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Should Developers also be UX Professionals and Graphics Designers?

Pete Brown - 01 September 2010

I've received some interesting commentary on Item 0 in my 10 Things for Silverlight and WPF Developers post. That item says to know your limitations, including when to call in a "designer". (I'm using designer loosely here, it's a graphics designer or ux pro. Often, those are the same people, or highly related people working for the same org)

I contend that 99% of developers make terrible graphics designers, and probably 95% of developers make terrible user experience professionals. In my time as a consultant in the industry and my role at Microsoft, I've met very very few people who fall into that 1% and 5% respectively. In fact, I can count them on a single hand.

Now, to be sure, this is completely anecdotal, based on my experience and from talking with other developers. Oh, and from looking at other developers' work :)

That said, almost every time a developer has shown me their design work, it was far from what a "real" graphics designer and/or ux professional would have come up with. Unfortunately, you often can't tell that unless you see what professionals are doing and just how much better it truly can be.

In the blog post comments, and on Twitter, others have contended that every developer should be able to be a designer and/or UX pro. I personally don't buy that. It's like saying every developer should be able to play the piano: sure, maybe you can play that intro to Jump, but can you *really* play? Some can, but most can't, and most can't learn regardless of how much training is provided.

Put another way, most of us can draw a face that would be recognizable as a face. But the vast majority of us could not draw a face that would be immediately recognizable as a specific person, and almost none of us could draw a face that looks like a relatively obscure person (one that hasn't had a zillion caricatures already drawn and readily available). We simply do not have that skill. While practice may make it possible to do something decent, we'd still be unable to come up with new representations, new styles, new patterns.

While I agree that the design and ux professions have similar contents (well-understood patterns and practices), I do not agree that being able to create a glossy button or attractive gradient in Photoshop makes you a designer any more than being able to drag a datagrid makes you a coder.

UX and graphics design are both much deeper disciplines than what shows up on the surface.

I'm personally decent in UX (my concentration in college was Human Computer Interaction, and I've had a strong interest in it since Day 1), but I know I'm neither a UX pro no a graphics designer. I stopped trying to fool myself into thinking that long ago :)

So, what do you think? Do you think every developer is capable of being a UX pro or graphics designer, and do you think they should be?

Oh, and if you think you are capable, I demand screen shots. Pic, or it didn't happen :)

posted by Pete Brown on Wednesday, September 1, 2010
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22 comments for “Should Developers also be UX Professionals and Graphics Designers?”

  1. Adamsays:
    I agree with you 100%. I'm a dev and I suck at design. Most of the stuff I've made look like developer tests, because that's what they are.

    One thing I would like to note though is that with the right tools you can fake it. I think WP7 gives developers the right controls and templates to be able to make something that fits in well with the rest of the OS with a passable UI. Obviously something more original and all-around better could be made with some real design but it works quite well to my eyes.
  2. Ian Smithsays:
    I agree that most developers suck at really slick looking design.

    However have you ever had two design or UX "experts" together in a meeting? They invariably contradict each other about "best practice" and it's often hard not to come away with the idea that most UX is just "flavour of the month" or stuff made up on the spot. Far too much of the explanation for why something is "better" just comes across as pretentious nonsense. There's nothing worse than one of those sites that expensive design/UX experts have put together (the Sony site promoting their Aibo robot dog was a great example - very pretty but with zero real content and a nightmare to navigate around and actually find information).

    However developers are often consumers andcan usually do a pretty good job of "bluffing" design, assuming they don't adopt the usual developer "macho posturing" ("I'm proud my blog site looks crap. I don't do bling and I don't understand that the only reason I've got a job is because the customer loved a pretty demo rather than my wonderfully elegant code").
  3. Franciscosays:
    I agree with you and Adam, most of us can understand the logic of making things that work, but not the aesthetic of it.

    I don't know why people would be in so much conflict about it, I think it is the same thing as Interior Designers, Architects and Civil Engineers: yes, some areas overlap but all three are important things that are usually required to create a really good final product, and how often do you see other Civil Engineers telling other Civil Engineers they should learn Interior Design?
  4. Aaronsays:
    I don't expect developers to be masters of all trades related to software development any more than I'd expect a fashion designer to know how to manufacture the sewing machine parts they use in their trade. Why does the tech industry insist that somehow developers must be different?

