Consultant Thursdays: Should User Experience Designers Know Design Or Programming?

That was a question that came across one of the mailing lists — “do I have to learn how to program to be a good user experience designer?” A job posting was listed where the requirements could have been along the lines of smoking crack, and for new designers, they wouldn’t know any better because they are just trying to make a buck.

But should they?

That’s a hard question to answer, especially with the ever changing landscape of the industry.

The answer: it really depends on where you live and what you are looking to do. Many employers are looking for jack of all trades (especially in startups), while others are looking for specialists. Some are willing to give up deep skill sets in one area versus knowledge in all areas, or are looking for people of unique skill sets to build teams around.

A UX Designer in San Francisco is going to have a much different working experience than one in Columbus, Ohio because they will be at much different companies.

I’m lucky to have worked in both generalist and specialist environments. To be honest, I like getting my hands dirty sometimes. That includes building prototypes, doing my own  guerrilla  usability testing, and even throwing in some design to make it high fidelity.

Other user experience designers like to focus on specific areas, like user research. It just depends.

If you know something about code, you’re less likely to design something that can’t be built.

Pros — There’s nothing worse than designing a solution that you think makes it really easy for the user, and then the programmers come back to you and say, “Well, that’s nice, but it’s going to take two months and we have only a month.” It’s like designing a car: if you design an engine that’s too big for the frame, the engine design has to be reworked.

Cons — That said, if you get too heads down in the code, you are going to be less effective as a user experience designer. Or, worse, you could limit your imagination and design a solution that would be more effective if you knew less about what was under the hood.

Specialists get paid more, but have fewer opportunities.

Pros — Everyone loves a big paycheck, and specialists are always going to have deeper knowledge of a particular topic. If you’re good, being a specialist means that you’re sought after. I have a lot of experience in e-commerce systems, for example, and somehow manage to improve those user experiences that lead to improved revenue. That’s a skill worth having that will make you valuable just about anytime of the day.

Cons — If they think you are too much of a specialist, it becomes really hard to get a job (“I didn’t know you could do that”), and in a bad economy, the last thing you want to do is fence yourself in. Those that were working in the field during the early 2000’s remember the day when being a project manager or a psuedo-programmer was a good thing. There’s nothing worse than being “just” a user researcher when they are looking for an Interaction Designer with research experience.

Sometimes it’s just about setting expectations.

Pros — Even if you don’t call yourself a specialist, putting a wider net out there for jobs is better because there may be a position that requires several different skills (Knowledge of JQuery, CSS, XHTML and some light design on top of doing the usual User Experience tasks like wireframes). This could translate into where you build functioning prototypes that the developers can use to build the finished product, but during the interview process. That said, I just recently started learning SketchFlow, a wonderful product that’s part of the Microsoft Expression Suite. There’s no way I could have picked it up as fast as I did without some knowledge of other prototyping tools like Flash, Axure and Visio.

Cons — Some skills required for the roles are so divergent that what they are looking for is a unicorn i.e. that one person that knows all of the above, plus ActionScript 3.0, plus .NET. The people that know all of those technologies either are a) getting paid much more than just being a User Experience Designers, b) do all of them poorly or c) are full of shit. You can only be good at so much.

The real answer? Look at the market and act accordingly.

Do what you have to do, and where you want to drive your career to, to  succeed. Talk to other designers in the area to get an idea what they are doing. And remember, it’s a changing landscape — that requires some  flexibility.