Earlier this year I wrote a blog entry for the Auros site about how the UX analysis for a particular project had provided inspiration for the visual design that was to follow. A current project has given me cause to think about this further, and to try to more eloquently explain why I feel that the project stages we generally refer to as 'UX' and 'Design' are in fact just design, and all of the designers involved need to be there for all parts of the process.
At work we recently outsourced the UX component of a particular project, and a few days ago I had a handover from the UX company so that I could start work on the visual design. Usually I handle both bits of the puzzle, and so no kind of handover is required. It made for rather an interesting experience to have been completely separate from the UX analysis and design process, and then receive a set of completed wireframes, approved by the client. I might liken it to starting to watch a movie half an hour in.
What surprised me was how bereft of knowledge I felt. I still understood the client's business, and had a fair idea of what might look good, but all of the subtle nuances of preference that a client normally gives away without even realising were totally absent. I hadn't fully realised until this project just how much of this discretely, subconsciously-delivered information aids my understanding of both what will sit well with the intended users, and what the client will want to see. Without those weeks of to-and-fro with project owners, discussing users and goals and journeys through the site, it felt like I knew both the client and their users less well than I would like to.
It seems rather obvious to say that visual design and user-experience design are simply different stages of the same process, and that really the whole lot is simply DESIGN, and probably would be thought of that way in most industries. But so often I read about them being treated as discrete project elements, handled by different people/teams/companies (delete as appropriate), and that makes me question the way in which many websites are created. The way wireframes describe information and functions on a page has a huge effect on the visual design of a site. The way a graphic designer formats text, images and layouts has a huge effect on a user's experience of a site. So if there is a clear delineation between the two, I don't think I can see it.
And even if we put the influence of visual design on user-experience to one side for a moment; in a commercial setting, the visual designer's judgement call as to what a client will find acceptable can be as important as well-founded user-experience design. The harsh reality is that if you want to get paid, the client has to like your work in the first instance, and not just when or if users report back. And achieving both of those things means knowing your client and knowing what they will like.
I feel like many of the nuances of preference and discrete information that drive delivery of the 'right' design (either from a user-experience or client acceptance point of view), are often implicitly communicated by the client over the course of the UX process. The visual designer / Graphic Designer who is not involved in the design process from the start is missing half the story, and must either do without, or spend time discovering the same things that the UX designer already knows. Likewise without continuity of process from UX analysis through to creation of a visual mock-up or prototype, there can never be a truly thorough realisation of a user-experience designer's vision. Whichever way you look at it, you're wasting time or skills at one end of the process.