UX Design: Careers, Challenges & the Future of Web Design

Definitions of “user experience” are all over the map, but one thing is true: You know a good user experience when you see it.


Patrick McNeil joins the HOW Design Live program to shed light on this essential discipline, in a presentation titled “UX Roles and What It Means for You” as part of the Interactive Design Program.

We recently asked the longtime HOW contributor and author (of five books on web design)
about what web designers need to know about UX.

What is UX Design?

In your session description, you note that there’s some disagreement over what UX really is. How do you define the term?
Well, UX stands for “user experience.” When designing an experience, one attempts to create an interface that achieves certain emotional responses from the user (most often a positive response). And the only way to determine if you are a success is to test your design on actual users.

So, to me, UX design is the designing of digital interfaces that seek to optimize a user’s experience through design iteration and continuous user testing.

When experience isn’t fully considered as part of a site’s development, how does that affect the user? In other words, what are the problems a user may experience when UX is an afterthought — or not a consideration at all?
If a system is not planned based on insight from the users, how do you decide what to include? How do you know if users will understand it? Are you certain of the user’s goals and what they are looking for? Without these things it’s a gamble; perhaps your design will be dead-on and be perfect for the user. Or maybe you missed the mark and users needed something else entirely.

UX design empowers designers to make informed decisions about the design of an interface. Have you ever been in a meeting where the team argued about what the user would want? This is exactly where UX would fit in, bringing insight to the conversation and removing personal opinions. And as a result, radically reducing the risk that you get it entirely wrong.

Do you think the attentiveness to the experience of using a website — as opposed to what it looks like or what it says or how many sales it generates — is a sign that the web is entering a new phase of maturity? Is the web sort of growing up a bit?
Yes and no. Yes, using these techniques represents a certain level of maturity. However, many companies have been using these techniques for a very long time. Take Amazon, for example: They were doing usability tests and refining their site based on user needs and behaviors long before UX was a buzzword in the web community. In fact, many UX methods were developed as far back as the 70’s. UX isn’t new, but widespread usage of the methods is. The goal has always been, and will always be, to measure sales, but with UX methods we can actually have a much more positive impact on this.

If you were looking at a resume for someone applying for a UX role, what would you look for? Are there a couple of key skills or attributes or strengths that are essential for a UX designer? 
The No. 1 thing in my book for a portfolio or resume is a trail of examples of how user research lead to a design decision. The research need not be extravagant, expensive or overly formal. But a solid UX-focused designer will have a long trail of examples where user insight fueled the design of the site or application. Without this, one can only assume that the designer was simply following their instincts. A critical interview question for a UX role is “What UX methods do you use?” If an employer doesn’t ask it, they don’t really want UX in the way I describe it. But if they do ask it, it’s a good sign they are really on the UX bandwagon.

Is UX a skillset that a web designer can acquire, or are they two completely different disciplines? If the latter, how can the two roles learn to collaborate?
It turns out that graphic designers are one of the primary sources of UX designers. And I would say that yes, a designer, web designer or graphic designer could absolutely make the change. The UX field is based on multiple disciplines and each person simply brings their own twist on that skillset to the table.

Ready to add UX design to your skillset? Join Patrick for a deep dive into the essentials of UX design at HOW Design Live. You’ll find a full program track of sessions geared toward helping you expand your interactive design capabilities. Take your career in a new direction or acquire the skills your employer needs you to develop. Register now for HOW Design Live.