The Gist

  • Unifying disciplines. UX research and design ultimately complement each other, working in tandem to create seamless and satisfying user experiences.
  • Blurred boundaries. Many professionals in the UX field excel in both research and design, creating a dynamic and adaptable workforce that can address varying demands.
  • Empathy and collaboration. As both UX researchers and designers work with a user-centric approach, their shared empathy and communication skills foster a collaborative environment that ultimately benefits end-users.

Why so confrontational? Why are we putting UX research against UX design? Aren’t they two sides of the same coin?

After all, without research, design is uninformed and arbitrary. Without design, there is no solution. And aren’t both fields part of one UX process that provides solutions to help users accomplish their objectives in better ways? And finally, aren't there many professionals in the UX field who do work in both of these areas — not just one?

Yes, that's all true. However, the reality is that over the years the UX profession has become more and more differentiated, with specialized roles requiring specialized skills that are being sought after in the job market. There are of course UX professionals working in both design and research. Maybe they work in small companies that cannot afford separate positions or they work in organizations that are still immature and only at the beginning of the UX journey.

But when you look at job postings or attend UX conferences and see the name tags of participants, it has become less frequent in the past years to see a universal job title like UXer, UX Architect, or something similar. More often you see some flavor of UX Researcher or UX Designer.

And of course there can be many further and more nuanced job titles like Qualitative UX Researcher, Quantitative UX Researcher, Visual Designer, Interaction Designer, etc. Yet, the most fundamental difference is between Researcher and Designer.

In this article I don't want to pit one against the other, but I want to describe what each field does, what skills are needed, where professionals learn these skills, what the job prospects are and to what extent there is overlap between the fields.

UX Designers and Crafting Interactive Experiences

The role of UX design is to craft interactive experiences that allow users to accomplish objectives effectively, efficiently and in an enjoyable way. This entails creating rough sketches showing layout and principal content per screen, high fidelity screen designs with pixel-exact sizing and placement of UI elements, and designing iconography and color schemes. Other design aspects are the design of the interaction between user and product, and the organization and labeling of content. All of the above comprises design systems that need to be established and maintained.

To do their job, UX designers need to know the prevalent design language that manifests itself in current products and design systems. What are standards and patterns of solving certain requirements through design? They must be abreast of how that design language evolves in the industry, what trends are going up and what trends are going down. UX designers have a good eye for detail, a solid understanding of branding and they are proficient in the tools such as Photoshop, Sketch or Figma that allow them to create, share and maintain designs.

Apart from these hard skills, they need soft skills to effectively collaborate and communicate with other designers and other job functions like project managers, product managers, developers and, of course, UX researchers from whom they learn about user characteristics and needs. A good sense of time management is also essential since time is always of the essence.

Finally, UX designers need both a high level of creativity and at the same time frustration tolerance. As creative people they are not only professionally but also emotionally invested in their craft. Oftentimes, for various reasons, they will have to make compromises on their design and be flexible to adjust it to requests and requirements that are beyond their control and may be revealed to them late in the process.

What do UX designers do most frequently on a day-to-day basis? Based on surveys, the top three activities are:

  1. Building prototypes & wireframes
  2. Designing visuals
  3. Building and maintaining design systems & style guides

With the ever-increasing digitization of the world, UX designers are — and have been for decades — in high demand. The industries where most work are:

  1. IT/Software/Computing
  2. Finance and insurance
  3. Consulting agencies

The educational background of UX designers is varied. Today, by far most designers in the workforce have studied graphic design. Anything else is a distant second: fine arts, multimedia design and product design. In terms of degrees, around 70% have a bachelor's degree and less than 20% have a master’s. The median salary in the US is around $117,000. There are more males than females (60% to 40%), and there is a gender pay gap with women earning $0.96 for every $1 earned by men. This gap is much lower than the overall US average ($0.82), though.

Do UX Designers Need to Know Programming?

One question that is almost as old as the whole discipline of UX is whether UX designers need to know programming. There is no straight right or wrong answer, but the reality is that most UX professionals (designers and researchers) cannot write code in a programming language (many if not most UX designers are proficient in HTML and CSS, though).

