May 15, 2016
It's Time You Stop Searching for the Michelangelo of UX Design

The term “User Experience Design” is one that is often thrown around and can mean everything from “how do you feel?” to “what are the pixel dimensions this device?”. Ask 100 people what a “UX Designer” is and you will get 100 different answers - and most likely a few confused expressions as well.

The fact is, there are many dimensions that UX can encompass.

I’ve been involved in UX for the last 16 years and have seen the profession evolve tremendously. I hope to help translate the current complexities into simple truths. Have you ever been confused about what a UX designer is actually doing? After reading this quick article, you will be armed with an understanding that may help you make better hiring and staffing decisions. You will also be able to have more informed conversations on the subject.


Every company seems to have a different title and job description for the UX role. Take these headlines ripped from today’s job boards:

  • Principal UX Architect is needed immediately!
  • Searching for a Product Designer to lead our UX team.
  • Looking for a talented Experience Designer to create digital experiences.

The reality is this that many of these differentiations are nonsense. A UX Designer can be an architect, a wireframer, a prototyper, a researcher, or a graphic artist. Although it’s possible that a “Michelangelo” UX Designer does exist, most UX Designers do possess specific skill sets and therefore specialize in executing particular deliverables.


There are three main areas that UX has evolved to encompass. Each space is concerned with a different set of concepts.


The left side of this diagram is the “analytical” side. In the middle lies the functional area, and the right portion is focused on the artistic dimensions.

There may be instances where one UX Designer plays all three of these roles at once, for instance in a three-person startup company. But generally speaking, most professional UX Designers play a specialized role within one of these three domains.


What’s important to understand is that work in each of these areas requires the designer to “wear a different hat”. Analyzing human behavior would utilize a different set of tools, processes, and mindsets than would designing the style of an icon.

In the real world, these affinities correspond to the three most common UX Roles, and are frequently expressed in job titles such as those below. It’s important to note that although the titles in each column may be different, there is a lot of overlap between the functions.



So, the myth of the Michelangelo UX Designer is just that – a myth. Don’t think that when you hire your first UX Designer that they will have mastery of entire spectrum of roles and functions.

I’ve heard a lot of this kind of thinking lately, and also seen the ways in which it can spell disaster for a project or your product team. The main takeaway here is that each type of UX Designer has a different set of tools, different considerations, and different mindsets.



Let’s take an all too real, but fictional example.

Dave is the CMO of a mature software company. Dave has hired his first UX Designer, Jenna, because everyone has told him how much the look and feel of his product needs to be modernized. Sound familiar? Dave thinks it would be nice to have some “Steve Jobs design types” walking around the halls. It will just be a matter of time before the product turns into the next cool slick app that everyone is clamoring for!

Unfortunately, Jenna’s skills fall squarely into the realm of functional design and she has no training in visual design principles. When pressed for pixel-perfect new designs, Jenna makes wireframes. When asked to do final visual designs, they are painfully underdeveloped, exposing the fact that her role on this project and her actual training and experience are mismatched.

Six months later, with his budget blown and new design milestones being missed, Dave realizes he needs to hire a visual designer. Half a year’s budget has gone down the toilet.


You can avoid Dave’s situation by understanding the three basic UX Design personas and how they are inter-related.

An easy way to remember the three basic UX roles is illustrated below:



Sara is a scientist at heart. Using the scientific method, she doesn’t trust anything until it is proven.

She strives to understand users in the way botanists understand plants. Her job is to document user qualities, analyze their behaviors, categorize their types, and create hypotheses to test.

Sara builds test cases, collects data, analyzes results, makes recommendations, and builds a comprehensive analysis of the user.


Federico relies on Sara to provide him with data on user qualities so he can build appropriate experiences for them.

Half scientist and half artist, Federico takes data and requirements and designs functional frameworks that satisfy the business need in the best way possible for the user. Federico sketches concepts on paper and whiteboards, getting progressively more detailed as team partners fill in gaps of missing information and provide expert feedback.

Federico will move to wireframes, mockups, and prototypes to get make the basic experience come to life, creating fast iterations until the final experience and functionality is agreed upon.


Vivienne is an artist at heart. She takes Federico’s blueprints and adds the visual layer, either from an existing style system or from an original design exploration.

Vivienne works in a set of complex graphic design tools, focusing on color strategy, typography systems, idea metaphorization, photography, iconography, shapes, styles and visual balance.

When her artwork is done, Vivienne then works with an engineer to turn her designs into code and assets. After that, Sara and Federico will perform testing to confirm that the experience is faithful to the design.


The type of UX designer you should hire will depend on your needs. Having separate employees to fill all three roles may unrealistic for smaller to mid-sized companies, but is absolutely necessary for enterprises where these roles are very formalized and specialized. In most UX departments, roles are blurred and very frequently the “UX Designer” plays two or even all three of these roles at any given time. But this can be problematic.


Although there are many talented UX Designers out there, it has become common to think a UX Designer can play all three roles equally well

This is a dangerous expectation and has the potential to lead you astray in your hiring. Don’t believe anyone who tells you they do everything, because - although they might be able to fill in a pinch - their primary focus or sphere of influence is generally confined to one of the three spaces in the spectrum.


It’s more critical than ever to build your UX capability. Given the complexity of device fragmentation, multiple form factor, cloud based content delivery, connected devices, social networks and the mobile revolution, you need people thinking and designing in a way that produces the best customer experience possible.

When used wisely, your UX capabilities can give you the edge in your market and over your competition, create buzz and news, and delight your users. By improving your user experience, you up the game for everybody.

Jeff Williams is co-founder of Mobile Oxygen. Connect with him at

Image via Unsplash