No, We Aren't All Designers

Photo by bobech (bobech) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( ) or GFDL ( )], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by bobech (bobech) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a UX researcher. I work with designers on every project I have. I talk about design all day long. I make research based recommendations to the designers I work with. I study designs. I study how people interact with designs. I’ve written about my view that designers are not, and should not be, researchers. I’m equally strongly opinionated that designer is a unique role within a product team.

Every now and then, a tweet comes across my feed saying something along the lines of Everyone is a designer. I usually disagree in my head and keep scrolling. I’m someone, but I’m definitely not a designer. Recently, I saw a Tweet from Jared Spool stating essentially that anyone involved with the creation of a product is a designer. That would mean PMs, Devs, Lawyers, and more would all be designers. The tweet had stimulated great feedback, with folks falling on both sides of the fence in term of agreement. I wanted to use this post to add my voice to the disagree column.

I suppose we can all be designers. In the same sense that anyone can be a firefighter or an electrical engineer - it requires training and dedication. There is a huge difference between the person impacting the design and someone who actually has the tools and techniques of a designer. Here are some reasons I don’t agree everyone touching the process is a designer.


Everyone is a designer fails to respect the craft of design

Taking the statement to its full conclusion, almost everyone is a designer. Particularly if you practice UX design and gather user input. Your usability testing participants would be considered designers. Many designers work as freelance or for studios with clients. Everyone influencing the design is a designer would mean the person paying for the work is the designer. They ultimately have the final decision and the budget to make the work happen. This idea is counter to the purpose a designer has been hired to serve – creating a design. If you pay for someone to design your product, it’s your design and your product, but you are not the designer.

Designers have training, both formal and informal, using specific tools and processes. The person sticking their head into a design review convincing you move the location of the “Submit Form” button is not a designer. At least, not simply because they were able to present their argument and impact the design.

Saying everyone is a designer is code for everyone has an opinion that we should consider valid. That isn’t true either. Again, designers have experience and training others don’t. Designers (if they are trusted) should ultimately make the final call on when we can say the design is ready for the next step in our process. We need designers to feel valued and allow them to use their tools and talent to create the best product possible. Deputizing everyone on the team as a designer diminishes the importance of the role, and potentially waters down the expectations and accountability for the role.

The logic that everyone contributing to a design is a designer doesn’t transfer to other roles, either. I’ve scheduled plenty of meetings for the projects I’ve been on. I’ve given team members tasks and dates I want them completed by. This doesn’t make me a project manager. It means I’ve taken on roles to help make sure the project is successfully completed. I don’t see a difference when we talk about others contributing to design. They are facilitating the process, and being contributing members of a team.

Business analysts play a huge role in determining the functions and features of a design. They provide the business requirements of a product and ensure they are met. However, this doesn’t make them designers. A designer uses their skill and expertise to interpret the business requirements through their design. A business analyst might review a design and demand a change due to an existing requirement not being met, but this doesn’t make them a designer.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to be both a PM and a designer, or a business analyst and a designer. You can be an astronaut and a designer. I’m saying you aren’t automatically a designer if contribute to a design. Many roles contribute to the outcome of a design. We still need designers.

An Analogy

Saying anyone influencing the design is a designer is like saying anyone influencing the meal at a restaurant is a cook. Let’s say I go to a restaurant and order a hamburger. I am vegetarian, so I ask to substitute a veggie patty for the meat patty. I’ve impacted the meal (design), but that doesn’t make me anymore the person who actually cooked the meal (designer). The wait staff will influence how the meal turns out: am I served a hot burger immediately, or do they let it sit until it gets cold before I’m served? That still doesn’t make them the cook (designer). The produce supplier might have delivered fresh vegetables the morning of my meal. That impacts the outcome of the food, but does not make the produce supplier also a cook (designer). There are many roles that need filled to get the meal (design) to my table. Each role is critical. Unlike the rest of the staff, the cook is also responsible for translating their vision into the meal, incorporating all of the required ingredients, and meeting any modifications or customizations I request. I, as the customer (user), get to decide if the meal meets my expectations, and whether I will eat it or send it back.

To what end

I think the conversation around what makes a designer is an important conversation. There might not be a one-size fits all definition. It is easier to say if someone is a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or other field requiring some type of certification. There is not an equivalent widely accepted and acknowledged certificate in design. Designer job descriptions are broad and inconsistent across firms and studios hiring designers. This leaves the door open to broad interpretation and confusion. Am I a designer because I’m on a design team?