Knowing how to program allows designers to be realistic about the feasibility of implementing their designs within a certain amount of time or within the constraints of a certain technology. I personally think that programming is not a needed skill, and I think it is almost dangerous to know too much about programming because you end up censoring yourself and not exploring designs that are innovative and helpful to the end users while at the same time challenging to technically realize. In my mind the consideration of feasibility should only come after the ideation of design options.

Related Article: How UX Design Customer Metrics Can Improve Customer Experience

UX Researchers and Their Methods

UX researchers find out things from others. This may be user characteristics, stated or unstated needs, attitudes, or reactions toward products, concepts or ideas.

Based on surveys, the most frequently used UX research method is user interviews. Other prominent methods are surveys, analytics and usability testing. Usability testing, which is assessing the quality of a concept or product by observing test users engaging with it, can be done with or without a human moderator. Moderated usability tests are carried out more often in the industry than unmoderated tests because due to their conversational nature they yield deeper insights.

There is a difference between qualitative and quantitative UX research.

Learning Opportunities

  • Qualitative research strives to understand and explain things through insight and understanding that comes from asking open-ended questions like “why,” “where,” “what,” “when” and “how.” The data that is being assessed is typically unstructured, for example transcripts, quotes, images and videos.
  • Quantitative research arrives at the understanding and explanation of things through measurements. The data acquired in quantitative studies is numerical, for example from analytics or closed-ended questions in surveys.

Today, more qualitative than quantitative research is being carried out, which does not mean that both approaches could not be combined. For example, a researcher may find out certain attitudinal patterns through interviews, and then try to find manifestations of these patterns in actual user data gained from analytics.

Only a little more than half of UX research carried out today is considered primary, which means it is done specifically for the project at hand as opposed to using findings from previous projects. Most people think of UX research as a purely generative discipline where the understanding of target audiences leads the way to new products or services. However, the majority of UX research is in fact evaluative — it is assessing existing solutions or concepts, for example through usability testing.

The industries most UX researchers work in are:

  1. Technology
  2. Financial services
  3. Medicine, health and wellness

For every one researcher in a company there are in average two to five designers and 1 to 50 developers. The numbers of both researchers and designers have increased over the last 20 years, but the growth in UX researchers has especially accelerated in the last 10 years. It is important to note that not everybody who does UX research is also a UX researcher. Call it the democratization of research or the sheer need for research in an economy where there are not enough UX researchers, but for every one UX researcher in a company there are eight people who do UX research. The top three job titles of people who do UX research without being UX researchers are:

  1. UX designers
  2. Product managers
  3. Marketing professionals

With the increasing impact that UX researchers have in companies, there is an ongoing effort for continuous research which means that research is conducted across the whole product development process and not merely at distinct and isolated steps.

The overall education level of UX researchers is higher than the education level of UX designers in that the percentage of professionals with a master’s degree is either the same or even higher than that of UX designers, and that there is a significant amount of Ph.D.s (about 15% to 20%). Today’s UX researchers typically majored in psychology, statistics or behavioral sciences. More women than men work in UX research, about 56% versus 44%. Despite there being more women than men, women only earn $0.97 for every $1 that men earn. The median salary in the US is around $124,000 and thus higher than for UX Designers.

Skills that UX researchers need generally include all the techniques that are needed to conduct effective studies: interview techniques, survey design skills, analysis, statistics and analytics. Oftentimes, UX researchers specialize in either qualitative or quantitative user research and build up the skill set required in either one of the areas.

No matter if qualitative or quantitative, UX researchers must be proficient in analyzing and synthesizing findings. They have to be strong in communication — whether in interviews or focus groups, but also in conveying and reporting out the results of their research studies to stakeholders. Finally, an innate curiosity and good observation skills are critical.

Related Article: 5 UX Trends to Watch in 2023

Final Thoughts on UX Design & UX Research

The main commonality between the two roles is that they are both customer- and user-centric. UX designers and UX researchers are empathic, social, personable, passionate and communicative professionals who are highly motivated to provide the right solution to the right audience.

As mentioned above, in a lot of organizations the same person does research and design. Because the skills needed for either one of the two areas are different, it is not trivial to be excellent in both areas.

Many times though, professionals working in one field gain the proficiency in the other field over time. Through a mix of osmosis and deliberate training, UX professionals may then transition from one area to the other if they want to change their focus. At the end of the day, UX as a profession requires both research and design, and career options remain promising and rewarding.

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