There’s a memorable scene in ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ where Brian tentatively approaches a small band of people led by John Cleese and asks: “Are you the Judean People’s Front?” After a few expletives, John Cleese explains that they’re not the Judean People’s Front — they’re The People’s Front of Judea. The sketch makes the point that what one person sees as a small difference, another person sees as a paradigm shift.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re getting into the same situation in the field of user experience. We define ourselves by roles that sound pretty similar to people that work outside the field — Information Architects, Interaction Designers, Visual Designers, Usability Engineers and User Experience Designers are just a handful of terms commonly used.

But what are the differences? And how do they work together?

Information Architecture

Information architecture is concerned with how data are organised or structured from the user’s perspective — as opposed to the perspective of the system.

At the level of a web site, information architecture is concerned with defining the data on each page and how those pages relate to each other. For example, defining a site map is an information architecture activity. At the level of an individual page, information architecture is concerned with layout to ensure that data are logically grouped and interrelated.

Information architecture is also concerned with using and defining taxonomies (such as hierarchies) and classifying data within these taxonomies. So defining menus and navigational structures is an information architecture issue. The Information Architect’s job is made easier when he or she understands the way users and domain experts think about the information, so they use techniques like structured interviews and card sorting to get inside users’ heads.

Interaction Design

Interaction design is concerned with the controls, mechanisms and processes that users need to perform their tasks with the system.

For example, the Interaction Designer determines whether we should have a menu rather than a set of tabs, whether we should have a drop down list rather than set of radio buttons and he or she will determine the steps for setting up a new email account using a wizard.

Interaction Designers are concerned with affordances: what controls and control mechanism do, and how this is communicated to users. As a consequence, you’ll often see Interaction Designers using or compiling pattern libraries to capture a particular interaction technique.

Visual Design

Visual design is concerned with the aesthetics of the interface. Visual Designers ensure the interface looks good and communicates the right type of ‘image’ to the users, including conformance to any brand or style guidelines.

Visual Designers often come from a graphic design background. Good Visual Designers often have excellent skills in illustration, animation, and photography, which they integrate into their interface design work.

Usability engineering

Usability Engineers design and execute studies to test the usability of interfaces. They also make recommendations as to how to correct problems that their studies identify. These may be very specific like, “Make a stronger distinction between the ‘OK’ and ‘Cancel’ buttons”, or very general like: “The information architecture needs revisiting”.

To do this, Usability Engineers must be skilled in areas such as questionnaire design, interviewing and using specialist usability testing software (like Morae). The best Usability Engineers also have a good grounding in statistics so that they can apply the correct statistical methods and tests to quantitative study results. They are also familiar will relevant standards such as ISO 9241 and the Common Industry Format for Usability Testing (ANSI/NCITS 354-2001).

So what is User Experience Design?

In an article published some time ago by Melisa Cooper (sadly no longer available online) she drew the analogy between a User Experience Architect (a term more popular than User Experience Designer in the 1990s) and that of a conventional architect who designs houses. So, that when designing a new house:

  • An Information Architect would ensure that: the master bedroom can fit a double bed, two side tables and a large wardrobe; the kitchen is next to the dining room; and the only bathroom is not in the garage.
  • An Interaction Designer would ensure that the cold water tap is always on the right, that the stairs have a hand rail and the light switches are on the correct side of the door.
  • A Visual Designer would choose the carpets, curtains and furniture so that they co-ordinate well, are in keeping with the character of the house and meet the home owner’s individual taste.
  • A Usability Engineer would ‘snag’ the house during development to identify the day-to-day problems that people will experience when they move in.

But someone needs overall responsibility for the design: leading and briefing all of those specialist roles, resolving the inevitable conflicts across these roles and generally ‘representing’ the home owner (not the builders) in the design process.

With a house, this is the role of the architect who conceives the whole experience for the home owner. With an interactive system, a User Experience Designer plays this analogous role. Just like a conventional architect, a User Experience Designer is the ‘senior professional’ on a project. (This means that they also need excellent generic business skills such as project management, interpersonal communication skills, presentation skills and facilitation skills).

Conclusion

In this article I have identified four specialist areas in user experience design: information architecture, interaction design, visual design and usability engineering. We can think of these as four lenses that the User Experience Designer will look through from time to time.

User Experience Designers have different levels of skill in each of these areas. When I coach or mentor User Experience Designers, I often ask them to rank themselves on a scale of 1-10 in each of these skill areas to help define their “UX profile”. I explain that:

  • A ‘10’ in usability engineering means for example that you have 20+ papers published on usability studies in referred journals like Behaviour and Information Technology or the Journal of Usability Studies.
  • A ‘10’ in visual design would mean for example that you lead the visual design work on the iOS interface.
  • A ‘10’ in information architecture would mean for example that you lead the navigational schema design at eBay.
  • A ‘10’ in interaction design would mean for example that the form wizard you designed can get users through the entire UK online tax return process more than 90% of the time.
  • In my experience, you'll need a rating of around ‘6’ in these areas to be qualified to undertake the role in many commercial contexts.

Why not take some time to define your own UX profile?

About the author

Ritch Macefield

Dr. Ritch Macefield (@Ax_Stream on Twitter) holds a BA in Creative Design, an MSc in IT/Computing and a PhD in HCI. He is an acknowledged expert in Axure having led Axure projects for clients like Thomson-Reuters, Dell computers and Vodafone. He was a panel speaker at Axure World 2012, contributed to the book “Axure RP 6 Prototyping Essentials” and founded the Axure RP Pro LinkedIn Group.


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