What is a UX Strategist?

I can’t really answer that question without defining the different UX disciplines and how they all work together. User Experience encompasses everything that goes into product design and use. That product could be a website, a piece of enterprise software, a kitchen appliance, or a car. Since UX includes such wide array of concepts and practical applications, there is often confusion about what a UX Strategist does (or should do). In the digital software space, UX has four primary disciplines:

  • Research
  • Interaction Design
  • Visual Design
  • Development

Most UXers have competencies in at least two of these disciplines, but finding someone who is competent in all four of them is a like trying to find a diamond in a shipping container filled with zc replicas. It’s a unicorn, but many companies think they can find it which is why the UX job market can be so challenging. Most companies don’t want to pay for four separate UX roles, especially when they see how many aspects of these disciplines overlap. This leads companies hold out on making hiring decisions in the hopes that they will find their unicorn. I have heard they exist, but I would not hold your breath for one to come knocking at your door.

Therefore, if you are looking to fill a UX role… be realistic about which pieces you actually must have. For example, a young company probably needs a developer with a strong understanding of user-centered design more than they need a dedicated interaction designer who really understands product/user psychology, but can’t really code. It’s a tradeoff you can’t avoid.

Now let’s define these disciplines to remove any ambiguity in the differences between UX roles:

UX researchers focus on gathering and understanding requirements. A good user experience depends on a solid understanding of not only business needs, but also user needs and expectations as they interact with the product. Someone in a UX research role might be expected to meet with product owners and internal stakeholders to determine business needs and gain an understanding of what the business is hoping to accomplish or the challenges that the product faces. They then use that information to build tests that will hopefully get put in front of real users. The researcher designs and conducts these tests, then writes up a report of the results from the user testing and suggests beneficial changes to the user experience that were identified. Not all UX research roles are involved throughout the product design/development life cycle. Often, there is some overlap between the research and the interaction design.

Interaction Design
Interaction designers take the data gathered from user testing/research and combine that with what they know about the market, product, users, and behavioral psychology to create the “best experience” possible. This “best experience” is simply the interaction designer’s interpretation of data. They will articulate this experience into a wireframe or prototype of some kind, but even if the prototype is clickable, it is usually still low fidelity. Interaction design can not be done in a silo and it is imperative that the other members of the team be involved in this process. Often their “best experience” will the myopic is some regard and/or unrealistic given code/project limitations. Working collaboratively through this process is the only way to avoid these pitfalls.

Visual Design (User Interface Design)
Visual designers take the wireframes/prototypes from the interaction designer and begin to build/draw/design the actual elements that will be used in the product (i.e. website, software, mobile app). Visual designers typically identify as artistic and spend the majority of their time in the Adobe Creative Cloud. Once the individual elements (e.g. buttons, fonts, icons, etc.) have been designed, they will then build a high fidelity wireframe/prototype that development will use as their guide to building the final product.

Software developers tend to have a few consistent threads among them, I’m sure you know the stereotypes. The difference between a UX developer and any random software developer you meet on the street (or wherever it is you go to meet software developers on a Friday night) is that UX developers should have a strong understanding of user-centered design. They may not have usability degrees and they might not have ever conducted a user test, but–at the very least–they have solid intuition when it comes to what will and won’t make for a good user experience. If you already have a development team, then a strong interaction designer can easily guide that team to creating phenomenal user experiences and there would be little need for you to go out and find new development staff. But, as mentioned earlier, there are some cases where development is the top priority and you need to find a strong user-centered developer who can code over someone to direct the development from an interaction design standpoint.

To answer the original question, what is a UX Strategist?

Now that we’ve clarified roles, a UX Strategist is someone who is part UX Researcher and part Interaction Designer. The greater discipline will vary from person to person, but the Strategist is chiefly concerned with gathering and interpreting data to guide the product development in a way that produces the best possible experience for the business and the user. Strategists probably know how to use Photoshop, but they aren’t artists and would make poor visual designers. They also have to know code, but more in the sense that they know what the code limitations are, rather than how to build it themselves.

Other UX Labels

For those of you looking to fill a UX role, labels are important if you want to attract the right talent. Here are some other titles and what UXers typically associate with them:

  • UX Architect – An often ambiguous label that has been known to mean many of the following
  • UX Strategist – Mix of researcher and interaction designer
  • UX Researcher – Same as research discipline explained above, but may include some interaction design
  • Interaction Designer – Identical to interaction design discipline above, may include some user testing/research
  • Experience Designer – Same as Interaction Designer
  • UI Designer – Visual Designer, as described above
  • UI Developer – Front-end developer; does not necessarily have user-centered design background
  • UX Developer – Any developer with a user-centered design background
  • UX Designer – Could be any ambiguous mix of everything above

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