Roles of a UX designer, Article 1 – The Five Major Roles

Par Pascale Morneau


Les rôles du designer UX, article 1


User experience (UX) design is a rapidly evolving discipline. As a UX designer, almost every day I’m explaining what I can do for organizations. I take this as a good sign, since it shows that there is an interest in the concept. Given that UX design is a subject of interest for the moment, I decided to post a series of columns on the different roles that UX designers can play. In this entry, I’ll refer to the most significant of these roles, both according to me and the UX community in general. There are five:

  • 1 The Rallying Person
  • 2 The Outline Expert
  • 3 The Natural Strategist
  • 4 The Wise Planner
  • 5 The Advisor

The Big Question: What is UX Design?

Since this field of expertise is still in its infancy, and especially since it is evolving so rapidly, it remains relatively unknown. For the same reasons, it continues to be inaccurately defined and continuously treated as a buzzword. I’ll admit, on behalf of all my UX design colleagues, that we find ourselves in a difficult spot: not only are we often faced with the task of defining UX design, but we are also lacking a clear definition.

Evidently, we need to come to a consensus, with a consistent interpretation and definition that illustrates what we do. The process of defining our field will certainly be useful; as a freelancer, it’s important that I can explain the services I can offer to organizations! And so, without further delay, here is my definition of User experience:

User experience (UX) combines the fields of business analysis, information architecture, ergonomics, and design. It is a discipline that is at once precise and comprehensive; attention to detail alongside an awareness of the big picture results in interfaces, services, and products that are both useful and relevant to users.

To expand on this definition, I’d like to provide you with a more comprehensive understanding of the roles of a UX designer. This article is the first in a series that I’ll be posting, which will focus specifically on the most important points. Here are the five major roles:

1 The Rallying Person

UX design first appeared when it became clear that there was a need for a blend of design types. When it comes to information architecture (IA), business analysis, strategy, marketing, web design, programming, and other fields of expertise, the ultimate objective is creating an experience for the user. To be most relevant, UX design has to account for insights from all of these fields.

In the early 2000s, studying and understanding the user was the responsibility of social science professionals (e.g, anthropologists). The graphic designer was then responsible for articulating the experience, and often, the social scientist/anthropologist would not return for user tests. Today, in contrast, there are many more experts on the scene. The UX designer has a central role of ensuring that a user-focused position is maintained throughout the phases of a project.

In fact, we now know that the user must be a primary preoccupation for all the collaborators as they proceed with the design and seek to attain the project objectives. The UX designer serves to maintain this unified perspective of the user, bridging the gaps between all of fields of expertise that may be used in a given project.

The UX designer also has the duty to implicate all actors that are involved in a project, recognizing and seizing opportunities linked to their respective fields of expertise. This work entails supporting open discussion between collaborators, using different design tools. The designer has a number of elements to account for, including the informational structure, the identification of needs and objectives, market positioning and advertising, the company’s graphic image, the choice of technology to use, and the integration of diverse media. Naturally, the actors that are responsible for each of these elements should be engaged before their work is fused together.

2 The Outline Expert

The outline of a project can be understood as the project’s mission. The outline also conveys the nature of the mission. When an outline is being drafted, UX design and IA are taken into consideration together. To understand the extent to which these two parts are integrated, it’s important to explore IA, with reference to the way that it interacts with UX design.

The most important element of a project is the content. The content is the base; it explains why users are visiting the website. The raison d’être of a project is communicated in the content, and it is therefore necessary to be clear about the content before proceeding to design-related decisions. So what does “content” mean, exactly? In the context of UX design, content refers to the points of interest for users: the product, service, or interface. The content is far more than text: it is information, tools, images, interactive components and more. This is where IA fits in, bringing the right questions to the table: Who are the users? What are their profiles, and what is attracting them to this content? Knowing this, what do we have to offer them? It’s crucial to think beyond the content, considering the experience in general. Communicating with users is certainly an excellent starting point before the content is developed. You see what I’m getting at: it’s crucial to have a good understanding of both the content and the users, to be able to best link the two.

UX needs IA, and vice versa. They are built on the same analytical foundations and they play off each other as they perform independently. The two disciplines are inseparable, even if they’re under the responsibility of one, two, or 15 people. For this reason, the UX designer is responsible for information architecture. Evidence of this is seen with the increasing use (especially in English) of the title “UX architect”.

3 The Natural Strategist

Today, there are infinite possibilities for informing, selling, positioning, sharing, collaborating, broadcasting, expressing, etc. To uncover and explore these possibilities, it is crucial to understand the users and their behaviours, as well as our resources. Since the UX designer provides a big picture perspective alongside a careful attention to detail, there is natural potential for relevant strategies to be developed.

4 The Wise Planner

As an actor that is present for the entire length of a project, the UX designer acts as an ally to the project manager during the planning phase of a project. This means that the UX designer has the advantage of being present from the very beginning of discussions. On this point, I’ll describe a concrete example from my own experience:

I was entrusted with a high profile project by the senior management of a large organization. This project was so important that even they were working—and working hard—to move it forward. They had the excellent reflex at the beginning of the project to create a committee that would focus on how they (or the project) could respond to the needs of the entire organization. Together, they participated in many meetings to discuss their objectives and concerns. I admired the degree of involvement and the effort made to reflect on the concrete issues facing the organization. The problem, however, was that they did not really ask questions about users’ needs and habits. If there had been a user experience expert participating in the discussions, these questions would have been an integral part of the project from the very beginning.

For the same project, the mandate was divided into different phases for both practical and budgetary reasons. Since the mandate was to create a multiplatform experience, the project was split up so that one segment (service?) was worked on at a time. Even if it was necessary to split up the project for budgetary and feasibility reasons, the user experience should have made an appearance in all phases. If this had happened, I think that the organization would have uncovered more opportunities for innovation. From a practical point of view, it also would have made it easier to connect the different segments at the end of the project and to avoid ending up with missing pieces.

Even if it is necessary to split a large project up into phases, it’s important to ensure that you’re working with the appropriate experts at key moments. This is essential if the investment is to be maximized. If UX designers are involved from the beginning of the planning and design stages, there is potential for them to make great contributions.

5 The Advisor

Since UX designers are (preferably) involved in all the stages of a project and connected to all the key parties, they often assume an advisory role. Playing this role successfully means possessing certain client support abilities: the ability to speak on behalf of the clients, business sense, a collaborative spirit, and a methodological approach. Most importantly, when UX designers play a consultant role, they’re supporting project managers without telling them what to do.

In this article, I’ve been talking a lot about best practices and the best ways to leverage UX designers. As a consultant, however, I rarely find myself in ideal circumstances. In these cases, it’s important to understand why the context isn’t ideal, zero in on these issues and then deal with them in a constructive way. External advisors have the advantage of a more neutral perspective, allowing them to recognize solutions and ‘the way forward’ where others may not.

Of course, we must acknowledge and take into consideration that not everyone is familiar with the field of UX design. For a UX designer, all of the above information is well understood, but for many clients and collaborators, the opposite may be true. For example, when we are working with content professionals, it is important that we are credible and that we communicate how our proposed interventions fit into the big picture of a project. When other professionals understand our field, there is greater potential for them to benefit from our expertise, leading to successful collaboration.

United in the Project

Ultimately, we can see that UX designers contribute their expertise through a number of different roles. The common thread is the ability for UX designers to communicate and collaborate effectively.

For the next two articles of this series, I’d like to go further in my explanation of the role of the Outline Expert. I find this to be the most significant of all UX designer roles. I’ll be talking about information architecture, of course, but also about design and UX strategy.

For more information

BUFORD, S. (2011). «Web Information Architecture : A Very Inclusive Practice», Journal of Information Architecture, 1(3), p. 19-40.

CHARETTE, L. (2007). «Le rôle-conseil», Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés.

DESJARDINS, G. (2011). «Le transmédia, c’est quoi?», Triplex le blogue techno de Radio-Canada.

GARRETT, J.J. (2012). The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web, 2e édition, New Riders, 348 p.

KARANDIKAR, S. (2013). «Is User Experience Design the next big thing?», UXDesignLog.

PAGAN, B. (2013). «Four Myths About UX and How to Bust Them», UX MAgazine, Article 1119.

RESMINI, A. et ROSATI, L. (2011), Pervasine Information Architecture : Designind Cross-Channl User Experiences, Morgan Kaufmann, 250 p.

SAGALA, A. (2013). «Le marketing multicanal», Grenier aux nouvelles.

SANDERS, E.B.-N. et STAPPERS, P.J. (2008). «Co-creation and the new landscapes od design», CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts, 4(1), p. 5-18.

VAN DIJCK, P. (2003). Information architecture for designers: structuring websites for business, RotoVision, 160 p.

WODTKE, C. et GOVELLA, A. (2009). Information Architecture : Blueprints for the Web, 2e édition, Berkeley, New Riders, 348 p.