Category: UX advice / How I work

Why most designers can’t do UX

…and why non-designers often can.

This is a big statement, I know.

So first some definitions: by ‘designers’ I mean graphic designers, who may work on digital products, and by ‘do UX’ I mean a broad definition of designing websites, apps, wearables, services, etc.

I have a degree in graphic design but I’ve considered myself a UX designer for the last 9 years, so I’ve seen life on both sides. I now realise I’m not a particularly good graphic designer, as I think my skill set lends me to be more at home with the approach of UX.

After this time and four years of teaching UX design, I’ve boiled it down to three things that mark out UX designers from a traditional graphic or digital designer. This has also led me to realise that people from outside of the design discipline can make better UX designers.

Think in flows

One of the biggest differences between the worlds of graphic design and UX is to consider user flows or journeys as the primary component, rather than the page or screen. As a graphic designer your tendency is to spend a lot of time thinking about arranging information on screens, and thinking about each one separately.

In reality experiences tend to come in sessions of browsing or task completion. So a single screen is only as important as the screens that come before or after it. You need to constantly be able to ‘zoom out’ when working on a screen and look at the whole picture.

If you break up a journey into separate screens and tackle them as different projects, even allowing different people to design them, there’ll be no cohesion between the set.

From what I’ve seen, creating user flows tends to come more naturally to developers and analytical folks, who understand the need to think in sequences.

Make decisions on user need

A good designer of any type should be coming up with solutions that solve problems and real needs that users have. It’s what makes the discipline different from the decorative arts.

However graphic designers tend to seek visual correctness as a justification for why they design things in certain ways. They get drawn into subjective arguments about the way things should look because to them what is important is what looks right (and everyone has different opinions about that).

A good UX designer bases their decisions and rationale for functionality on what they have learned from user data of many kinds (ideally several different kinds). They carry this thread through their work so when asked to explain why something looks the way it does, the answer is because “we’ve observed that’s what users need”. This is much harder to argue with.

They should be comfortable observing and speaking to users, which means being humble and listening. This is something a lot of designers and developers can be bad at as they let their ego and desire for perfection get in the way. They can get lazy and not think they need to consult with the users.

People from outside the tech discipline altogether can be much better at focusing on user need, particularly if they are comfortable interacting with the public.

Comfortable with uncertainty

Part of putting users at the centre of your design process is an acceptance that you don’t have all the answers. This uncertainty appears in other areas of tech development too so as a UX designer you have to embrace it.

For starters you have to be comfortable with the idea that things have states and aren’t fixed. A screen might need to work when it is empty of content, when it only has a little content, and when it is overflowing with content. How do you handle each of those situations elegantly?

When designing for the web you have to be comfortable with the idea that your users will be viewing your content on different sized devices and at different width browsers. You have to design for this fluidity and not get attached to how things work at one particular size.

You have to accept that users will use what you design in ways you haven’t predicted. You have to know that bugs will always crop up and your product will never quite be finished. You have to think in terms of style guides rather than fixed screen configurations too. The uncertainty abounds.

Designers who come from a world of print or even video, where work has to be considered final to be complete, often struggle with this.


Just because you’re a graphic designer doesn’t mean you can naturally move into UX design. Unless you can get to grips with thinking in flows about user needs and are comfortable with uncertainty, you may be more suited to the visual part of interface/UI design.

And in the same way as these graphic/visual designers tend to be better at three things that UX designers aren’t so hot on: a strong understanding of hierarchy and laying things out in one place, able to design complex visual systems, and focussed on attention to detail.

A strong team recognises that different types of designer bring different things to the table and combines them. In my experience a team with one designer arguing for the user and one arguing for visual consistency creates a healthy tension that can be productive and results in products that are both visually strong and are easy to use.

Last updated on 28 October 2019
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