Why Designers Need to Code, and Coders Don’t Need to Design.

Antoine Valot
Nov 2, 2016 · 4 min read

I got a trolled yesterday, about something I said in Nine Nasty UX Truths:

The troll took offense specifically about the unfairness that designers should learn to code, but that coders don’t have to learn design. One shouldn’t reply to trolls, but I’ve sometimes heard the same complaint from good people, and although I completely understand how daunting and scary learning code can be, I’m very adamant that it’s important, and that it’s not at all a double standard. Here’s why.

I’ve been coding since I was eight years old, and designing since I was thirteen. I care deeply about both disciplines, but I call myself a designer, not a coder. And here is why:

Singers should play guitar

I once heard a music teacher explain why singers should learn to play the guitar: “Because if you don’t know how to play, every time you want to sing, you’ll be at the mercy of some asshole guitar player.”

I’m sure it works the other way as well… but I know this: You’re not going to be a very effective UX designer if you’re not interested in how your ideas become reality… or fail to.

Architects vs. carpenters

A good architect has to understand physics, and the limitations of construction materials. A good carpenter doesn’t have to understand architecture in order to just implement blueprints.

It’s a double standard, if you want to look at it that way, but then again the carpenter doesn’t get to be an architect. He doesn’t get to make the blueprints. And when he tries to, nobody wants to live in the house he builds, because it’s structurally sound, but it’s not a good living space. A carpenter gets to look at a building and say “I built that.” But an architect gets to touch people’s souls. He can look at the people inside that building, at the life they’re living, at their joys and sorrows, at their feelings of togetherness and their connection to the land, to the neighbourhood, and to each other, and say “I built that”.

One at a time

If you’re jealous of developers, by all means become one. In that case, do yourself a favor and forget about cumulating it with the designer role: I know from having been on both sides that it’s hard to do good design when you’re also the one coding it. You’ll take design shortcuts to accommodate code difficulties, and vice-versa. It’s concentrating so much power into a single person, that it plays out as a huge conflict of interest, in your head. You’ll be better off having that conflict with another person. It’s healthier.

If you want to be the designer, however, you have to admit to yourself that it’s hard to do good design if you don’t understand how it will be built.

The scatterbrain imperative

To be a good UX designer requires a voracious intellectual curiosity, and learning about hundreds of things besides the tools and disciplines of UX. Psychology, leadership, communications, neurology, sociology, anthropology, art history, political science, human perception, systems science, brain development, branding, product lifecycles, chaos theory, programming, semantics, data analytics and visualisation, statistics, testing methodologies, data structures, marketing, finance, manufacturing, talent management, persuasion, color theory, ergonomics, aging, macro-economics, community management… And if you’re ambitious, also golf.

I like that it takes all of this knowledge to do my job well. I think that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t need to learn about all of this to be a good accountant, and that’s actually why I don’t want to be an accountant. What about you? Do you enjoy learning new things?

Achilles and the heel

It doesn’t go both way. It’s nice when devs develop some awareness of good UX, but it’s not necessary. However, it is necessary for UX designers to grok code.

I get to lead a team of talented, inspired UX designers, and for the ones who don’t code, that’s their Achilles’ heel.

I also get to coach teams of talented, inspired devs, and their lack of knowledge of UX is not a hindrance to their success.

Power and responsibility

You’re on the side that needs to know more, because you work at a higher level, with more responsibility and more power than the developers. They get to say how it will be built, but you get to define what they will build. You’re the general, they’re the troops. If you don’t understand how battles are fought, you’re a terrible general. If the troops don’t understand military strategy, that’s not as much of a problem.

To design an engine, an engineer must understand mechanics… but a mechanic doesn’t need to understand engineering in order to fix an engine.

To legislate, a policy maker must understand the realities and practices of law enforcement… but a cop doesn’t need to understand political science and the legislative system in order to bust perps.

To offer an innovative, ground-breaking product, the inventor has to understand the potential of technology, and also understand people better than they understand themselves, in order to uncover needs most people don’t even realise they have… but you don’t have to be Steve Jobs to want and buy an iPhone.

Because magical experiences are counter-intuitive.

Antoine Valot

Written by

Radical UX
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