I had the privilege of talking with Zac Nielson, an award winning designer and frequent host on Adobe Live. In this discussion, we talk about the difference between user experience and user interface design.
Caleb: Welcome to app design tips. I have with me Zac Nielson, an award-winning freelance designer.
Zac: So I’ve been a freelance designer, mostly web designer for about 11 years now. 11 years of last month actually, so going on to 12 soon. I’ve been kind of focused on web design most of my career but I’ve done a little bit of everything in the digital design world umm you know, back in the days of Photoshop. Started back then and kind of just never stopped you know? I started pretty young and just kept going and here I am today getting interviewed on your channel.
Caleb: So what gave you the passion to start designing? Where did you start off and know that you wanted to go in this direction?
Zac: So I was pretty young when I realized it. Probably in elementary, it was the earliest time that I knew that I wanted to do, like making websites. Back then I didn’t realize I wanted to be a designer, I thought I wanted to be a developer. I didn’t know the difference.
My grandfather actually taught me web development on word press back in the early days and it kind of, I never really knew there was another world to it of the actual design side. Where you could just focus on making the design. So I started by making websites all the time. I was making gaming websites for my friends at school and we would kind of just play them all the time. You know, just find those free games that you could just add the code to your website all the time. That’s kind of where I started and then from there about junior high, late junior high, I realized the design side of things and that’s when I really kind of dove into learning the actual design side and not just building the websites and kind of never stopped from there
Caleb: So, I have a similar story actually where, because I really enjoyed apps, applications and how you use them and so I thought you know, I want to be a developer.
Zac: Right. I totally get it, the same thing, yeah
Caleb: Because that’s how I create these apps and so really for me, like before that era and also in elementary I was really creative whether it was singing, doing photography, drawing it’s just like all these disciplines I really enjoyed like each aspect of it. So as I was growing up there were different opportunities to do video and to do photography, to make some music and different things and I always thought like as soon as I learned that one discipline, like that’s what I want to do and this is what I want to do and so after learning all of this it’s like, where can I encompass all of this experience and knowledge and the creative talent into one kind of discipline? Which is like UX design. It has everything in there. And so, and it really was I remember thinking I need to be a developer so I can create these apps and when I started getting into it I was like, no I’m going to find a developer and start designing. I can get my vision out there with a team helping me out. So that’s kind of where my story was.
Zac: Love it, yeah, mine is pretty similar. I mean I kind of skipped over the part where I got really into Xcode and stuff and making iOS apps. In high school, I really got into that and kind of pretty similar to you but just kind of grew into design and really fell in love with it. And to actually to do a lot of experimental web design too, not so much like app design or product design but more like, I don’t know what you imagine when I say experimental web design, but I mean just kind of think of like a designer’s portfolio. It’s usually pretty out there, really creative, really testing some things you wouldn’t really use in a business setting. Those are things I really enjoy doing and still do enjoy doing today more than anything.
Caleb: So pushing the boundaries of your design?
Zac: Exactly exactly. Break the rules, you know. Don’t be another Apple.com
Caleb: That Brings me to my next question which is, what is a UX designer to you?
Zac: Great question, I would say UX Design is kind of like an art form really, of understanding how a person; I’m trying not to use the word “user” by the way. It’s a trending thing if you haven’t noticed, on social media, people are trying to stop using the word user. I’m telling you people are insane with these titles.
UX, I would say it’s, really understanding how someone uses something in designing the experience around how they use it. It’s probably the easiest way to describe it for me.
Caleb: Okay, and that’s similar to me too and a lot of people confuse; this was going to be my next question, is the difference between UX and UI design and they think; because I can design pixels I can design a user experience. They bleed into each other somewhat, but you really have to understand that person.
Zac: There’s there’s a lot more research on the UX side than there is on the UI side, right?
Caleb: Yeah, and I feel like people can also, they have their own troubles in life or troubles at work and different things that if they wanted to find out “Would I be a good experience designer?”, they can start to think about different experiences throughout their life or career or different things that they might find un-fitting and change that for themselves and that’s where, I think if you start off doing that for yourself and making that better you can start to understand other users needs as well.
Zac: Absolutely, Yeah.
