10 Secrets of User Experience Designers

iStock/RossHelen
iStock/RossHelen

While you may be able to recognize and appreciate the work of graphic designers, fashion designers, and architects in your everyday life, you may not think too often about experience designers. But user experience (UX) designers have a huge impact on the products most of us use every day, especially digital products like smartphone apps and websites. A UX designer is in charge of how you interact with a product and the overall experience: What features does it offer? When you click a button on an app or website, where does it take you? Can you find that button? How many clicks should it take to put in your credit card information or sign up for a new account? How easy is it to figure out how to share a link or invite a friend? It’s a UX designer's job to figure that stuff out.

Mental Floss interviewed four people who work as UX designers to find out more about their job. Jonny Mack, a Seattle-based freelance designer, previously worked at Google designing products like Chrome OS and has since worked on projects such as Coinbase Wallet, a cryptocurrency app. Rob Hamblen is a design director at the Berlin design agency AJ&Smart and has worked with clients like Adidas, Twitter, and Mercedes-Benz. Talin Wadsworth is the senior UX design lead for Adobe XD—the user experience design software that UX designers use to create prototypes—and Nina Boesch is a senior interaction designer at Local Projects, a New York-based studio that designs (among other things) museum experiences for institutions like the American Museum of Natural History.

Here are 10 secrets you might not know about the job, from the user features UX designers hate to the reason they hope you never notice their work.

1. THE DEFINITION OF A UX DESIGNER VARIES A LOT …

Not everyone who works as a UX designer has a similar job description. Some handle a wide breadth of tasks, from coming up with product features to prototyping to designing user testing to writing code. Others might be more specialized, overseeing other designers, researchers, and engineers as they work on individual aspects of the design process. Some are also involved in user interface design—known as UI—creating the visual look and feel of a product. “The range of skills across UX designers is pretty varied,” Mack explains. “Some people call themselves UX designers and they’re extremely technical. They’re actually doing a lot of engineering and front-end development. There are other people who call themselves UX designers who don’t write code and don’t even design much, who are doing a lot of research and usability stuff.”

"At a startup, I would define a UX designer as a generalist,” Mack says. “They would be working with a product manager and an engineer to define what the product even is.” They will help figure out what features a product will have and what features it won’t have, and might create a prototype. They’ll do interviews with potential users, asking them to test the prototype to determine whether people can actually use it as the designers envisioned. They might even be writing the code and designing the interface of the site or app.

“In a large company like, for example, Google, you had specialists for each of the things I mentioned,” he explains. There would be a dedicated usability researcher who would conduct those interviews and user tests as well as a team of prototypers and visual designers who would actually make the product, among other roles. In that kind of environment, the UX designer acts as more of a manager, helping determine what the product should be and guiding the project through the creation process.

2. THERE ARE A LOT OF MEETINGS.

Designers don’t spend all day at their desks sketching out ideas. It’s an intensely collaborative job—sometimes to a fault. “When I worked at Google,” Mack says, “I spent very little of my time actually designing—probably four to six hours a week at most, and that time happened either early in the morning, late in the evening, or on weekends, because all day was filled with meetings.”

Wadsworth, too, spends a lot of time meeting with other people rather than working on his own. His team typically has daily check-ins or critique sessions together. “The perception of the lone designer is not true,” he says. He tries to carve out an hour here or an hour there to work through ideas on his own, but says the rest of his time is spent collaborating and talking about ideas in meetings or on Slack or during formal research sessions. For him, that’s not a bad thing. “Some of my favorite moments are when someone’s passing by and I just grab them and get them to give me their take on something—that’s where a lot of the more ‘aha’ moments come from.”

3. IF THEY DO THEIR JOB WELL, YOU NEVER THINK ABOUT THEM.

The UX designer’s role is almost entirely behind the scenes. While you may admire how pretty an interface looks, you probably don’t think too much about the process that helps you get from Point A to Point B in an app. And that's a good thing.

As Hamblen puts it, “If you have done your job properly, you can design an interface where the user has no friction whatsoever. If the UX designer has done their job as well, [users] will be able to achieve their goal without thinking about it.” That goal might be buying something on a website, checking your account balance on your bank app, finding that “share” button, or otherwise understanding how to navigate the product you’re trying to use.

