Clarifying the disciplines of UX (or #DTDT, part 1)

There is still a lot of confusion about what it is that us UX people do. Here is my attempt to clarify the field.

Many disciplines are usually associated with UX and most of them even have their professional bodies(UXPA, IA institute, IxDA). I will try to define what each is at its core. You will find that actually, their names are pretty explicit and easy to understand.

Information Architecture
This is about all about the information itself: information structures, information hierarchies, taxonomies, vocabularies, labels.

Interaction Design
This is about interactions. How do you interact with something? What happens when you do this? Key concerns are contexts of use, input methods (mouse and keyboard, touch screen, gestures, voice…), output methods (visual -including animation and transition, audio, haptic…) and physical ergonomics.

Content strategy:
All about the content itself: what type of content (text, images, photographs…), how it is produced (style, tone, length), who will produce it, who will approve it, how long it will stay online…

UX research
A version of psychology and ethnography research that is business appropriate (= less rigorous but shorter and cheaper). This is conducted in order to understand people and improve the chances of success of the designs. Typical deliverable includes personas, mental models and process flows.

Usability
This is how easy to use and to learn a product is. It is not really a discipline, but a characteristic of a product. You can’t create or add usability, but you create or change a product to make it more usable.

Visual design
This is about what is purely visual, what things look like. Includes colours, iconography, typography, detailed layout.

User experience
This could be another post entirely, but UX is not a single discipline. It is used as an umbrella term encompassing all the previous disciplines and more.

By this point, someone is bound to shoot (or more likely tweet): “That’s all wrong, I am a card carrying Information Architect but I also think about what happens when you interact with a page when I do my wire frames. Another frequent variant is “I’ve been doing (visual) design for decades and I’ve be thinking about information hierarchies before anyone talked of IA or UX”.

They would be absolutely right of course. Here lies the reason there is so much confusion about these disciplines: very few projects are pure IA, pure IxD or pure anything, and any of these professionals is likely to be doing a lot of the other disciplines in his daily job, without necessarily realising it, just like M. Jourdain spoke in prose.

These disciplines are all overlapping and complementary. We all do a bit of everything depending of what each project needs. But even so, it is still important to understand the differences between disciplines as this allow us to identify our respective strengths and weaknesses. I personally do not believe in UX Unicorns that are world class at everything. The best results are achieved by teams where members complements each others.

Jobs titles are the real source of confusion.
It seems that everyday we see new job titles (ux developers, ideeeaa engineeeeers…) as anyone can call himself what he pleases. Adding UX to your title is fashionable and seems to help command a higher salary or day rate. It even seems pretty risk-free it’s unclear what UX means to begin with. My own title is senior UX Architect and to me this is different from UX Designer, but I’m probably the only one to know why or, to be honest, to care.

Job titles are so stretched and misunderstood (and not only by silly recruiters) that they are used interchangeably depending on who you talk to. So much so that they don’t really matter any more. What you’ll actually end up doing on a job will depend mostly of each project and what are the strength of the people you will be working with. But this is what make this field so interesting: you never stop learning.

One thought on “Clarifying the disciplines of UX (or #DTDT, part 1)

  1. Matt

    Great post and opinions. I’ve recently been trying to better understand the core disciplines of UX. You’re absolutely right about the confusion of the disciplines when it comes to job titles but that they are complementary.

    From a hoser in Canada.

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