UX Design vs. Web Design


By Marli Mesibov

If you are like most companies today, you probably have at least three basic goals with your website: to create awareness, drive web traffic and ultimately, deliver quality leads. And local Boston company, FastStart Communications, is poised to help businesses with just those things. However, FastStart knows that to be successful in all these areas, you need to consider the user in every aspect. To assure success, FastStart’s Kathleen Keating called up our own Joe Baz to find out just how you get to the heart of a good user experience and how, ultimately, you can meet your customers’ needs while achieving your business goals.

Kathleen: What’s the difference between a web designer and a user experience (UX) design expert?

Photo of Joe Baz

Joe Baz, CEO at Above the Fold

Joe: It really comes down to a difference in how people define the word “design.” Many people think of design as meaning only visual design. Web design is a type of visual design, in as much as a web designer is generally responsible for the visual elements and technical implementation of a website or application.

User experience (UX) design is more akin to the generic term design: to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to a plan. So, a UX designer may not only design the visual elements, but also “design” a solution (or strategy, as many UX designers would call it).

Image of a blueprint

UX Designers create solutions, not just pretty pictures

Some web designers could also be called UX designers because they solve customer problems with their design work, whereas some self-described UX designers may want to rethink how they categorize their work if their idea of UX design is creating really slick user interfaces.

In short, identifying customer problems, architecting an experience and testing your designs with customers is what separates UX designers from Web designers.

Kathleen: What does a user experience designer do?

Joe: A UX designer is responsible for understanding both customer problems and business goals, crafting testable hypotheses, designing the solution and then vetting the solution with customers.

Sketch of flow diagram

Crafting a testable hypothesis

Depending on the seniority of the designer, that may require being responsible for the visual design, prototyping, usability testing, front-end development or data analysis. So, there is a necessary artistic ability in a UX designer, which separates them from most executives, product managers and marketers, as well as an understanding of research, separating them from most other designers.

Photo of Kathleen Keating

Kathleen Keating, Fast Start Communications

Kathleen: What are the top three priorities marketers should consider when it comes to user experience design and their websites?

Joe: Priority #1: Identify real problems with the website. An inventory of problems should be documented, and problems should be accompanied by factual data (as opposed to personal opinions).

For example: “according to Google Analytics, our conversion rate for our lead gen form is at 2%, but we need roughly 10% conversions in order to meet our marketing goal.”

Once you’ve established the problem, state the hypothesis: “We believe that customers will fill out the lead gen form if we reduce the amount of information collected in half.”

A UX designer may suggest conducting an A/B split test to prove that hypothesis and provide the necessary support for making sure that everything is executed according to plan.

Priority #2: Understand the cost of business for supporting the user research. By user research, I mean conducting customer interviews, usability testing, A/B testing and user behavior analysis (via Web analytics). If UX design consists of both artistic design and research to back up decisions, then you need to have some form of R&D to test functionality. Design based on guesswork is not really UX design.

Image of an iPad app

Design based on guesswork is not UX design

If providing a good UX is a strategic differentiator for your business, then it may be appropriate to hire a UX designer or even a team of UX professionals in-house, and outsource any overflow work to a UX design agency. You will be surprised at how quickly a full-time employee will become overworked, given the amount of work that’s required to maintain a good UX for a website or application.

Priority #3: Define a set of UX guidelines. If every unit within the company isn’t working with the same set of guidelines, the process can fall apart. To ensure that everyone in your organization understands and commits to executing the best UX practices, start with the brand guidelines. Include the necessary rules, tips and requirements so that each business unit is equipped to provide the customer with the best user experience possible.

While every business is different, I would check out the UX Bookmark for a wonderful collection of specific company UX guidelines.

Kathleen: Are there any particular industries or businesses that are ideal for working with a user experience designer?

Image of Gumby and his creative toolset

UX design touches everything

Joe: I am not a fan of absolutes, but I think this is one time where I can say that pretty much every industry and every business is ideal for working with a user experience designer. UX design touches the customer, which is something every business has, and it touches every business unit. It’s ubiquitous.

Now, some businesses are solely dependent on UX design because without it, they may never see customers again. For example, a SaaS company that does not have a hired sales force but relies on ecommerce or user registration as their main vehicle for capturing new customers, they need a near-perfect UX. Whereas a non-SaaS company might be able to survive with little help from a UX designer because most if not all sales might come directly from the sales force.

That said, thanks to the likes of Apple, Mint, Dropbox, Evernote and so many others, providing a good UX consistently is starting to be realized as an important strategic differentiator in business, and businesses that don’t ante up when their competitors do will come up short.

Kathleen: What comes first – design or content?

Joe: Neither.

As my UX designer, Jim O’Neill, so succinctly states “Collaboration Comes First.” What this means is that design informs content and vice versa.

Image of Lego figurines meeting in front of a computer

Working together

To address the chicken and egg problem, the design and content generation process need to be adjusted – both design and copy ARE content! Visual designers, copywriters, and UX designers all need to get involved early on.

If you have separate content creators (visual designers and copy writers) and UX designers, let them all spend the first week or two gathering information together, reviewing the project and Web analytics, and conducting a content audit. Then the UX designer can provide a template and the content creators can work together to put images, copy, video, and any other form of content in place.

While there are definitely cases where copy should precede design (e.g. an ecommerce product page where the content is coming mostly from a database) and vice versa (e.g. an interface design that is mostly devoid of content), the above process works 80-90% of the time, and especially for website redesign projects.

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  • John Walker

    So is it a complete draw or we have a loser here? We are not talking about the winning side here, because it seems like Web Design is still going to win, as it is an original conceptthat is not going anywhere no matter what, but it is the UX Design that has much better opportunities nowadays.

    • http://www.twitter.com/joebaz Joe Baz

      Thanks for your thoughts, John.

      Unfortunately, there is no agreed upon set of roles and responsibilities of a UX designer and a Web designer, which would allows us to fairly attribute a winner. Honestly, I don’t think we should even look at this as a competition. Although, I can see how one would come up with this based on the title of this article alone — You caught me red handed! :-)

      From my perspective, I think the phrase Web design should be thrown away completely in favor of two distinct disciplines: UX Design & Visual Design. In this world, a UX designer’s sole responsibility is to ensure that they are designing great experiences for people. For visual designers, their responsibility lies with the creation of effective visual communications. Both of these disciplines can tackle any number of technological properties: Web, mobile, TV, wearable tech, etc, and both of these disciplines need each other to create effective products, services and content.