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UX Roles and Terms – What do they mean?

Posted July 1, 2011

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

UX is all the rage. It’s always been around, but now it has its own nomenclature. It’s usually divided into five areas, sometimes more or less. There is alot of overlap, both in domains of expertise, and in roles performed by one or more people. In this post, I’ll try to break it down in the way I understand it.

1. User Experience

This is the mother term. User Experience is the culmination of the entire package. All the elements of development can be included in UX. Not because it is in the most important part of a website or application – but because it is what happens in the users mind, something that the user views as a whole. They experience the look, feel, backend programming, front end interaction and information organization as a complete experience. When selling a car, you don’t shoe the chassis, engine, body, transmission, dashboard and wheels all separately, even though they were all built separately by several domain experts. The person just experiences “the car” as a whole.

The user in the phrase User Experience has to perceive the final product as a whole. It doesn’t snap into existence until someone actually uses/observes it. The role of the User Experience Designer is to plan out “what is going to take place in the users brain when they perceive this?”

2. Information Architecture

Information Architecture deals with how the information is organized and arranged in a logical hierarchy, taxonomy, and virtual map. An Information Architect works on the progression and flow of how a user will access information, how deep they will have to go to find it, where they will find it, and the maximum and minimum complexity that an information system can have and still be usable and logical to the user.

One of the foremost examples I like to refer to for IA is Wikipedia. If you take away the visual design and the interactions, you can see how the information connects and interlinks between all the places where it resides. Be it a link, a citation, a menu item or a search result, the information architect plans how this will all work. This can all be accomplished before visual design, UI design, interaction design, or backend development.

3. User Interface Design

This is something most people are familiar with. The user interface is the elements that the user manipulates to initiate actions. The UI is a visual menu of choices, options that clearly indicate what they will do as a result of activating them. Good user interface is logical, intuitive, self-explanatory, and makes navigating the information and experience as easy and seamless as possible.

Interfaces are the only thing that a user can use to actually interact with the “thing” you have in front of them. Be it a blinking cursor in a terminal, a “ribbon” of clickable icons, a menu of html links, or even physical touchable interfaces (like keyboards), they all allow you to initiate actions and “use” the “thing” in front of you.

4. Interaction Design

Interaction Design is the things that “happen” once the interface is manipulated. If interfaces are static potentials for movement, interaction is the kinetic force of the movement dynamics. What happens when you click a button? What happens when you initiate an action? This is where the interaction takes place between the interface itself, and also with the user controlling it. An interface presents options, and the interaction is the result that is the carrying out of the desired action.

That was a pretty pedantic explanation. Let me try again. An interface button might be sitting on a website. When you click that button, a modal window pops up and allows you to enter information. The window pops up by fading the background to a transparent black, and sliding the new modal window up from the bottom of the screen. That would be the interaction. Now that the window has appeared, it is itself a new presentation of UI elements. So an interface is used, which brings about an interaction, and then a new interface is presented. How that “movement” (whether things actually move or not) takes place is the Interaction Design. It is the answer to the question of “what actions take place when the interface is manipulated.”

5. Visual Design

Visual Design is what the eye sees. So far, the first four things don’t necessarily contain any style or aesthetic. They might be laid out in a logical sense, a “wireframe” or site map, or low-fidelity mockup, but they aren’t “alive” with visual interest and nuance. Visual Design is essential, and the designer must have a supreme grasp of what creates an emotional response based on what the user actually sees.

The adage goes “don’t judge a book by its cover.” I disagree. You should absolutely judge a book by it’s cover because the cover designer, the visual artist, should have made that cover appealing, descriptive, and representative of the contents inside. The judgement you make on the visual aspects of the cover should be an accurate, but not precise, view into what is in store when you actually consume the content.

Granted – most book covers are terrible, so you really can’t judge a book by its cover. But when the cover and the content match, well, look at the Paul Rand quote at the top of my site. Genius happens with form and content fuse. And to do that, you need a sharp visual designer.

6. Development

Development is the piece that doesn’t really fit in UX design – they cooperate with eachother. All the UX, IxD, UI, IA and Visuals combined don’t actually create a working product. In fact, you can do all those things and have a hi-fidelity, fully realized mockup that doesn’t actually do anything. Like a concept car, it’s all clay beneath the paint and polish. Your programming, software, backend, whatever all has to work right. Even Interaction and Interface design doesn’t necessarily “work” without the functionality programmed behind it. Both the UX and the Development are load-bearing parts of the same structure. They are two heads of the hydra, along with business goals and logic.

7. Business, Stakeholders, Purpose

This is the “why are we doing this” answer. UX and development don’t exist in a vacuum, they have to be given a goal to work towards, which typically comes from the stakeholders or business owners (owners in a accountability sense, not a financial sense). This isn’t really a post about business, but I am going to assume that most people know what this means.


So there we have it. That’s how I see things. In the end, it’s all a Rube Goldberg machine or Mechanical Turk. A system of interconnected, but autonomous systems that combine to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

I never thought I’d actually use the phrase “more than the sum of its parts” and actually have it apply to what I was saying.

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

One Response

  1. galaxy
    galaxy February 22, 2013 at 8:46 am |

    nice article !!

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