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User Experience at Hello Erik

Know Your UX Hats

Posted February 9, 2013

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User experience is in a strange stage of its evolutionary cycle. Companies want to get UX into their products. And every day more people shift their focus to UX, trying to break into discipline. I’ve received a series of emails from both UXers, as well as companies, who are looking for clarification on what all the different buzzwords mean so they can portray themselves or the roles they are hiring for more accurately. Both parties need to know what to expect when they are evaluating their needs or opportunities.

One of the problems we face is that the various UX roles aren’t specific enough yet to be widely acknowledged as discrete. The various terms are still “differences without distinction” in many people’s eyes. Notice on the Google trends graph “UX Design” is still on a steep climb whereas other possible titles are still on a plateau. “UX Design” didn’t have enough of a presence to be tracked until 2007, and “User Experience Designer” became visible in late 2007. Not surprisingly, Information Architect appears to be on a decline!

google trends

All the UX Hats You Can Wear



It might be easier to view these roles not as compartmentalized functions, but as hats that we all wear. Researcher. Information Architect. Interface Designer. Interaction Designer. Visual Designer. UX Designer. {Other}.

A smart person would say “I need all of these roles? Are these job titles? Are you UX people running on pure ego thinking that six people have to be hired to do proper UX?!”

Not at all! These are the names of some of the more prominent UX hats that we can all wear. They have fuzzy, gray-area edges. They aren’t formal or official, and I’m certainly not insisting you have a single person for each hat. If your company or project was large enough to justify full-fledge teams, it’s nice to have a person for each hat. But this article isn’t about adding more people, it’s about utilizing the hats in the most efficient way you can.

All Size Fits None


The problem with hats is that there are only so many that can fit on your head at once, and only so many times you can switch hats before you become very inefficient and lose focus. This doesn’t stop people from trying with the best of intentions.

I didn’t invent these hats, and I’m not the authority. There are probably some things in here that people will disagree with, and omissions I just forgot. I hope it can act as a good starting point though, and hopefully spur some discussion at your company or right here in the comments section /wink. Let’s take a look at some of these hats and the type of value they produce.

The Research Hat


The research hat is focused around identifying the user, their problem/goal, and tying it to the business problem/goal. The job of the UX research hat is to find out what actually occurs in the user’s head, translating that into documentation that everyone can share and validate against. The UX research hat relies on a heuristic process for both the user and the researcher. We learn about them, but we also learn about ourselves and our own assumptions and confirmation bias.

Rapid experiments that are conducted without a specific outcome in mind lets both the user and researcher uncover things at the same time. Questions and interviews that are open-ended and unstructured can be very effective, letting the user talk their way through the problem without the interviewer coloring the conversation. No “what is it that you want” questions, but instead “tell me about your experience with this” or “what is this like for you?” If you aren’t familiar with Reflective Listening, get familiar and integrate it into everything you do.

The activities under the research hat can be focused on documenting the user’s behaviors and providing that data back to the team and stakeholders. This can be done through observation, interview, or conducting rapid experiments to quickly validate assumptions while out in the field. What is important is that you bring back enough data to form a common vernacular around the users point of view. It allows that user you have been researching to become a “person” and helps everyone empathize with them a little easier.

What the Research Hat Delivers

  • Usage and usability observations. Data that can help developers, designers, and other UX hats see obstacles before they become bad experiences
  • A representation of the user’s level of knowledge, the words they use, behavior patterns, counterintuitive assumptions, levels of frustration, consistency between users.

Where the Business Value is Manifested

UX research provides the tangible data and feedback to help everyone stop jumping right to the solution. The biggest value that the research hat delivers is the clarification of the actual user problem that is trying to be solved. Targeted problems cut down on wasted time, unvalidated assumptions, and going down paths that have weak evidence that they are actually solving the the user problem, and not just a user problem.

The Information Architecture Hat


Information Architecture (abbreviated as IA), is how you organize information and content. It’s about process and flow, how does the user best get from point A to point B and how the construction of the content facilitates that. This involves determining the relationships between things, recognizing patterns in how the user perceives what is presented, creating a taxonomy, and most of all understanding the feedback loop between the user and the things they interact with. I have often described it as determining “right thing, right place, right time.”

