What is user experience (UX) design? And why is it so big right now?

As well as answering these questions, this article will explore how UX design can enhance people’s lives, how the industry will change and grow in the coming years, and how you can get trained up as a UX designer without going to design school. Oh, and did I mention that the average salary of a UX designer is approaching $90,000?

Before we start, let’s quickly clarify what user experience and UX design are. Don Norman, who coined the term “user experience” while he was working for Apple in the nineties, explains:

I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.

UX design involves research into user personas and user goals; planning of user journeys through an app, website, or product; and sketching of user interface designs and specifications. It’s the UX designer’s job to meet with clients and customers, and plan out the product to enable them to meet their goals in the most efficient and enjoyable way possible.

Why is UX design so big? ($90,000 big)

Scroll through a design job board today and the demand for user experience (UX) designers is clear. It’s not hard to work out why: consumers now interact with online stores and services primarily through mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

People tend to use mobile devices while waiting in line, or in the back of a cab, or walking to an appointment. The duration of each session is therefore short and often subject to extrinsic limitations that the service must work within: if someone thinks they won’t be able to complete their purchase in an app before they reach the pharmacy counter, they’re likely to abandon their cart and start scrolling through Instagram feeds of upside-down kittens and brunch.

Businesses increasingly recognise that having apps and websites with an intuitive and functional user experience is not only crucial to their customers’ happiness and satisfaction; it’s also key to their company’s brand and profitability. The commercial rewards of good UX design can be huge, which means that UX designers can also attract very healthy salaries.

Glassdoor estimates the average salary of a UX designer in the USA to be almost $90,000, as companies battle to hire the best:

Glassdoor estimates the average salary to be almost $90,000

And the rewards don’t stop there. A career in UX design will also put you at the cutting edge of app and web design – a discipline that is constantly changing and innovating. In the next few years we expect to see an increase in demand for designers applying their expertise to the UX of virtual reality platforms. (Did you see the legend Ronnie O’Sullivan FALL OVER while trying to play VR pool? Slight UX glitch.)

Next, let’s take a closer look at the reasons why UX design is so important, and why it can make for a rewarding vocation.

7 reasons why you should you work as a UX designer

1. Your opportunities are right at your fingertips. Mobile devices are ubiquitous: research suggests that the average smartphone user checks their phone over 75 times a day. One recent study reported that the average user engages in over 2,600 daily interactions with their phone (by which they mean taps, swipes, and scrolls). It also found that the average user spent 145 minutes a day using their phone – but this was the aggregate of lots of short sessions (76 sessions a day on average). Heavier users engaged in over 130 sessions each day.

2. You will design for a greater range of UX touchpoints than ever before. Although mass market phones and tablets have dominated UX design over the past 5 years, user experience engineering is quietly becoming an important part of a whole range of other, more specialised technologies. Companies are also realising that investment in better systems can increase the productivity and happiness of their staff: a receptionist is generally happier and more effective using an appointment arrival system that requires 2 taps rather than asking them to work through 3 forms, 7 dialog boxes, and then dismiss an error message.

T3 clinical monitoring web app

T3 clinical monitoring web app

3. You could help save lives. In clinical settings, good UX can (and already does) keep patients safe. The increased sophistication of medical devices creates an urgent need for doctors and nurses to be able to understand complex information in a quick and intuitive way (check out the T3 system, which collects high resolution clinical data in critical care settings, and allows clinicians to analyse the data in a web app). Good UX design in medicine reduces the need for interpretation, in turn cutting the likelihood of human error, and enabling staff to make better decisions.

4. You can help make technology accessible to everyone. Advanced technology requiring complex human-machine interactions is becoming essential for even the most basic aspects of living, from buying groceries online, through paying energy bills, to voting in elections. As well as helping the average user, good UX design caters specifically to the needs of the elderly, vulnerable, and disabled by creating products that foster people’s independence, intelligence, and dignity.

A FitBit Surge

A FitBit Surge

5. You can shape the future by designing the internet of things. We are buying an unprecedented range of consumer gadgets, whether for fun (Snapchat Spectacles), for health and motivation (FitBit), or even for better sleep (Beddit). Each of these devices has a distinct purpose, meaning that the user has different needs and goals when interacting with them. Although the commercial viability of any emerging tech is always uncertain, this uncertainty creates a great opportunity for UX designers to research, experiment, and innovate.

6. You can build value for your business. Good UX design can lead to happier customers, fewer complaints, more sales, fewer abandoned carts, and higher profits. What’s more, offering services that have been built with strong UX design also elevates customers’ perception of an entire brand. These brand associations can have positive business effects far beyond individual products.

This is my face. #nofilter

This is my face. #nofilter

7. You can enable people’s enjoyment of their devices. UX isn’t just for serious stuff – it also helps us to derive pleasure from the time we spend using technology. Snapchat (and those Spectacles) shows that in app design there is room for the silly and superfluous, so long as the product enhances people’s connections to one another, and helps us to find the delight in everyday technology.

How to become a UX designer (without going to design school)

Have you been thinking “$90k for a job designing the future sounds great, but don’t I need to go to design school?” The short answer is “no”. In fact, the long answer is also “no”.

As you would expect from a sector specialising in optimising product experiences, there is now a range of online training options available for the aspiring UX designer. To round off this article, we've put together this set of learning resources into a Degreed learning pathway. Degreed is a site you can use to help track all your formal and informal learning. Here's a preview of what you can find in our Degreed pathway:

First, get started by reading up on free online content.

  • The definition of user experience (Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen)
  • Getting Started In UX Design (Designlab)
  • Design User Research Explained (Froont)
  • The next big thing in design? Less choice (FastCo Design)
  • 7 common mistakes UX designers make (Joanna Ngai)

Then read some books.

  • Steve Krug – Don’t Make Me Think
  • Don Norman – The Design of Everyday Things
  • Frank Chimero – The Shape of Design
  • Susan Weinschenk – 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People
  • Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, David Cronin, and Christopher Noessel – About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design

If you need to learn design basics, check out these great courses and resources.

Consider an intensive mentor-led course

Once you’ve mastered basic design skills through a course like Design 101, Designlab offers an intensive UX Academy program to help you break through into UX design. Students work with expert mentors, selected for their design excellence and top-notch communication skills.

On the course, you will complete 480 hours of training in total. Phase 1 focuses on skills building, working through a series of modules that cover the UX process (User Research, Interaction Design, Prototyping & Testing, UI Design — 30-40 short projects).

Phase 2 is structured around three in-depth capstone projects, which are more comprehensive — they are a series of deliverables and case studies. Towards the end of the program, you work with your mentor to put together a portfolio and start applying for jobs.

You can find more details about the course, including how to apply, over on the UX Academy page.

author avatar

Andrew Wilshere


Designer, Writer, and Mentor

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