Caleb: You can start to do that research and say, now I know how to solve problems, I know how to create a good perceivable tangible plan. Whether it’s pixels or not, you do that and then you say, now let’s understand other users and their pain points, where I may not have those same pain points, but if I can learn that I can apply that same practice.
Zac: Exactly, I totally agree.
Caleb: And so that kind of bled into my next question, as far as UI and UX design and for those of you guys who don’t know, UX design is user experience design UI design is user interface design, and mostly has to do with pixels, designing pixels for websites and apps and things like that. So, to you what’s the difference between the two?
Zac: UX design is more like you have to understand the person that’s using it. UI is more making it actually look good and making it make sense in the digital form, but I think they, they’re both very vital and they both go together very well and they’re absolutely necessary if you’re doing product design. Uhh, but not so much for doing like experimental web design like I was talking about, but I think that’s the main differences.
Caleb: There’s a lot of people that are really good at both and they can do both very well, but I’ve also seen people that are really good at the experience design that can lay out the wire frame of something and really plan things out and they really do pass it off onto an interface designer or graphic designer to polish it up because they’re too busy with the research end.
Zac: Especially when it’s like a big app or something, umm there’s a lot of factors going into it, a lot of people that are impacting it and you definitely are going to want separate people when you’re in that type of situation.
Caleb: And I think there’s separate phases too. Like there’s times where we’re trying to solve problems and figure out, like is this what we’re going to keep, or is it not? If you start to design high fidelity, you start getting mixed up in the meetings of should that be this shade of blue? and the real question is, like “Wait a minute, do we even want this?” That’s the question. So, really designing in that wire frame mode and really having them focused and narrowed in on solving the problem first. You can start to solidify those ideas and then say, after this phase, now let’s go and polish this up.
Zac: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely perfect.
Caleb: What is your primary process? So let’s say somebody comes to you, a freelance client comes to you and says we have this product we we want you to take on. Can you walk us through the process of what you do?
Zac: Right. The first thing I do is look into who this person is who they’re with. A lot of the times, that’s the part where I say, no, because you’re like, well this is just another product design or whatever, you know, you’ve done it so many times it’s just so boring, but it’s like well I’m not really interested in this type of project anymore. So, first thing I check is, am I interested in this type of project. Try to look into what’s their budget for this project because, sometimes you really never know who’s coming to you and what scale they can be on for you. So I think, I actually use dribble a lot to get a lot of my work and it really helps with that because you can put in the budget you’re willing to work with before they even message you. So that’s definitely a good tip that I’ve used a lot. I send people to dribble, you set the types of projects and the budget of the projects you’re willing to accept. So, those are the two main things I go after.
Caleb: So you have to qualify them to make sure that you’re not stuck with someone you’re going to hate.
Zac: Right, right. Don’t just jump into it and be like, okay yeah, here’s a wire frame or whatever. And actually, I don’t do wire frames a lot, because like I said, I’m doing experimental web design so much that I’m not really focused on, like, the most user-friendly website. I’m focused on the most beautiful website of all time. And the only reason I do that is because it’s what I enjoy, and if you could find a market of people for what you can enjoy why not just go after that?
There’s so many product design opportunities I can go after that would be so easy to do, just because you’ve done them so many times, so much experience in it, but, I think it’s super easy or super important to find your niche and really find that area that you’re in and go after those clients. So like, I do that with my dribble and I set up my dribble with my portfolio. It’s not all my work.
Caleb: And it showcases like, this is what I want to do.
Zac: It’s the type of work I want to do. I think that's super important for my process of getting clients in the first place. And then from there when I actually start designing I’ll usually jump into Adobe XD and start working on some quick little examples or some thoughts that I have based on their brand or that person or whatever it might be. Umm, and kind of just go from there and work with them on figuring out what exactly they’re looking for. How much creative control they want. That’s super important to me, again with the experimental web design, you want to have as much control as possible because that’s why you love it. Those are my main things I go after in the beginning, but from there it’s all done in XD. I don’t really use any other design tools, except maybe like, Illustrator I do first, like, some custom text stuff I’ve been doing a lot lately. But yeah, that’s the basic of it.
