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What is a User Experience Designer?

Today’s customers aren’t looking for just any old product — they’re hunting for the best-looking, most intuitive solution for their needs. If you want any hope of standing out from the crowd, you need a competent UX designer to serve on your team.

The UX designer is a sought-after professional with a strong sense of collaboration and empathy. Rather than focusing on tools, features, and services, the UX designer asks: ‘is this the right move for our customers?’

To effectively uphold your customers’ best interests, the UX designer must tend to numerous responsibilities:

  • Interviewing or surveying customers to learn more about their needs.
  • Evaluating product and service prototypes to look for points of confusion.
  • Auditing your existing products and services to find room for improvement.

This, of course, is a high-level overview of what a UX designer can do. More experienced professionals can do much more — and kick-start your business into a customer-centric future.

This guide explains the ins and outs of what you should know about user experience designers. We define their expectations, characteristics, and best-suited industries so you can make educated decisions as an employee or employer. 

Looking to hire (or get hired by) a great fit for your niche? We explain where you can find relevant listings at the bottom of the guide.

For now, let’s start by defining our terms:

What is a user experience designer?

A UX designer ensures products and services are effective, efficient, and enjoyable for end users. This typically includes tasks such as conducting user research, designing wireframes and prototypes, and testing designs with users.

The ultimate goal of the user experience designer is to satisfy existing users and appeal to future customers. To do this, they need to:

  • Listen to clients and record their feedback. This allows them to sift through positive and negative comments so they can take action on the most applicable points.
  • Chart every last touchpoint on a customers’ journey. In the technical world, this means mapping out their navigating on an app or website. In non-technical industries, this could mean storyboarding, evaluating restroom placement, or even assessing the location of package copy.
  • Collaborate with coworkers to find solutions for users. Once the UX designer has spotted a problem, they need to work alongside others (like the product manager or head of content) to determine the best next steps.

We typically think of UX designers as employees in technical positions. But as you’ve seen, this isn’t the case in every circumstance. Architecture, healthcare, and even food and beverage companies require the help of UX designers to keep an eye on product development.

UX designers still usually operate within a technical team’s hierarchy. Their level of seniority depends on their employer’s needs, which means they can serve in junior or senior positions or even report directly to the C-suite (like a CXO). They often work alongside user interface designers, software engineers, and other developers working on products for customers.

Characteristics of a UX designer

Successful UX designers need a good eye for detail and a passion for research and data. While they’re focused on ensuring the success of their employer, they do so by supporting the success of the end user.

This means the best UX designers have:

  • A strong understanding of user-centered design principles. The best UX designers have a deep understanding of end user expectations for your products or services. To meet (and hopefully exceed) these expectations, they must look out for consistency, hierarchy, and context, among other things. 
  • Excellent communication and collaboration skills. UX designers can’t work in a vacuum, and knowing how to communicate with other team members is paramount for success. They may need to sit in C-suite meetings or collaborate with employees outside their wheelhouse.
  • The ability to use design tools such as Sketch, Figma, and Adobe XD. A cursory understanding is usually enough, since not every company uses the same tech stack. That said, a professional who’s familiar with the tools of your trade is a valuable investment indeed.
  • The ability to think critically and creatively. A UX designer needs equal parts grit and grace, especially while presenting unpopular findings. While the dev team or documentation specialist may not see anything wrong with a certain feature, the UX designer may — and then need to present customer research alongside their credible suggestions.
  • Genuine empathy for users. UX designers need to put themselves in the shoes of your end users and their persona(s). Looking through the lenses of both consumer and collaborator, they should authentically feel your customer’s pain points and look for user-centric ways to solve them.
  • A background in data. UX designers have a strong understanding of data and its analysis. Not only do they need to know how to collect quantitative and qualitative data, but they should be able to parse valuable insights from any less interesting data.
  • The right personality for the job. The best UX designers are good at listening, have a love for learning, and never back down from a challenge. Many of them possess an analytical nature and think critically about the big picture of customer retention.

Keep in mind UX designers don’t need any certifications to carry out their roles. However, it never hurts to get more education, especially when it comes to hyper-specific technical industries. A few common examples of UX certifications include the Google UX Design Professional Certificate, the NN/g UX Certification, and the Bentley University UX Certificate Program.

There’s a very small number of full UX degrees available, even at the Masters level. Generally speaking, UX designers have some form of college education, including a Bachelors’ education in computer science, information technology, or graphic design.

When do you need a UX designer?

There’s no denying UX designers have a positive impact on the teams they serve. However, they don’t make sense for every industry, and they’re not always the best choice for every team.

For starters, many companies outside of the tech world don’t need to hire a UX designer. Vertices like construction, agriculture, and real estate may be hard-pressed to find a regular use case. Other industries, including hospitality, healthcare, and education, may find a rare application every now and then.

The biggest barrier to hiring UX designers is the high cost of their salary. These days, the average salary of a UX designer is roughly $94,351, although entry-level professionals start around $83,131. They can work up to as much as $126,265 or more at senior level. This may be more than some companies are willing to spend, especially younger businesses with skinnier budgets.

However, the benefits of hiring a UX designer greatly outweigh the up-front costs. Research from McKinsey & Company shows how design-driven companies have higher revenues and performance metrics than other companies focused on other priorities.

Plus, many sources suggest investing just $1 into UX yields a return on investment of $100 — a net increase of almost 200%. This easily covers the expense of their salary and covers training costs for junior employees.

So what does all this mean for your growing business?

You may want to hire a UX designer if:

  • You are redesigning or expanding an existing product or service.
  • You are experiencing usability problems with your product or service.
  • You make enough income to support a mid to senior-level UX designer.
  • You’re noticing excessive user churn and want to get to the bottom of it.
  • You’re launching into a competitive industry and want to stand out.

On the other hand, you may not want to hire a full-time UX designer if:

  • You don’t make enough income to support a full-time professional.
  • You’re in an early stage of business growth (you’re not working on products).
  • You don’t operate in an industry or niche requiring UX design.
  • You don’t have excessive churn (or don’t have a product where churn is a problem).
  • You’re not marketing in a saturated or hyper-competitive industry.

If you can’t currently afford a full-time UX designer, consider hiring a contractor or freelancer to bridge the gap. There are some extremely talented freelance professionals who can steer you in the right direction. And good news: UX designer careers are expected to grow 16% between 2022 and 2032, so it shouldn’t be hard to find a professional at a more accessible starting salary.

Looking to hire (or be hired as) a UX designer?

As we’ve learned, the main purpose of a UX designer is to help your company grow. But unlike documentation managers or heads of growth, their focus is on the customer — not just your product. 

Recruiting a talented UX professional is an excellent way to start involving your customers in the decision-making process, even if indirectly. And if you’re currently in a technical profession and wanting to make the switch to a new career, UX design may be a great fit for your personal and professional traits.

Looking to hire a UX designer for your team? Or wanted to get hired by a company in your niche? You can check out DevRel Careers for free to find dozens of suitable roles and top industry talent.

Meagan Shelley

By Meagan Shelley

Meagan is a professional writer in VA that specializes in content marketing, research, and SEO. If she's not helping people craft their own stories, she's working on some of her own. When she takes time to step away from the laptop, she enjoys hiking, farmer's markets, and occasional thru-hikes.