What do companies mean when they say they want a UI/UX Designer?

Is it like an either-or? One with a dash of the other?

Like ordering a sandwich with just a tiny bit of mayo? Which one’s the sandwich and which is the mayo?

Years ago, some colleagues and I used to joke about the way companies viewed UX. It sometimes seemed like a company would hire a UX designer and hope it would magically make their product better. Like they expected all we would have to do is show up and sprinkle our UX pixie dust around.

We used to have to fight for UX every step of the way. By the early 2000s, companies had gotten the message that they needed to focus on UX if they want their product to be successful, so having a UX title on our resume got us in the door. But then we’d start hitting walls.

Processes that worked just fine before UX was a priority, now needed to be revamped. Departments who never spoke to each other in the past were suddenly being asked to attend each other’s meetings. And making software user-friendly became notorious for doubling the amount of time it took to code.

New startups, fortunately, now understand the importance of UX and include us in the early stages. We’re integrated into the team and hopefully given the leeway to experiment, research, and lead.

In my previous post I proposed a definition of UX design as a process for creating an experience that meets specific goals for a defined audience.

That is extremely broad, intentionally, as it can be applied to any number of different companies, business models, and audiences. Let’s see if we can unpack some of that a bit. And in doing so, let’s talk about this UI/UX thing.

What do we mean by business goals?

Businesses have goals like:

  • Sell 5 million widgets by the end of the year
  • Reach 1 million active users by October
  • Become recognized as the leading provider of blahblahblah by 2016

The goals in and of themselves have very little to do with UX. What UX is concerned with is the how.

How might 1 million people become active users by October? Why would 5 million people want to buy our widget? What do we need to do to become recognized as the leader in our field?

The answer to those questions might be:

  • make the product extremely desirable — this may mean aesthetically pleasing, easier to use than anything it competes with, or more delightful.
  • find and remove existing friction that may be preventing people from signing up, buying, or trusting in the credibility of the existing product.
  • identify, design, and build new features that meet the needs of a target market or outshine the competitors.

Answering these questions involves all divisions of the company.

Reaching 1 million active users involves marketing — do people know about our company? If we’re reaching them, is our message resonating? UX and marketing might partner up here and exchange ideas around market research, identifying the target audience, understanding their personas, traits, needs, desires.

Or are people interested in the marketing content but then losing interest before becoming a user? This might mean UX pairs up with the data analysts — do we know where people are losing interest when they come to our site? Should we try some conversion optimization and AB testing?

Maybe we partner with our customer service team and see if there are any major reported points of conflict. Maybe we can talk to users having trouble in person. Or we can do some usability studies. Watch someone in our target audience use our product, from the point of seeing our marketing to the point of becoming a user. Did they make it without guidance? Did they get hung up along the way?

If there is something about the interface of the product itself that is causing friction, we can take that information to our UI designers and partner up with them to brainstorm, prototype, and test some alternatives until we work out whatever the problem is.

Sometimes the problem isn’t the UI, maybe it’s a performance problem. Some users are experiencing slow loading in certain areas and dropping off. UX may partner up with engineering to identify the critical path and prioritize those parts of the user’s flow.

I’m describing one process for how a UX professional might work to accomplish business goals by following the customer journey. Hopefully this starts to show how broad UX can be. And did you notice a couple paragraphs ago how UI was one part of that?

In our hypothetical example above, creating a desirable interface was one of potentially many ways to accomplish the business goals.

The UI designer could be someone who focuses solely on making sure the interfaces they design meet those goals and nothing else.

They could allow someone else on the team to define and communicate to them who the target audience is, what are their traits, behaviors, tech-savviness, etc. They could allow someone else on the product team to let them know which tasks are the key tasks that need to be elevated in the interface. They could allow a graphic designer to communicate to them the brand guidelines and aesthetic goals.

They could delegate all those tasks to other team members and still have a full time job.

UI design takes a lot of focus and skill. There are a lot of details to keep track of and find ways to simplify. Also, startups are constantly adding features and changing key tasks as they iterate and learn. Figuring out how to fit all that in while still creating a beautiful, delightful, and easy to use interface takes a lot of work. Generally, the more a good UI designer can focus on the interface, the better that interface will get.

That’s not usually the way it goes though. The UI designer is often also the person doing at least some of those other tasks — defining the users, identifying conversion issues, defining the key tasks, creating the brand guidelines, defining new features, etc.

How can a UI Designer focus on making the best interface, which takes time and focus, when they have to worry about the decisions being made on an overall level?
And how could a UX Designer focus on the bigger picture, like who the end users are and what they actually need, when they also need to concentrate on the pixels of designing a fantastic interface?
Speaking from years of personal experience, it’s very difficult. In the end, both areas suffer because the UX/UI Designer is being pulled in too many directions at once.
— Craig Morrison in Why You Shouldn’t Hire a UI/UX Designer

I’d like companies to know which role they’re hiring for and ask clearly. When they say they want a UI/UX designer, are they hiring someone to focus on the UI, who might occasionally perform broader UX tasks? Or are they looking for someone to focus on the high-level overall UX, who might occasionally do some UI design tasks?

Why is it the UI designer that gets called out for also requiring a UX skillset? Why don’t we see ads for Marketing/UX Manager roles? Or Sales/UX Representatives?

As a hiring company, are you looking for someone who can create beautiful interfaces, who can also sprinkle some UX pixie dust around and make everything better?

Or do you want someone who can dig in and work with multiple departments in your company to create a desired experience that meets your goals, some of which might include an aesthetically pleasing and easy to use interface?

My hope with this post is to help companies see that there’s a great deal of time that goes into doing both UX design and UI design well, and that each of these things are very important and worthwhile. Startups have limited resources, yes, so make wise investments when hiring and make sure to set clear and realistic requirements when filling those roles.


I train and mentor product professionals who want to gain the skills and confidence to enhance their career and build their personal brand as UX leaders.

I also offer UX workshops for teams who want to find their collaborative mojo and apply lean processes to their work.

Learn more: sarahharrison.co

Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking

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