Instead of just understanding how a design element looks and feels on a page, I've been thinking more and more about how the user will interact with the element, how the visual design can enhance this interaction, and how the experience of individual elements can influence the experience of the product or website as whole.
While visual design focuses on branding, beauty, and first impressions, UX focuses more on why a user would be using a website in the first place. Understanding who the users are, what they want/need, and how they might react to certain elements or features of a site allows a designer to create a straightforward experience that keeps users engaged as well as serves their needs.
When it comes to user research, there are tons of different methods, but I find "personas" to be the most interesting. Researching and determining actual user needs and designing realistic use-case scenarios creates a deeper understanding of what the visual design needs to accomplish. With that knowledge, you can have more meaningful conversations when talking to clients or teammates about design choices.
Understanding Accessibility Needs
Something that resonated deeply with me was Anne Gibson's idea that "Websites are software that help people accomplish their goals, regardless of the hardware and software combination, regardless of the shapes and forms of their people. That is accessibility."
In visual design, it's easy to forget about the array of potential end users and their varied needs, but it's important visual designers are also able to answer the questions, "will this work for my user? Will this help my user accomplish their goals?"
In the earliest stages of a design process, understanding user goals and determining how to help those users accomplish these goals will be reflected in the UX design process, which is then communicated to the visual designer. But being a part of that user-research process allows the visual designer to reflect on those goals sooner than later and ensure he or she is focusing on the right elements of a design.
These concepts can easily get lost in the design process, and it's even easier to get wrapped up in colors, fixated on certain animations, or depend on images to serve the consumer. But, ultimately, these things only matter if the end user can easily use them to accomplish their goals.
UX Design and Visual Design: Hand in Hand
Visual design and UX design go hand in hand. Visual designers are constantly trying to keep up with new trends in design, composition, and style, and UX designers are constantly adapting to new types of software and user needs and expectations. When visual and UX design are combined early on in a project, a shared language is formed, and a mutual understanding of the users and their end goals emerges, which makes for a better all-around experience for both users and designers.