The Civil Engineer

The IA hat is the UX equivalent of a real world architect or civil engineer. Is the structure sound? Do the people who use this thing have access to all the right places? Does this layout make sense? Are there any dead-ends we aren’t seeing? Does this creation serve its purpose? Is it safe (usable)? The person in the IA hat is who tells you “You wanted a bridge to accommodate certain needs. Here is how I’ve engineered how it should be put together.”

What the IA Hat Delivers

The IA hat delivers some of the most powerful parts in a UX process.

  • User flows. Process flows. These are the maps that show all the options, decisions, divergent paths, roadblocks, and journeys through your content. The map of how a user will accomplish the behavior you’re trying to facilitate.
  • Hierarchical structure maps. How the grouping plays out. Which parts of your product are contained in other parts. What things need distinction from others.
  • Site/Product maps. These correlate to the navigation and allow for smart nav and menus to be created.
  • Documentation that puts everyone on the same page of how things will flow and work conceptually.

Where the Business Value is Manifested

I see good IA work as one of the biggest pillars in a smart UX strategy. It’s how the research, or assumptions, are turned into something you can actually start to build. The IA is a huge part of what makes something usable and a good experience. I have a belief that a modern product with good IA but weak UI is better off than something with bad IA and a sexy UI. If you have to pick, go IA over UI.

The UI Design Hat


If there is research and IA, the UI hat can be worn with confidence. It is a style of work that will likely be iterating very quickly between the parties, developers and UX both. Changes, tests, modifications and deletions will be happening hourly or faster.

This is one of the hats where specific UI experience and talent need to be present in the person who is wearing it. The UI design hat has more gray area than some of the rest. If someone is prepared to wear the UI hat, they might also be a front-end developer, or at least a skilled HTML/CSS author. They are probably one of the primary people who will be designing wireframes as well.

What the UI Design Hat Delivers

The UI designer hat can be technical or non-technical. That is going to be based on the person. Both types

  • Provide the interface elements to be used in the mockups and prototypes
  • Come up with how the interactions will be executed and facilitated through visual flows, annotations, and prototyped examples
  • Come up with how the behavior feedback from the product will be manifested
  • Play a big role in wireframing and layout decisions.

If the person wearing the UI hat is technically inclined, they can also be providing

  • Clickable prototypes of varying levels of interaction. May use a prototyping tool, may be HTML and JavaScript based.
  • HTML and CSS to be used by developers
  • Working on the actual production HTML/CSS or JavaScript, and maybe preprocessed or server side code like clojurescript/coffeescript/lisp or php/ruby/asp, etc

Where the Business Value is Manifested

The value of UI design is one of the easiest to see. This is because no matter what, everything has some sort interface, no matter how subtle or invisible. Good use of the UI hat will help ensure best practices in UI affordance, provide specific UI to the visual designer hat to be mocked-up, and offload interface decisions from developers who may not be inclined or interested in taking that on. When the UI design is taking place, you are far down the path of creating the things that people see and touch. Stakeholders and test-users will start to get excited. Good research and IA will really make this a very productive time.

The Interaction Design Hat


Interaction design (IxD) is how you determine the behavior of your product and how the user will interact with it. This is the feedback loop that goes in both directions. The product responds to the user’s input, and the user responds to the products feedback. The way these interactions are crafted and planned is what the IxD hat figures out. It’s a very cognitive role that relies heavily on exploring heuristics and “how is the best way for the user to use this?” The IxD is a gray-area hat much like UI or IA. The person who is wearing the hat will need some specific experience and skill. It’s not one that can just be ad-libbed by a neophyte. There are entire organizations dedicated to IxD and the vast skill-set that it requires.

What the IxD Hat Delivers

  • Very important definitions of how things are going to actually work and facilitate the users desired behaviors on both the project and application level
  • Specifications to the UI designer on what needs to be available in the interface to make the interaction happen
  • Something interactive to use and test with users via prototypes or early versions of what you’re building
  • Smarter interactions that can more effectively target the user’s problems and provide more effective solutions
  • Smarter interfaces that communicate back to the user what is going on, providing trust and clarity
  • Focusing front-end development on what needs to be built and how it needs to work on a functional level

Where the Business Value is Manifested

IxD is where your behavior feedback loop is traced. It can show you how close you are to bridging the gap between the business problem and the user problem. It’s a hard job, and getting it done right brings immense value.

