What does a UX designer do?

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March 17, 2021
5 minute read

A UX designer is still a relatively new career path and was created in 1995, by Apple scientist Donald Norman. After less than 30 years, many people still aren’t sure what a UX designer does—understandably so, since the position can vary significantly depending on the company, the business model, and several other factors. As a result, the UX designer role has many responsibilities, making it both an exciting and challenging career to pursue.

If you’re wondering, what does a UX designer do?, this guide was created for you. Explore the idea of becoming a UX designer by weighing the pros and cons, understanding the skills you need, and getting clear on what you can expect for the future of this role.

What is UX Design?

Before we break down the position of UX designer, you have to know the meaning of UX design. User experience (UX) describes how real people interact with digital products like websites, applications, software, or even physical products. UX encompasses several factors, including design, font, graphics, functionality, copy, human emotion, and much more. All of this affects how a person feels when they interact with any experience, like a product interface or website.

As such, UX design is the process of developing a system that takes into account all the elements of the customer journey and marries it with the business goals. When successful, UX design should support a user in accomplishing a task, and support the business in achieving an objective.

For example, if the goal of an eCommerce website is to sell slippers, a UX designer would develop a system and experience that dictates how the customer interacts with product pages, and ideally encourages them to ultimately buy the slippers. UX design is responsible for that customer journey and how the person felt while they were on it, and aligning that with business goals so the company can engage customers, sell products, and grow their business.

UX Design Terms to Know

As we dive into our guide, it’s important to understand some of the common phrases used in relation to UX design. The industry uses a lot of confusing jargon, buzzwords, and acronyms, sometimes interchangeably even though they mean different things. To clear up any confusion, refer to these definitions throughout the article, and when getting started in your career:

UX: User experience, how a person interacts with a product and business.

UI: User interface, the graphical layout of an application or product, includes any element that a user would interact with. For example, buttons to click, text to read, videos or sliders to view, text entry fields, page layout, color scheme, animations, etc.

Customer journey: How your target customer interacts with your product from discovery to purchase phase, also referred to as user journey.

CTA: Call-to-action, a button with text that takes a user to the next step of the customer journey. For example, a button on an eCommerce site that says “add to cart.”

Iteration: Versions of a product and process. Once tested, iterations are improved and refined to offer better functionality and results.

User persona: A fictional persona of a target customer includes demographics and attributes such as likes, dislikes, pain points, priorities, goals, etc. is necessary for creating products and processes that meet the needs of their target users.

SERP: Search engine results page; what you see when you search Google.

What Does a UX Designer Actually Do?

A UX designer forecasts the chain of events that a user will experience when interacting with a product and designs a system to lead to the ideal outcome, like purchasing slippers or reading a piece of content.

UX design requires knowledge of psychology (knowing what your customer wants and how they behave), technical skills (creating a digital experience with your team and testing it), and project management (cross-functional work and communication with multiple stakeholders).

Here are some of the potential responsibilities you may have. Note that not every role will require you to take on these jobs; some will be the responsibility of the product marketers, project managers, or even UX strategists:

Competitor analysis: Researching what similar businesses in the field offer, going through their customer journey for analysis.

Customer or user research: Analyzing the key customer or user, assessing their behaviors, pain points, likes, dislikes, etc. Creating a user persona to better build customer journeys and product functionality.

Product strategy: Ideating how your product can solve a problem and benefit the user.

Content development: Curating any content to go along with the user’s experience, i.e., landing page copy, product descriptions, CTAs, etc.

Wireframing: Setting up a rough draft of the user’s experience, a road map of how your ideal user will go through their journey.

Coordination with UI designers: If UI designers differ from UX (they most often will), they‘ll work together to build out the graphical elements of the customer journey and visual interface that the user sees. Together they create the visual design for a product.

Coordination with the development team: Working with people that code the frontend and backend of a website or product to create proper functionality.

Testing and iteration: Conducting user testing with an appropriate audience to evaluate a product and UX, then making applicable changes based on feedback.

Analysis: Assessing how the product and UX perform upon launch (again, likely making more tweaks and changes to improve UX). Confirming that products and experience align with business objectives.

