What does a UX designer do?
Thinking about a career in UX design? We chat with UX design experts to find out what a UX designer does and what the job is like day-to-day.
So you’re thinking about a change in career and you’ve come up with “what about UX design?” Perhaps you’ve got a good idea of what UX design entails, but you want to know more about the day-to-day job. Well, you’re in the right place!
In this guide, we’ll briefly cover what UX design actually is (there is one common misconception), then we bring in some UX design experts to go over what a day in the life of a UX designer typically looks like and how difficult it is to start and maintain a career in the field. Plus, we answer a few questions you might have.
So first, what is UX design?
UX (user experience) design is the process of making sure products and technology are both usable and enjoyable, as well as accessible.
It’s a common mistake to think UX designers are the folks who design the visual aspect of products (that would be UI designers, visual designers, or product designers). But a UX designer’s job is a bit more technical and needs to fulfill a particular set of functions within a business. So let’s get into what those functions look like.
A day in the life of a UX designer
UX design is a varied role, and you won’t be doing the same task day after day – good news if you don’t like monotony! However, there are some tasks or types of projects that come up more often than others. Let’s take a look at some of them below.
Typical tasks a UX designer does
UX designers do a lot of work! Day-to-day tasks often fall under the realm of the following categories:
- Conducting user research
- Designing user flows and wireframes (information architecture)
- Designing and testing prototypes
- Creating user personas
- Conducting user testing
- Reporting recommendations for improvements
Let’s get some more details about a few of these tasks.
Conducting user research
We spoke to several UX design experts, and it seems user research is by far the most common or frequent task of any UX designer. With 15+ years of UX experience, Zack Naylor, Co-founder/CEO of Aurelius, emphasizes the importance of interaction design and how insights come from user research:
“Generally speaking, UX designers spend a lot of time thinking through interactions with a product and features, creating visual representations for how they should work, and communicating with other teams on how that experience gets made. This comes in the form of user research, problem definition with stakeholders, visual and interaction design, as well as collaboration meetings with cross-functional teams.”
And Arthur Worsley, Founder of The Art of Living and former McKinsey Associate, reiterates how critical user research skills are:
“To succeed as a UX designer, you need to have impeccable user research skills. User research entails uncovering user problems and then designing a product/experience that solves these problems while meeting the user's needs. To be able to do all this effectively, you need to have a thorough understanding of the user and their expectations, which you can only gain through extensive user research.”
User research can involve several subtasks, including building design surveys or similarly carrying out preference tests, as well as going “into the field” to scope out projects and conduct interviews to figure out what the goals and challenges are for users of the product.
From the user research, UX designers can create user personas to help aid in the rest of a UX design project.
Designing user flows and wireframes
A user flow is basically a flowchart that helps visualize the path a user should take when using a product throughout their customer journey. A wireframe is a 2D image or diagram outline of an app screen or webpage.
These wireframes and user flows belong in the beginning phase when building a solution based on user research.
With an extensive background in UX design, John Millist, Co-founder of Twogether Digital, says:
“At a basic level, a UX designer should be taking any insights gained from research and begin to form ideas on how to solve user needs and issues raised. This will involve planning out user journeys and key tasks, then creating wireframes to begin ideating solutions.”
However, John also reiterates the importance of recommending improvements based on usability testing:
“Creating a solution is only the beginning though, good UXers will always see the process as iterations. So usability testing on the solution should be part of the process to enable a feedback loop to keep improving on what's been done.”
Conducting user testing
User testing is another frequent task for UX designers, and can involve lots of different tests that help to solve various solutions. Some of these tests include:
- First click tests
- Remote usability testing
- Focus groups (which you can also use for first-stage user research)
- Five-second tests
- Validation tests
- Qualitative attitudinal tests
- Quantitative behavioral tests
On user testing, Arthur Worsley also mentions how you should do this iteratively over time:
“You can also conduct validation tests on every prototype you develop to assess the usability of your designs. User research and usability testing should be done iteratively over an extensive period of time to ensure that the design output is well suited for the intended users.”
At this stage, it might seem intimidating or feel like a high-pressure environment where you have to get everything right. However, Dan Fowler, Lead Product Designer at Finder.com, says you shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes in UX design:
“Designing something is easy, but designing something right is hard. To design something right you need to get it wrong first. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, because it will more than likely lead to a better solution and a happier user. Good UX design is about trying something, testing, iterating, and trying again.”
Speaking of “designing something right is hard”, you might wonder if you have the right skills and mindset to be a successful UX designer. So let’s dive into what the experts have to say about what it takes to carve out your UX design career.
Is UX design hard?
As with many specialized areas of work, the idea of UX design being “hard” is subjective – some might find it easier than others. However, if we break it down into different areas, e.g. difficulty in getting started and gaining experience, and the skills required to do the job, then we can try painting a clearer picture.
To get started, there’s some good news – you don’t need a formal education to get a job in UX design. But it’s a “nice to have” if you have a degree in related fields such as psychology, statistics, human-computer interaction, or social science.
On this topic, John Millist mentions the lack of needing formal education:
“There is no real qualification and no senior UXer will bother to care about any of the bootcamps you see offered by various organizations. These don't teach you real-world UX where you have to deal with politics, business requirements, and defending UX ROI. What we do look for is a process and a mindset of improvement and investigation.”
