UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 693 June 29, 2011

Hi, I'm a UX Developer - You're a what?

“So, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a UX developer.”
“You’re a what?”
“I’m a user experience developer…”
“Uh-huh… what’s that?”

I have this conversation just about every time I meet someone. I can’t say I really blame the person on the other end, though; my job title is sort of an ambiguous and buzz-wordy. I often opt to take the easy way out and just say something about working for a company that builds software applications for the Web, desktop, and mobile devices. “Ohh, okay. I get it.” Admittedly my answer is a cop-out, but I’ve found it’s quite difficult to explain to someone what a UX developer is.

So What Is a UX Developer?

The realm of the UX developer exists somewhere between that of the traditional developer and the designer. We’re not really designers, yet to be a good UX developer you certainly need to have an eye for design. In the same vein, we’re not traditional developers but we certainly need to have development experience and expertise. Often this experience spans multiple technologies, languages, and platforms.

It falls on the UX developer to bridge the gap between design and technology. We need to be able to think and speak the language of designers. It’s our job to help translate their vision to the development team in a way that they can understand and accept. This can be a critical piece of the puzzle in a project, especially if the design and the interactions behind it are complex.

Similarly, we need to speak on behalf the developers to help reign in the designers, at times. If they are coming up with concepts that will be extremely difficult or time consuming to implement, we can explain the limitations of the technology and the complexity involved in implementing their designs, and try to come up with an acceptable alternative.

In addition to helping bridge the designer–developer gap, UX developers actually build stuff, too! In my experience, for the most part, UX developers are not building production level applications. That’s not to say they couldn’t or that they never do, but most of the time their skill set is better utilized in other ways. Rather than building full production-level applications, UX developers more often are building prototypes and proofs of concepts. A proof of concept may be as simple as building out a single interaction to see if it works, or testing to see if something is possible. Seeing if something works doesn’t mean seeing if it works technically (e.g., if I put data in this form field does it go into the database?). Instead, the UX developers build out interactions to see if the methods they’ve come up with works from an experience perspective. Is it intuitive? Does it flow correctly? Et cetera. This is one of the main differences between a traditional developer and a UX developer.

The prototype is another powerful tool of the UX developer. The level of fidelity of these prototypes can vary but the concept is usually the same. Like the proofs of concepts, the idea is to build and test various interactions and designs. Prototypes usually mimic an entire application or, at the very least, a large chunk if it. The job of the UX developer is to build out the prototype to look and function as closely to the real application as possible. This serves a few purposes. First, it creates a version of the application that can be used in user research testing. This can provide very valuable data by allowing users to interact with the application in its native environment. A high-fidelity vision prototype can provide a much more valuable and holistic experience that design comps or paper prototypes. Another major benefit of having a UX developer create a vision prototype is that, in most cases, the code used to skin the prototype and build out the animations and interactions can be handed over to the dev team for use in the production app. This is a huge benefit to traditional developers because oftentimes they don’t want to waste their time worrying if things are pixel perfect, or if an object faded when it was supposed to slide, etc. It frees up their time to focus on what they’re best at: making sure the application works, is scalable, and is “bulletproof.”

UX Developer vs. Traditional Developer

One of the fundamental differences between the UX developer and the traditional develop is the focus of each discipline. Both are concerned with whether or not the application works. It is in how they define “works” where this fundamental difference in focus is found. For the UX developer, the focus is on whether the interactions, process, flow, and overall experience of the application works for the end user. Is the application intuitive, simple (not simplistic) and, most importantly, does it meet the user’s goals? Of course, the traditional developer is also concerned with whether or not the application works. However, for the traditional developer the application works if it executes all of the items listed in the functional specs. The focus of the traditional developer is centered on tasks rather than goals.

Another difference lies in the skill set of each type of developer. Obviously this will vary from individual to individual, but in general, a traditional developer is likely to have more of a, well, traditional background. They’ve probably got some sort of degree in computer science, have mastered a heavy duty backend language such as Java and are familiar with all of the best practices and design patterns that are out there. A UX developer, on the other hand, probably doesn’t have a computer science degree. Maybe something in the design realm or even a completely unrelated field. In addition, they’ve likely studied a variety of front-end development technologies.

How and Why Would I Become a UX Developer?

The UX developer role is a discipline under the overall user experience umbrella. This means that to become a UX developer you need to have at least a general understanding of the core UX principles, philosophies, and methodologies. This includes, but is not limited to, the how and why of user research, wireframing, and the use of personas.

