Digital Design Roles Explained: Who Does What?

If you are involved or interested in the world of websites, mobile apps and other digital products, you’ve probably been inundated with terms like UX, UI, IA, IxD and beyond. For someone working with this community (Entrepreneurs, Product Managers or even Clients) or trying to become one of them, it can feel really overwhelming reading, hearing or navigating across people wearing such fancy titles!

While all of these acronyms (and some more) are different roles in the overall digital product design area, the boundaries between each of these roles are very fluid and it’s not easy to clearly draw a line between them. When you hear someone say “I NEED A DESIGNER”, what they could be looking for is someone who can do anything and everything described above!!

So without further ado, let’s dive right into understanding the various roles and what makes them different from each other.

  1. User Research

A User researcher is the champion of a user’s needs. The work they do is the difference between making what you think your users want versus gathering insights to create something that they will actually enjoy.

The role can be summarized in articulating answers to two key questions:

  • “Who are our users?”
  • “What are their needs?”

Their typical modus operandi is interviewing users, researching data, conducting A/B Tests and distilling insights. Through this approach they draw statistically sound conclusions on who is an ideal user, what their needs are and what behavior they exhibit. Since (amateur) designers can easily get trapped in king-sized egos and believe their intuition trumps everything else, this can turn into a truly humbling experience that forces them to put aside assumptions for the greater good of their users.

Deliverables: User personas, A/B test results, Investigative user studies & interviews

2. UX (User Experience) Design

Even after all these years, “UX” remains the biggest buzzword in Design triggering surreptitious Googling of “What is UX design?” and “What does a UX designer do?” across the geographical landscape! Most people do know now that UX stands for user experience. But they have a hard time explaining what designing for a user experience means, or what a UX designer actually does.

Simply stated UX is all aspects of a system (website, app, product, service, community, etc.) as experienced by users. It is a blend of business, process and design that deals with why a product should be built in the first place, before looking at how it should be built.

What is particularly important to note is that UX design doesn’t end at the edges of a user’s screen, instead a UX Designer strives to create positive, consistent and desirable outcomes across all touch-points in the entire ecosystem between a brand and its customers.

To accomplish this, UX designers explore many different approaches to solve user problems and ensure that the product logically flows from one step to the next.

Deliverables: Customer Journey Map, Sitemap, Wireframes of Screens, Storyboards, Prototypes

3. UI (User Interface) Design

The User Interface design focuses on how software and machines work together towards enhancing experience, usability and efficiency. A UI designer dictates the type and arrangement of interface elements like input controls, information controls and navigation controls to make the product easy to use and enjoyable for end users.

Unlike UX designers who are concerned with the overall feel, user interface designers are in charge of designing each screen with which a user interacts and ensuring that the UI visually communicates the path that a UX designer has laid out. By maintaining consistency in visual elements and behavior, UI designers must ensure users can interact with the interface quickly and efficiently.

As you can see, the boundary between UI and UX designers is fairly blurred and it is not uncommon for companies to opt to combine these roles.

Tools of the trade: Photoshop, Fireworks, Sketch, and InVision.

4. Visual Design

Visual Design makes the “top” layer of the design stack and involves crafting an attractive “look-n-feel” that injects beauty and life into a product. By sweating the pixel-level details in typography, iconography, layout, media and colors, visual designers ensure that the end result is perfect. They are also typically responsible for creating a cohesive style guide and ensuring that a consistent design language is applied across the product. Designers with a graphic design background make a great transition into translating low-fi product definitions into beautiful high fidelity interfaces as they don’t have to worry about how user is interacting with the product.

If you ask a non-designer what a designer does, this is probably what comes to mind first.

Tools of the trade: Photoshop, Sketch, Illustrator, Fireworks, InVision

5. Interaction (Motion) Designer

The field of Interaction or Motion Design demands that designers elevate their thinking from static to movement and interaction. Motion designers deal with what the interface does after a user touches it. They decide on these “Micro-Interactions” — how a menu should slide in, what transition effects to use, and how a button should fan out. The work of a Motion Designer can be best described using the reference of that subtle bouncing animation you see when you pull to refresh in the Mail app on your iPhone.

When done well, motion becomes an integral part of the interface by providing visual clues as to how to use the product.

Tools of the trade: After Effects, Flash, Origami

6. Special Mention: IA (Information Architecture)

A lot of you must also be aware of IA - a practice of organizing content within an application to be clear, understandable and findable — that is allow users to conveniently find the information required for completing tasks. Information Architects with strong organization skills create sensible, flexible structures that scale elegantly. They thrive in content heavy sites, e-commerce and any situation where lots of information is to be presented.

The reason I kept this out from the primary roles above is that the title of “Information Architect” dates back before “User Experience Designer” came into being. Today, there aren’t as many jobs with strict IA responsibilities because this is a foundational stage of design and many jobs now demand a broader UX skillset.

So there are all our roles in one place! As I mentioned in the beginning, while each of the roles above has a different context, the blurry lines and fudgy edges exist, varying quite a bit from company to company depending on how the team is structured.

Some UX designers might be expected to do interaction design, and often UI designers are expected to push pixels as well. However if you are trying to build a design career in digital design, you don’t have to master all of these roles to succeed in this massive industry. Simply staying aware about these topics will aid your development into a more complete designer, while you build your skills and experience in the area that you feel most passionate about. I believe the most effective designers are T-shaped figures with a sound understanding and exposure across various roles and deep expertise in 1 or 2 fields.