“UX/UI” and the Designer’s Impact

Nothing grinds a UX designer’s gears more than “UX/UI” (well, some of them, at least). But what should we do if this is where a company’s design maturity is at? Should we really say, “They don’t get it” or give it a decent try?

A few weeks ago, Jared Spool opened a very important conversation on “UX/UI” and its incidence in UX job postings. It happened on Twitter and it gathered some thoughts on a title that grinds designers’ gears a little too often.

Jared Spool on Twitter

Few things seem to piss UX professionals off more than a job posting that says “UX/UI designer.” They seem to see this as “a company that doesn’t get what we do.” It’s a foolish company that doesn’t know what they want. However, I see it as a good thing.

For Jared, “UX/UI” is a signal that this company, at the very least, appreciates design.

They understand what UX can bring to an organization and that the title is the first step in moving up the design maturity ladder.

So instead of scoffing at a company that has “UX/UI” for its job title, why don’t designers consider this a chance to move a design practice upward? 

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Rosa Wu and Jess McMullin’s 2006 UX Maturity Model.
“UX/UI” will probably fall under Level 2, ‘Style’
(as seen in Dr. Natalie Hanson’s UX research blog)

This is a noble sentiment. It is consistent with most UX maturity models and empathizes with companies getting a UX practice off the ground.

But I wonder if this is too optimistic for some UX designers. It’s nice to empathize with companies figuring out “this UX thing”. But reality is more complicated than it actually seems. As we’ll find later, it is possible for companies to say they want UX help, but actually need another.

Me and “UX/UI”

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with “UX/UI”.

Like most UX designers, “UX/UI” brings images of “wireframe monkeys” who put “lipstick on a pig”. They’re more about pretty visuals than UX research, and gut feel than user testing. It’s about being a pair of hands than a “seat” on the table, slinging Sketch files 80% of the time than strategizing the next big thing.

Taken this way, “UX/UI” elicits fears of UX being simply about “making it pretty” than the function or usability they’ve been trained to champion. 

But for all of my distaste with “UX/UI”, it is actually a precise description. “UX” and “UI” are accounted for in Jesse James Garrett’s Five Planes of User Experience and it feeds into the generalist model some companies need at the earliest stages of their UX maturity process. Some designers even object to the decoupling of “UX” and “UI”, saying that “without UX, there can never be UI” and vice versa.

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UX’s Canon – Jesse James Garrett’s Five Planes of User Experience

I’ve also been told that “UX/UI” ensures that designers are design doers on top of being design thinkers. It ensures that you can get stuff done – be it a style guide or a prototype – and not just order people around with sticky notes and fancy exercises.

In an industry where the focus is on shipping product, “design thinking” is not going to get to the real thing called “design doing”. Designers must hunker down, execute, and send those mockups for the client meeting tomorrow morning.

That’s what “UX/UI” tries to mean.

“You can’t talk a big game about research and process if you can’t execute it to save your life!!!”

Some design leaders to me

A Designer’s Impact

Whenever I hear the term “UX/UI”, however, the visceral reaction from designers seems to be about the impact they can make on the product and the company.

She’s worried that she’ll just be a pair of hands.

She might not be called to assist in design conversations.

She’s concerned that usability will suffer because developers and product managers do the (seemingly) more important job of shipping product while she… sprinkles pixie dust. And make things pop.

These fears indicate a designer’s desire for impact. And with “UX/UI”, they’re unsure where that impact will really, truly be. 

The Industrial Designer began by eliminating excess decoration, but his real job began when he insisted on dissecting the product, seeing what made it tick, and devising means of making it tick better – then making it look better. He never forgets that beauty is only skin deep.

Henry Dreyfuss, Designing for People

Let me share a real example of the problem I’m talking about.

A Designer’s Impact In Real Life

I was recently in two interview rounds with a big non-profit that was looking for UX help. They wanted someone who could wrangle both UX and content design and help make site updates in a smart and test-driven kind of way.

It didn’t work out. 

They said that while they appreciated my “big picture [thinking]” skills, they wanted someone who can execute on design tasks succinctly and immediately.

While my problem-solving skills were deemed as nice – asking “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?” during their design exercise, and all that – they just didn’t do UX from that kind of way. They just didn’t have the need for such big picture thinking, hence the decision to let me go.

This suggests that sometimes, some companies are just not capable of supporting strategic design at that very moment (i.e. Level 4 or 5 in the maturity model above).

They had “UX” on this job title. But ultimately they wanted a tactician.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter how thoughtful you’d like to be, some companies are just not there. They may plan on scaling the maturity ladder soon. But today? They’re just not there.

And if you’re not what they want at this point in time, the best decision… is no decision.

They have to let you go.

“A week after New Years I had that “last conversation” with the person in charge of running the editorial group. We had a pleasant discussion which ended with “I can’t use a guy with your experience, just yet.” He further explained his plans for growing the department, and then I would be a great fit.

We said goodbye, and that was that –
I never received a job offer.”

Greg Storey, “You are Not Your Job Search”

So What?

Jared is inviting us to rethink our relationship with “UX/UI” and consider it a good thing. It is a signal that companies want to do good on “design” and that a designer will lead them through it.

This is a noble sentiment (really, it is). But as my stories suggest, reality is more complicated than it actually seems.

In some cases, companies are just not ready for the “deep change” you want to give. This was the case with the humanitarian organization I interviewed for; answering their questions and exercises strategically when they wanted something “simpler” and more tactical.

This isn’t to say that you should give up on the companies that “don’t get it” (like the ones who have “UX/UI” on their job titles). It’s an invitation, however, to meet them at their maturity level and whether their level is where you want to make your impact.

It’s a two-way street: finding out how you can make your mark and seeing whether the company will need it.

Think about this as you go about your next job search. Life is too short to work at a place we won’t thrive. Use this to guide your next career adventure and always go where you will really, really be happy.