You also need to have a solid and broad range of development abilities. A good deal of your time will be spent writing throw-away code so it isn’t necessary to learn the ins and outs of every framework out there. What you will want to focus on is how to add interactivity to components—for example, some basic animations; touch, tap, and swipe gestures; component skinning; etc. Learn how to do these things well, and learn how to do them quickly. If quality is the number-one goal of a UX developer, speed is a close second. Timeframes are often short for prototype projects. Most likely, you’ll also be creating multiple iterations of each project therefore it becomes important to create new builds quickly to get them in front of your clients for their feedback.

Why bother? The short answer is that it’s exciting! As a UX developer you’ll often be working on new products and applications or breathing fresh life into existing ones. Many times you’ll also be creating for the latest and greatest technologies and devices. This can be challenging because you’re always working in uncharted waters but it can be very rewarding when you develop a new interaction model that creates an exciting, successful paradigm for your users.

As you can see, defining what a UX developer is can be a bit fuzzy. Like some sort of geeky, mythical creature, they are part designer, part developer. I’ve heard them described as a sort of human Flash Catalyst. If you find yourself in that middle ground between the design and the technology and you enjoy merging the two together, then a UX developer role is for you! Just be prepared for the quizzical looks you’ll get every time you tell someone what you do for a living.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Tim Todish has been working in the Web/RIA industry for more than 10 years. After cutting his teeth on HTML, ASP and SQL, he shifted his focus from back-end technologies to developing rich front-end experiences with early builds of Flex and AIR. Tim has a passion for using technology to create engaging user experiences across multiple devices.

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Comments

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Sounds like the fox running the hen house. Design and development in one - nice try.

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I think user experience designer is closer to product manager and IT business analyst than to graphic designer and ui developer ...most definitely I would not mix it with seo or marketing

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I think user experience designer is closer to product manager and IT business analyst than to graphic designer and ui developer ...most definitely I would not mix it with seo or marketing

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I think user experience designer is closer to product manager and IT business analyst than to graphic designer and ui developer ...most definitely I would not mix it with seo or marketing

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Where I can get a degree on UX?, I'm developer, but I design too.

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I also run into this issue all the time. For some reason I find it offensive. Ive started saying search engine marketing because its the closet thing to what I do.

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I agree with Tim's description of a "UX Developer." I've worked in Engineering departments and had the title of Software User Interface Designer. I've working in Marketing departments and had the title of User Experience (UX) Developer. Currently I'm in a Professional Services (consulting) department and I have the title of User Interface (UI) Engineer.

Overall, I consider myself a "user experience architect." Just as with an architect drafting a home, for user experience we have to be focused on the aesthetics as well as the functional structure.

Good article Tim.

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Buzz term or not, I really like the sound of user experience designer / developer - I like that it puts the user first, the needs of the user second, and the developer / designer at the end of the chain. It's like an ordered list.

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"They’ve probably got some sort of degree in computer science, have mastered a heavy duty backend language such as Java and are familiar with all of the best practices and design patterns that are out there."

This statement is fundamentally flawed. It assumes a universal level of professionalism in the "programming" (a.k.a. software development) field that is no more there than it is in design. There are just as many unusable or horribly visually designed sites and applications out there as there are buggy ones. I think this has a lot to do with the lack of mentorship I see in both arenas as well as a little bit to do with human nature and personal circumstance.

Computer scientist is to programmer as architect is to builder. The latter doesn't need the former to do their job, but if they want to build anything noteworthy, sometimes it helps to have one around.

A former employer once told me, "Dang it Robert; better is better!" Thanks to him I found the continuous improvement trail and haven't looked back since. Not everyone has stumbled onto this path, but we as designers and builders of things ought to be nudging if not pushing people toward said path.

Part of my journey of continuing improvement has led me to focus more of my study time on design (no concept you mentioned in your article was foreign to me). I suggest the designers of the world do the converse and spend a little more time researching how things are built. Building materials and methodology is a required class in architecture school for a reason.

Trying to draw a hard line between design and programming is akin to trying to herd cats: an exercise in futility. Why is it so important to make this distinction? If you're a designer and I'm a programmer (I must be because I've "mastered" C#), maybe it makes it easier to sleep at night to think that the other can't do "my job". Rubbish! Design and programming are both learnt skills. They require diligence, practice and study to be done well, and that is about it. It is hard to be a designer if you have some kind of palsy, but not impossible. Same goes for learning disabilities and programming.

