A guide to design roles in the tech ecosystem (2019)

The modern design landscape is transforming rapidly and radically, with new positions arising out of the blue and some transforming into new ones. Design is everywhere and nowhere. The good news: it’s not getting boring. The bad news: you can easily lose track and start questioning yourself. “Am I working in the best-fitting role for myself? Am I fulfilling my responsibilities? Am I happy with the role I’m working in? What the heck am I even doing here?”.

“The role of the designer is that of a good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.” Charles Eames

Whether you are in the beginning of your career path and need some orientation, or you have already worked for several years in different design roles, this handy overview will give you the right guidelines for finding your ideal role. You may find yourself in a time of confusion or personal change, or you may even find yourself in a period of growth (it may even make you realize that you’re doing exactly the right thing — in which case, good for you!). This guide will help you navigate through the new roles that have emerged in the tech ecosystem in the last couple of years.

Don’t forget to check out our jobs board if you’re looking for a new role yourself.

Before we start: T-shaped or not to be T-shaped

I don’t believe in stereotypical design personas. We are complex human creatures with a wide variety of characteristics, interests, and skill sets, which is what makes us so lovable and unique. Someone who loves motion design can also be an outstanding UI Designer. Combine both of them. You want to be all over the place in your company, and you can easily fit into a more generalist role.

Everyone has his own set of strengths and weaknesses. Knowing your design role means knowing why you are going to work in the morning — whether with a happy or a sad face. It also means recognizing mistakes you have made and learning from them, as well as improving your skills, or even just recognizing your triumphs. It’s your responsibility if you are sitting in the wrong seat. It’s not the fault of your CEO who “doesn’t see you.” Nor is it the fault of the marketing manager, who keep briefing you with the next annoying task (how many times have you rolled your eyes lately?). It’s your opportunity to raise the red flag if you feel something is wrong: start transforming yourself or ask to move to another seat.

Before we really start: Applause for some great design minds!

To make this journey complete, I invited some inspiring designers. Thank you for spreading your passion for design.

UX Designer

“My job is a wonderful mixture of detective, logic and creativity, finding the real problem to be solved and executing designs based on insight. The challenge is to be able to zoom out for the bigger picture and then quickly zoom in and deliver solutions within the constraints. So fair to say, never boring!” 
Alexandra Cain, UX Designer at Tourlane (Berlin, Germany)

The User Experience Designer or Interaction Designer is the user’s advocate, and is mainly in charge of taking care of how the product feels. While people in other positions are concerned about the pixel-perfect design of a web application, or the correct use of brand colors, the UX Designer concerns himself around the user’s experience — whether or not it’s easy to understand, logical arranged, and enjoyable to use.

As somebody who is everywhere and doing everything, this broad skill set transforms this position into a generalist role, in charge of dealing with important aspects such as research, ideation, and user testing, as well as wireframes and lo-fi mockups.

The UX Designer always works closely with the product manager, who is advocating the business side (which sometimes creates conflict, but also opportunity). The business side includes both the designers and stakeholders of the project.

Specifically in the startup environment, the User Experience Designer is a must-have role, particularly when it comes to building the right products based on gained user knowledge, instead of wasting investors’ money on unproven assumptions.

You will love the job if you…

  • see a design and ask yourself: “Does the user get it/need it?”
  • hear your friends telling you that you are structured and focused
  • have, in general, a great sense of empathy and are interested in human psychology
  • prefer to look comprehensively at the data before making conclusions

UX Researcher, User Researcher or UX Psychologist

In the last couple of years, the very broad role of the UX Designer has started to split into specialist factions. A new one is the UX Researcher, a subgroup which started at the beginning of the UX Design process.

The UX Researcher is also a user’s advocate, but is specially focused on research, synthesis, ideation, and user testing.

As a specialist, the UX Researcher collects user data and insights with qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, extracts them to useful and meaningful initiatives, and generally takes care of the pains and gains of the user.

They work closely together with product managers, stakeholders and other designers.