Another aspect of the job that can differ for a UX designer is the stages of the customer journey you’ll work on. You may be developing new products, creating new features for existing products, or making updates to a current experience.

No matter the task, one consistent, overarching responsibility is to ensure the design supports the business’s goals for that project while staying on brand.

Is UX Design a Promising Career?

Most UX designers are happy with their careers. In fact, a2019 Niesel report that surveyed UX professionals found that most enjoyed their role. Respondents cited reasons such as feeling like their work has an impact, working with talented individuals, and having an intellectually stimulating job.

Another positive indicator is that job satisfaction increases with experience. Those with more years of experience reported higher satisfaction due to increased confidence, responsibility, respect from coworkers, and higher salaries.

Indeed included UX designer as one of thetop 25 jobs for work-life balance. If you’re looking for a career that’s fulfilling in the long-term, you’re on the right track.

How Do I Become a UX Designer?

The most common path to become a UX designer is studying in a related field for college and applying to entry-level positions or internships with a company to gain experience specifically in UX.

If you didn’t take the college route, or are looking for an alternative, you can break into the world of UX design with these options:

UX certification programs: Check out theseeight popular options.

UX bootcamps: Refer to thislist of the top 10 options.

Freelance projects: Work on freelance design or contract-based UX projects to gain experience before applying for a full-time UX job.

Switch from a relevant field: Many UX designers switch from relevant fields like psychology, marketing, programming, or even customer service. In-depth knowledge of customers can translate to certain aspects of UX design, so if you have significant experience in an industry or company, that may serve as a foundation to build on.

What Skills Do UX Designers Need?

UX designers need a robust set of skills to manage this multifaceted position. Below are some of the overarching skills you’ll need, as well as examples of how they apply to the role of UX designer:

  • Research: You’ll need to complete competitor research, user research, market research, as well as create user personas and scenarios.
  • Technical: Tasks include wireframing, prototyping, and developing user flows or customer journeys. You also need to understand information architecture so you can work with UI designers and developers. UX designers might also find it helpful to have some front-end coding experience.
  • Analytical: You need to interpret data and user feedback to make applicable changes to products and customer journey.
  • Soft skills: User experience design is just as much about design as it is project managing. You’ll collaborate with other team members and coordinate details to reach your targeted outcome with a product and customer journey. What’s more, you’ll need to be adaptable and flexible as you manage iterations,
  • Personal understanding: Lastly, you need to understand the user, their journey, goals, and mindset so that you can create a positive experience. In this sense, you also need to employ psychology and empathy to succeed.

Image source: Nielsen Norman Group

What Soft Skills Do UX Designers Need?

Soft skills are increasingly more important for all jobs. These aren’t necessarily attributes you can learn in a classroom, but rather important character traits you develop and hone over time. UX design is all about understanding people and creating a usable, useful, and enjoyable experience.

Nielsen surveyed UX hiring managers on what they look for in candidates and the following soft skills are what they look for most during the hiring process:

  • Curiosity or a desire for learning
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Strong communication skills
  • Confidence
  • Passion
  • Empathy
  • Listening skills
  • Growth mindset (comfortable with failure and learning from it)
  • Humility
  • Problem-solving
  • Creativity
  • Being a team player

Which Position Pays More: UX or UI?

UX designers generally make more than their UI counterparts. According to Indeed, UX designers have an average base salary of $101,557 with a $5,000 annual cash bonus. In comparison, UI designers have an average base salary of $85,296 with a $3,000 annual cash bonus.

Why Do UX Designers Command Higher Salaries?

UX design salaries are often higher because UX designers require a wider range of skills, many of which are dealing with and managing people. The higher level of responsibility and increased job duties translate to a higher salary.

How Does Salary for UX Designers Vary Depending on Experience?

A survey of 790 UX designers in the US broke down an average salary in relation to years of experience as follows:

  • 0-3 years experience: $76,996
  • 4-7 years experience: $98,732
  • 8-12 years experience: $112,203
  • 13+ years experience: $123,447

Note that salaries can vary depending on the size of a company, for example a startup versus an enterprise, or even an agency versus an in-house position. It can also be affected by location and the cost of living in that region.