    Think of all of the products you've used over the years where you can tell that no UX designer was involved (hello, remote controls!). Same problem.

    It's great if a developer learns some of the skills necessary to spot good/bad design so that they know when to ask for help.

    I've also seen people in graphic design try to create software UI -- even that isn't necessarily a "win."
  5. Pilotbobsays:

    You know, Malcom Gladwell would disagree with your statement "It's like saying every developer should be able to play the piano: sure, maybe you can play that intro to Jump, but can you *really* play? Some can, but most can't, and most can't learn regardless of how much training is provided."

    If you read Outliers he talks about people that reach a high level of performance at a task, be it sports or music or anything... while talent may help at the beginning, it is really practice that makes perfect. if I recall correctly he said "9000" hours would make anyone a pro. So, yes, I think devs can learn UX and UX design with enough practice and application of the profession.

    Oh... and a dev could learn the piano if they put in the time... yes ANY dev, except perhaps one that doesn't have the user of their hands/fingers.

  6. mspsays:
    I tend to agree but know that I fall into the small margin of being both an artist and developer.

    I might frame it in a subtly different fashion however. I think it's really difficult to concentrate on both sides of the structure of the software.

    As geeks we tend to be spending as many cycles as possible on the engineering, the features, bells, whistles, apis, frameworks, etc.

    As designers, we're going to be stressing about fonts and colors, word choice, flow, simplicity, metaphor, etc.

    That's a lot for one person to do.

    It's like a house. We're amazing plumbers and electricians. But we're probably not exactly paying complete attention to flow of the home or whether certain features really make sense from a use case point of view.

    I'm tempted to try to make the case that API design is a form of interface design, but much like some architectural work, common patterns and structures have reduced the need for ample creativity. We can answer the architectural question after 15 minutes with the team and whiteboard and then turn around an concentrate on the plumbing and guts. That or writing tests first give us our "walk through" with some objects and their interactions and we're able to let go of the creative and shuffle off into the guts.

    I wonder if there's also something to be said for R brain vs. L brain here. Trying to use both at once might result in a lot of Qbert swearing.
  7. Corrado Cavallisays:
    I agree with you, developers are bad Ux designers, some are better (or i should say less worse) than others but they can't compete with Ux professionals.
    Ux designer does not only mean being just a PhotoShop or others tools guru, it means knowing (thus studing) what is the best users vs software/machine interaction, designers also have an innate way to see things in a "non schematic" way (as devs do)
    I think that all software in (not so far) future will be the result of close interaction between Ux designers and "Interaction Developer", any developer working on WPF/SL/WP7 application must also be a good Expression tools user because they're the link between those worlds.
  8. Anzesays:
    I can't say I fully agree woth everything. My belief is that developers who work on programs that will have user interactions should at least be familiar with the basic principals. Just like you expect your house builder to understand the basics of where to put the windows and doors, even though you let tge architect and interior designer work the majority of that out *before* the house gets built.

    I already said on twitter, and i'll repeat it here, but ux can be learnt. There are good resources, ranging from obline articles to books that steer you in the right direction.

    Going back to your piano comparison. If you write music and you play the guitar only, it will be harder for a piano player to fit a part into it whereas if you at least know the basics, the sound, the feel, you can do much, much more.

    I know that when i stop and consider how a user will use my application, be it web, mobile or desktop, I always got better results when i followed some basic principals. I won't say I am a ux pro, or a designer (although I do design sometimes), but i know some basics and some more advanced rules of those worlds and I think I am a better developer for that.

    And I'd also like to point out that this does not solely apply to user interface programmers. We all know arvhitects should have a broad overview of an application, and know generally how things work. You can't be a good architect if you have no clue about how the DB works can you? And you should also have a basic idea of how the ux will work because there are ways you can make the life of the ui developer easier. And as a developer those same principals apply :)

    Now, as a final thought: no, being a ux pro is not required for developers in my opiniom but it sure helps when you want your application to stand out in the crowd. So i think knowing the basics will only make you a better developer.
  9. Alex Sarafiansays:
    I also agree. I think there can be no debate about it if you really try to understand what takes to be a great developer.
    Programming is like Math. It requires strict patterns of thought that requires a skill that is not found easily in many people. Additionally the this pattern of thought must be emotionally free, that is it cannot easily apply with human psycology. If you want to make a machine that executes dump processs zilions of times per second efficient, surely the human psycology cannot be applied. Computers, thus their development process, is a child of Mathematicians.
    On the other hand the user experience targets users, that is the mainstream users those how do not understand all of the above. Designing this part of the application requires skill analog to those of an artist. Skill that take into serious account the human psycology.

