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By Any Other Name August 19, 2010

Posted by dantemurphy in building a team.

Oh, how I am sick of the “you’re not a designer” crapola.  It’s a poisonous debate, one that so often divides people who should feel unified along positional statements and anecdotal experiences.

So why am I feeding this beast?

Because it’s a windmill, and I’m feeling Quixotic.

Like many of you, I’ve gone by a wide variety of titles doing essentially the same thing.  My first job in UX wasn’t really a job in UX at all, that was just the way I approached it.  Back then, I called myself a programmer.

As time wore on I was writing fewer programs and doing more analysis of data and creation of reports.  I was an analyst…but not the kind with a couch in his office.

Then came the web.  Thanks to Al Gore, I now spent a lot of time writing code, but not the kind that did anything; this code just put stuff on a page where people could see it, and maybe click on a link.  Suddenly I was…a programmer again.

It was around this time that the “polar bear book” came out, and I realized that I was an information architect.  Who knew?  I asked my boss if I could write a new job description and create a new title to match.  It was a watershed moment.  Since that moment 12 years ago, I’ve never had a job description I didn’t write myself.

In the intervening years I’ve considerably honed my craft, adding a broader understanding of design principles and business objectives.  I’ve had the opportunity to manage others who did the same thing I do.  And I’ve added an important skillset; research.

In fact, these days I probably generate more revenue for my company as a result of my research methodologies and activities than I do from making wireframes and site maps.  And in the midst of yet another dust-up over “what is a designer”, this realization caused me to question whether I really am a designer…or something MORE.

That’s right, interaction designers, the world doesn’t begin and end with us.

The good news is that most of us realize that.  We know that there are others who contribute specialized skills to the problems we solve and the products we make.  Whether we’re working with a visual designer, a software engineer, or a marketing guru, we understand and respect the input of those disciplines.

The skills these specialists perform may even be part of our repertoire, but there’s a difference.  As interaction designers, our focus is on crafting interactions that will result in an optimized experience for the user of our product or service.  We may apply typography or coding skill or an understanding of the competitive landscape, but our framing is all about interactions.

When we think more about the domain than the skills, the Venn diagram of overlapping disciplines makes a lot more sense.  Visual designers are focused on aesthetic, creating beauty or evoking a specific mood, even if they might use the same design principles I do when I create a wireframe.

Nobody owns a skill.  If you want to take ballet classes to become a better football player, do it.  Just don’t call yourself a dancer if your job is to score touchdowns.  And more importantly, don’t tell the left tackle on the team that he’s not a football player because he doesn’t know how to plie

This is where we so often go off the rails, telling other people what they are or are not based upon the skills we use.  It’s like saying that a person born halfway around the world isn’t really a person at all because he doesn’t speak the same language.  A person who doesn’t sketch, doesn’t write code, and can’t moderate a usability test is still an interaction designer if that’s the problem space he works in.

This is not to say that you have to hire him to work on your team.  Matching skills is important within a team or company as a means of managing expectations and mapping capabilities to career paths.  There are some who believe they have the magic formula for the work they do, and if the results bear it out, that’s great.  But it’s not the only way to skin a cat.

My preference is to focus more on the kinds of problems my team can solve than on their preferred tools and methods.  If most of the team uses Visio to create documents but one designer uses InDesign, that’s fine with me…as long as that person can train the rest of us to be at least conversant in that tool.  By hiring and training for diversity of skills and approaches, the aggregate capabilities of my team are always growing.

As a result, we’ve gone beyond the title of “interaction designer”.  Our problem domain is “user experience”, and the broad disciplines we apply to that problem space are research, design, and development.  As a result, our titling structure has three elements:

  • Level: from Associate to SVP, this represents an individual’s overall level of skill and experience in the UX field
  • Domain: this part is the same for all of us, and it’s the name of our department—User Experience
  • Practice: this represents the disciplines in which the practitioner is most skilled—research, design, or development

So a person on my team might have the title: Director | User Experience | Research and Design.

The key to this structure is that anyone can have more than one discipline in his title, and there’s no need for permanence.  A designer now can be a researcher in the future, just as I went from being a programmer (twice!) to being a designer and researcher today.

There’s an additional skill, too.  I call it “leadership”.  It can be an expertise in a specific discipline, like a principal, it can map to people-management, or it can map to the expansion of opportunity through business development, evangelism, and advocacy.

On my team, we don’t have a 4-skill person.  Honestly, I don’t see the need.  The nature of our work allows us to collaborate, share, and grow; nobody needs to be the whole show.  There are limits to how far a person will go on just one or two skills, of course, but if you have a team of passionate and smart people (which I am fortunate to have) they will keep growing and learning, whether within the bounds of a skill or into new areas.  The key is to make sure that everyone has at least one pathway for growth.

So this is my affirmative statement of self.

I am a designer.

I am a researcher.

I am a leader.

What are you?



1. Leisa Reichelt - August 19, 2010

*round of applause* well said.

this is more or less the sentiment behind a blog post I’ve had in drafts for ages but never quite been able to articulate. Sweeping statements about what skillsets are essential are such baloney. Skillsets required are particular to your team and your project and your stage & responsibility to the project.

The world needs all kinds of designers.
I’m a researching, collaborative freelance designer who is best not left in charge of the colour palette.

2. Rich - August 19, 2010

I think this is pretty well said too, and it accommodates many of my thoughts & feelings on the topic. When I pulled back the covers on what the specialists’ groups, lists, and assoc. have been putting together in the last few years I was frankly dismayed, to say the least. Since this “uncovering” I’ve been doing a little inventory of all the terms, styles, techniques and strategies that I believe don’t always warrant having specific titles, let alone full industry associations behind them. I’m not saying all these apply, but UXD, UCD, IAs, Ix, UI, UE.. bla, bla, bla, just to name a few. Having 20+ years in the business (IT, SW dev, and Designer) I find it amazing that people coming into the profession (broad as it is) feel fine creating terms, sub-disciplines, etc. at a whim when the same functions have been done for years before as best practices–or at least that’s my hypothesis. At any rate, I’ve been mapping out all my findings on a large info diagram destined for a blog post at some point. 🙂

[This wasn’t meant to be a long post, but oh well. ]

One thing that has come to mind in doing this assimilation is that maybe there needs to be some distinction between the corporate world and small independents/agencies. I keep think “I do that, and that, and that” and I don’t apply all those titles to myself. The next question becomes, well, how many independents care about these titles, and aren’t there way more independents out there doing everything from web design, software architecting, business analyst functions, etc. than there are in corporations?? I’ve been in fortune 50 companies, Fortune 500, 250 person, 5 person, etc. and I’ve seen the bureaucracies in all. I know it’s not always easy to see how many smaller agencies and indies there are out there. But if I’m correct about there being more (think Long tail) then why do these professional associations feel like they can co-opt the terms and muddy the water? I’ll be honest, it makes many of us smaller groups feel like we need to boast and hype ourselves in crazy ways in order to compete when we see Nike, Yahoo, or Amazon looking for a User Centered Visual Experience Engineer/Designer with Interaction Design Experience”. Yes, many of us do all those things, we just don’t feel compelled to get so close to these labels that frankly sounds self serving.

The bottom line is that I think I agree with where you are coming from in terms of User Experience Design as the catch all. I need to re-read your entire post. Though, I have another one I like good, old fashion Information Design. 

I’m curious what your thoughts are on the corporate – indie distinction?


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