5 minutes read

Imagine that you’re planning a new digital , such as an app or website. You want a crack team of super skilled professionals to bring your amazing idea to life. You want a team that has the necessary skills and know-how, but that is small and tight-knit, so that it doesn’t take an eternity and cost a fortune. So the question is, like a national team coach picking their squad for the upcoming football World Cup, who makes the cut? Who is flying out to Russia, and who is being left at home?

Well for starters you’ll need some engineers to actually build it your product in the first place. You’ll want a product manager / owner to provide product direction and to generally manage the team. You might want a tester in there and if you don’t trust developers to design the UI, and let’s face it, a developer designed UI is usually an abomination, you’ll want a UI designer. The question is, do you also need a designer? Someone to ensure that a user-centred design (UCD) approach is taken? Increasingly today the answer it would seem is no. However, as you’ll find out, this is invariably a mistake.

With product teams coalescing into PM, Eng, UI and Data Science - is 'UX Designer' a desirable thing anymore?
Is there still a place for a UX designer in a product team?

The rise of the UX/UI designer

Instead of a dedicated UX designer, organisations are increasingly expanding the UI design role to also cover UX. Enter the rise of the UX/UI designer. On the face of it expanding a UI design role to also cover UX seems sensible enough. UI and UX are pretty much the same thing, aren’t they? (check out my article UX – So much more than just the UI to find out why this isn’t true). Well no, they’re not, but that’s not the big problem. Here are the two big problems with this approach.

The UX/UI unicorn problem

The UX/UI unicorn is a rare, and mythical creature. You’re more likely to find a four-leaf clover than a designer that is truly skilled and experienced in both UI design, and UX (i.e. user-centred design and research) because they’re related but different skill-sets. We’re talking the Beck of the design world here. Someone, who can write the tune, sing the tune and play all the god damn instruments as well.

If you consider that to have a successful product, two essential ingredients to this are to build the right thing and to get the design right. UI will naturally focus on getting the design right (i.e. visuals, interactions, design patterns etc..), where as UX will naturally focus on building the right thing, and evaluating designs with users (i.e. user research, user journeys, usability testing etc..). If you are lucky enough to find someone that can do all this, then chances are that you probably can’t afford them anyway because they are so in demand right now. I’m talking hot, hot, hot darling.

Person wearing unicorn mask
After much searching, the team finally found their designer

So, let’s assume that you’ve been able to track down a super skilled UX/UI designer, and can persuade them to work on your product. Unfortunately, you’re now going to run into the second big problem. Bandwidth. Not of the network kind, but of the work capacity kind.

The UX bandwidth problem

Being a UI designer on a product team is a full-time job. Believe me, I’ve been a UI designer on a product team and was kept more than busy. A UI designer must design and mockup up screens, create assets such as icons, images and graphics, create a styleguide and design language, create prototypes and UI documentation, review completed code, the list goes on. There’s no shortage of things to keep someone busy. The problem is, being a UX designer (and researcher) is also a full-time job. I’m also talking from experience here because I’ve been a UX designer on plenty of product (but thankfully never a UX/UI designer). From creating information architectures, wireframes and user journeys, to carrying out usability testing and user research, there’s also no shortage of things to keep a UX designer busy.

What then do you think happens when you try to combine the two roles? Well if you’re following an old school waterfall process where by the UX research and design work can be done and then frozen before the UI design work, then you can probably just about get away with it. The problem is, that’s a very floored process. This is why the vast majority of product teams are likely to be taking a more Agile approach, and then we run into a few problems.

Within an Agile process the work of the product team is carried out concurrently within each sprint. Therefore, unless someone is working 16 hours a day you simply can’t squeeze two full time jobs into one. What invariably happens is that something has to give (or your poor UX/UI designer has a breakdown), and that something is invariably the UX research and design work. This is because the engineers are more dependent on the UI design work. They need UI assets, such as icons, styleguides and prototypes to guide their development work. The UX research and design work is all too often seen as ‘nice to have’, whereas the UI design work is ‘must have’.

What about taking a leaf out of the lean UX playbook and utilising tools, such as unmoderated usability testing, A/B testing, and multi-variate testing to reduce the time it takes to carry out UX research and design work? For an existing product this can certainly help, but for products still to be launched usage data simply doesn’t yet exist. Furthermore, this real-world data can tell you what is happening, but can rarely tell you why. Data doesn’t provide the sort of invaluable insights that good old-fashioned UX research, such as interviews, moderated usability testing and observation can.

What about sharing the UX research and design work around the team? Perhaps the product manager / owner can run some usability testing or carry out some user interviews? Perhaps the engineers? A good idea but once again we run into the bandwidth problem. Even if he or she has the necessary know-how (which is a big if) a product manager or engineer is unlikely to have the capacity to do additional UX research and design work within sprints. They too have a full time job and these sorts of activities will always be at the bottom of their to-do list.

So, if you accept that taking a user-centred design approach is a good thing, but that a UI designer and the wider team won’t have the bandwidth to do this, what should you do? It seems that a ‘UX Designer’ is a desirable thing after all!

The benefits of a dedicated UX designer

The most successful product teams that I’ve worked in have always had a UX designer, and a UI designer. This ensures that there is sufficient capacity and bandwidth to take a user-centred design approach, whilst still providing the engineers with all the design goodies that they need to actually build something. Having two designers on the team also helps when it comes to creativity, to reviewing design work and generally to keeping design standards high.

What about if there isn’t sufficient buy-in within an organisation to have the two roles in a product team? In a recent tweet Jared Spool (founder of User Interface Engineering – a leading UX consultancy) said that hiring a UX/UI designer can be seen as a good thing because the organisation is at least considering UX. I guess with the view that some UX is better than no UX, and that UX can potentially be slowly introduced within the organisation.

Jared Spool Tweet
Jared Spool sees the UX/UI designer role as a good thing, I’m not so sure

I’d have to say that I disagree that it’s always a good thing because as we’ve seen this is putting a UX/UI designer in an impossible position. If the organisation is not willing to invest in user-centred design (which given the ROI of taking a UCD approach is invariably a mistake) then they should not be putting unrealistic expectations on the product team. The danger is that the team don’t have the bandwidth to do the sort of UX research and design work that will have a real impact on the product, and as a result UX (i.e. user-centred design) is seen as a waste of time within the organisation.

If an organisation is not yet ready to have a full-time UX designer on each product team, rather than the potentially poisoned chalice of a UX/UI design role, a better approach in my experience is to have part-time UX designers. That is, UX designers and researchers that work across multiple product teams. This provides some capacity to take a user-centred design approach and is less costly than requiring a UX designer on each team. Hopefully in time the organisation will see the benefits that UX research and design can bring to product teams and see that it’s worth investing in UI and UX designers for each team.

What’s your experience?

Hopefully you can now see why there’s still a need for UX designers on product teams. I’d be interested in hearing about your own experiences, and your own thoughts and views. You can share them by leaving a comment below.

See also

Image credits

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels
Photo by MJ Breiva from Pexels





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