How do we as experience designers explain what we do? This question seems persistent… I remember a few IxDA conferences back (my first) it seemed that session after session focused on trying to define the practice while this week in San Francisco we have “What the hell is experience design anyway? An evening with Kevin Farnham of Method” and I still struggle to explain to my 80-year-old mother exactly what it is I do.

Cocktail parties that aren’t industry specific present another problem when faced with the eternal “what do you do” question. I usually resort to a simple “I’m a designer” and if more specifics are required I’ll go with “I design software” which seems to be a clear concrete thing that is easily understood. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really communicate the breath of UX practice or its value but it does allow me to peacefully sip my cocktail without answering questions about the costs of building small websites!

Layered over this ongoing quest for a good one liner is the need to position experience design and communicate our value to potential clients. I left my agency job a couple of years back and I’ve been reluctant to begin the task of truly rebranding myself. I’ve needed time away from the very tactical work of getting things done as a design director to develop a perspective on the practice.

Last week in conversation with a jury consultant I once again found myself trying to explain what it is I do and believe I finally started to uncover a way into the conversation that feels both authentic for me and big enough to communicate the value. I began by describing my role as that of a translator. My job is to translate technology; I make technology “speak human.” It seemed like a good starting point but in retrospect it still seems too tactical and focused directly on software while we bring much more to the table that simply better software experiences.

Later that week I had the opportunity to guest lecture a SF city college so I thought I’d test drive my new description on the UX class. I started by asking the students what their definitions were. I was especially curious since I didn’t learn UX design in a formal educational setting. I ended up with a good solid range of answers the focused mostly on the process and artifacts, which made perfect sense from a group learning a range of new tools. What I didn’t hear was a clean inspiring high level view on the value of design process so after some discussion I jumped in with my new pitch.

And in that moment another missing piece appeared, I guess sometimes we really do talk to think. Yes, we are translators but we’re also interpreters and more importantly mediators. Our role is also to mediate between business requirements, user needs, research insights and technological constraints while uncovering future opportunities and defining strategic solutions. I got a lot of head nodding and note-taking on that one so I considered it pretty successful.

And here’s the next part because sometimes we need to write to think. We’re more the interpreters and mediators, we’re also facilitators and alchemists. There’s a bit of weaving straw into gold or transmuting one substance into another, encouraging the caterpillar to become the butterfly. We also transform raw materials into experiences that deliver delight and human connection.

Not quite the cocktail party perfect one liner but getting closer.

Image courtesy of M.C. Escher