Digital design is still in its storming phase, that’s why we have so many posts, debates, and comments on naming, terminology, etc. Part of it is philosophical clashes (for example can we design experiences like we design a chair), but also different people at different companies have different experiences. Plus terminology is often not only driven by the design community but by other stakeholders, like hiring managers or c-level leadership.
So there are no clear definitions of what to call what we do, and what we call ourselves, just a set of interconnected terms that enable us to have a conversation most of the time.
The following is how I think about this stuff. Not claiming to be the authority, but wanted to have a consistent terminology for myself. Obviously, my perspective is that of tech product companies working on software products and services, other industries or company types might have different terms.
I include everyone who broadly works on the UX or human interface of a product in the design team. Well, depending on the org structure of course. Most people in the design team would be designers and researchers, but might also include writers, ops people, program managers, analysts, and strategists as distinct roles. Generally, everyone who reports to the most senior design leader would be part of a design team.
I use the generic term “Design” and don’t include qualifying terms such as UX or product, simply because I believe in the universality of design as an activity, plus I mostly talk about designing in the context of software tech companies, but don’t want to be very limiting what design should exactly focus on. If we work on a product, we work on all aspects of it.
Sometimes marketing designers (graphic designers, art directors, brand designers, etc.) and product designers are in one team, which is generally awesome for the design language and culture - and makes it a pain to manage all people and workflows together.
Sometimes I only write designers, when I really mean a person who is part of the design team. So that includes also researchers, and I should write designers and researchers. I’m just lazy. Not great for researchers, but to be fair, most of the time there are more designers than researchers in a design team. This could be clearer but haven’t found yet a good shorthand for design team members.
Designers create things like user flows, wireframes, and UI designs and spend some of their time in Figma (or some other UI design tool) and the rest in preparation to what they gonna do in Figma or talking about what they did in Figma. Though they could do a bunch of other things, like research, workshops, design systems, prototypes, and maybe even some light front-end coding.
While I use the generic term designer, most often I mean product designer, people who design products or services for the company.
I prefer the term product designer over UX designer. First, this aligns with other terms like product management or product development. Second, owning UX puts too much on the designers and ignores the fact that a lot of decisions by other teams, like engineering, impact performance and thus impact UX by a large amount, so it’s not fair to put it only on the design team. Third, there is even a question if UX can be intentionally designed, or if it’s more of an emergent thing, especially for more complex software.
Side question would be - so who owns the UX? I’d argue it’s a cross functional thing - design team can be responsible (just as for example engineering is responsible for reliability), but it needs to be recognized that design needs leverage to be able to impact UX. UX goes waaay beyond the UI and look&feel.
There are also a bunch of disciplines that might have their own specialists, like UI designers, or interaction designers. A product designer would be a generalist knowing at least some of everything.
Service designers are a special thing, in some orgs they do something very similar to product design, except focusing on higher abstraction levels, while in others they work to connect teams via journeys. In general, most product designers should practice some service design too, as most often digital products are also services.
Researchers talk to users, collect and analyze data, helps the org to learn about customers, and create artifacts to facilitate understanding. They could also project manage, run workshops, work on interaction models, set up experiments, etc.
They can be called UX or user or design researchers. I do prefer UX researcher though. While UX is hard to design for, it makes sense that it can be investigated, understood, and evaluated. User research sounds to focus too much on the users themselves, rather than the use and the context of use. Design research on the other hand sounds like focusing too much on the artifacts and validation. Both user and design research are parts of the broader UX research discipline. Compared to user and design, UX research also sounds more connected to the things the company does.
Research is sometimes a scary word (sounds like something taking too much time), but I like that it implies at least some objectivity and rigor, which most product teams and product development process needs anyway.
There is also market research, which is usually in the marketing team, with a different goal - though UX researchers should be able to do some marketing research. The chief differentiator seems to be whether a research team uses focus groups (market researchers) or never uses focus groups (UX researchers).
As research matures, there is always the question of why it’s not more cross-disciplinary and less connected to the design team, which is a great question. I’d love to see more research teams that bring together market researchers, user researchers, and data analysts, enabling a more strategic level research - but not many orgs I know of succeeded in this.
Verb vs Noun (Design vs Designer and Research vs Researcher)
Sometimes I talk to people, who think only designers design. Sometimes I talk to people who think everyone designs.
In short, everyone designs (verb) the product, as everyone participating is making decisions that have an impact on the final product. Designing means planning with a specific purpose in mind. Things like system architecture are designed (with usually little input from designers). Designers shouldn’t feel worried about not owning this verb. Designers are still trained to create the design (noun) - driving, leading, facilitating, doing - so designing it.
But the fact that “everyone is a designer” doesn’t mean that everyone would participate equally (or participate at all) in making decisions about user flows, layout, interaction details, or typography. Good designers include others but keep their hands on the driving wheel.
With research, it’s even more muddy. Product managers should talk to users and do their own research to develop product sense and intuition. Sales teams research customers too, and so do some other teams. This doesn’t mean it’s the same research as a UX researcher would do, and ideally, product teams should have access to multiple types of research that supports their discovery process and decision making. There is no role conflict here, just researchers shouldn’t grip too tightly researching (the verb), while sharing their approach and results and help the organization work towards better and more rigor.
Also, great design teams strive to increase their impact, meaning they’ll teach others how to work with design and research, enabling themselves to focus where deeper expertise is needed. This is how design gets more infused into an org’s thinking.
In short, I prefer calling things as:
- Design team = team of designers, researchers, and other people working closely with them.
- Designers = mostly product designers.
- Researchers = UX researchers.
- Everyone can design and research to get to a design or research, this enables designers and researchers to focus where their expertise is most needed and can have the highest impact.