collaborating What is a User Experience Designer?

User experience design is making new ideas visible to the team so people can discuss or test key concepts.

User eXperience (or UX) is about addressing a user interface or process flow in a way that is relevant to real people. UX can take many forms, including user interface design, streamlining workflows, and integration. I spoke with Ashley O'Brien about her work as a user experience designer.

What is a User Experience Designer?

My name is Ashley O'Brien, and I have been practicing user experience in a local government setting for over four years. I got my start in user experience research eight years ago in the higher education sector. My background is a blend of various UX disciplines, including content strategy, which has become more closely aligned with UX disciplines in many settings.

User experience design is making new ideas visible to the team so people can discuss or test key concepts. I used to think UX design was using tools to create wireframes and prototypes. I have come to realize the true work of the designer is about combining inputs to create new visualizations.

In my role, design takes the form of deep understanding for what we are building and why. A big part of my role is democratizing research so I can empower others to find context and answers for our challenges. In some ways, I see myself as a connector and facilitator first, creator second.

Do you have a typical day or week in your role?

I typically have fifteen projects running at once. I am careful to space milestones so I can maintain quality outputs and have enough time to include people in the decision-making process. People sometimes joke that the government is slow, but sometimes I wish it could be even slower!

I get an early start on the day to get deep thinking completed before my colleagues need me to join their meetings. I frequently meet with my business unit, but I work more closely with project teams across our enterprise. I have gotten comfortable planning touchpoints in 30- and 60-minute increments. Sometimes I divide larger tasks into smaller pieces so we can make incremental progress each week. Demands can change quickly in our setting, so smaller-sized checkpoints allow us to pause or pivot as needed.

Workshops, brainstorms, design critiques, collaborative creation, and plan review require careful prep work on my end. I use block scheduling to make time for execution tasks and set expectations with my business partners at the time we define next steps. A lot of my time is spent coordinating engagements with stakeholders and planning sequencing for deliverable execution. I try to stay out of email and use management systems and working documents to make sure critical tasks don't get missed with many competing priorities across the city.

Do you rely on particular tools for your work?

I use basic office tools more than fancy design products. Lots of my work happens in shared documents, so collaboration features are really important. I use prototyping software to create designs and digital whiteboard tools to harness ideas in our conversations. I rely on system data and analytics tools to guide our plans.

I love learning new tools and find a willingness to ask questions is my greatest technical skill.

What skills do people need to get into UX?

Having worked in different UX disciplines, I think each specialty requires a different mindset.

UX Design: This person is great at bringing ideas to life and has a strong ability to listen for key details. Training in human-centered design is key for knowing how the UXD role fits into the product development lifecycle. I find folks coming out of a UX bootcamp have a lot of great skills to start strong and keep growing.

UX Research: This person is naturally curious and has a strong ability to prioritize important details. Experience performing analytical thinking is key for identifying key insights and bringing forward the right details. I find superstars from other fields have a lot of great experience to make a research process their own.

UX Strategy: This person is a deep thinker and has a strong drive to get involved with decision-making. Experience owning administrative and management tasks equips people with important skills that can help influence and lead. I find folks with experience in another UX discipline make great strategists.

What skills and tools do folks need to get into the UX field?

I think skills and tools needed to get started in UX can vary across disciplines. I made the mistake of waiting until I had all the skills and experience using multiple tools before I identified as a UX professional. I would say as soon as you have one skill or tool-experience, you are officially a UX-er! UX is an approachable discipline to learn; there are a lot of great resources and best practices available for free. I believe professional expertise accumulates in layers, beginning with a humble start.

As a researcher, tools and processes are considered research operations. Understanding the lifecycle of a research project will reveal skills and tools to gain. It's valuable to know one or two areas of research operations and the other portions can be learned on the job. For example, I learned a lot about participant management when I was a research assistant. And now I am able to conduct my own research, developing processes for insights management as I go based on best practices. No one is expecting the UX researcher to be perfect. If improvement is needed, others might not even notice!

As a designer, tools and processes can vary depending on the team you work on. I do a combination of product and service design so I use tools that allow me to create wireframes, flow charts, prototypes and personas. I tend to gravitate to low-fidelity prototypes/diagrams using basic presentation software, but I find more sophisticated design tools are necessary for the end-to-end design process. For skills, I would say iterative design is a major asset, and that having the ability to execute your own research as part of an iterative process is sometimes a requirement.

As a strategist, tools and processes are used to share future-states with the team. Design software is helpful when creating strategic deliverables like journey maps. Walking people through a complex idea is easily executed using presentation software. Comfortability finding creative ways to query data sets is key to informing business decisions. In some roles, I was able to identify a need for analytics and leverage another staff member to handle the data. In other roles, I was the person performing the analysis and creating data visualizations.