Illustration by Erica Fasoli
I still remember the long bus ride to a remote, budget-airline airport in Europe where I tried to explain my UX role and work to my mum. We spent ages talking about the process, walking through each step involved, and looking at examples of apps on her Android phone. I even did some simple wireframe sketches on napkins to illustrate!
Why is UX design so hard to explain?
That conversation took a long time, and recently my mum said she still occasionally has a hard time explaining what I do when people ask her. Why is that? I recently reached out to my network of UX designers and heard perspectives from more than a dozen of them around the world on how they explain what we do for a living, and why UX and design can be so hard to explain clearly and succinctly.
For many people, a lack of familiarity with the effort and intentionality that goes into creating digital products can make the work of a UX designer difficult to grasp. For example, Kat Schouten, a designer based in Waterloo, Canada says, “If your audience doesn’t understand technology—it’s really hard to communicate how every part of a product is created intentionally. Some people assume that iPhones just appear out of thin air! Eventually through conversation they understand that there is a whole system behind each element of their phone, car, and computer interface.”
Jargon is also a huge barrier to explaining UX. Like any specialized field, we have a vast vocabulary of words that are unfamiliar and potentially meaningless to people outside of it. Here are some of those terms people outside of UX probably aren’t familiar with:
This is one of the reasons I have a hard time talking to some of my Swedish family members about UX, because I have not developed the specialized vocabulary of design in my second language. “It’s hard to try not to use the words we UXers use and use the words non-designers use,” says Bertrand Lirette, design teacher at Université Laval. “One of my more successful attempts at explaining the value of UX was when I didn’t use all the UX jargon to try to explain it. I actually used the words the people I was working with understood, for example saying there will be less time wasted in a queue to check out.”
Finding analogous terminology requires understanding the vocabulary others are familiar and comfortable with. You may need to have a conversation about an adjacent topic and listen to how they talk about it. From there, you can identify similar UX words to use in your explanation.
Dealing with complexity and preconceived ideas of design
Design is a noun, a verb, a tool, and a process. Because of this, it’s difficult to define design as one thing. Design for non-designers is about aesthetics. However, it’s much more than that.
UX is also a field that is very broad and complex. Many people mentioned the struggles of not oversimplifying, without being too ‘inside baseball’ about our profession.
“I find it hard not to massively simplify it to make it easy to understand, which then undervalues the entire discipline,” explains Helen Nic Giolla Rua, a product designer based in Dublin, Ireland. “It’s actually a big mixture of soft skills and hard skills and is incredibly valuable to a business. It also changes depending on what company you’re in and what they require.”
Sori Lee, a UX designer based in Toronto, Canada, agrees: “The UX umbrella is really broad to cover holistically when you’re trying to explain it.”
Finally, for many of us, differentiating UX from visual design or hitting home that it’s more than “making things pretty” is a struggle. As someone whose visual design skills are not my strongest suit, this definitely resonates. Dan Nanasi, who works in Vancouver, Canada as a UX strategist, says that the hardest thing is explaining that “I’m not making things prettier. Sometimes I’m not even designing something tangible or physical. I’m working with a business on the direction that they should be going in based on what we learn together about their customers and their current business model.”
Violet Edwards, a senior UX designer in Toronto, Canada says: “People think you’re a graphic designer or a web designer. They often don’t get the strategy and research component. Also, there are so many UX jobs (aka product design) masquerading as graphic design jobs, so even hiring managers don’t always really understand what a UX designer is.”
Unanimously, designers surveyed seem to agree that explaining what it is we do all day and get paid for is challenging, with a variety of barriers to helping people “get it.” So let’s look at some strategies and approaches that designers use in various settings.
The dreaded “what do you do?”
Picture this scene: you’re at a family event, or maybe your partner’s work holiday party as a plus-one, or simply meeting someone new. At some point, the question of “what do you do?” usually arises. It’s enough to make us hard-to-explain-career types get sweaty palms! In this situation, it’s important to remember that you’re dealing with a social interaction. The goal is to make a connection with people and continue the conversation, so it’s crucial not to alienate them.
One approach is to keep it very simple and straightforward, even if you feel it doesn’t really tell the full story of what UX is. This can be an easier entry point, and you can go deeper if the person asking displays more interest. Several designers reported saying something along the lines of “I design websites or apps.”
Ken Kongkatong, a junior UX designer at a bank in Toronto says, “In a social setting or to non-designers, I’ll say I design websites and apps at a high-level. This description is of course counter to my ‘true’ understanding of the role.” Another person, who preferred to remain anonymous, mentioned that they say, “I do web design,” because it’s simpler to state it this way. “I don’t get asked too many questions. I would love to have a straightforward answer, but I don’t.”