You will love the job if you…

  • are not that into designing interfaces, but still want to create the best user experience possible
  • feel joy when facing problems head-on, and do everything in your power to solve them
  • tend to over-communicate
  • hear your friends telling you that your never-ending questioning is sometimes a bit annoying
  • love to read books about human psychology

UX Architect, Information Architect (IA) or UX Engineer

“My brain loves to operate at both 30,000 feet and ground level. I think that’s a big part of why I love the UX Architect role: you’re on the hook for grappling with big picture items — user needs, business objectives, technical constraints — and synthesizing those into a useful, usable, engaging experience. You’re trying to understand what the ideal experience might be, and then developing the artifacts necessary to help create it.”
Michael McWatters, Director, Experience Design at TED, formerly UX Architect at TED (New York, USA)

This mix between generalist and specialist roles emerged from the UX Designer and Engineer roles, respectively. Because most Front-End Developers are gaining, with more work experience, a certain degree of user experience, and because UX Designers are continually developing more and more front-end skills over the course of time, these two roles have started to merge together. Et voilà! We now have a new role all-together: the UX Architect, also known as an Information Architect (IA), or UX Engineer.

Again, the role is about user-advocating, and, again, is all about understanding the pains and gains of using your product. The difference is that a UX Architect is mainly concerned about information architecture (IA) — how to arrange information in order to be accessible and understandable. To create and develop user interfaces for different platforms, a person in this position analyzes user data both quantitatively and qualitatively.

The UX Architect works closely together with product managers, stakeholders, and other designers, such as a UX Researcher or UI Designer.

This role is especially important and a very essential complement to a team, particularly if the application is extensive, multilayered, and complex.

You will love the job if you…

  • are interested in coding as well as in creating the best possible experience for the end-user
  • have the stamina for building, measuring, and repeating loops until you find the best IA to satisfy the user and drive the business numbers
  • start creating flows and wireframes before you start to code

IxD or Interaction Designer

The Interaction Designer (IxD) is a specialist role within UX, and is associated more with the reaction between any product and its users when they interact. If the UX Researcher or UX Designer is the “why” in the equation, then the IxD is the “how.” The IxD is centered around the behavior of the product, and is responsible for making it usable, logical, and desirable.

The IxD collects insights from the UX Researcher/UX Designer and crafts the blueprint/mockup/prototype out of them in order to subsequently test ideas on users together with the UX Designer/Researcher. The IxD works with wireframe tools such as Axure, Balsamiq or a whiteboard, and knows UX Design patterns by heart.

You will love the job if you…

  • don’t need colors and pictures to express yourself
  • have many books on your shelf about best form field practices, and guidelines for search interfaces — which seems quite odd to your friends
  • remember your teacher telling you to draw a picture, and you made a square with two lines inside

UX Copywriter or UX Writer

“Being a UX writer is much more than filling in the blanks in a design. Like product designers, we use usability heuristics, design thinking, and product development frameworks to make decisions about how to communicate with our users. We know how the software we work on is built inside and out, and help designers and developers make sure things won’t break once they’re localized into other languages. We care about the UX of our products and use words to make it the best it can be, especially across platforms and languages.” 
Amanda Mohlenhoff, UX Writing Manager at GetYourGuide (Berlin, Germany)

With the placement of the user at the heart of design-focused companies, as well as the rise of new digital devices and the resulting changes in reading behavior, another position has become incredibly important: the UX Writer.

As a UX Writer, you are the user advocate. The main interest is creating appealing copy which is consistent above all channels and aligned with the brand guidelines, serving the requirements of reading on digital devices, and communicating the primary action that the user must undertake to fully appreciate the product. The UX Writer is responsible to guide and persuade the user with wisely selected words fitting the tone-of-voice of the product.

The UX Writer dares to knows everything about the user and applies different research methodologies to prove his assumptions. Finding the most converting call-2-action naming, testing USPs on different personas, and card-sorting for headlines are some of the main tasks.

The UX Writer work closely together with the designer, product and tech, from problem definition, research, ideation till synthesis. It’s not uncommon that the UX Writer will open your Sketch file to implement the final copy. Additionally the UX Writer collaborate with tech and should therefore have a good technical understanding.

Localization with keeping the intent across all languages is another, most of the time overlooked topic of the UX Writer.