The Visual Design Hat


This is the hat we all know and love. Finally something we can see and feel. The impact the visual design hat is “hard to define, but easy to recognize.” It also the most abused hat, often given the most focus and energy to applying veneer to something that desperately needs a more solid foundation. If the first words you hear on a project are lipstick, jazzed up, sexier, cleaner; stop everything you’re doing and make damn sure you know what problem the visual design hat is trying to solve. Better visual designs on a bad foundation will never, ever, save you.

What the Visual Design Hat Delivers

  • The aesthetic. This includes the final look and feel, the style, the theme, the recognizable brand and identity
  • Mockups for prototyping and demo purposes
  • Mockups for developers to implement with working code
  • Tangible representations of all the work that has brought you here that stakeholder can see and react to
  • The graphic assets needed for the implementation of the finalized product
  • Styleguides and pattern libraries to keep the design consistent across products and provide a template for everyone to refer to

And let’s be honest – there is nothing wrong with sexiness if it’s not veneer. If the others hats have delivered their value, the visuals can take a product to the next level. You can’t over-estimate the power of the visual layer when it is accompanied by good UX.

Where the Business Value is Manifested

  • Differentiating your product from others when being viewed by potential sales or users who have nothing to go on but how it looks in a screenshot or marketing piece.
  • Visual appeal that has a big impact on how users perceive your product. It can make products feel trustworthy, fun, serious, consumer focused, enterprise focused, all through how the presentation layer is crafted
  • Reinforcement of the brand and messaging that comes across through the visual implementation. It ties together the far end of an end-to-end user experience.

Visuals are important. Your book will always be judged by its cover, by way of the visceral reaction of the brain. A third of the brain is dedicated to visual processing, and art and design throughout history have shown us how powerful imagery can be; how it can stir emotion and thought. Presenting things visually is a entire art, career, passion unto itself. It is one of the areas of the “UX” umbrella that is very hard to do if you’re not well versed and practiced in it. I began my career as a web visual designer, and still today it’s very hard to design things that have the impact and message of what I intend. Visual design takes a tremendous amount of effort. Never underestimate how much impact it can have (good… or bad).

The UXer Hat


This hat brings cohesion between all the hats. With any project, the UX efforts have to be coordinated and flow from one to the other. Someone has to have a high level view of the entire battlefield. Needs have to be assessed, plans created, priorities made. UX doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and with the amount of points that UX touches, there is communication that has to take place between various other disciplines and parts of a company. Product management, development, QA, middle management, executives – they all have different needs for UX communication and documentation.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what this UXer is actually called.  In some cases, they are on a management level. In others, they might be on the individual contributor level.  Either way, someone is going to end up wearing this hat. Depending on who you are or where you work, the UX hat-wearer can be known as “UX (or) Experience:

  • Designer”
  • Architect”
  • Engineer”
  • Manager”
  • Principal”

There is not a true UX Designer hat. If someone is a UX Designer, his or her role translates to “I wear whichever hat is needed at the time.” If a UX designer is working alone, they will have to move from hat to hat depending on what is needed at the time. This doesn’t mean that the UX person isn’t highly skilled wearing one or all the hats. But in the real world of business and shipping product, things move too fast for a UX generalist to cover all the hats comprehensively.

Where the Business Value is Manifested

Having someone who manages the UX effort is essential. Again, this doesn’t mean they have to be in a personnel management or supervisor position. It just means that there is a knowledgeable and experienced individual that is at the helm of the UX effort. Also, I would always advise against filling a UX management or supervisor position with someone who isn’t experienced and able to augment or take on any role at any moment. UX is a craft, and it needs to be guided by someone who has fundamental knowledge of all the pieces. Just because you drive a Camry and have seen Days of Thunder doesn’t mean you stand a chance in a NASCAR race.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

You don’t always need all the hats. Hats can be moved, put down, or saved for later. It isn’t always smart to split out the roles and blow your budgets or headcount. Prioritize, and keep in mind that wireframes and visuals usually aren’t the biggest levers if you’re trying to improve a user’s experience. If I had to pick, I would focus on getting user-centered problems researched and an effective persona created, and then shift into information architecture now that you have a rational basis.


