22 Sept 2023
UX/UI Designer. Sounds fancy! Sounds esoteric and technical. Most of all, to a layman it sounds confusing and mysterious.
But what's up with this label? And why do I piggyback on top of this buzzword by calling myself a UX/UI Designer? The answer is that it's cringe, but industry-standard cringe. Deep down I know and feel the cringe. The following article does a great job summarising just how cringeworthy this UX/UI status quo has become in our industry: https://jonas.do/writing/2017-03-28-the-unnecessary-fragmentation-of-design-jobs/
But I disagree with the solution proposed in the article, claiming that we should all just call ourselves "designers" without any qualifier at the beginning.
"Designer" is not enough.
Architects, industrial designers, furniture designers, interior designers, fashion designers, 3D modellers — we're all designers. But there's no way I could just jump into the role of a industrial designer and hit the ground running. Same way that you wouldn't get a brain surgeon to operate on someone's heart, and vice versa. Yes, there are overlaps, but there are also significant differences, and therefore differentiation is important if we want to be precise.
Someone who spends their day in Figma and Miro is not the same as someone who spends their day sketching ideas for physical objects or moulding metal into physical object. Not saying that one is better than the other, but they are clearly different!
"Product Designer", an honest attempt.
"Product designer" is another commonplace buzzword in the industry. A worthy try. But, unfortunately it doesn't survive the layman test. If I tell someone on the street, café or at a family gathering that I'm a product designer, they'll think I craft blueprints for chairs at IKEA, and rightly so. Product sounds like a physical product. Like industrial design.
"Digital Designer", a worthy contender.
The solution I see as most logical is to adopt the label "digital designer". Admittedly, this label isn't perfect since it doesn't differentiate those of us designing mobile / web apps for a living from people designing video game characters and logos for a living. But, we don't need a perfect solution. Just one that will be less awkward. One that does a good enough job at differentiating AND surviving the layman test. If a stranger on a plane asks me what I do, and I tell them "digital designer", they might have a rough sense for what I do even if they've never seen a wireframe or design mockup in their life. At the very least they'll know that I'm an IT nerd who belongs in the same category as web developers.
"Product designer" won't mean anything to them. "UX/UI Designer" even less so.
How "UX/UI" came about.
The term "UX" was championed by design legend Don Norman at Apple. He invented this qualifier in order to make people around him realise that good design isn't just pretty eye-candy, a simple veneer. But, that design extends into the core of a product — to its very purpose. To all possible interaction points that a user might have with a product, digital or physical.
Factors like performance, stability, accessibility and even that sweet unboxing of its packaging. The label "UX" was used as a tool to get clients, bosses, colleagues and other non-designers to think more holistically about design.
But like many great semantic inventions "UX" has been bastardised. Ultimately, it has failed. In fact, there's so much confusion around the term that we don't even know which way around it goes. Is it "UI/UX" or is it "UX/UI"? Recruiters still hunt for either of these awkward combinations, not knowing the difference. Juniors entering the industry will be just as confused, even encouraged to "just pick one" since others tell them that doing both is impossible — which is a self-limiting, self-fulfilling prophecy!
People who "don't get design" continue to only see it as a veneer, as a coat of eye-candy paint to throw on top of a product dreamed up by business stakeholders and engineers.
People who "get design" will train their own taste for good design, and leverage design specialists from day zero, designing "not just what it looks and feels like, but how it works", as Steve Jobs used to say.
UX/UI is dead, long live UX/UI!
(Imagine a confused crowd with half the attendants shouting in reverse as "long live UI/UX!")
Now! Having completely torn this semantic deadweight to shreds, and having proposed the "digital designer" alternative, will I now change my label from UX/UI Designer to Digital Designer?
At least not for now.
As cringe as "UX/UI" is, the buzzword has become, for worse, the industry standard. I've tried swimming against the current in the past, but with more obstacles than benefits. So now I'm going with the flow. I'm orienting myself to the market, and being audience-centric and practical is what good design is all about — even if it sometimes makes no logical sense whatsoever.
After all, I'm typing this post on a QWERTY keyboard, even though a Dvorak would supposedly be vastly superior. If I were to ever venture into designing laptops, I'd opt incorporate the same nonsensical QWERTY keyboard.
Both the awkward QWERTY keyboard and the awkward UX/UI label are universal and ubiquitous, and ultimately that's what sells. And for this reason I call myself a UX/UI Designer. It may not make any logical sense to me, but does in the eyes of my target audience. "It just works."