    The above skillsets are not compatible so for me there was never a question. At first devolopers made programmas for developers. Users never accepted them and did their job with constant whining. Only when companies seriously understood this and brought specialists did the computer started to become mainstream.
  10. Adamsays:
    I'd love to be good at the design aspects - as the UI is the part people judge, so when I'm making my own apps I put a lot of thought into this. However, I'm like most others: developer and a wannabe designer :)

    It's too much to have to maintain those skills and keep up with the change of pace in the rest of programming, what with all the new toys constantly coming out in the .NET world. I've resigned myself to making a fairly decent experience, with fairly basic graphical flair, but keeping my coding skills up.

    I often think these things come in two halves (it's the case with websites too): the people who make it, and the people who make it look good. If you are one of these people, the trick is to be friends with the other!
  11. TheLutdditeDevelopersays:
    Interestingly, I have been looking for a really good Silverlight website. One that really used Silverlight capabilities.

    After all, most Silverlight developers can handle grids, buttons, graphics, data binding, dependencies, behaviours, etc; but can we really make the page sing?

    One site which came close was http://www.visitsolutioncity.com/. The site is dynamic and innovative, but it does fall short on content. It has nothing interesting to say, not to me anyway.

    Such a site is probably beyond the resoures of a single developer. The resources required for such a site required a number of different skill sets.

    I would expect most developers to manage function and usability and produce a very practical solution.

    The visitsolutioncity website looked great, but honestly what little content it contained could have been expressed much more efficiently and much more effectively.

    The trick is to balance form and function. Produce an effective website, that is easy to use, does what the user wants and gives the publisher their desired outcome.

    If a stunning website increases traffic but does not give the publisher the required results (sales, click throughs, awareness, whatever) then all it is is a stunning website, a piece of web art more suited to an art gallery. Developers usually do not aspire to web art.

    The World Cup Final in South Africa this year saw Spain v Netherlands. Spain played the best football and won the Cup. They won because in football the team who scores the most goals wins. The Netherlands came very close to winning ugly, but if they scored more goals then they would have won the cup.

    Conclusion: the proper balance is all important to achieving effective results, but it is the result that counts.
  12. Eduardosays:
    Some thoughts:

    - At least in my country, there are not a formal education path for being an UX Professional

    - I've never seen a UX Professional in my life

    - The worst that have happened is that **Graphic** designers have become UX designers

    - At least, a good software developer knows that he have to buy several books about UX and learn about it to do a better job

  13. Jeff Putzsays:
    I think your percentages are an awful generalization. But I also hate the term "UX" because "experience" sounds far more pretentious than "interface." :)

    I for one am all for people engaging in multiple disciplines. Outside of the world of giant corporations, people have to wear many hats.
  14. Petesays:

    I know the numbers are generlization. I said it was anecdotal :)

    Before I joined Microsoft, I worked for a 200 person company, doing consulting at larger and smaller companies. Yes, there were definitely developers wearing the UX hat. What I'm saying, however, is that they weren't very good at it when compared to a "real UX pro"

    Interface is different than experience. UI design is just a part of UX design.
  15. sjohnsays:
    Agree with you. I would say "It's like saying every developer should be able to sing". The ability to make good design is a gift. You will never become a good singer by experience (or training).

    Of course, some (1%) of us can handle it well, but are we that productive in design? Let the pros do it. I will not waste my time repairing a computer in my office even though I know how to do it.
  16. Jeff Putzsays:
    I think I would argue that if the many hats people aren't very good, they're the wrong people. :) The longer you do it, the better you get, I think. Twelve years before I joined Microsoft, I started building Web sites, and the programming came second, so perhaps one would argue that I should leave the programming to the pros!
  17. James Caddsays:
    I think there's a grey area here for a developer that can do some menial work/cleanup of assets (created by a real designer) in Photoshop, then import that stuff into Blend to animate it, create visual states add storyboards with appropriate easing and generally bring those images to life. Sure developers may not make good designers, but I think there's a lot of room for devs to improve their UI design skills in a tool like Blend - even with boring controls wearing the default styles. There's a huge opportunity for graphic designers to pick up Blend and command enormous value - but what I'm generally seeing is that they simply don't want to. Hopefully that'll change in the next few years, but until then it's up to us to create compelling UX - and there's plenty we can do with existing developer tools.
  18. Dharmindarsays:
    My younger brother is a brilliant artist and graphics designer. And at the same time he is also a brilliant programmer. That's why I call him genius. He is a real technical person. But when it comes to me I just don't understand which color to put. I am a programmer and that's it.