I don’t think everyone influencing the outcome of a design is a designer. What do we gain from thinking this way? If the purpose is to create team cohesion and better buy-in for design, there are better ways to accomplish this. If the purpose is to acknowledge there is more to design than just designer, that’s a messaging problem we need to solve. Most people would say it is obvious that many roles and factors contribute to a design. We benefit from having a variety of roles and titles we are proud of. We risk losing the role of designer when we consider everyone a designer. Yes, many roles influence the outcome of a design. We still need good designers, proud of their craft, the same way we need good cooks, proud of what they create. We don’t need everyone in the kitchen calling themselves the cook.

What do you think? Please leave a comment and keep the conversation going.

From Zoo-X to U-X: My UX Career Origin Story

Photo credit: Flickr user BurgersZoo 



I’m a UX Research Director. People contact me via email or LinkedIn asking how to break into UX. I’ve also spoken on a lot of podcasts. Often, podcasters ask me to share my career origin story with their audience. This article will explain how I found myself working in a UX career.

TLDR Summary – I went to school. I worked in a jail. I went to more school. I did research in museums and zoos. I went to more school. I worked more as a researcher. A colleague/friend referred me to a digital design firm. Intuitive Company hired me. I had the right work and education experiences. I knew the right people at the right time. You can do this too. But it isn't easy.

The Beginning

I didn’t grow up interested in design. I wasn’t skilled at creating things. I never built Lego castles. I didn’t draw up blueprints time machines. What I have always been, is curious. I love to learn. I love to read. I love to understand things and make sense of the world around me.

My mother encouraged me to read and write. She bought me journals and scrap books. She told me I should record my experiences. I didn’t do a great job of this. Eventually I realized a passion for writing. I wrote short stories and poetry in high school. Sometimes I shared what I wrote with others. I always held high regard for published authors. I wrongly assumed they were rich and famous.

I wanted to own a business, be a journalist, and write a book when I grew up. I knew I’d be filthy rich.

My Education and Work Experience

I can’t separate my work and education experience. I had three children during the course of earning my bachelor’s degree. I worked throughout college.

I Went to School

I didn’t take any art or design courses in high school. I didn’t take any art or design courses in college. I studied people and learning. I received my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Education from The Ohio State University (OSU). You have to use the word “The”. It’s part of The name. I intended to teach middle school language arts or social studies.

My course load focused on people, communication, and learning. I took classes in anthropology, education, psychology, and sociology. I also took courses in comparative studies, history, human development, and social work. I learned how people tick, from a textbook perspective.

I Worked In a Jail

I worked at county jails as a jailer for a total of three years. I had other jobs, but jailer is the most relevant. Why’s that? I learned how people tick, from a real life perspective.

As a jailer I learned and practiced:

  • Observation – my job required me to observe and record my surroundings. I conducted inmate head counts hourly. I searched bunks and rooms. I watched common spaces for signs of trouble. I kept a written log of all activity during my shift.
  •  Interviewing – I was a booking officer. I interviewed each person committed to jail during my shift. I had to learn why the person was arrested. I evaluated their personal and health information. I told them how things went in general population. I also interviewed inmates on a daily basis. Inmate insight was key to running a smooth experience.
  • UX – I didn’t know it at the time, but I was responsible for the UX of the inmates. As a jailer, I determined the frequency of outdoor activities. I scheduled trips to the library. I coordinated other activities we engaged in. I made sure everyone ate and received medical care when needed. I helped maintain a safe and clean environment. Bad UX meant trouble. Bad UX might mean violence.
  • Respecting others – I learned the easiest way to receive respect is to give respect. Inmates were still people. Their punishment was to serve time. I was not responsible for inflicting more punishment. I was responsible for making sure they served their sentence. (Apply this to UX – your job is to respect users, not inflict extra punishment.

I got a PhD and did a lot of Research

I developed a passion to learn more about how the natural environment impacts learning. I knew I wanted to continue in school. I wanted to research how people communicate about the environment. OSU accepted me into a PhD program as I completed my master’s degree.

I enjoyed getting my PhD. I studied how people interpret communication about the environment and environmental issues. I had a hands-on PhD program. I conducted dozens of studies in settings like natural history museums, science centers, and zoos. I took courses in psychology, public policy, organizational studies, and many research methods courses.

Literature reviews are a critical piece of PhD-level research papers. I conducted many literature reviews on psychological topics. I became familiar with research on influence, persuasion, and behavior change. Three key areas of psychology.