“In a way, we are working on deliverables, no one, other than our team or the client, will ever see,” Boesch says. “We are putting diagrams and storyboards in front of clients, we are providing our developers with wireframes and sitemaps,” but the end user isn’t going to see that work. Unless, of course, they do their job poorly, and their product or experience is hard to use—at which point a user might start to wonder what's going on behind the scenes, and why the product isn't easier to navigate.

4. THEY HATE TUTORIALS.

Mack hates to see multi-step user tutorials pop up the minute you open a consumer app, calling it “aggressive handholding.” Ideally, users should be able to figure out how to navigate and explore the features baked into an app or website without any special instruction, just by intuition and context. “I get the impetus to teach people, ‘Hey, here’s what this is,’ but you can teach people through use,” he says. “If you’re having to train people, it’s probably a failure of design.”

For instance, if you’re spending a ton of time trying to figure out how to buy a train ticket from a machine in the station, it’s the designer’s fault, not yours. “Most public kiosks, such as ticket machines at subway and train stations, hurt my eyes and my faith in the respective authorities,” Boesch explains. “If it takes me more than a minute to understand the interface and get my ticket then the UX/UI design failed. Most ATMs are pretty awful, too. In a perfect world, it wouldn't take more than 20 seconds to get money out of an ATM.”

One app that Mack says does this especially well is Todoist, the to-do list and task manager app. “It’s so simple at first glance, but it’s like an iceberg of complexity.” You might open it thinking you’re just going to write down a to-do list, but then realize you can assign priority to certain items, share them, comment on them, nest tasks within other tasks, assign deadlines and then snooze them, and more. “If I were to write all these features down in a document, you’d read it and you’d say, ‘This is the most complicated to-do app ever.’ But when you’re looking at it, it just looks simple and easy.”

5. DESIGNERS HAVE TO WORK VERY QUICKLY.

For Wadsworth, creating a new prototype for Adobe XD usually takes between three and six months, but that doesn’t mean the team is working at a leisurely pace. “The pace at which we work is pretty frenetic,” he says. While students in design school have the luxury of developing concepts and ideas for projects over a long period, professional designers have to make those decisions much more quickly. “We’ve committed to developing features every month” with Adobe XD, he explains.

Hamblen’s work at AJ&Smart is particularly fast-paced. The firm specializes in “design sprints,” a five-day, intensive prototyping process that’s designed to be an accelerated way for companies to solve a particular problem or come up with a product. In that environment, the initial UX design might need to be completed within just one day so that the design can be prototyped and tested by users by the end of the week.

6. THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE AS MANY USER TESTS AS YOU THINK.

User testing is a vital part of the design process. Designers might create something they think is genius, but if a normal user can’t figure it out, it’s worthless. But while you might imagine that a new product would be tested with dozens of potential users, in all likelihood, it’s a lot less than that. The standard size of a test group is just five people.

“It might not seem like that’s enough people, but there’s a lot of field research that’s gone into [that number]," Hamblen says. A group of five people is big enough to generate useful feedback, but small enough to support tight budgets and quick turnarounds. After two or three user reviews, you start to see patterns in the feedback, but the fifth user might not see something blatantly obvious to others—representing a population that’s not all that tech-savvy, for instance. These test reviewers are typically recruited based on what the hoped-for user base of a product, which could be something like "parents of small children," or "20- to 30-year-olds," or "people who use online banks," or any other kind of characteristic or demographic the company is looking to target.

7. THEY NEED AT LEAST SOME TECHNICAL KNOW-HOW.

UX designers often work very closely with developers, so they need to at least understand the basics of writing code. “A designer needs to understand the core concepts of code for whatever platform they’re designing for,” Wadsworth says, in order to have an idea of the constraints and possibilities of a particular product. “I myself have taken an iOS development boot camp,” he explains. “I’m not doing that as my daily job, but it helps me be a better designer.”

“You do have to have a good understanding of the tasks a developer would have to do," Hamblen says. You can create the most beautiful interfaces in the world, but if your engineers can't translate it into code, it's not going to happen. "I’ve seen designers create stuff that’s impossible to build or just makes the developers' lives so much harder."

8. USERS CAN BE VERY PASSIONATE.

When you’re working on updating a design that’s part of something people use every day, even little tweaks can be a big deal. When Wadsworth and his team change something about Adobe XD, it impacts how creative professionals do their jobs. “People have very strong opinions about that,” Wadsworth says. “More so than just ‘They changed that button from green to blue,’ they’re like, ‘You changed something that was a built-in part of my process and now I’m going to have to relearn something.' There’s a lot of pressure.”

