)UX writing (not including the coding in this context). A good UX professional should be able to go the entire stretch. However, popularly only the stage 2 (information architecture/flow design) is referred as UX design. UX or User Experience Design requires a person to study/understand the business requirements and prepare an early prototype of the solution (ideally I would like to include the physical products/brick & mortar businesses also, but let's stick to digital realm for now).

UX Research was never a thing till late. I remember, long back a fellow design company founder was pleasantly surprised when he heard that we were getting paid for 'website strategy' (they used to offer strategy/advice free and charge only for the design). The traditional name for UX research is 'Design Research' and this is a different animal than market research. Design Research dealt with a mix of people-centric qualitative methods drawn from anthropology, sociology, cognitive sciences, and of course market research practices. UX research or user-research builds on that set with a special focus on digital businesses. UX research can be for a 'foundational context' e.g. "Can there be a digital solution to connect parents with schools and how would it make a viable business? How would the interactions happen?" And UX research could also be for a highly tactical concern, e.g. "What difficulties do the users face while using a specific app? Or which one of the two screen layouts work better for the users?" Lately, 'user-retention-research' is gaining ground as many digital startups struggle with the question of retaining their customers on their platforms. With the pandemic, user research has largely turned into a 'remote-user-research' across the world. The researcher and the participant both sit in the comfort of their home/office and respond to questions via mobile phones. At Turian Labs, we run a whole orchestra of not just the user and the researcher but also a note-taker, simultaneous translator, client, and at times few other stakeholders connecting remotely from different locations to conduct/watch research interviews in progress.

Information architecture/flow design, also know as 'wire-framing' is a key step involved in this process, building on the inputs from UX research, which essentially means drawing out the screen flow for a task to be completed online/on-mobile. Of course, this wire-framing can be done on paper also. And this connects to the important tenet of Design Thinking - 'rapid-prototyping'. Design Thinking mandates that for discovering a great solution, one must build multiple 'quick and dirty' prototypes and test them with the users to enrich the solution iteratively. Wireframes, play that role in UX design. They are meant to be iteratively tested with the users/stakeholders to enrich them before they are cast into a beautiful UI. Knowing the digital tools to design wireframes (Adobe XD or Figma) is helpful in this case.

UI Design essentially deals with putting a visual layer on top of the information architecture provided by the wireframes. UI design can be equated to interior design while UX design deals with the architecture of a place. Both have their own place. Ideally, a UX designer should be able to go the whole stretch but such creatures are a rarity now. UI design, represents the popular view around the word 'design' which people think, is about 'surface beautification'. Aesthetics play an important role in design, business, and in nature in directing the attention to where it is needed. Now there is AI-driven software that can analyze the visual efficacy of a specific icon or a button in any digital layout, just as eye-tracking gadgets can study the efficacy of wireframes in UX design. That is where neuroscience, design, and business work hand-in-hand to develop useful solutions. Turian Labs works on many such mandates globally.

Now there are newer specializations coming up in the UX world like 'UX writer'- the person who can write the text that will appear on the app or who can write the user manual for the app. This requires an amalgamation of skills needed in UX research, UX design, and content writing. And this is now a highly sought-after skill too.

Career possibilities

With this primer, a question often arises that if a person is not trained at a design school, can he/she become a UX designer/UI designer/UX researcher or not? Or is there an advantage if someone has an IT/coding background, for becoming a UX professional?

While it is often argued that four years of design education is a must for becoming a good UX professional, my assessment is to the contrary. One can become a good UX professional with a few months of diligent training. To be a good UI designer, of course, the prerequisite would be training in applied arts or visual design. But for other streams like UX research/UX information flow design/UX writing, one can safely swim through this ocean with some training, irrespective of the previous education/background. Let's not forget we are in an age where children are learning coding and using digital devices early on. Learning to map and create logical flows of activity/information is a skill that can be learned easily. No wonder there have been numerous attempts in bringing non-design folks to the UX design fold but if one listens to the note from the market, there is a stark dearth of good UX professionals (water-water everywhere and not a drop to drink is an apt adage here).

Critical skills & challenges

One of the key challenges for the new entrant to this field is in learning the soft skill of 'empathy' and prioritizing the user needs or for that matter, sifting through the infinite pages of internet information and figuring out early hypotheses for a solution. This is a crucial part of UX research that requires some higher-order thinking.

The next big challenge is 'connecting the dots. This is a critical skill and freshers need to assiduously build on it to become a good UX professional. Most of the current streams of graduation only focus on analytical skills. But especially in UX research and in Design Thinking, one needs an ability to make non-linear connections in the organic data. One needs to deep dive into the origin and motivations of user actions to synthesize a new possibility.

Design and UX are going to help us shape the future behemoth of technology for humanity. It needs the best minds. It requires the best training. Looking at the shortage of solid professionals in this space, there is an urgent need for high-intensity short-term courses to prepare high-quality industry-ready professionals. The training mandates must go beyond just labels, jargon generation, and cliched video-based assignments. Hope it happens soon!

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