UX Designers have gotten so used to not being responsible for the final look of the product, that they have dangerously distanced themselves from the design craft.

This is not an article about whether UX and UI are separate disciplines or not. This is a story on whether UX designers should pay more attention to the visual quality of their outputs.

In the early years of the commercial web, we were all Web Designers. Digital interactions, at that stage, were not incredibly sophisticated: most websites were structured as a set of individual pages connected to each other via buttons and links.

In more complex websites and information-heavy systems, the web designer would pair with an Information Architect to make sure content was organized in a way that made sense for that particular audience.

Interfaces then evolved and interactions became more sophisticated — including sites in Flash, RIA (Rich Internet Applications), and increasingly interactive widgets, soon to be followed by the advent of smartphones and touch interfaces. It was the era of the Interaction Designer.

We then moved into experiences that existed way beyond a single screen or flow. The vision of users transitioning across multiple touchpoints in a seamless and connected experience has brought attention to a new figure in the digital product design ecosystem: the UX Designer.

A tale of form and function

To be able to deal with the emerging complexity of digital design, over the years our industry has gradually separated form and function, broadening the gap between the role of the UI Designer and the UX Designer. While the former group has become more and more specialized in shaping the way things look, UX Designers has distanced themselves from aesthetic decisions to be able to focus on how things work — and on how technology can deliver on real, research-proven user needs and pain points.

The challenge is: as UX Designers, we have gotten so used to not being responsible for the final look of the product that we have dangerously distanced ourselves from the design craft. Because the output of our work (wireframes, user journeys, personas, research synthesis) is rarely going to be seen by end users, we have settled for less.

Less quality. Less polish. Less taste.

“Lean UX” has forced our documentation to be produced at a faster pace.

“Design thinking” has equipped us with colorful sticky notes, and atrophied our ability to produce high-fidelity designs.

“Low fidelity” has become an excuse for horrendous — almost offensive — outputs.

Year after year, UX Designers lost touch of their sense of polish and taste, missing an incredible opportunity to evolve their craft as designers. “Low fidelity” became an excuse for horrendous — almost offensive — design outputs.

Fidelity: how low is too low?

If you have been in this industry for some time, you have probably seen wireframes and mockups that carry such low fidelity that they become borderline unhelpful. The same with user journeys, persona templates, blueprints (even presentation slides in a UX conference, to be completely honest) — deliverables that are carelessly thrown together with too little attention to detail.

Choosing the right level of fidelity to design deliverables has been an endless discussion in the design community, and that’s not the purpose of this article. I wanted to propose an angle not a lot of people might be writing and thinking about.

Design, in my view, is all about attention to detail. No matter how strategic of a designer you are. When presented with an u̶g̶l̶y̶ extreme low fidelity UX deliverable, aside from questioning how thoughtful the person who created it is, I try to understand the underlying reason for that to be happening.

  • The lack of fidelity on a wireframe may be an indicator of lack of understanding of what the real content needs to be.
  • The lack of basic design rules (like hierarchy, alignment, negative space) demonstrates lack of understanding of foundational graphic design history and legacy. Is there a chance this can hurt the product later on?
  • The lack of polish shows lack of care. That person have not invested enough time in creating a more pleasant experience for the people consuming that content. Is there a chance the same will happen later on the project?
  • The lack of good taste puts into question the references that professional has. What are the sources of design inspiration they have been consuming?

A discipline of designers who do not design

Some people migrate to UX design from other disciplines like development, product management, copywriting, graphic design. To be able to hold the responsibilities required of that new role, they study user-centered design methods, join UX bootcamps, and in some cases even learn to create wireframes and low-to-medium fidelity prototypes. But because the default assumption in our industry is that UX designers do not need to present a high level of polish on a daily basis in the materials they produce, people stop investing time in learning to improve their design craft.

Professionals with a graphic design background find it easier to transition to UX than the other way around. Once you have a good grasp of the visual aspect of design, learning to step back and think more strategically about the work tends to feel more natural — and aligns quite well with the process of becoming a more senior designer anyways. But UX designers rarely pursue the other route.

Why would you settle for less?

When migrating to UX, why do people stop pursuing self-betterment in terms of design craft and polish? Why do UX designers not invest more time and energy in improving their visual skills? How can that hurt them?

When challenged with questions like these, UXers are quick to defend the reasons why higher-fidelity deliverables is not a priority for them.

“I would rather focus my time on learning user-centered design methods such as research and strategy.”

Sure. How much time have you spent last week studying new research and strategy methods? Chances are you haven’t. We are pretty good at making excuses for ourselves. Also, once you learn how to operate the more strategic design tools (e.g. moderating a focus group, or mapping the user’s journey), improving on it is more of a matter of practice than dedicating additional time to study how that’s done.

Once you learn to be strategic, you rarely un-learn it.

“But I‘m too busy and I can’t spend too much time refining a deliverable that will be used for internal purposes only.”

So how about becoming faster at producing polished designs? You are only spending 8 long hours polishing the visuals of that user journey because you lack practice. When you get over the hump and become more trained at observing and fixing tiny design inconsistencies, you will get faster and more efficient at creating deliverables that are better looking and easier on the eye.

“But I want to keep it low fidelity to gather the right type of feedback from users.”

The higher the fidelity, the more specific is the feedback you’ll get. Fact. The whole reason why we seek user feedback is so we can use the insights gained to further refine and improve our designs — so the product shouldn’t be fully finished for user testing sessions. Here’s a quite well articulated counter-argument by Arin Bhowmick: “However, you might also have heard people tell you that if you’re wanting to test how someone will respond in a specific scenario, the closer the ‘test’ or ‘model’ corresponds to the reality that it is simulating, the more confident you can be that their behavior in the test scenario will be truly representative of how they would react in the real scenario.” The answer, according to Bhowmick and the way they work at IBM, is pretty powerful: “Seek feedback on your lo-fi explorations, your hi-fi prototypes, and everything in between.”

“But no user is going to see this journey map.”

Your coworkers will. Your stakeholders will. There is even a chance this journey map will be circulated across the entire organization, becoming the bible to how your company understands the user’s journey for years to come. It’s your name and your legacy behind that document — isn’t that enough of a good reason to invest more time into making it look better?

So why would you settle for less?

This article is part of Journey: lessons from the amazing journey of being a designer. Read next: