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UX jobs: Consultant vs designer

Before becoming a developer, I was a UX Consultant and UX Designer for several different companies, mainly agency-side or freelance. Perhaps like others in the UX industry, I had a crisis of identity because the work I was doing straddled both user research and design.

The agency that I worked for at the time had two distinct job roles:

As you can imagine, there was a great deal of crossover between these two job roles, especially during research analysis or the creation of design recommendations. You might then wonder why I'm hung up on the job titles. Although I don't feel that titles are that important to me personally, I believe that how you frame your skills to others in a professional environment is a crucial art. Colleagues, clients and prospects may often make snap judgements about your skills based on titles, which can influence your opportunities and the work you end up doing, especially in larger companies.

Consultant vs designer: An interview #

After moving from a consultant to a designer position, I was invited to take part in an interview to talk more about the change in title and how this affected my role on UX design projects.

What made you want to make the change from consultant to designer?

Rather than wanting to make a big change to my role, my change to “designer” mainly due to me wanting to become a rounded practitioner with skills as both a “consultant” and “designer”. As with many other UX consultants and designers, I recognise that we are all working within a broader experience design role, but with different specialisms. Becoming a designer was more about me communicating my specialism in interaction design, visual design and similar topics in addition to my research skills. Because I have been in both roles at the same company, I am included in both research and design projects. I’d like to hope that most companies recognise each individual’s skillset and give them work that allows them to grow these. My move to “designer” represented my making these skills and interests known to the company.

How do you feel your time as a consultant has influenced you as a designer?

It has influenced me in many ways. I understand that there are widely recognised differences between the two roles: Consultants are often focused on experience design at a higher level, conducting research to inform design direction and persona creation, for example. Designers are often focused around interaction design, information design and visual communication. But, having experienced both roles myself, I would say that there is also a great deal of overlap between them.

My time as a consultant allowed me to develop my communication skills such as writing reports and presenting back findings. Skills like these are still central to my current role as there is a need to have clear structured presentations and communications with clients about design rationale. I would say that UX strategy is something that I have more experience in because of the time I spent as a consultant but I now have a greater focus on detailed interactions in the interface. The projects I work on often require design recommendations to be shown in more detail or higher fidelity. So both roles have taught me about learning how to communicate with people in the right way, using the right deliverables to get the necessary information over to clients or their development partners as clearly and efficiently as possible.

The fact that I started as a consultant and switched to a design role wasn’t because I desperately wanted to stop being a consultant, rather I wanted the adaptability to assume different roles depending on the project. Personally, this enables me to work on a wider range of design projects but I think, more generally, having a certain amount of adaptability is really helpful for smaller teams.

Do you feel you’re better able to interpret the suggestions made by consultants because you’ve been in that position and making those recommendations yourself?

Yes, totally. Since moving to the design team, I’ve had greater exposure to the technical impact of design decisions. Designing to a grid, for example, may seem like a really low level detail but, if I’m making a recommendation to change a specific widget and my proposed design isn’t aligned to the grid, it may not be worth making the suggestion because of how integral the grid structure is to the site. Knowing the time and effort implications of each recommendation definitely plays a big part in what is included in final designs or recommendation documents.

Can you talk me through how design decisions are informed within an Experience Design Process? At what stage in the project do you become involved?

Although the designer is sometimes seen as the person that “makes a design pretty”, designers are actually involved much earlier on.

Because user-centred design projects involve both research and design activities, the consultants must think like the designers in order to work towards a shared design vision. Equally, designers need to think like consultants in order to produce appropriate stimuli for user research.

As a designer, if I’m designing an interface that will be taken into user research, the researcher and I will work together to structure that discussion. It’s my job to create a stimulus that enables us to we get the answers that we need in the session. Based upon my experience I can design something which I’m fairly certain is going to work, however, this will always be based on assumptions until it is tested by users.

I think it’s really important that the designer and the researcher work together at first to figure out what the client’s assumptions are about their product or service. We need to make sure those assumptions and hypothesis are captured before the research and are then tested in the research sessions. It is important for all team members to agree on these assumptions up-front to ensure that everyone is working towards the same objectives. For this reason, it’s also often a good idea for a researcher and designer sitting down to structure the discussion guide and the stimulus as a collaborative session.

Early involvement of both roles within a project also reduces the need for handover time and deliverables to communicate research insight to the designer.

Would you say your approach to the planning phase has changed since you’ve become a designer?

I wouldn’t say I do anything different planning-wise. Obviously, each different type of project has a different set of considerations during planning. In terms of project approach, I have always looked to choose the right approach so the choice of methods and activities is largely the same. I would however say that, since becoming a designer, I have probably become more familiar with the amount of effort involved in specific design activities. It is always a challenge to scope design work because you may have to solve a design challenge several times before finding an iteration that is completely appropriate. The method of allocating a finite time to tasks like this is an interesting challenge and one that I feel I’m better at because of my experience in the design team. Looking forward, I’ll always hope to make more informed planning decisions because of increasing experience in past projects. I would say that I am continually refining my planning skills but my approach hasn’t ever fundamentally changed.

How do you see creativity manifest itself in the role of the consultant?

The distinction between “consultants” and “designers” can vary from company to company and person to person. There are certainly creative opportunities within research activities though. If planning a research approach, the consultant has the opportunity to be more creative with the testing methodologies used. Larger design programmes can often use several different types of research (e.g. a remote diary study followed by face-to-face follow-up interviews) and a creative and complementary choice of methodologies can enrich the findings significantly. Similarly, if the consultant is moderating face-to-face interviews, there is a great deal of creativity required in using different techniques to prompt and probe the participant.

The approach shapes what comes out at the end of the project. The research is all about getting a reliable set of user insight. If you don’t uncover the right information during your time with users, then you will be designing for an audience you don’t really understand. Creating an effective research approach means designers can channel their creativity in the right way to help the users.