You will love the job if you…

  • are highly interested in the user experience, and know that your words can create coherence between design, brand, vision and story
  • prefer tiny words instead of complex multi-clause sentences
  • believe that your mantra is “easy reading is damn hard writing” (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

UX Program Manager, Design Program Manager or Design Manager

“I love being a Design Program Manager. No day is ever the same — you might be clarifying the product roadmap, crafting the design process or providing a sounding board to your designers — and makes this role dynamic and exciting. We get to connect the dots, influence the team culture and help drive execution with the goal of delivering the best user experience possible for our users. A good Design Program Manager becomes a force multiplier for the designers, the design leader and the product team.”
Alnie Figueroa, Head of Design Program Management at Adobe (San Francisco, USA)

A warm welcome to this new role on the stage: the UX Program Manager, or Design Program Manager – often just abbreviated as Design Manager. With the emergence of design-led companies, tech team landscapes are getting more complex. To handle all the different roles, perform within the key metrics, and keep employees satisfied, the UX Program Manager has arisen.

As a UX Program Manager, you’ll often find yourself multitasking between projects, working between shipping the perfect user experience and reaching the committed goals. Next to being a user advocate and a stakeholder, you are also an advocate of the design team (as if you really couldn’t get enough, right?). You mentor and manage the teams, raising red flags when you see misalignment between them, all the while creating workflows and team events.

The UX Program Manager works together with mainly with the product department, stakeholders, and of course, many designers.

You will love the job if you…

  • enjoy to lead, execute, and ship products that are driving business numbers and user expectations (all at the same time)
  • find that friends admire your honest and direct disposition
  • are not easily thrown off balance, and are able to embrace the diversity of doing something different every day
  • love to work together with a bunch of designers, and are interested in creating a positive team-culture

UI Designer

“The reason I love working in UI is that you are constantly adapting your designs in a creative way to solve for customer-centric problems. The satisfaction that comes with solving for customers is what makes UI the future of design. What challenged me recently was the introduction of foldable mobile devices and how to solve UI design for a screen that does not have a fixed dimension without compromising the design.”
Hiresh Parbhoo, UI Designer at Tourlane (Berlin, Germany)

The UI Designer is a specialist role that bridges the UX Designer and the Engineers. They take care how the product looks.

The main focus lies in the creation of appealing user interfaces, based on the research of the User Experience Designer or UX Researcher, as well as the business-goal aligned roadmap created by the product manager. The UI Designer is also a user advocate, and tests, from time to time, hi-fi designs in usability tests. An eye for pixel perfection, a sense of typography and color, and the competence of creating and scaling a consistent and logical design system make this position a mandatory role in every design-led organization. The UI Designer’s final designs guide the engineers in the development phase.

The UI Designer works hand-in-hand with the product managers, UX Designers, Engineers and Stakeholders, and should be able to explain every single design decision.

You will love the job if you…

  • feel you are more into art than into data
  • get a headache when something is not correctly centered
  • start to scream in honest pain when someone tries to minimize your whitespace

UX/UI Designer

Many companies are not doing a hard cut between UX and UI, choosing to merge the two positions together into the role of the UX/UI Designer instead. There are two reasons that companies do this: firstly, the company posting the job offer has no clue what it’s looking for, or, secondly, it’s in search of a strong candidate who is adept at both roles.

I want to express my humble warning: the UX designer uses, most of the time, a different part of the brain (logic) then the UI designer (creativity), a balance that makes it often difficult to truly fit in the position. On the flipside, the “UI only” position is in danger because in the era of MVPs, easy to learn design tools, and out-of-the-box solutions, the role is easy to replace with someone who can do UI and “some UX.”

If you are interested in this generalist role, read the job posting carefully: what is the primary necessity? Doing some fundamental research, shaping personas superficially, hammering out beautiful interfaces, or creating flows and wireframes?

Product Designer

Welcome to a confusing and foggy path, my friend. If you ask people about the difference between UX Designer and Product Designer, you will hear many different answers. And even a Product Designer often can’t point out the key differences.

To give context to the role, it’s easiest to start with the problem the UX and Product Design roles are dealing with. While the Product Designer asks himself, “does it make sense from a business perspective?”, the UX Designer is probably asking himself, “does it make sense from the user perspective?”.

The Product Designer’s mind is mainly focused on driving the numbers and reducing the costs for unnecessary product and design developments. Having said that, however, the Product Designer also uses the same tools and methodologies as the UX Designer. He understands the lucrative business value of design, and communicates it within the company. He also knows the value of the user experience, but is just a bit more… realistic.

A Product Designer is a very good match for the pragmatism and creativity of the startup world. As a full-stack designer from product exploration, research, ideation, usability testing, and capable of creating hi-fi design to implementations, the Product Designer can be the magical fairy that fixes all of your problems.