To show that I'm not completely unsympathetic, what I know did not come about easily or cheaply. I studied a combination of engineering, architecture, visual design, computer graphics, and computer science in school. It took me 6 years to graduate with a degree that probably means nothing to most people. Maybe, if we are to build anything worthwile, as opposed to trying to invent the next internet cash cow, we shouldn't take the easy way out. We should try things that are hard and study topics that are challenging to us (anybody know of any good resources on adult math education for a failed linear algebra student)? I'm not saying fight or ignore your natural abilities (a misnomer)—that would be foolish—but don't back down from things that are scary either.

Drawing scares the hell out of me. I do it a little more every day (with the help of Betty Edwards book), and sometimes I surprise myself. I'm no Renoir, but I don't have to be. Just like you don't have to be Wozniak or Torvalds to be a programmer.

The only things you cannot do are the things you tell yourself you cannot do.

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I really enjoyed this post; I certainly think there is a need for people who can bridge the gap between UX designers and developers, Buzzwords or not.

I really hope that the number of people with these sort of crossover skills continue to increase, because it really does help in building a more usable, enjoyable web.

Thanks very much for the post.

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User Experience may be a fairly new term but it's better than what came before - previously we'd use 'interactive' or 'information' or even 'functional' before either designer or architect, architect often used to stop the confusion between the role of User Experience (UX or UE depending on taste) and that of a visual designer. The overlap between what a UX person does and a designer does, to use the de facto terms, gets called interaction design. This all may appear to be pedantic but its the state of play in the companies I get to talk to in London.

As many other say UX developer is commonly called Front End Dev - and it's a well understood role that is exactly as you describe. Like the visual designers on an average project there will be an over lap between the UX and the Front End.

What can and does happen is that designers become good front end dev - with many skilled at Flash and effectively designing using CSS and Javascript. This merging or roles can make sense as both visual design and development are about implementation.

Where things get messy is when a user experience person also does the design and/or front end dev. Small internal teams it may work but, in my view there's a good reason to keep user experience work and implementation separate as it can get in the way of really thinking what the user and business needs are.

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Thanks for the great input everyone! I'm glad most of you liked the article. The real theme of the article isn't about the job title. I agree with many of you that "UX" anything is a trendy buzzwordy title, I even mention it at the begining of the piece. The main point was more about what the person in that role can and should play in your project or organization, regardless of what you call them.

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that middle paragraph should have said, "I agree with all the other comments that this "UX title" name game has to stop. Apparently fake XMLesq formatting of word title caused the last part of that sentence to die :(

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So, you're an Interaction Designer but with less research focus and more code/prototyping focus?

I agree with all the other comments that this "UX " name game needs to stop. UX is a huge umbrella and traditional developers are certainly already under it. It takes a multi-disciplinary team to build a good user experience, and one lone designer or developer or researcher or business analyst or program manager can't do it alone. A good user experience can't be dictated to the "teams that don't know any better."

I can't speak to the author's specific job, but my experience interviewing for "UX Developer" positions as an interaction designer is that it's what companies look for when they really want a Front End Dev but need some UX titles in the org chart to make the board/VCs happy.

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Interesting... I cant see how it works this way around though... the role surely belongs to a UX Web Designer and Front End Developer (one man for the job). This way the UX designer will already know what elements are achievable in the final development, they will also know about usability and will be able to design and develop the required boiler plate in order for the main developer to add the confusing technical magic that makes our pretty designs work! The reason why there's this gap is because a designer can create nice graphics and build a standard site however they can't always get their head around the server-side scripting part of the job, this is where we need sick developer.

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It is difficult sometimes to decide on which title is best and I agree with Joe F. – sometimes you need to align yourself to the organization you are in. I have been called a Creative Director in one company and a Design Manager in another, while having the exact role functions.

In the design industry, it all depends on the type of company you work with. An Art Director in an ad agency is normally someone who is just starting out (there are many Art Directors reporting to one Creative Director). My specific path was: Graphic Designer-Sr. Graphic Designer-Graphic Design Manager, reporting to the Web Development Director. The title had to be aligned to the organizational tree I was part of and to earn the title of a Director was just like growing from and Art to a Creative Director in the agency world.

Titles are important – yes. However, it is more important to have your job description explained (or described in a resume) as was done well this in article. The job description is what’s going to earn one the understanding and respect of their peers, a promotion and hopefully the correct and deserving money compensation.