“Whenever I’m out there talking about my job, I show a picture of a woman who has the toolbar from Photoshop tattooed on her arm,” he explains. “That’s how strongly creatives take their tools.”

9. YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO SEE THEIR FINGERPRINTS IN UNEXPECTED PLACES.

Good UX design may be subtle, but that doesn’t mean UX designers are totally invisible in their work. “I’m in the tutorial file of [Adobe] XD,” Wadsworth says. If you open the sample file designed to help you learn how to use the software, you’re following along with his work. “I’m the designer you can jump in and design along with,” he explains, and the app you watch him create has a personal connection for him. "I’m originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, and so the app that we designed to be the app you learn along with me inside XD is all based on my formative years growing up around national parks in the West.”

10. THEIR WORK ISN’T BUILT TO LAST.

“My life’s work will be gone when I’m old,” Mack says. “I will look back at all the work I’ve done as a UX designer and I won’t be able to go and touch any of it or use any of it—it will all be redone.” Regular product updates, aesthetic trends, and technological change mean that when you’re creating something for the web or mobile devices, it’s not going to stay the same for very long. If you create a website now, you probably aren’t going to be able to go back and look at your work in 10 years. That ephemerality isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. “There’s something I like about it,” he says. “It’s like theater.”

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Songwriters

A songwriter in her natural habitat.
A songwriter in her natural habitat.
Soundtrap, Unsplash

Behind every club banger and power ballad is an eclectic team of individuals, each with their own role in its creation and promotion. Needless to say, it couldn’t happen without the songwriters. These gifted musicians don’t just pen the lyrics that fuel all your car concerts and karaoke nights—they also manage egos, help artists articulate their innermost feelings, and juggle their own side gigs. So what does a songwriting career actually look like? Mental Floss chatted with three experienced songwriters about everything from how they make money to how they make hits.

1. It’s common for songwriters to have their own music careers.

From Carole King to Pharrell Williams, the music industry has long teemed with talented artists who’ve written songs for other acts—so it’s not exactly surprising that so many songwriters are nurturing what they call their own “artist projects.” In fact, all three songwriters interviewed for this article have released new music in the last few months. Daniel Capellaro released the EP Nightside [A] in November under the moniker “Dvniel”; Skyler Stonestreet’s first single as “The Sunshine State” dropped in late October; and Trent Park has been unveiling a steady stream of singles and corresponding music videos since June.

Though it seems like it could be difficult to constantly fork over songs that they might want to release themselves, the collaborative nature of the business prevents this from being a major issue. Often, the songwriter is working off ideas and emotions specific to the artist they’re writing for, so the song truly feels like it belongs to that artist. Other times, the song gets tweaked by so many writers and producers that it’s no longer the original songwriter’s personal opus. “When a song comes out, sometimes I’m like, ‘Ah that was good, but I would’ve done it a totally different way,” Park says. “But that means it wouldn’t be the song that it is.”

2. Songwriters sometimes have to fake it ’til they make it.

In a business built on relationships, it’s pivotal for up-and-coming songwriters to always be on the lookout for new connections. Sometimes, this means acting first and thinking later. During Capellaro’s early days in Los Angeles, his demo CD was his de facto business card. About a month after giving one to an executive from Universal Music Group, he got a call from the company asking when he was playing next. Having no dates lined up, he picked one at random: March 16. “So I hang up and I'm like, ‘OK, I’ve just committed to playing a show. I've got no venue. I've got no band. I have to get all this put together in the next 30 days,” Capellaro remembers.

He found a former bass player from the band Lifehouse on Craigslist, and the two set about securing the rest of the band. For the venue, Capellaro chose a well-known rehearsal space called SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals), only to find out that the Universal exec slated to see the show “[had] never signed a single act at SIR—she hates that place.” It was too late to switch venues, so Capellaro reassured his Universal contact over the phone that “she won’t recognize it” and immediately transported everything in his recently furnished living room to the stage to give it a whole new look. “I had a couch, a rug, tea candles,” he says. “I wanted it to feel like MTV Unplugged.” The hard-to-please executive was duly impressed. “She’s like ‘You sound great. How long have you guys been playing together?’ and I’m like, ‘Ah, you know, for a while.’ I didn’t want to tell her ‘Four days.’”