For others, describing a familiar and relatable scenario can be helpful. “I ask people what makes their favorite restaurant their favorite restaurant. Then I explain that good UX designers don’t focus on the food alone, they focus on the entire dining experience,” says Aprurv Ray, a senior designer.
Violet mentions that she will say something like, “You know when you’re on your phone or your computer (or something with a screen) and sometimes you’re like ‘argh, I give up!’? My job is to prevent that from happening,” followed by a smile.
While Violet’s example focuses on the less smooth interactions, Tony Tudor, a product design director, takes the opposite approach. “I’ll say something like, ‘you know when you use an app on your phone and thank god for technology that makes things that easy? This is what I do, making apps feel like they don’t exist, and they just serve you in the easiest way possible without you noticing it.”
This idea of making something easier or better for users came up repeatedly in the simple sentences people submitted as examples of how they explain what they do for a living. These one-liners might be a great starting point for social conversations about your work.
- “I help shape how people use products and services and make sure their experience is good and beneficial.” – Noah Fang, service designer & business strategist
- “I make sure you’re not saying the service you’re using sucks.” – Bertrand Lirette, design teacher
- “I think about experiences of using things and how I can reduce the anxiety and effort associated with those activities and desired outcomes.” – Ghislaine Guerin, designer
- “I tell them I make technology easy to use!” – Sori Lee, UX designer
- “Very simply put, I make technology easier for people to interact with.” – Andrea Photiou, UX/UI designer
No matter what words you use, as long as “people” and “problem-solving” are at the center of your explanation then you’ll be fine. That’s UX design at its core. As you can see from the examples above, there are many variations that are dependent on the context and the people you share your answers with. The answer to the question can also be iterative. Meaning, you might adjust it as you share it with different people. The goal is not to have the “right” answer to this question, but to be clear. Understand that clarity is going to show up differently for people.
Answering this question also depends on what you actually do as a UX designer. Since the role of a UX designer varies across industries and companies, it’s important to focus on your role and daily responsibilities. Trying to answer this question for every UX designer, is only going to make the answer more confusing.
Explaining UX to colleagues and stakeholders
In work settings there may be more riding on building an understanding of your role as a designer. Even for people who have UX designers in their organization or on their team, it may be difficult to understand what the term means or why it’s important. Building mutual trust, understanding, and buy-in for design work are what greases the wheels of projects for success. Designers often need to work collaboratively with subject matter experts and leaders from other departments or practice areas. When explaining what design is and what you do, it’s crucial to meet people where they are at, and frame UX design as something that is relevant to them.
I help people do things more efficiently, create delightful experiences for users, and make profits for businessesSori Lee
Framing design as a way to drive business success can be a useful starting point. Ghislaine Guerin, a designer based near Madrid, Spain, talks to colleagues about how “good design makes for valuable products, leading to users that are engaged, happy, and more likely to pay.” Sori echoes this, explaining to colleagues that “I help people do things more efficiently, create delightful experiences for users, and make profits for businesses.”
Another way to frame UX, especially in customer-focused organizations, is to talk about the benefits to the end-user. For Bertrand, he tells colleagues that UX is about “putting yourself in the shoes of the user to satisfy their needs.”
Michael Hodgkin, the web UX lead at the Australian Government Department of Human Services, explains it to stakeholders like this: “If your users aren’t happy, you won’t be happy. You can’t make your users happy without understanding them. If you want to understand your user, design things they want; and to understand if you’re succeeding, you need UX.”
Some people get even more specific and articulate how UX can help people complete tasks. For example, Tony tells stakeholders, “We are here to make a user’s interaction with the app as minimal and effective as possible. So, the user will complete the task (even if it’s just browsing) without a lot of thinking, rather using only muscle memory.”
Andrea Photiou, based in Michigan, says the following to people in a work context: “My job is to design technology that makes our users’ journey from point A to point B as easy and thoughtless as possible. It’s my job to put the thought into the design, so my users don’t have to. If the desired outcome of an interaction involves a user completing a purchase, it is my job to help guide the user there and eliminate any challenges or distractions in the process.” She also points out that there is a difference between “pushing a sale” and helping a user to get what they need.
Another approach that emerged as a common theme was tailoring the message depending on who you are talking to. For Violet, how she explains UX really depends on who she’s talking to. “Sometimes it’s about communicating the value of spending time on discovery/research to avoid investing in the wrong decision (as development is so costly). It can also be about showing how UX is very aligned with the ‘customer-centric’ values of their mandate (e.g. Sales, Support, etc.). Either way, money talks.”
This aligns with Kat’s approach in telling her colleagues that “we are here to ask ‘why’ our users are currently using our product. For the sales team, this translates into how to position and price the products. For the marketing team, it’s about how to appeal to their target demographic. And for the dev team, it means they can better understand what needs to be prioritized and developed. The meaning of the ‘why’ can change over time, and we’re here to keep a pulse on our user behaviors so that as an organization we can be more agile.”