    Check out this url: http://www.hnhexchange.com.pk

    This site is both completely designed and developed by him. Each bit and piece color scheme, Intro presentation is designed by him. On the Home page the banner is changeable. And the owner of the site has changed the banner right now. May be that is not looking that much attractive. But please take a look into this site.

    There is one more thing to make you wonder. This site is developed by him in PHP and MySql. And he is a developer of ASP.Net and Silverlight. If any want to see more of his work let me know.

    There are people who are God gifted. Yes, these kind of people are God gifted.

  19. Sebastiansays:
    Well, I'd also like to challenge the numbers - on the other hand, I don't think, we get these reasonably beyond the 90% mark ;) ... at least not for people who are good designers and good developers at the same time.

    I have taken art classes besides my studies in computer sciences and I now do my PhD in human-computer interaction - so I basically qualify for some design expertise. Still, I don't think, my skills transcend the basics of design: I see errors in alignment, I can match colours so they look roughly harmonic, I even think I could do a decent page layout for a webpage - but I fail to produce results of the same quality my colleague creates who has real expertise in UI design.

    Maybe, I could get better at UI design, but I do not see much sense in it - when I finish my PhD, I will have spend 10 years with education on computer science related topics and about 5 years of practical experience in software development ... it just seems very inefficient if I now spent much time improving my design skills.

    So coming back to the piano-metaphor: I think, a developer does not need to be a praised musician, but still he should know how to tell apart mastery from dilettantism. And I think, it cannot hurt if he enjoys a good piece of piano music ;)

  20. Argosays:
    Having a dedicated "designer" on staff is simply not an option for our little company, though we have discussed it. No one here can draw a straight line - thank goodness Adobe Illustrator knows how to do that for us. We do business client apps and almost all our new projects now use WPF instead of WinForms.

    Everyone who stays in this business long enough knows that learning new technologies is a huge part of the job, even when what needs to be learned might be out of our comfort zone.

    It's just another set of skills to learn, as is learning to design a decent looking webpage. There is no reason to fear UX Design because you're not an artist. Artistic ability really plays a minuscule part in true UX Design and being able to draw a picture of, say - a horsey - doesn't matter much for our clients and with decent graphics tools and some effort on the developers part to really learn how to use them, they can produce outstanding results.

    Learning about how to use space, texture, colors and images can be accomplished, no matter how left-brained you are. Think of learning UX Design as learning just another API - learning a new set of patterns, best practices, and principles.

    It's attainable, but not without effort.
  21. Nathanael Boehmsays:
    It's interesting how quick people are to associate UX design with colours, fonts and lines even when the distinction has been made at the very start of this blog post between visual/graphic designers and user experience designers.

    Sure, there are some people who consider themselves hybrid visual designers - developers, even hybrids of all three. Some of those few people are actually reasonably competent in all three fields each of which requires about 10 years work experience to become competent. They're fast learners. Good on them - though I'm dubious as to how they come up with the time during their working day to switch between all those hats.

    No doubt there's overlaps between these fields. For example Gestalt psychology falls into both visual and experience design domains. My specialisation in UX is as an interaction designer because of my background in front-end development so my role overlaps with development because I'm writing detailed rules for the presentation and behaviour of interactive interface elements.

    Can I draw a straight line? Hell no, and that's not my job. I leave that to the visual designers.

    Can you afford to not have designers on staff? Hell no! We have three UX'ers and two visual designers on staff in our agency of just 8 people. Half our team is designers.

    @Eduardo I'm sorry you've never seen a real UX professional in the wild. Maybe get along to IXD11, UX Australia, WebStock a BarCamp or something and you shall be rewarded by the presence of one of these mythical beings :)

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