When asked what surprised him most about the industry, Park answered without hesitation: “That nobody knows what they’re doing.” He, too, confessed to occasional fibbery. “There are some times when I reach out to an artist and I say, ‘I love your stuff. I have a song for you,'” he says. “I’m completely lying. I just want to work with that person, and once they reach out I end up formulating songs in the vein of their stuff.”

3. Songwriters don’t just write for career music artists.

Songwriters like Capellaro and Stonestreet, who are signed to music publishing companies, mainly do work on songs for fellow artists. Park, on the other hand, is an independent songwriter—so his clients sometimes come from other industries altogether. “Right now I'm writing for a couple lawyers that are just doing it as a passion, but they pay me really well,” he says. “I’m there for everyone. Honestly, it’s way better money.” Park also spent a few weeks writing songs for the wife of a billionaire app developer. Not only did she pay him triple his per-song rate and triple his per-diem rate, she also insisted on posting him up in a luxury hotel and giving him an additional $500 each day for food and other expenses. “That was a really cool [scenario],” Park says, “I’m hoping for more of those.”

4. There are countless ways to create a song—and countless people involved.

Songwriting isn’t exactly a linear process. “You can start from any place,” Capellaro says. “You can start with someone toe-tapping, or have a piano pulled up and just start playing a C chord over and over again.” Often, the record label has already started for you—they’ll send an instrumental track to multiple songwriters, who each adds their own lyrics and melody. Then, the label simply chooses their favorite.

Other songs originate in songwriting camps. Basically, a record label will gather various songwriters in a house, split them into small groups, and “see if magic happens,” Stonestreet says. During a camp meant to generate hits for Dua Lipa a few years ago, it did: Stonestreet and several other writers penned her 2018 single “IDGAF.”

But even after a track has lyrics and a melody, there’s always a chance it’ll undergo another round of edits. Maybe a label liked a certain producer’s work on another song, so they ask them to tweak this one; or they bring in a new writer to fine-tune a few words or add a post-chorus. Big artists also sometimes have personal collaborators that they want credited on the song, whether or not they actually helped create it. “That’s why when you look at a Katy Perry song, you’re like ‘How did 14 people write this one song that has the most juvenile lyrics I’ve ever heard in my life?’ They didn’t—it’s all politics,” Capellaro says.

5. Songwriters don’t make much from music streaming services like Spotify.

Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are notorious for pocketing most of the earnings from artists’ work. Spotify, for example, pays the rights holder as little as $0.006 for each stream—and that paltry sum must then be split among all the people involved in making the song. Songwriters, producers, musicians, managers, label executives, and any number of other people could each be entitled to a certain percentage of the profits. “I have over a million streams on one catalog, and that translated to $785,” Capellaro says. “If I sold a million copies, I would’ve had a house up in [Beverly Hills].” Not only are the rates low, but artists also have to somehow make their songs stand out from the tens of thousands of other new songs released each week, which Capellaro admits is “virtually impossible.”

6. Songwriters often juggle other jobs.

Since songwriters can’t rely on streaming dividends for income—and salaried music publishing positions don’t always come easy—they often make ends meet with a variety of side gigs. Park realized early in his career that while songwriters were mainly earning money from royalties, producers were often paid an hourly rate or up-front lump sum. “So I learned how to produce,” he says. Then, he purchased a mic and other equipment so he could record vocals at home—like hooks for people’s rap or EDM songs. “Basically, I’m an a la carte thing,” he explained. Park eventually branched out into music video production, and he’s now directed videos for chart-topping artists like G-Eazy and Ty Dolla $ign. He also served as a music technical consultant for 2020’s The High Note, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson; in that position, he made sure the dialogue, instruments, and other music-related details matched real life.

Even when a songwriter appears to be working a job entirely unrelated to the music industry, there could be a shrewd reason for doing so. Capellaro spent more than a decade running a restaurant called Amici in Brentwood, California. “I knew I wanted to be there because that’s where the celebrities live,” he explains. Sure enough, he connected with people like J.J. Abrams, Laura Dern, and Bonnie Hunt, who was hosting her NBC talk show at the time. One evening while refilling Hunt’s water glass, Capellaro posed a question: “Hey Bonnie, what would it take to be on your show?” She asked if he had a CD on hand, which he did, and booked him as a musical guest within weeks. The day after the taping, Hunt dined at Amici again and lauded Capellaro for his performance. “I’m like, ‘This is so surreal. I was just on your show yesterday, and now I’m bringing you sea bass.” A producer who caught the performance later reached out to Capellaro and ended up inviting him to his studio for songwriting sessions—which yielded hits for Chris Brown and Boyz II Men.