On researching this (i.e. a general search for UX design roles on job boards in Australia, the UK, and the US), roughly half of entry-level UX design jobs found either required a degree or listed it as a “plus” or “nice to have”. Of those that required a degree, only a few of them listed any specific degree fields.
Skills you’ll need as a UX designer
So if you don’t need formal UX design qualifications, what do you need?
Pretty much all the job listings we looked at required an aptitude for research/analytical skills, knowledge of UX best practices, effective communication skills, demonstrable experience in the field, and/or a great portfolio.
Some of the UX experts we spoke to also echo these views, including Arek Nowakowski, a product designer at Spacelift:
“You need a few key skills to succeed as a UX designer. The first is strong analytical skills. As a UX designer, you'll need to be able to digest complex data and extract the most important information in order to identify user needs and design solutions accordingly. You'll also need strong visualization skills so that you can easily communicate your ideas and designs to others. Also, some solid problem-solving skills to tackle complex design challenges.”
You might also think that you need to be a great artist, given the “designer” title. However, Dan Fowler feels differently about this:
“There is a wide spectrum of skills that designers could possess, from user testing-focused designers who are skilled in research, analytics, and facilitation, to more visually-focused designers who are skilled in UI, graphic, or technical design. You aren’t expected to be an expert in everything and you don’t have to be artistically gifted. Most designers find themselves gravitating toward what they enjoy or are particularly good at.”
As you can see, UX designers need to be analytical and technical, but a large part of the job also involves having great soft skills, including empathy and natural curiosity. In the soft skills department, Zack Naylor sums it up well:
“Someone who is infinitely curious, wants to know how things work, and how they can get better is likely to succeed as a UX designer. I often find a lot of people naturally think that way and switch careers into UX as they want an outlet to flex those muscles and work within that passion.”
Getting UX design experience
If you’ve built up a career in another field, or you’re new to the job market entirely, it’s difficult to demonstrate the experience a lot of jobs ask for (even if they're entry-level). So what do you do?
It’s easy to recommend taking up a UX design internship (there are plenty of them around). However, these opportunities are often only open to current students or recent graduates, or can be low in pay when full-time – which isn’t ideal for everyone.
So another route you can try is getting some practical experience alongside your current position whenever you can. This method has two benefits – it’s less risky as you get to keep your current income stream, and you can experience some of the role as a taster to see if UX design is for you.
Zack Naylor also recommends this method:
“I really don't think it's hard to get experience doing UX. I've mentored folks in the past where I recommend they offer some simple usability help, research, and UX work for a non-profit you're passionate about. Use that experience to demonstrate how you think and the work you're capable of – then apply to entry-level roles.”
Do UX designers have to code?
For example, Galina Yatsuk, UI/UX designer at Orangesoft, says:
“Most UX designers are not required to code (at least not at an advanced level). However, it's still their advantage to develop an understanding and appreciation for what developers do. And if they can code? Even better. The more you upskill, the more thrilling adventure you get.”
Along similar lines, Dan Fowler also recommends a basic knowledge of HMTL and CSS to help communicate with developers:
“UX designers don’t have to code but knowing how to gives you the ability to confidently craft solutions that are technically possible to build, which saves you a lot of headaches down the track. You’ll also have an easier time communicating with developers. I always recommend at least a basic knowledge of HTML and CSS.”
Lastly, Zack Naylor insists that a UX designer shouldn’t be required to do both UX design and coding as they’re two different jobs that could end up harming performance in either area:
“Being a bit of a purist for UX, no I don't think UX designers need to code (nor should they in most cases). Unless it's a very small/new team at a startup or a very lean company, UX design is often a specialized skill set and team where front-end developers should definitely work hand-in-hand with them but not be required to do both. I started my career as a front-end developer and there's so much nuance to that work and UX respectively that I can't see anyone being the best they can be at both concurrently.”
To summarize, while it’s not a requirement to know how to code, it definitely helps to have some coding skills or knowledge to better communicate with developers and to know design limitations.
Getting started in UX design
As you can see, UX design is a diverse and exciting field to be a part of, and hopefully you have a better understanding of what a day in the life of a UX designer looks like.
If you’re looking for some practical tools to help you get started on a UX design project and research, you can sign up for a free UsabilityHub plan to get access to unlimited active tests.
Frequently asked questions about what a UX designer does
What does a UX designer do day to day?
Day-to-day, the tasks a UX designers does includes: conducting user research, designing user flows and wireframes, testing prototypes, creating user personas, conducting user research, and reporting recommendations for improvements.
Is UX design hard?
As with many specialized roles, the idea of UX design being “hard” is subjective – some might find it easier than others. However, to get started there’s some good news – you don’t need a formal education to get a job in UX design. Although it’s a “nice to have” if you have a degree in a related field such as psychology, statistics, human-computer interaction, or social science.
UX design requires a mix of hard and soft skills. Many UX design job listings require an aptitude for research/analytical skills, knowledge of UX best practices, effective communication skills, demonstrable experience in the field, and a great portfolio. The UX design experts we spoke with also recommend empathy and natural curiosity to succeed in the field.
Do UX designers have to code?
No, it’s not a requirement for UX designers to code. But it helps to have some coding skills or knowledge to be able to communicate with developers and to understand design limitations.
Alexander Boswell is a freelance writer specialising in B2B SaaS and eCommerce marketing with a particular interest in the world of data, as well as a business Ph.D. candidate. When he’s not writing, he’s nerding out playing D&D and Magic: The Gathering.