Are HCI programs letting us down? We need more unicorns

One of the most highly sought-after individuals in software, mobile, or Internet startups these days is someone who combines a range of design skills (UX, UI, graphic) with some basic front-end engineering ability (HTML, CSS, JS, possibly Ruby/Python). Unfortunately, such a person is so difficult to find that they’re commonly called a “unicorn.”

There’s clearly a need that’s not being met.

Braden Kowitz of Google Ventures puts it this way:

Have you ever read a designer job listing that sounds like this?
Seed-stage startup looking for rockstar junior designer to sketch wireframes and design beautiful mockups. You’ll be responsible for crafting our logo and brand and writing UI copy. Must know how to run usability studies, prototype and write production-ready HTML and CSS.
When I read a post like this I think, “Great! There’s a team that understands all the skills they’ll need!” But I also think, “They’re looking for a unicorn — a magical designer who can solve all their problems.” It’s too bad unicorns don’t exist.

I disagree. People with these skills do exist, but they’re very rare. I’d like to change that.

Most proposed solutions to this problem involve splitting the roles among multiple people, either by hiring more than one or contracting out specific pieces of work. In large teams or companies, this level of specialization can make sense. In early-stage startups, however, figuring out how to cover multiple functions with the minimum number of people can be the difference between success and failure.

My personal frustration with this situation is that I think we could be creating a lot more people with this set of skills. I’m a graduate of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) program at Stanford, widely recognized as one of the best in the world, under the direction of field pioneer Terry Winograd, and I also know students, faculty, and alumni from other programs, such as Carnegie Mellon and Berkeley.

There’s no question these programs are full of bright, creative people. What I’m questioning is our willingness and ability to train them for a fairly new type of position that can be lucrative, rewarding, and highly impactful.

The HCI programs vary, but their interdisciplinary nature means you can get through most of them with minimal required work in either art or programming. The core curriculum of HCI centers on the theory and practice of what many would call interaction design—understanding user needs, generating ideas, sketching, wireframing, low-fi rapid prototyping, and user testing, for example.

Interaction design is a vitally important skill, and essential to creating great product experiences. However, it’s not sufficient. You also need to generate polished visuals, and code the thing to life. Apparently design schools have a similar problem. In a post from 2011 on a similar topic, Jeff Gothelf writes that “design schools have traditionally not taught interaction design or user experience design skills.”

Many startups can’t afford to hire someone who only does interaction design. It’s simply too specialized of a skill. Hiring a designer who only knows interaction design would be like hiring a software engineer who only knows Javascript. Useful, yes, but in a small team, you need more. Good programmers can pick up new languages, but the best have already done so.

Furthermore, I sometimes detect a sense of elitism when it comes to these skills, as if Photoshop and Javascript are simply vocational trades. I’ve interviewed interaction designers who seemed to be offended that I had even asked about their Illustrator or HTML skills. “Somebody else does that.”

Admittedly, I’m taking a startup-centric view. There are plenty of places where somebody else does, indeed, do that. But startups are also where a lot of exciting new ideas are taking shape, and I’d love to see more people with an HCI background getting involved.

I believe that there’s an opportunity being missed here. Perhaps reshaping or expanding the basic HCI curriculum can lead to broader impact, more opportunities, and better product experiences for all of us.

And isn’t that what’s it’s really about?