A day in the life of... a user interface designer
Published: 27 February 2017 By Ben Davis
Digital user interfaces are an integral part of brand image, usability and often the business as a whole.
So, what does a UI designer do? Matt Bartlett is Senior UI Designer at web-design agency Ridgeway.
Here's what he does with his time...
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Please describe your job: What do you do?
For me, design at all levels is about problem solving, and UI design is no different.
Essentially, UI design is about understanding a brand, the user’s needs and a client’s business requirements, and translating that knowledge into combinations of typography, colour, hierarchy and structure to craft intuitive and engaging digital solutions.
Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
As Senior UI Designer at Ridgeway, I sit in a middle-management role, line-managing the Design Team, and reporting up to the Head of Production.
It’s my responsibility, from a visual perspective, to ensure the work that the Production and Design teams create reaches the high level of expectation set by the client, Ridgeway and myself, within the confines of budget and commercial feasibility.
This responsibility includes collaborating with several other skillsets, including guiding parts of the UX process, and ensuring the quality of the front-end build matches the expectations set by the design concepts.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
At senior level, I believe being a good communicator is key.
Firstly, a solution can’t be found until you understand the problem. To understand the problem you need to be able to extract the right information. The only way to do this is to build up a rapport with the client, know which questions to ask, and help to guide - but not manipulate - the conversation in order to understand the breadth of their business, and have empathy for their audience and brand.
Equally, being able to communicate within a project team is vital. Being able to share and facilitate design discussion, describe animations and interactions, and define all the little nuances that build up a coherent visual language. But also to learn and understand if there are any platform limitations, the viability of your ideas, and ensuring your design solution adheres to the project requirements.
At the end of the creative process, you also need to be able to articulate to the key stakeholders the ‘why’ behind your concepts, and justify the visual language you created.
Other soft skills include being able to multi-task, the aptitude to problem solve autonomously and as part of a team, a good eye for detail, and the inquisitiveness to stay on top of digital trends and advancements in technology.
Tell us about a typical working day…
Coffee is essential in the morning before settling at my desk.
Thereafter, a typical working day will start with a quick catch-up with the Design and Production teams to answer any questions they may have, and understand when and where I might be needed. Then I’ll fire up my MacBook, put my headphones on, before checking my schedule, answering my emails, then opening up whichever project files I need.
I’ll usually be working from a set of brand guidelines, the wireframes created by the UX team, the functional specification written by the Technical Lead, the content provided by the client, as well as my own artwork files.
With all the necessary information at hand, I’ll start crafting the interface of whichever solution I’m working on. In most cases, I’ll be designing templates and components for desktop, tablet and mobile devices.
Throughout the day there will be several touchpoints with the wider project team. This may include engaging with the UX and Development teams to ensure design feasibility, or answering questions regarding projects they’re working on. There will also be on-going dialogue with the client to ensure they are happy with my output.
My day may also include client discovery workshops, ideation sessions, writing project documentation, putting together costs for a new project, and collaborating with the Sales and Marketing teams.
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
For me, it’s all about working on challenging projects for brands of all sizes. Shaping how they are represented in the online environment is a massive responsibility and an honour.
I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with a really diverse spectrum of brands over my career, including Twinings and HMV here at Ridgeway. However, working for smaller brands and start-ups who are yet to have an extensive brand guidelines defined has its own set of challenges, and is equally enjoyable.
There are several other exciting brands I’m working with currently at Ridgeway, including the De Beers diamond company.
What sucks? Well, I always told myself growing up I’d never get a desk job, so I guess sitting down for the majority of the day sucks.
What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
My goals are largely defined by the client and their business requirements, so every project will have a bespoke set of metrics and KPIs.
Generally speaking, if the final product feels considered, is intuitive to use, engages with the respective audience, is striking and visually embodies the brand, then I deem that a job well done.
At Ridgeway, we specialise in CMS ecommerce solutions, so good conversion rates and dwell time, and plenty of repeat visits are all crucial to a website’s success. Although, success in these areas are a collective effort with the wider project team, I firmly believe my role as UI Designer has a massive impact in achieving these goals.
After launch, there are numerous analytics tools at our disposal to appraise how a user is interacting with the solution, so discovering ways to refine and evolve will always help to boost any metric.
Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Personally, doing a great job means a client will commit to an on-going relationship with the agency, and that is always rewarding.
What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
In 2013 I started to experiment with a little known UI design tool called Sketch. Since then, Sketch has gone from strength to strength, and as an agency 90% of our design output is now created using it.
I’m pretty certain everybody in the digital design industry has heard of Sketch by now so I won’t bother going into detail. Nonetheless, since I introduced the tool into Ridgeway’s workflow, I believe the team’s overall efficiency has improved greatly.
Not only is it intuitive to use, but it’s great for responsive design, allowing you to project your mobile and tablet artboards directly onto the respective device. This helps to really enhance your design for smaller screens, and ensure your designs look pixel perfect before the Front-End team starts their build.
Likewise, the Front-End team can jump into the Sketch files and quickly pull out any CSS code and SVG files they need to get started.
At Ridgeway, we’re also exploring tools like Slack and InVision to ensure greater collaboration with both internal and external stakeholders.
And, of course, where would any designer be without Adobe CC?
How did you get started in the digital industry, and where might you go from here?
I must admit, I didn’t really specialise in web design at university, I was much more keen to explore other graphic design fundamentals. That said, my first employer must have seen some potential in my portfolio to have handed me the opportunity to become a Junior Digital Designer.
In those early days, I mainly art-worked static micro-sites, and worked on CMS templates for pre-existing clients who were on a support retainer. I also created a huge amount of Flash advertising banners.
The real change in my career came with the emergence of smartphones and tablets, which completely revolutionised the thought process behind the way I worked. I know responsive is commonplace now, and in most cases at Ridgeway we’d not consider building anything that didn’t work across multiple devices, but having to really contemplate page load speeds, breakpoints, and touch interactions was, and continues to be a fascinating challenge.
Going forward, I guess I’ll go wherever technology takes me. I’ve no set goals in terms of career progression, all I know is the digital industry continues to evolve, and the advancement of hardware and software across a multitude of platforms offers endless possibilities and exciting new opportunities.
Which brands do you think are doing digital well?
I’m a keen follower of several online awards sites and often see some fantastic uses of modern technologies. One such brand that pops up time after time is the B&O Play site. Each product detail page is an immersive showcase of micro interactions and animations.
AirBnB on the other hand, is a great example of minimalist intuitive design, concentrating on user goals, whilst still maintaining plenty of character through carefully curated imagery, friendly typography, and boldly coloured accents and calls to action.
Both are very different sites, but both uphold the integrity of their respective brands wonderfully.
Do you have any advice for people who want to work in the digital industry?
Be flexible and never shy away from broadening your understanding of complementary skill sets.
I love being a UI Designer - getting paid to be creative and working with brands of all types and sizes, but there is so much more to design than just ‘colouring in’.
Having even a basic understanding of all things digital; UX, SEO, IA, accessibility, usability, CSS/HTML, and CMS platforms will help you to better appraise your own creativity, avoid designing based on assumptions, and find suitable solutions to whatever is thrown your way.
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