Caleb: Yeah, and there’s a similar process that I go through, so especially on-boarding a new client and is there, talking to me about their potential design and what they want me to work with them with. One of the things that I found that works really well is, as they’re reaching out to you, they’re saying we have some of these basic needs and especially if it’s an existing product. Right? and they start to talk about like, here’s some of the things that we want to try to solve and so I know that they have access to their analytics and some of their other tools that are telling them exactly where the bottlenecks are that I don’t have access to yet. Where I could actually do better if I did have access, but just to increase my value for that client then I’ll start to listen to what their pain is and I’ll start to explore their product and fill that and there’s times where I even submit their product to a user to some interviews and I’ll start to tell them like, I imagine here are some of the things that you’re having some pain with and here’s some of things that you might want to solve in your business that your users might love and, just doing that, even though it wasn’t the exact thing that they came to me with, it’s like, he has some understanding in how to solve some problems and it’s kind of like a click you know, let’s get you in this Google analytics, let’s get you in this and let’s get going. And so I found that really valuable for my process.
Zac: Yeah, if you’re going after like, the customers you have are like business owners mostly right? I think that process is perfect for that type of client and that’s the types of things I would do when I was mostly doing business stuff because, actually I ran an agency a few years ago and all we did was small to medium businesses, and we had a very similar process where we try to go after the data first and then show how we can improve on that, not just what they’re asking you for. Like maybe they just want a new home page but you’re like, well, here’s some vital issues that could totally improve your whole business, you know? Very similar to what you’re just saying.
Caleb: Well, I appreciate you coming on to this weekly channel and it’s always been great.
Zac: Yeah, of course. Love the channel, I’m always watching you all the time. Trying to stay up on all the videos.
Caleb: Yeah it’s fun doing it. I mean, just got into it and started just growing pretty good and it’s exciting being able to just give advice to people. Especially the young people that are learning UX design, UI design. I know a lot of my videos, they seem like, really basic and a lot of people are like, well obviously, you know?
Zac: But you also get a bunch of views and comments on those ones too, right?
Caleb: Yeah, and I feel like, UX design is actually really approachable and people don’t understand that. If you have any creative ability you can start to get in there and start to create what your imagination of an app is or a website. You know, things like that, and so, my job and what I’d like to do is just get the technical process out of the way and just to say, here are the tools that you can use. Here are some of the things that you can do to improve your skills. And, even though I feel like it’s very basic it’s going to help bring a lot more designers into this.
Zac: I absolutely agree. I do a bunch of design reviews on the Adobe XD. We do monthly design reviews like design challenges in XD. Perfect for beginners and experienced designers alike. So definitely check that out. But anyways, I do a lot of reviews.
Caleb: XD is free too, so if you guys want to, it’s totally free. That’s one of the things too, is they say, like we want it to be so approachable to people that we want to give it away for free so that people can jump in and learn.
Zac: And I think, it totally shows in the designer reviews I do. There’s a ton of beginners and a ton of people that are not professional designers whatsoever.
Caleb: And it’s interesting to see like, what they come up with.
Zac: And they come in, and there’s so many of them and they’re so interested in just starting UX and UI design.
Caleb: Even when we judge at the Creative Jam, the people that were competing there, they said this was the first time that they opened up XD.
Zac: I think they’re very similar type of people.
Caleb: Very first time. And you’re like, wow, there’s the animation of it and just pulling it up, it’s like…
Zac: Yeah, seriously. Like, it’s so easy to just get involved and to just get going.
Caleb: Yeah, and they’re just like, “I had no idea that you can do all this without code.”
Zac: Exactly, and the crazy thing is, the whole way I got into a relationship with Adobe was because of the beta XD. I actually tweeted a picture of something I made in the very early beta and they reached out to me to make a UI kit from when they launched their official version and it kind of just kept going from there. So yeah, I’d say XD has opened up a ton of things for me even from the very beginning.
I totally agree with you on the aspect of building community and helping beginners. I mean, it’s something I do every day with the Adobe reviews, and you’re doing it every day with your channel. So, I definitely love to bring them both together.
Caleb: Cool, well it was nice having you in. Thanks for coming on the channel.
Zac: it’s good to be here. Thank you.
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