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It's always quite the quandary about what to call this role. I've gone by previously as "UX Prototyper". I believe that in the end, it really boils down to aligning with your organization. The funnest title I've seen used is "Dev-igner".

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Good description of what a UX designer does.

Sometimes I find a good way to wrap it in a nutshell is to think of UX design as product design, in the traditional sense of people who design cars, smartphones, bikes, fridges etc. Contrast with engineers that figure out how to make the actual product work.

The skillsets certainly overlap.

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Try explaining what a Conversion Scientist is ;-)

While we both design experiences for users, there is one major difference: Conversion optimizers never let their site leave the prototype phase.

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I have a huge time explaining what I do as well, lol. Sometimes I say UI design and then UX; really doesn't help much either way. So then I just settle and say web designer.

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I'd ask the same question. UX Designer - almost ok. UX Developer? NO. You can't "develop an user experience".

What you described here is a plain developer. Everyone should understand and work towards a good user experience, it doesn't make you special.

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I was a UI Developer or Front End Developer but now a UX Designer. While I am all for UX I think this "UXD" is an over kill. The main role and tasks are developing and that takes up alot of time an energy and where possible it is really good to have UX skills, yes.

And yes you might be lucky to do all of the job roles involved in setting up a website from setting up databases or cms systems to creating personas and running testing sessions. I would honestly prefer a stable system with some usability problems than a system that can't even be accessed.

Good luck!

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Tim, great article. I personally have found working with good UX developers a huge asset to delivering product of incredible quality and richness.

As a developer, I struggled in the past to communicate my needs to the designer, and at times struggled with the correct controls to implement in a UI for maximum usability for the end user. Good UX developers bridge that huge gap that once existed. I also find that teams who have good UX developers tend to work better together because the contention between developers and designers fades because we have people like you in the mix.

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Here's my reply: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2710819

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UXD is just another silly term to add alongside DX (which I already thought was a ridiculous title). The title name game needs to stop. These hyper-specializations rarely exist and have as much meaning to me as "SEO Expert."

http://www.uxmag.com/technology/effective-developer-experience

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This is what I am, and I call this a front-end developer. UX traits are needed.

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If a developer OR designer -- or anybody, really -- doesn't actually *talk to* and *spend time with* end-users... then I don't want to see UX in their job title.

I like this:

"the focus is on whether the interactions, process, flow, and overall experience of the application works for the end user."

But how does a "UX developer" know whether it works for the end user? That's the ultimate question. Are you actually spending time getting to know them, their context, and their needs? Are you putting your product in front of them and watching them use it? Or are you just relying on your mindset and assumptions?

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Kudos on the post Tim. I agree with you and #hunterhastings that UX is not just design. It takes all disciplines acting in concert around the consumers interests to create the optimal experience. We call them Creative Developers at Modea but it's the same thing. Thanks for posting, I'm going to share this w/ my agency.

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@Hunter - Thanks, will do!

@Don - I have thought about the point you raise a bit and admittedly I had some concerns. Ultimately it comes down to more than just the tools. You still need someone with that overall UX mentality and the ability to "live in both worlds" to create great experiences. In the end, I think tools like those you mentioned are just something else for the UX developer to add to their repetoire.

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I'm in the same boat, although I go by UI Developer. I do mockups, prototyping and design work for a number of products. The only difference is towards the end of the development phase I go in and polish up the application so it meets all of the visual requirements that may have been overlooked.

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I'm curious to hear the author's thoughts on the growing use of prototyping tools like Axure or iRise. Does the author view these as a threat to this role? Or is it something that adds to the UX Developer's tool kit?

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Way to go against the grain. UX is important across the board - and for some reason, people assume it's something that needs to be "designed". The fact is that a solid user experience is (A) logical, numeric, and precise like development, and (B) important to implement in a consistent manner from start to finish. It sounds to me like you've found an angle that allows you to take UX to the next level. Best of luck to you! If you're ever in San Francisco, beer is on me - shoot me a tweet.

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This is basically what I am, though I've never called myself a UX developer, I just stick with Front End Developer. In a sense though, I suppose UX Developer sounds like it includes more... I feel like a lot of companies don't understand the importance of us though. Everyone's looking for an all-in-one Designer/Programmer hybrid, and they really have no idea that what they're asking for is darn near impossible to find. True designers don't think like programmers, and most programmers (that I've met) can't design for anything. It's a tough place for us really.