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Published on March 25th, 2009 | by Rahel Bailie

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What’s the difference in a UX name?

A professional contact of mine mused about the self-designation of “user experience (UX) designer” as opposed to the more specific terms  within the UX field. His rationale is that “few individuals, if any, actually do EVERYTHING involved with holistic UX.”

My reaction, which I couldn’t fit into 140 characters, was that using a self-designation with a certain amount of specificity sacrifices practicality to accuracy. Individuals who have been hired as a single-function specialist may have the luxury of presenting as a “usability engineer” or “information architect”. For the independent consultant, this strategy can have definite negative consequences.

In my practice, I work with a range of clients, from the small start-up to  behemoth multinationals, and every size and flavour of organization in between. I’ve been recommended as a writer who “gets the technical stuff” and ended up spending most of my time revamping their public site, from card sort and user research, through to information architecture and transaction flows, to the usability tests after the developer and designer have finished building it. I’ve been hired as a “usability expert” and the task turned out to be requirements gathering and process analysis – in other words, a business analyst.

Because there is a large degree of fuzziness among the management layer of those who do the hiring of UX consultants, and is compounded by HR groups asked to bring in a “usability person to restructure the site”, or an IA for work that turns out be more interaction design than information architecture, it’s important to concentrate more on describing the services provided. For many years, I described what I provided as “performance improvement for communication products” because that’s how executives understood what I could do for their companies. That might have been rewriting content, restructuring a site, restructuring content for the site; the important part for me was that the client knew what to expect as to the value I could bring to their communication vehicle.

If I were to generalize about how to handle labels, it’s to move up one conceptual level. For example, when in doubt about whether something is a car or truck, move up one level to the term “vehicle”. When in doubt about whether your clients will understand the difference between a BA, IA, IxD, or Usability Geek, move up one conceptual level to the encompassing term of User Experience professional. This places you firmly within the UX field (as opposed to a technical IA, for example), and allows you to engage in a conversation with the client about recommended processes and where you fit within that realm.


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,



One Response to What’s the difference in a UX name?

  1. Destry Wion says:

    Hmmm, that muse looks familiar. :)

    You make a great point about the trade-off of practicality to accuracy, and I totally agree with your prescription about moving up a general level, which is what I would have said too beyond 140 characters. It’s not about the title, it’s about conveying the objective of addressing user needs.

    I love how you describe shifting from one service to the next, even within the scope of a given project. So true even when not intentional, but this really suggests how a contractor should shape and sell themselves. Good stuff.

    I like “user experience professional” and I’ve even seen “user experience architect” which is a workable, if not a bit too self-invented sounding, but I don’t like “user experience designer” because I’m seeing it associated more and more with people who do not have such real backgrounds in UCD, IA, content strategy, etc., but rather have have learned to use Flex, Adobe Air, Silverlight and the like and suddenly think creating UI’s with this technology is what UX design is about. Basically, I’m seeing a lot of people calling themselves UX Designers that shouldn’t be at all, any form.

    Reminds me of a relevant article by Karel Redenburg at IBM, What’s Messing Up Our UIs? http://karelvredenburg.com/2009/03/whos-messing-up-our-uis.html

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