The Mythical UX Designer – Five Common Misconceptions
Exploring the truth about the type of people who do UX.
Ah, the UX designer. A mythical figure in high demand these days. Sought after for their skills in empathizing with customers, designing digital products that people love, and their peculiar love of collaboration. Their natural habitat is anywhere there are interfaces to problem solve for – in product-based companies like Adobe or Shopify, in-house at some of the largest institutions such as banks or government, and selling their services at agencies like the Nielsen Norman Group and Pivotal Labs.
But what’s the truth behind the rumors about this particular creature, and if you are considering becoming a UX designer, what are some of the misconceptions you might have? Let’s bust five myths about UX designers, and I’ll share some of my personal experiences along the way.
Myth 1: UX designers have strong design backgrounds
After all, the word ‘design’ is in the title, right? Many people assume that formal design training is needed, for example in graphic design or industrial design. Indeed, even the explicitly focused UX design education options have quickly expanded over the last few years.
The truth is that UX designers come from a wide range of backgrounds. Popular paths to UX design include psychology, product management, coding or front-end development. For many, UX is a career that they moved into over time, with a lot of self-directed learning and on-the-job experience. In fact, a Nielsen Norman study found that the “majority of UX professionals hold degrees from an immense range of other disciplines, from history to chemistry, most of which don’t have a direct bearing on UX work.”
For example, Peter Merholz, one of the Adaptive Path founders, has a Bachelors of Anthropology, and Liz Danzico, chair of the Interaction Design Program at SVA has a Masters in Professional Writing. For me, my own personal path did happen through education in a design discipline, Industrial Design, and I’ve seen many trained Graphic Designers make the move as well. Regardless, a design background is certainly not a prerequisite to being a UX designer.
Myth 2: UX designers have to be able to code
The ‘should designers code’ argument has been alive and well over the past few years – with respected practitioners such as Alan Cooper and John Maeda weighing in. Unfortunately, this has led to some people believing front-end coding is a requirement for a career as a UX designer.
There are lots of UX design roles out there where coding is not required – and it’s good to be wary of the roles where it is, because the company may be pinning their hopes on finding a unicorn. While some UX designers do code, and it can be a useful skill, it is certainly not a requirement. What helps for UX designers is having a basic understanding of how technology gets built, and a willingness to understand and collaborate with development teams.
I currently fall into the category of a designer who does not code. I have attended some day long HTML and CSS workshops, as well as dabbled in code academy, out of personal interest and a desire to understand the materials the web is built of. In my roles as a UX designer, I have rarely looked at any type of code on the job.
Myth 3: UX portfolios have to be beautiful
A very common misconception regarding UX design is that it concerns aesthetics and how things look. People associate design with beautiful things – and that’s true to a certain extent.
However, many UX designers do not have a strong visual design background. UX designers are often more concerned with how something works than how it looks. This means that UX portfolios are not always highly polished and beautiful – the goal of a UX portfolio is to demonstrate the designer’s ability and approach to solving problems.
For example, Whitney Hess’ site is very text heavy, and less about stunning visuals, but succeeds in telling stories of her expertise. In my experience, it’s important to show the process in a UX portfolio, which can mean the messy and unpolished stages before the final solution. It’s also important to be clear what your role was – if you collaborated with a designer on the UI or visual elements, make that clear. In my work, I’ve often worked with a designer who has much stronger graphics chops that I do – a dream collaboration.
Myth 4: UX designers are obsessed with technology and gadgets
People often think that UX design is primarily concerned with technology and that UX designers are early adopters obsessed with the latest gadgets. UX does stem in part from technology fields such as human-computer interaction, and some UX designers do work on how new technology like VR and AI will change the way we interact with machines.
UX is not only about technology and technical constraints, but about the intersection of business goals, user needs, and technology. Image Source: uxdesign.cc
The truth is that technology is only one component of a UX designer’s concerns. In a classic Venn diagram describing UX, UX designers work at the intersection of technical feasibility, business needs, and human needs. Many UX designers are highly concerned about people and act as strong advocates for a product’s user. This is the human-centered aspect of UX design.
UX designers fall on a spectrum of tech savviness and interest – I know designers who get the latest iPhone as soon as it comes out and others like myself who are later adopters of new technology. My personal drive in design work has always been people first.
Myth 5: UX designers always wear black
Google autocompletes ‘why do designers…’ with the suggestion ‘always wear black’. Iconic designers such as Steve Jobs have contributed to a public image of the designer in a simple black t-shirt or turtleneck.
UX designers also have a reputation for being more casual than a typical business person – as evidenced by threads and advice on what to wear to a UX interview. The truth is of course, that UX designers dress for work in a wide range of ways, depending on their context. More formal environments and consulting work can require a stricter dress code, whereas in startups or product companies jeans and t-shirts are the de facto uniform.
Steve Jobs made iconic the designer in a black turtleneck. Image source: Benjamin Wachenje.
In my career as a UX designer, I can’t recall coming across UX designers who always wear black, and definitely no black turtlenecks! (Although, I’m considering buying one after writing this!) UX design is a career that often allows for lots of freedom in how you dress.
Being a UX designer might not be what you think!
It’s normal to have misconceptions and stereotypes about a species that’s new, and starting to get a lot more attention! The great news about UX design is that it tends to be a fairly varied career, with lots of flexibility in the focus you want to take. One last tip: coffee drinking is a must to fit in with this tribe!
If you would like to check out profiles of UX designers’ careers, you can read about Ashley Porciuncula’s self-taught path or Will MacIvor’s transition from architecture to Shopify Design Lead.