Friday, January 08, 2010

UX Design vs UI Development

One of the more interesting tensions I have observed since getting into User Experience (UX) design about five years ago is the almost sibling-rivalry-like tension between UX designers and User Interface (UI) developers. At the heart of the tension is that most UI developers consider themselves (rightfully so) to be UI designers. The coding part is like Picasso having to understand how to mix paint; it's not the value-add, just the mechanics of delivering the creative concepts.

When I was working on the STC Body of Knowledge task force, the interesting question we wrestled with was, "What value does a technical communicator add above what could be done by an engineer who writes well?" The UX designer or architect has the same problem to solve, what value do we add that differentiates us from a UI developer who is user focused? It strikes to the very heart of what differentiates us as professionals from UI developers. If we don't provide a compelling answer, the only one left is they code and we don't. Hmmmm, makes them sound like the better value proposition.

I was reminded of the import of this in a meeting yesterday where a UX designer lamented that he had approached a product manager of a new product with the question, "Have you thought about how to ensure the quality of the user experience?" The product manager's answer was "Oh yes, so and so is developing the UI," where so and so was a talented and user-focused UI developer. So how do we break into the process when that happens?

I thought about it on my drive home (on almost empty roads because two millimeters of snow had been predicted for Atlanta and the town was shut down in anticipation) and wondered how to counter when presented with the common pattern of "We have a talented developer working on it." I think I would come back with, "Great, he's good! Where is he going to get his user data?"

I think a mistake we sometimes make as UX designers is we believe that if the race starts at wireframing, we will win. But if that's where the race starts, we have no advantage over a talented programmer. It's not like we have the secrets about design patterns and best practices in user interactions. UI developers are there and in many cases were the ones who pioneered those patterns and best practices.

I think our professional value is in our processes and artifacts that help inform and validate design and development around user needs. I have a column coming out in UXmatters next week that goes into more detail, but my realization is that when we do a wireframe or prototype it should be a method of communicating data-driven or at least process-driven design considerations. Or, as it often was the case at CheckFree when I worked there, it should be a strawman that starts a collaborative process of review and refinement. (Sometimes it was like being a UI sketch artist--draw a nose, any nose, so the witness can say broader, thinner, whatever.) The best case is when it is both a visual communication of data-driven requirements and a working space for collaborative input.

So I think our value is that as professionals we follow a process that includes data gathering, data validation, collaborative design, and design testing. That way we channel the talents of the developers and support their design by informing them of user needs and then validating that the emergent design meets those needs.

If we just think of ourselves as better UI designers, we lose the true value proposition to talented designers who can code.

1 comment:

R. Henneman said...

I think you are right on target, Mike. Many developers have good design skills, just as some UX professionals have poor design skills. Our processes and skills reduce the risk of creating an unacceptable solution by making user needs explicit and by validating the designer's/developer's decisions. If UX design is where creativity and facts (art and science?) meet, our job is to make sure the facts include not just programming constraints but also user needs and abilities.