Get the Full UX Designer Salary Guide here

What Career Advancement Options are Available for UX Designers?

The beauty of a career in UX design is that you can stay in a similar field but advance in your responsibilities, role, and salary. User experience design allows you to maintain the duties you do best while still progressing within your organization. For example, a career path for a UX designer might look like this:

UX designer > UX Manager > UX Director > VP of User Experience

As you advance, you focus more on achieving high level business objectives, managing and mentoring junior staff members, recruiting new employees, allocating budget, and strategizing with senior-level employees.

What Are the Best Places to Be a UX Designer?

JustinMind ranked the top five cities to be a UX designer based on city growth, job availability, and base salaries. For those looking for the best places to settle and start a UX design career, check out:

  • San Francisco, CA
  • Charlotte, NC
  • Austin, TX
  • New York, NY
  • Seattle, WA

Keep in mind the proliferation of remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic means certain industries are no longer location-dependent. If you have your heart set on a UX designer position at one of the large tech companies but don’t want to live in the Bay Area, you may not be able to pursue that role.

Does UX Design Require Coding Knowledge or Background?

In the same Nielsen survey, 63 percent of UX designers listed some knowledge of front-end code, HTML or CSS in their skillset—but that includes being able to “write some code in HTML and CSS,” which is slightly ambiguous.

Whether coding is ultimately needed or required is a bit up for debate. Only 25 percent of UX designers can write software. They explained that the general programming knowledge helped them communicate better with developers, but 50 percent said they didn’t need programming skills for their role.

While many UX designers have some level of front-end coding knowledge, it’s not enough to write software. As such, the knowledge can be helpful but not necessary for the position. Your best bet is always to clearly read the job description and ask a hiring manager if coding experience is a prerequisite.

Is it Beneficial to Know Front-End Development?

Front-end development can be beneficial for someone in this role by helping with communication between the designer and developers, understanding programming limitations, creating better prototypes, and visualizing solutions with greater clarity.

One thing the Nielsen survey cautioned against is focusing on bringing too much technical development knowledge to your role. This can limit your ability to identify problems by being too solutions-focused rather than being creative or innovative. UX design is all about the journey and experience, so you don’t want to lose sight of what you could create by getting lost in the technical details.

Is it Hard to Get a Job as a UX Designer?

While there is no clear cut answer for this question, theBureau of Labor Statistics also estimates that the growth of web developers and digital designers can expect an 8 percent increase in job outlook between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than most other industries.

Are Companies Hiring Entry-Level Positions?

UX design is one of the few jobs where being a newcomer can work to your advantage. Coming on to a project with fresh eyes, and no preconceived notions or underlying company loyalties makes you the ideal designer to test out an experience. You look at the product and journey as a new customer would, which can provide invaluable insights and a fresh perspective.

Additionally, companies want novice employees that they can invest in, train, and develop. We’re in a newly remote world; if you can onboard while working from home, jump in with both feet, and adapt to changing tides, you’re an ideal employee for many companies. Those types of soft skills are also applicable to what you need to be an effective UX designer.

How Competitive is UX Design?

You will face stiff competition when applying for UX designer jobs, but the good news is that the field is continuously growing. ALinkedIn report listed UX design as one of the top 10 most needed skills for companies in 2020.

Additionally, UX is becoming more important for Google ranking factors in 2021, according toSEMrush. This means Google will place more emphasis on user experience design when deciding which websites will be found on page one of search results. This suggests companies may be investing more in UX design to stay competitive for SEO as well.

Finally, anInVision report found that 70 percent of hiring managers increased their designer headcount this past year. As of February 2021, there are more than 6,500 UX designer jobs based in the U.S. that are listed on Indeed.

Can I Be a UX Designer Without a Degree?

As with many roles, education requirements are often company-dependent or lie within the hiring manager’s discretion.

The Nielsen survey found that 82 percent of UX designers held some kind of university degree. When it comes to the type of degree, that varies greatly. The most popular options for UX designers were graphic design, industrial design, product design, digital media, visual communications, and fine arts.