I studied people visiting informal learning settings for my PhD research. I worked with visitors to natural history museums, science centers, and zoos. I conducted interviews. I administered pen and paper surveys. I observed and tracked people interacting with exhibits. I analyzed qualitative and quantitative data.

I took on side projects with my PhD advisor. We worked with local informal learning organizations to study their visitors. The Columbus Museum of Art hired me as a visitor services researcher while I was in school. I conducted dozens of studies for the Museum.

These experiences taught me to go beyond research and data analysis. I had to make the findings relevant to people uninterested in the academic aspect of research. I learned to translate the application of research findings to practitioners. I loved doing this.

I did more work as a researcher

I took a job as a researcher with the Institute for Learning innovation (ILI). ILI no longer exists. ILI was a leader in research and evaluation in informal learning settings. I was conducting research with people for my job and my PhD program.

I graduated with proficiency in common social science research methods: content analysis, focus groups, interviewing, surveying, observation, and tracking. I was skilled at key components of research projects:

  • Working with clients and other researchers
  • Identifying research questions
  • Identifying methods to answer research questions
  • Developing the research protocol
  • Gaining Institutional Review Board approval of research
  • Recruiting participants (often in public spaces)
  • Collecting data
  • Analyzing data
  • Making recommendations
  • Reporting findings and recommendations to academics, clients, and peers

I had four years of studying and conducting research when I earned my PhD. I also had four years of work experience as a researcher. I knew how to interact with clients, colleagues, and research participants.

I Kept Working as a Researcher

I continued with ILI after graduating. Later, I left to take a job as a Social Sciences Researcher for the State of Ohio. I conducted research and evaluation on federally funded traffic safety and criminal justice programs. I continued gaining experience in key research methods. I evaluated the effectiveness of programs designed for people. I wrote reports for an audience of policy makers and practitioners.

I met People and Stayed in Touch

During college I made connections with people who would be my research peers for the rest of my career. I met Jes Koepfler while working at ILI. She was a super star with ambition, talent, and intelligence. Jes left ILI, but she made a great impact on me. Jes started her own research consultancy in Philadelphia. We stayed in touch over time.

I reached out to Jes a few years later. I was looking for side projects. Jes told me she had a client that needed more researchers. She said it was a user-focused digital design firm. I had no idea what that meant. She was talking about Intuitive Company (IC).

I’m offered a job as a UX Researcher

Jes put me in touch with the right people at IC. IC took me on as a contractor. They offered me a full-time position a few months later. I still had no clue what UX was. But I knew damn-well what research was. I accepted the job. My fiancé and I moved from Columbus to Philadelphia.

I made sense of it all

I immediately realized how my experience was relevant to UX. I saw the connection between what I had studied in the physical world and what I was working on in the digital world. I didn’t understand the terminology of design and UX. But I quickly learned all that. I saw how psychology plays a role in design. I started writing about this. I also found sobriety. I wrote a lot more and published Design for the Mind. IC promoted me to my position as a director.

Words of Advice

What? You didn’t ask for my advice. I know. Here it is anyway.

Maintain bridges - My story highlights the importance of making and maintaining connections. I would have never known about IC if Jes hadn’t recommended them to me. IC wouldn’t have given me a chance if Jes hadn’t referred me. You never know where your colleagues are going to end up. Keep in touch.

Look for non-obvious opportunities – I had no idea how close visitor experience and user experience align. I wasn’t aware the principles of psychology I learned in school would apply to work in UX. Looking back, I see the relevance in projects I completed.

I worked with the Cincinnati Zoo. The National Science Foundation gave them money to add computer kiosks to some exhibit spaces. I tested design prototypes and did usability testing. But we called it front-end evaluation. Same tasks, different terms.

I worked with the Jacksonville Zoo. The National Science Foundation gave them money to develop a smartphone app. I stood in the Zoo and observed people interacting with the exhibits (contextual inquiry). I asked them to use a prototype of the app. I came up with design recommendations based on the research. At that time, I’d never heard the term user experience.

I set up a computer kiosk in the Columbus Museum of Art’s lobby. I asked visitors to navigate the Museum’s website to complete tasks. This is usability testing. At the time, I called it a website study.

I suggest looking at museums, zoos, and non-profit organizations for UX-type roles. They might call it something different like exhibit design or visitor research. Use this experience to hone your UX skills and create connections.

I see a lot of parallels between my past and present work. Apparently, others have also transitioned from museums to UX. I hope my experience provides insight into ways to get into UX. Please share any advice or experience you have with getting into a UX position.