UX Role(s)

What We Debate On

In our interviews we’ve heard a few people say things like “everyone does UX” and “everyone does design”. Greg thought that was odd, and Frances thought it was quite interesting. When we talked about it further, we found we had some very different ideas of what those phrases meant. Here’s our insight-filled discussion between about:

What do you mean “everyone does UX” and “everyone does design”?

GREG: We’ve heard a few people say things like “everyone does UX.”

“We banned the phrase ‘blocked by design’ because the whole team is doing design”
David Hendee, Director of Design at Carbon Five

It’s an interesting idea. If the “User’s Experience” is something we’re focusing on, then isn’t that something that affects everyone’s job? Beyond UX designers, the front-end engineers and visual designers are obviously working on that.

Of course, so then the backend engineers are working on UX (taking 10 seconds to load is a bad user experience). And the QA people (bugs are a bad user experience). And the sales people (overly aggressive sales tactics are a bad user experience). Even the billing department is doing UX (badly worded invoices are a bad user experience). Ultimately, the only people who aren’t “doing UX” are the managers.

FRANCES: I have always seen managers “doing UX.” They might not always be doing it well or to the level that UX practitioners would. The User Experience field expanded the field of usability into a holistic understanding that included the user’s subjective perspective. Knowing user needs alone is not enough. Now there is a push for everyone in a company — management, design, QA, engineering, and user experience practitioners — to consider user needs and business needs together. It’s a change in how we are understanding our work.

“Product Managers used to do UX and Designers just did visuals… [now] some platforms have more or fewer [product designers who focus on UX instead of Visual Design] and some platforms have both.”
— Vitally Kramer, Product Designer at

Many managers, particularly in the small startups, no longer find pure User Experience valuable. Projects can sometimes be so small now that you don’t need a designer, engineer, product manager, etc. on every task. It’s more important now that everyone can be aware of the bigger picture.

“UX is everybody’s responsibility”
Jeff Gothelf, Author of Lean UX and Principal at Neo

GREG: Unquestionably, it’s beneficial for everyone in a company to know how they affect the product’s UX. Think of it this way does a tiny startup need a dedicated salesperson? Often no, because everyone’s selling it. The founders pitch everyone they meet, the engineers can’t stop inviting their friends, and the designers won’t stop blogging about it. But, does that work well? Hopefully it’s enough to grow. But when you’re able to, you hire a salesperson, who only focuses on sales. And (hopefully) sales pick up! Similarly, can “everyone do UX”? Sure… but it won’t work well.

Because UX takes training and/or experience to do well. Yes, people can pick it up as they go (and that’s a good thing). You also can pick up accounting. Yet it’d sound absurd to say “At our startup, we’re all doing accounting.”

The idea of “everyone does UX” forgets that few people are excellent at many things, and even fewer are excellent at many things at the same time. That’s why we describe the request for an expert in UX, Visual Design, and Engineering as a search for a mythical animal.

In fact, we talked to a person who used to be a unicorn… and had chosen to focus!

“It’s hard to be both, at the same time… [It] doesn’t mean I would stop being a designer, I’m just going to switch the priorities. Or actually, I’m going to establish the priorities. At that point, I was trying to be both. And I just need to focus on one or the other.”
Mouly Kumar, UX Engineer at SolarCity

FRANCES: Forget unicorns, now we want “Product Managing Designers” and “Full-Stack designers.”

Obviously, we’re not literally talking about the animal. I’m talking about the rare person who does both design and engineering. The dream is for this person to produce a high-quality website or mobile app from start to finish all on their own. In practice, the unicorn focuses more on visual design and front-end development and less on user research and the back-end code — unable to focus on the entire user experience.

“You can’t be great [at both of them.] You can be good. I was good at both of them when I was doing them, but I don’t think I could’ve created a product that was killer-awesome given the deadlines. Because I’m not completely in it. So if I have to design and then I have to build, I’m going to constrain myself a little bit.”
Su Quek, Lead Designer at hello and Former UX Manager at Amazon

“Full-stack designers” have visual design skills, UX skills, UI skills, User Research skills, and maybe even a little bit of Product Management skills. In many ways, this person is just as mythical as the unicorn. In practice, we still have a team of experts. However, instead of highlighting one skill of IDEO’s “T-shaped” craftsperson, we often have two or three strengths.

In a way, it’s recognition that design involves many skills and processes. They can change just as quickly as the newest business practice or design tool. It makes some sense for product designers rather than managers to address when to delve more into UX and to what degree for themselves.

GREG: One issue with focusing on unicorns is that they’re just as you described them: rare. Yet most of the software industry expects to hire them. That not only does a disservice to most designers (who don’t compare to that literally mythic ideal), it also does a disservice to entrepreneurs (who think they have to find a unicorn).

The other issue is that there’s a reason why unicorns are rare: separation of roles helps people focus. Look at engineers: there are some full-stack engineers, but the majority have a preference for front-end or back-end. (And “full-stack” only refers to front- and back-end, rather than the 3 or 4 roles that it does for designers.)

Similarly, think about Product Managers vs Designers:

“PMs think about the requirements of what needs to be solved, but they may not know how it should be solved. And they may not have the perspective of a user.” — Ryan Devenish, UX Design Manager at Opower

Even Gwen, who likes doing both UI and Product Management, prefers to focus:

“I definitely find myself getting more caught up in the visuals, sometimes. Because I’m very picky about visual design. But at the same time, I prefer to be thinking about the product at a higher level, and making sure that these user flows make sense, and that “happy path” the user can follow works.”
Gwen Brinsmead, Product Designer at AppMesh

FRANCES: And this is where I agree with Greg.

It doesn’t make sense to only hire “Full-Stack Designers” or “Unicorns.” I think this is why the Product Designer title has gained so much traction. It’s a term which saves non-designers from guessing when to include silo-ed design experts in the (very confusing) design process. Good designers are not great at every design role or even doing every role, but are good at helping each other know what’s unknown and when we need another designer’s expertise.

“Some people think they can hire someone who knows everything, but no one can. Our community focuses a lot on the problem-solving part in UX, but a huge part of our work is actually identifying the problems, needs, and desires of the people who use our product. A lot of our work is identifying what… needs to be done. At Pivotal, people like me are called Product Designers. This title helps me explain to clients how research, interaction, visual, and front-end work is all part of designing their product. Our team debated it for a year.”
Nina Mehta, Design Manager at Pivotal Labs

So back to the original question:

What do you mean “everyone does UX” and “everyone does design”?

Yes, everyone can do Design and everyone can do UX. But, we don’t think everyone should. You might get lucky and make something inexplicably work. Unfortunately, you will not have all the answers nor your users nor your equally inexperienced coworkers. Real training and experience will go a long way to helping you find the right answers. Good UX design doesn’t happen when you simply “listen to your users.” Though having everyone listen is a very good place to start.

Frances Soong | Greg Schwartz