Most UX designer job descriptions do require an undergraduate degree, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t apply to a position or rule out UX design if you don’t have one. You could work in a company and work your way up the ladder, eventually acquiring UX training and experience. Alternatively, you can apply to bootcamps, which are programs with intense, hands-on, applied learning during a particular stretch of time.

While it’s certainly more common to have a degree, your experience could take the place of that requirement.

What Else Can I Do to Get UX Design Experience?

There are many ways to prepare for a career in UX design without a degree. Here are a few more ways to build experience in this field.

Focus on Informal Education

There are many valuable, free resources available online to help you learn more about the field of UX design. Even well-established designers can get stuck in their ways and forget they work in a constantly evolving ecosystem. Immerse yourself in the digital world of user experience. Stay ahead of the latest trends, industry updates, data, and research so when it comes time to interview, you can talk the talk.

Start Writing

Writing for humans, storytelling, and guiding a narrative are essential aspects of keeping a user’s interest. Think about it: every time you purchase a product online, you likely read about it first—descriptions, FAQs, selling points. Freelance writing has a low barrier to entry, making it a good way to earn skills that can transfer to a career in UX design.

Take Free Classes

Take free or low-cost online courses, webinars, or self-guided classes on UX design to get a better sense of the job and whether it’s something you’re interested in pursuing. This is a great way to build your knowledge while working another full-time job, allowing you to build skills at a slower pace.


Reach out to UX designers on social networks like LinkedIn or Twitter, or join UX design groups on Facebook or LinkedIn. Don’t forget to look to the people in your extended network where you might already have a connection. You may also be able to connect with UX professors or teachers. You’d be surprised who’s willing to answer questions and offer informal mentoring for hopeful UX designers.

What Software is Best for UX Design?

UX designers use many types of software to accomplish their duties. Uxtools.co’s2019 Designs Tools Survey surveyed 3,000 UX professionals on their jobs, workflow, and process. Here are the most commonly used software, grouped by type and ranked most to least used:

  • Brainstorming and ideation: Sketch, Figma, Adobe XD, Illustrator, Photoshop, Balsamiq, Miro, Azure, and Milanote
  • User flow and site map: Sketch, Whimsical, Draw.io, Figma, Overflow.io, Miro, Lucidchart, Axure, and Omnigiraffe
  • Wireframing: Sketch, Figma, Adobe XD, Axure, Illustrator, Balsamiq, Invision Studio, Photoshop, and Whimsical
  • Prototyping: Sketch, InVision, Figma, Adobe XD, HTML/CSS/JS, Principle, InVision Studio, Marvel, Axure, Protopie, FramerX, and Flinto
  • User Testing: UserTesting, Lookback, Usability Hub, Maze, Userzoom, Marvel, Validately, Loop11, Zoom, and Ethnio

Sketch, Figma, and Adobe XD are three of the most popular software options when it comes to UX designers’ toolboxes.

What Are the Downsides of Being a UX Designer?

In the previously mentioned Nielsen report, of the few surveyed UX professionals who weren’t satisfied with their job, the reasons were as follows:

  • Not enough time to implement activities or processes
  • Not enough support from their organization
  • No access to mentors
  • Feeling not valued in their organization

Similar to the upsides of being a UX designer, the downsides are very organization and management dependent, rather than being a reflection on the career itself.

Conversely, if you prefer not to juggle multiple responsibilities, UX design might not be the career path for you. As mentioned in this guide, you’ll have to tackle a wide range of tasks throughout the life of a project. For those who can’t multitask, divide their attention, or prioritize, this job will likely be less appealing.

Pursue a Career as a UX Designer

UX design is a burgeoning field that will continue to be important as more of our lives become digital. UX designers enjoy exciting roles that encompass multiple duties, all of which allow you to get creative and innovative to develop the best customer experience possible. This type of position is also highly measurable and trackable, so it’s easy for your boss to assess your performance, which can be helpful in growing your career. If you want a rewarding job in design and tech, UX design should not be overlooked as a potential career path.