UX Engineering and Pressure on UX Designers to Be Everything

WARNING: This post contains way more questions, ideas, and predictions than it offers concrete answers. Comments on your own ideas are encouraged.

As a designer, I’m trained to ask questions that will help me identify potential solutions. I test those potential solutions to see if they work. Sometimes they do, other times they don’t. I’ve been thinking a lot about the current and future state of user experience and how I can solve some problems that I’ve identified in our field.

One pattern that’s been around for a while is the need for UX hybrids. This makes me wonder — is there too much pressure being put on UX designers to be everything? Or should we begin to shift the way we design?

As someone who spends a lot of time familiarizing myself with UX job descriptions (you learn a lot about your field this way), blogs, and other topics related to UX, one thing still remains apparent: companies have difficulty articulating exactly what UX is to them and to what capacity it can or should operate within their team(s). An ambiguity in UX exists and it’s remains to be defined as “newness”. Why are we still thinking of UX as something that’s new and shiny?

Let’s think about it this way: currently, companies who don’t have a dedicated UX person(s) or who aren’t at least thinking about UX in some capacity are considered archaic. I think we’re at the point where the UX bandwagon has become so far out of view that those who are trying boot, scoot, and boogie on board are having to do so at Olympic-level racing capacity.

First, companies haven’t figured out how to effectively integrate UX (due to cost, apathy, or their philosophy), creating gaps and resulting in an inconsistent industry. The UX process varies from company to company. This isn’t a result of UX being a new thing, it’s a result of it being expensive and companies frankensteining their own process (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Second, UX is a direct result of the need to give humans the ability to interact with emerging technologies. How can UX designers create something that’s intuitive for human senses and perception in relation to technology that is moving at an imperceptibly fast rate?

So, UX isn’t new but seems new because it’s evolving with 1) technology and 2) company’s needs (which in and of itself is difficult to navigate once a company gets past a certain size).

There’s a point to all of this. I know I’m long-winded so let’s take a quick break and look at these inquisitive pugs.

Adorable. Let’s get back to my point.

Because of some ambiguity still surrounding the UX field, we have a lot of people trying to define the current state of UX and predict next stages of its evolution. (I am one of those people.)

Staying relevant in an industry that must cater to these ever-changing technological needs and company structure, there seems to be a lot of pressure for designers to be everything to everyone. As a young designer, it’s difficult for me not to explore different areas of UX design in order to be accommodating. But there is a point, one that I am beginning to reach, where I have to realize what I am good at and work hard to be an expert at doing that thing. Designers cannot concern themselves with appealing to every team, we must identify what we want and work towards that area of expertise.

But, somehow, I’m not quite satisfied with this. Holding steadfast to your own design expertise does not answer my question:

This, in my mind, creates a problem — is there too much pressure being put on UX designers to be everything? Or should we begin to shift the way we design?

Taking a stand for your own design expertise doesn’t really solve the problem of companies not knowing what they want and needing hybrids.

Unicorns are invaluable, mystical creatures but still cheaper than investing in UX

Adhering to the integrity of the UX process is expensive. If you’ve looked for a job in UX, you’ll recognize the following:

UX/UI Designer

  • must be able to define architecture of exciting new product we are building
  • must have keen eye for aesthetics
  • must be proficient in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript
  • must have 5+ years of experience
  • must have Masters degree in Computer Science, Visual Design, HCI, or related

This tells me a couple of things. First, whoever wrote the description and qualifications for the position doesn’t know what UX is. Next, they don’t know what they want, except to hire the most talented person who knows how to do everything at a cheaper cost than investing in an actual UX team (I get it. Not every company has the resources to make this investment).

While it’s annoying and also disheartening to see these types of job expectations, I believe it speaks to a problem that exists in our industry. There’s no doubt that UX is valuable, but how can we deliver that value while remaining lean and efficient? I’m not advocating for the idea of becoming a Unicorn, but I am identifying a lot of companies who are looking for them. Also, did you know that there are UX foxes and hedgehogs now? This is not a drill.

I am not proposing that all UX designers become the best at every phase of the design process. I am proposing that we need to think more about how we can provide value to companies. As a company, if I am investing money in an application or website I am expecting some return. I want to hire someone who above all else, can help me maximize that return. Now, as a designer, that means working with researchers to understand who I am designing for, conceptualizing those needs into designs, and building prototypes with real code in order to test/iterate more quickly.

My hypothesis is this: being able to speak the design language and connect that to an ability to make those designs tangible saves companies money and helps the process of testing/iterating concepts be more effective.

Let’s take a journey in our minds back to the 90’s. Space Jam, Whitney Houston, dial up connection, Oregon Trail, and god awful websites and applications. The reason those websites and applications were so bad is not because engineers were making them. It’s because they were being developed during a time when we didn’t understand how users should interact with this new technology. We also didn’t fully realize how prevalent and important this technology would become over the years. As a result, we didn’t nurture the relationship between itself and its users.

I think we place blame on engineers for not having the ability to be design thinkers and therefore have created a divide between designers and makers, (relying on documentation to be our liaison). As we continue to evolve alongside the rate at which technology is advancing, coding will become more common than how we are currently perceiving its role in our ability to communicate. I predict that building research-based designs ourselves will be fundamental to our role as UX designers. There is currently a gap in our industry between designers and makers. I am betting that in order to decrease this gap, we need to expand upon our awareness of front-end development and become makers.

Immediate Benefits

  • Turning your designs into a working prototype with real code increases the possibilities of what we mean when we talk about “agility”
  • Eliminates unnecessary documentation creating less hand off between the UX designers and developers
  • Developers can focus on getting the back-end working instead of focusing on nuanced animations and interactions of the front-end
  • Companies streamline team process flows and project timelines
  • The UX Engineer will work with UX researchers and can quickly make changes that come from user testing

Long-term Payoff

Due to the constant rate of technological growth, it makes sense that designers should 1) work with researchers to understand how humans adapt and interact with technology but 2) more intimately understand how that technology works behind the scenes so that we can make better things.

So, is there too much pressure on UX designers to be too much?

Perhaps there is for the current generation of UX professionals, but not for the next few waves of designers. But that doesn’t mean this shift can’t happen in our current design process or at least how we think about it. Am I being hypocritical and actually saying that designers should be everything to everyone? I don’t think so, and I really hope not. I think there is a balance between appeasing every company’s needs and advancing our own skills in parallel with an industry that constantly evolves.

I think we can be smart about how we evolve our skills — it’s the nature of the job.

Things I wish I could have touched on, but didn’t because this post was already so long.

  • When do we draw the line and why don’t I think it’s as important to emphasize UI skills? What would the process be like between UI design and UX Engineers?
  • How the emergence of design libraries can be paired with UI frameworks in order for design and development to be more efficient (and also how this has the potential to but doesn’t necessarily doom the fate of creating boring or repetitive products).
  • Why so many tools are being created that try to close the gap between designers and engineers.
  • No, I don’t think this is important just because Google has popularized the role of UX Engineer. Though, they are some pretty smart people.
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