Learning to Code Gives You Advantages as a UX Designer

My friend Bryan recently asked me for career advice. He’s a full-time user experience (UX) designer who works for a large, well-funded startup.

Bryan said he sometimes struggles at work because he doesn’t have front-end development skills. He experiences challenges like these:

  • Bryan doesn’t always speak the same language developers use when discussing design work.
  • He can’t make simple changes to a hand-coded prototype. He has to ask a developer for help.
  • He has to rely on prototyping tools to build a prototype, even if a hand-coded prototype is the best approach for the project.

Although Bryan experiences these challenges, he’s a talented and successful UX designer. He has about 20 years of experience building websites, mobile apps, and other software. He’s worked for multiple organizations in different cities across the United States. He has little trouble getting hired as a UX designer.

You don’t need to learn front-end development to be a successful UX designer like Bryan. But after speaking with him, I realized how many advantages I have as a UX designer who knows how to code.

What is Front-End Development?

The basics of front-end web development are HTML, CSS, and JavaScript code. This code controls what a user sees and interacts with on a website.

The definition of front-end development varies depending upon who you ask. Front-end development includes more than HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It includes things like preprocessors, frameworks, and pattern libraries. Two people can have the title front-end developer while doing very different things at their jobs.

For the purpose of this article, when I say front-end development, I mean hand-coding HTML and CSS. If you’re a UX designer, I believe you can benefit tremendously by learning these skills.

The Advantages I Have as a Designer Who Codes

After speaking with Bryan, I realized how often I still use my front-end development skills.

I Can Code Basic Things on My Own

I officially began my career as a front-end developer in 2004, though I was coding websites for several years prior. In 2007, I shifted to a full-time UX role, and I’ve been a UX designer ever since.

Although I haven’t coded regularly in years, I can write basic HTML and CSS if I spend a few hours (or even less) refreshing my memory. I can create a functional prototype for the browser if I have to. I can make simple edits to a website. I can debug most HTML and CSS issues I encounter.

I don’t use my coding skills every day, or even every week. But when I need those coding skills, they make my job much easier.

I Can Communicate with My Team

I can communicate about front-end development with my colleagues at Center Centre. When we discuss the code behind our website, for example, I can contribute to the conversation. If I find a bug on our site, I have a general idea of what’s wrong. I can ask my team thoughtful questions like these:

  • “Does our CMS support audio uploads to our blog? Do we have the proper HTML tags and CSS styles in place, or do we need to add to the code that’s there?”
  • “This photo isn’t lining up properly with the text. Is there a CSS issue on this section of the site?”
  • “This link isn’t revealing more content like it’s supposed to. Is there an issue with the JavaScript?”

When you learn to code, you gain a shared language for speaking about code.

I’m Equipped to Learn Programming Languages

Years ago, I took a Java course to learn about back-end development. I did well in the course, partly because I already understood HTML and CSS. That understanding gave me a foundation for learning back-end skills.

Most UX designers don’t need to use programming languages, though some UX designers may need to learn JavaScript to prototype. If you do need to learn programming, a foundation in front-end development will give you a significant advantage.

Learning to Code Takes Time, and it’s Worthwhile

To remember the coding skills you learn, you’ll probably need to spend a significant amount of time writing code. I remember a lot about HTML and CSS because I coded for several years early in my career.

You don’t have to spend multiple years coding like I did. But it’s best if you can spend enough time on it so you retain what you learn.

Do You Have to Learn How to Code?

Some people argue that UX designers don’t need to code. Try Googling the phrase, “Should UX designers code?” You’ll find many strong opinions on this topic.

As I mentioned before, you don’t need to code to be a successful designer. My friend Bryan doesn’t know how to code, and he’s had a fantastic career. But sometimes he experiences challenges on the job because he doesn’t have front-end development skills. Luckily, I don’t face the same challenges.

Go Forth and Code

I hope I’ve convinced you to learn HTML and CSS by now. Once you learn those skills, you’ll gain multiple advantages.

You’ll experience, for yourself, how the web works. You’ll learn how to communicate with developers on your team. You’ll have the autonomy to hand-code prototypes when you need to.

You’ll even make yourself more marketable to UX hiring managers because you understand how code works, which makes you a more well-rounded designer.

My boss, Jared Spool, sums it up nicely:

Designers don’t need to learn to code. However, designers that learn to code will be the ones leading us to better user experiences.

If you know how to write HTML and CSS, and if you know UX design, that’s a powerful combination. This combination is usually better than UX skills alone.

Sources for Learning Front-End Development

Free Sources

There are many free or inexpensive resources for learning front-end development. I recommend the free HTML and CSS course on Codecademy or the free Coding for Designers course on Aquent Gymnasium.

Affordable Sources You Can Purchase

You can buy a Treehouse membership to take their Introduction to HTML and CSS course. Or you can purchase a Lynda.com membership to take their HTML and CSS courses. Treehouse and Lynda.com both offer free trials for their services.

There are many other ways to learn front-end development. You can read articles and blogs, read books, or take in-person classes. If you use other sources to learn front-end development, make sure those sources are up-to-date and reputable.

More On the Benefits of Learning How to Code

UIE published these thoughtful resources on learning to code as a UX designer. Each source explains why learning to code helps you become more effective at UX design.

Originally published on jessicaivins.net.

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