The Product Designer mainly works together with product managers, designers, coders, and stakeholders from different departments.

You will love the job if you…

  • have many years of experience in different design roles and a wide toolkit in place, especially when it comes to finding a solution to a specific problem in a project
  • hear your friends telling you that you are a realist and party pooper (you call it risk management, though)
  • love to play with fire

Motion Designer or Prototyper

Another specialist position, the Motion Designer makes your web or mobile application come alive. This involves anything from micro-animations, positive feedback tools, to more precise functions, such as a loading animation that prepares the user for the next page, or the animation between two screens.

The Motion Designer works closely together with designers as well as engineers to make his animation dreams come true.

You will love the job if you…

  • understand animations as a tool to enhance the user experience
  • find that consistent animation patterns make you happy
  • created your own flip books as a child

Brand Designer, Communication Designer, or Visual Designer

If you studied communication design, illustration or a discipline that prepared you for working in a more traditional design agency, this role is probably a good fit for you. You may even still call yourself graphic designer.

The roles above mostly work for marketing, a position where you define the brand and work along already existing brand guidelines, design media campaigns, or assets. You also create print products, illustrate icons, and — sometimes, just sometimes — are involved in creating elements for web applications, such as marketing landing pages.

Nowadays, the user experience still hasn’t had, at least in marketing, such a big importance in the tech world. But slowly but steadily, its significance is finally beginning to arrive. Examples of how the importance of user-centered companies have influenced the marketing landscape in a positive manner include: new design thinking for new initiatives, design sprints for new print or video campaigns tested on real users, and the implementation of a product manager specifically within the marketing sector.

You will love the job if you…

  • feel that receiving a package with a print product inside is akin to opening a Christmas present
  • named your cat “Pantone 16–1341”
  • hear your friends mention your massive amount of logo and illustration books in your shelf

VX Designer (Viewers Experience Designer)

In a nutshell, VX is like UX, but with motion. VX is a holistic approach, always advocating the user, which also differentiates the role of the motion designer from the VX designer.

The VX Designer brings your design language system into life, delivering anything from micro-animations to supportive video implementations. The VX Designer, together with other designers, engineers and stakeholders, elevates the brand to the next level. To create the best user experience possible, the VX Designer conducts research, usability testing, and data gathering.

(There seems to be a fight now between VX as “Viewer Experience” or “Voice Experience.” Only the future will tell us who the winner is on stage. )

You will love the job if you…

  • understand animations as a holistic brand approach to enhance the user experience
  • love humans and data
  • have the stamina to test, test, test
  • treat onscroll animations like your meditation

Virtual Reality Designer (VR Designer) or Augmented Reality Designer (AR Designer)

“My advice for newcomers would be to explore everything and see what works for you. Don’t let anything hold you back. Jump in, have fun, and you will discover completely new avenues of expression. It’s thrilling!”
Matt Schaefer, VR Product Designer at Facebook (San Francisco, USA)

Welcome the new kid on the block. With the rise of virtual and augmented reality, two important, nascent technologies, the need of new roles is growing.

This pioneering role is mainly focused in creating experiences with 3D applications like Unity, or SDKs like Vuforia. Here is where we also center the user at the heart of the design process — from ideation to the final shipping. Knowing both research and user testing methodologies are key to being a successful Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality Designer.

Both positions work closely together with a diverse team of VR product managers, 3D and 2D artists, script writers, engineers, sound and music composers, and, of course, different stakeholders.

Given that the cake is barely out of the oven, we will probably also see a further split in the future into VR/AR Experience Designer, VR/AR Researcher, VR/AR Architect, VR/AR Interface Designer, and so on.

You will love the job if you…

  • owned the first version of the Oculus Rift
  • hear your friends calling you a “futurist”
  • experience sleepless nights from pondering if androids dream of electric sheep

Transformation as a lifestyle

The modern design landscape is colorful. A.I., Invisible Design, Voice Experience, Predictive Design, and Biomimicry are just some of the current buzzwords shaping the future roles of the modern designer. As the design landscape continues to evolve, working as a designer means rapidly transforming and adapting to user, technology and business needs.

Are you looking for a new job?

We’re currently hiring at Tourlane. Apply now and start your journey.

👩‍🎨 Illustrations by Mary Delaney