The best work comes from ensembles. This is a collaborative and cooperative line of work. For companies or projects that need to get a UX base established, hire a few generalists. People who know how to wear each hat, and can pass the ball from one to the other. Look for people who care about what they do first, level of skill second. No matter how you want to approach it, know what the hats and what they mean. The purpose of UX is to ultimately solve business and human problems. Know which problem you’re trying to solve, and which UX hat targets what you need.



I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.

14 Responses

  1. Danny DeBate
    Danny DeBate February 9, 2013 at 11:56 pm |

    Great post Erik. You continue to inspire and educate those looking to understand and communicate the value of UX. Keep up the good work.

  2. Dorian Tireli
    Dorian Tireli February 11, 2013 at 10:46 am |

    Great post!

  3. Antonia Anni
    Antonia Anni February 11, 2013 at 11:15 am |

    Wheew…Finally, my thoughts exactly!

  4. Matt Phillips
    Matt Phillips August 16, 2013 at 1:07 am |

    How do you split UI design and interaction design? – Surely these are one and the same.

  5. Guest
    Guest August 18, 2013 at 12:22 pm |

    It’s not uncommon for people to combine UI and Interaction. After all, one rarely exists without the other. But I think Erik is correct in splitting them out. As designers we need to recognize the various disciplines of design and the skill sets necessary be an expert in each one. I did not understand this until I worked at Intuit where we had the luxury of having multiple designers on staff, each with their own expertise.

    For the most part UI designers are visual in nature. They are responsible for the information architecture, the style guide, the design principles, etc. The Interaction design has little or no visual skills but is an expert in flow, transition, latest technologies that would create the desired behavior, etc. Add to this team a design expert on research and usability and look out!

    Now back to reality… most companies don’t have the ability to employee multiple designers. So it makes it even more important for us as designers to understand and communicate to our employers/clients the addition resources/skills that might be necessary to get the job done (or done right).

  6. Terry P.
    Terry P. November 4, 2013 at 1:53 pm |

    This must be one of my favorite articles from you. You have identified real-world and real UX problem solver roles here. My favorite part is your emphasis on knowledge, flexibility and passion. I love that you know that whoever is directing the team needs also to be emerged deep in the field with great understanding and also ready to put on a hat if needed be.

  7. Erik Flowers
    Erik Flowers November 5, 2013 at 7:55 pm |

    Thanks for the compliments.

    Real UX has to stand for people, real people. It’s not all about metrics and usability and testing. In the end it’s the interface between real, living, breathing people.

    That’s what is so important about UX leadership. They lead from the front, showing those with them a larger picture, but knowing all the ins and outs and details of what they’re seeing. I can’t really think of a time when you could have a UX leader, in a active or managerial role, not understand why we do the things we do down to the core.

  8. The User Experience Three. Handpicked 11/06/2013 - UXPin

    […] 2. Know Your UX Hats […]

  9. Kellie
    Kellie November 7, 2013 at 1:33 pm |

    Superfab. I’m making an infographic from this, assuming you don’t already have one made … ?

  10. Erik Flowers
    Erik Flowers November 7, 2013 at 1:35 pm |

    I never made one, but I’d love to take part in it. Email me and let’s collaborate!!

  11. Kit Brown-Watts
    Kit Brown-Watts February 11, 2014 at 4:56 am |

    Did such an infographic ever come into existence? There’s a lot of info here for a great one!

  12. Erik Flowers
    Erik Flowers February 11, 2014 at 7:37 am |

    It would be great. Someone call lego!

    I’d actually write it up quite a bit different today, maybe it needs a Part 2 Redux.

  13. Michele Mizejewski
    Michele Mizejewski October 13, 2014 at 2:38 pm |

    Great post — I like how you go beyond an overview and break down what each type of hat may be responsible for delivering.

  14. Katherine Rosenkranz
    Katherine Rosenkranz July 31, 2016 at 2:38 am |

    Love the line “All Size Fits None”

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