It was also at Amici that Capellaro developed a friendship with Marc Caruso, a music engineer who happened to be the founder of a music publishing company called Angry Mob Music Group. About five years ago, Caruso, knowing Capellaro was itching to give up his restaurant job and focus on music full-time, offered him a music publishing deal; Capellaro’s been there ever since.

7. Songwriters have to form close bonds with artists in a few hours or less.

Because the goal is to create a song that feels personal to the artist, songwriters usually prefer to work directly with them whenever possible. And getting the artist to give them some seed of inspiration means forging a deep friendship with them within minutes of entering the studio.

“There’s so much trust that needs to happen in the room. You’re telling potentially intimate details about yourself that would be uncomfortable sharing [with a stranger]. So much of it is trying to create a safe place for the artist and a safe place for the writers, all the while dealing with egos the size of tall buildings,” Capellaro says. “It’s almost like a therapy session: What’s your mood today? What happened over the weekend? What’re you pissed off about? What’re you inspired by at this very moment? Because it can change at 5 p.m. today, and maybe that inspires the song.”

Stonestreet expressed a similar sentiment. “I honestly love when the artist is involved. You won’t know anything specific unless you’re sitting there having a conversation—it can be emotional. You form a relationship, and you trust each other to handle the information.”

8. Songwriters have to say “no” without actually saying “no.”

Songwriters have to find creative ways of steering a song in the right direction without flatly rejecting an artist’s not-so-great suggestion. Stonestreet might toss out a compliment and lean on the lackluster reaction of the room as evidence that they haven’t yet struck gold. Something to the effect of: “‘That’s cool, and I like it, but maybe it’s not jumping out, and it’s not making everyone jump around the room and [giving everyone] that feeling of ‘This is so exciting.’”

“I always say, ‘Let’s try it,’” Park says. “‘I don’t necessarily hear what you’re talking about, but let’s try it.’” Sometimes, hearing their idea come to life is enough to make the artist realize it isn’t a great fit. Park also occasionally asks the artist’s manager, significant other, or another trusted party to weigh in, hoping they’ll side with him. “But I am always honest. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think the idea works. If you like it, 100-percent do it. It’s not my vibe, but it’s your song.'”

And since the artist does have final say, the writers also need to know when to cut their losses. If the artist is hell-bent on certain subpar lyrics? “You’re going to go with whatever they’re going to like,” Capellaro says.

9. Songs sometimes get lost in the abyss.

Earlier this year, Stonestreet wrote Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s duet “Stuck with U,” which got released mere weeks later. “I just heard the demo of it last week, and it’s coming out Friday. I don’t understand what’s going on,” she thought at the time. “That was a freak thing. Usually you do have to wait a minute.” A minute could be a year—or never. “So many people have to say yes to the song for it to come out … All the label’s people, the artist’s team, your team.” Even after getting all those green lights, a single could still test poorly among advance radio reviewers and end up stalling indefinitely.

Sometimes, a record label neglects to send the finished product back to the songwriter. “I think some songs can go into a complete abyss where they just sit on a hard drive for years and years,” Stonestreet says.

10. Songwriters have mixed feelings about making music via Zoom.

Since songwriting often involves multiple people spending long hours in a small studio, the coronavirus pandemic threatened to upend the whole system. So songwriters went virtual. Some, like Park and Stonestreet, already had recording equipment at home; Capellaro, meanwhile, quickly invested in a mic, a monitor, cables, and all the other requisite gadgets. To shift the workflow online, they’ve had to more clearly define each person’s task for each song.

“I’m a vocalist, so I’m going to record vocals in my house, and I will send the stems to producer X, Y, or Z, have them tune them for me [and] put them into the rest of the track," Capellaro says. “I can have another guy master it, [and] we can always hop on a FaceTime or Zoom call to get it written and recorded.” This streamlined process has actually helped with productivity. “I have been writing more music since March than I was previously,” Capellaro says.

Making music via video chat tends to work better with fewer people, so Stonestreet has enjoyed the opportunity for more one-on-one sessions. When there are several people on the call, they cut down on confusion over who’s speaking (and singing) by thoroughly explaining each suggestion. “You really talk things through, which has been really nice,” she says. That said, the camaraderie born in the studio is hard to recreate on a computer screen, and songwriters are eager to experience that again. “I love Zoom, but I also really miss people in the room with me,” Stonestreet says.