The key word here is alignment. The goal is to find the connection between your role and those of stakeholders and team members. Highlight it, and then break it down in a digestible way. It may require you to do some research. Learn the vocabulary and responsibilities of the stakeholders and team members. Doing this is not only a benefit to your team members but also to you. It diversifies your communication skills, which are vital for your team’s success.
A word on articulating the value of UX
It’s one thing to explain what it is you do, and another to convince people of the value of design and UX. There has been a lot of attention on this topic over recent years, with conversations around “proving” the ROI (return on investment) of UX and increased focus on measurement. At the same time, there is a sense that it’s hard to simply convince people of the value. Jared Spool has even written an article about this.
Several designers surveyed spoke to this as well, with the essence boiling down to “show, don’t tell” when it comes to the value of UX design. For Kat, “explaining value hasn’t been as effective as showing it. After running a workshop with a local startup, it shifted their mindset. They began to understand the value of their product to their customers and how that can shift between different demographics.”
Noah Fang, a service designer & business strategist, echoed this sentiment, saying “I don’t think explaining the value would ever work if the listeners don’t already have the belief or haven’t experienced the process, or haven’t witnessed the results. The explanation mostly works after people see the value by actually doing; once after a successful run, I got to explain what I did and highlighted the critical moments in the process. That helped them understand the ‘designerly’ way of doing by recalling those moments.”
Tangible examples can also be helpful. Ken mentioned a time when “I had to explain to someone the value of UX for a business. I believe I did this effectively when I explained how Spotify increased their conversion rate by switching from a hamburger menu to a tab bar in their app based on the findings from their A/B testing.”
Gus Waller, a UX researcher and designer in Vancouver, Canada, shows people results from testing. “Photos, videos, or quotes are a very easy way to communicate the value of UX to anyone skeptical or new to the discipline. For example, if you want proof that someone struggles to use your product, here’s a 30-second video of 12 different people struggling to log in.”
Finally, at World Interaction Design Day, one of my fellow panelists mentioned the Jared Spool $300 million button example as a great one to keep in your back pocket when faced with the value of UX question.
A selection of analogies for explaining UX
When all else fails in explaining what a UX designer does, try an analogy! They can be a great tool for explaining UX in any context. Here’s a collection of some great UX analogies that people shared:
- “Good UX is like insurance. It’s a sensible investment that increases the likelihood of a) building the right thing, and b) the thing being successful.” – Gus Waller, UX researcher and designer
- “Users want their needs satisfied; businesses want their needs satisfied. UX lubricates that friction.” – Michael Hodgkin, web UX lead
- “UX is like DJing – you have to create an amazing experience using empathy, harmony, and an understanding of flow.” – Violet Edwards, senior UX designer
- “UX is like a technology shepherd. Leading the way and removing barriers to help get everyone to where they love to be. Keeping users safe from dangers like wasted time.”
– Andrea Photiou, UX/UI designer
- “I like to build off Alan Cooper’s analogy of an interaction designer as an architect by suggesting that being a UX designer is analogous to being an urban designer.” – Ken Kongkatong, junior UX designer
There are plenty of analogies to choose from. Have fun with it. The key is to first find an aspect of UX to focus on. Make sure that it’s simple and clear.
As design evolves, so will our explanations
As Muryani Kasdani, senior user researcher and service designer puts it, “Many people don’t know that design has shifted from the traditional notion of design, meaning ‘the making of stuff’ (e.g. product design is about making products, graphic design is about making posters, etc.) to ‘designing for a purpose’ (e.g. designing for sustainability) and that design methods and approach, such as human-centered design, can be applied in many different contexts/fields.” This makes it a lot more challenging to explain what UX designers do for a living.
These shifts can also work in our favor as design and technology become more visible in popular culture. Nate Archer, a user experience researcher and product strategist in Toronto, says that “once mobile apps became a thing around 2007, explaining how UX was a role felt way more intuitive to non-designers. This felt like a watershed moment when people understood that the design of an app varied from one to another.”
As more people transition into UX from other fields like web design, psychology, finance, or education, the definition of it will also shift. Those individuals will use their previous experience and vocabulary to define what it means to be a UX designer. As more non-tech companies shift to human-centered design thinking, the role of a UX designer will evolve.
The role of a junior UX designer vs. a lead UX designer also varies. As such, how those individuals describe the field will also vary.
Either way, the keys to talking about your work are understanding the context of the conversation, doing your best to know your audience and meet them where they are, and showing rather than telling the value of design. Try using these principles and you’ll be well on your way.