November 19, 2004

What Makes a User Experience Designer?

It's tremendously hard to write about yourself. I've been on Orkut for a while but never came around to writing the about me section until now. Since Orkut is a social network, it makes sense to address the first question people usually ask when they meet someone new. "So what do you do?"

It's not easy to describe the User Experience profession but what if you had the chance to write an earnest response that would explain what you really do. Capturing its depth as well as its breadth and still being understandable to someone who isn't aquainted with the profession. And without sounding like an amateur to someone who lives and breathes user experience.

This is not the description of the profession. It describes how I work or would like to work. This is what I do.
I'm a user experience designer for the web. I analyse and design how websites behave. I love thinking about everything in terms of problems, needs, opportunities and solutions. What gets me excited is identifying big, gnarly problems no one has identified or addressed before. And solving them... sometimes in unexpected ways.

User experience, in the context of web, is all the stuff you see and interact with on a website and the things you feel when you do. More simply, it's how the website behaves. I design this behaviour.

If all this sounds too vague... well, you could say that I'm a cross between an anthropologist and a web designer. I study how users behave on the web and I apply that knowledge in design to meet user and business goals. Though not always in that order.

On a typical day, I might find myself answering questions such as [and this is just an example], where to place a particular link on the page. What to call it. Should it be text, an image or a widget. What happens when you click it. Where do you expect it to take you. How important it is you find it. Therefore, whether to highlight or subdue it. What are the different ways of making it prominent or subdued. Will the page still work if it was removed altogether. Is there a copy built around the link. Is that copy persuasive enough. Does it need to be.

Apart from design, my work also involves thinking about strategic issues. Looking at the big picture and asking fundamental questions, like, why does this company/ product/ site/ interface/ widget exist. Whom does it serve. What problem does it solve. What's the value proposition. What do its customers/ users say they want. And what are their unexpressed needs. What's the competitive landscape like. Are there unsaid conventions/ standards in this space that everyone adheres to [perhaps without their knowledge]. How did these conventions come into existence. What were the dynamics when they first originated. Has something changed since then. What would it look like if there were no constraints of resources, technology and time.

I'm passionate about innovation. Not just for the sake of it. But to solve important problems. Though sometimes, you do not need to innovate. Sometimes all you need to arrive at a breakthrough... is to realise the obvious.

So this is what I do. I'm untrained, unqualified and inexperienced in the sense that it traditionally means to be trained, qualified and experienced in this field.

Unfortunately, this isn't always a good thing.

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