UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1072 August 14, 2013

Unicorn, Shmunicorn: Be a Pegasus

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a designer. Maybe you code, maybe you don’t. But it’s likely you’re feeling more and more pressure to hone your programming skills and become that mythical product development creature who can both create compelling designs and write production code.

There are plenty of reasons why being a unicorn isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But what you might not have considered is that aspiring to be a unicorn could be the biggest mistake of your career.

Conflict of Interest

Having a coder and designer in the same body is tricky. Coders must, above all, serve the machinery, the OS, and the programming language. They have to, or everything goes boom! in a really ugly way.

Meanwhile, as a designer, you focus on human-scale issues, and you’re comfortable grappling with the inconsistencies of human nature. Which is good, because there’s a metric ass-ton of those.

Both roles are essential to the creation of great software, and close collaboration between a stellar coder and a top-shelf designer—along with a solid product manager—is the fast track to a world-beating product.

But when you try to package these skills in a single person, conflicts emerge. What happens when user goals and technical constraints collide as deadlines loom? Do you build the best product for the user, or the product you can implement in the allotted time given your technical abilities?

The hybrid coder/designer is not a new idea. Coders who designed software by default were standard issue in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The result was a flood of badly designed products that made an entire generation of normal people feel exceedingly stupid as they thumbed through the pages of their _____ For Dummies books. In fact, the primary reason software has improved dramatically is due to the establishment of software design/UX/IxD/etc as a separate profession: your profession.

The movement toward unicorns reverses this progress by assimilating designers like yourself into the coding collective, shifting your attention from the user and to the technology—which is what got us into that mess in the first place.

Checking the UX Box

A singular aspect of the Great Unicorn Quest that should give you pause is the implication that user experience as a discipline isn’t significant enough to be a sole focus. As if designing products that people love isn’t sufficient to justify a full-time position.

I mean, sure, you can get to know your users and customers, determine needs, wants, and goals, create personas, invent a concept design, craft the interaction flows, produce detailed wireframes, design pixel-perfect mocks, respond to last-minute feature requests, create production assets, and a million other details I’m glossing over, but when are you going to do some real work? You know, like code something.

Don’t aspire to be a unicorn, digging up nitty-gritty coding grubs with your horn.

Frankly, if your company doesn’t feel that design is important enough to warrant a full-time position, you should question how committed they are to an awesome user experience—and, for that matter, how you want to spend the next few years of your professional life.

Drowning in Details

User experience requires a lot of detail work; flows, wireframes, edge cases—you know the drill. You may already be so consumed with reactive and detailed design work that you don’t have adequate time to explore big ideas with the potential to dramatically improve the user experience.

Well, there’s one sure-fire way to make this worse: spend lots of time worrying about the details of a neighboring discipline: programming. Why isn’t this build working? What library can I use for this? What’s with this jacked-up PHP code?

Your time is the ultimate zero-sum game. The more you spend on the complexity and details of coding, the less you have to make the product experience better for your users or to influence product strategy.

A Better Idea: Be a Pegasus

It’s time to think bigger and more strategically about your career. The software industry needs high-powered product people in VP Product and Chief Product Officer roles. Today, these positions tend to be filled by people who came up from marketing, product management, engineering, or general business backgrounds. And some of them are very good in these roles.

But who better to take on the product challenges of the future than cream-of-the-crop UX professionals? No one is closer to the intersection of people’s goals and a company’s products than the designers sweating over every detail of the user experience, day in and day out. Rather than re-inventing yourself as a part-time, mediocre coder, consider aiming your trajectory squarely at these product leadership positions.

Instead of diving into the tactical details of programming, level up: Shadow your product managers and learn how they operate. Take a deep dive into your company’s product roadmap. Explore your company’s market strategy. Discover the top three things that the CEO is concerned about. Understand the high-level strategies in play in all areas of the business.

Don’t aspire to be a unicorn, digging up nitty-gritty coding grubs with your horn. Unfurl your wings and see the 10,000-foot view of where your business is headed, then use your design perspective to help your company and industry soar to new heights.

Be a Pegasus.

 

"Pegasus" image by Hannah Photography.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Wayne Greenwood is best known as the former Co-Founder & Chief Design Officer of Cooper, the ground-breaking design firm that invented User Personas and Goal-Directed Design. Most recently, Wayne was VP Product Design & User Experience at Striiv, a startup using mobile fitness games as a catalyst for behavior change, and Director of Design & User Experience at Cooliris, a Kleiner-Perkins startup dedicated to evolving beyond the browser.

In addition to working inside five scrappy startups and two Fortune 500 corporations, Wayne has provided strategy & design consulting services for companies in the entertainment, healthcare, and business software industries. For more thoughts on UX, follow him on Twitter.

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Comments

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Wow so many haters on here... haha. Listen, anyone who tells you you're trying to learn too much, don't ever listen to them. You can never know too much. You should try to learn as much as you can about whatever interests you.

If you read anything on creativity and what creative genius actually is... I'd suggest this article I can't find it for free but its pretty wonderful http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-of-genius/

"Outstanding creativity in all domains may stem from shared attributes in a common process of discovery."

ie. If you are intelligent and driven, and you have a systems philosophy and approach, you can become an expert in pretty much any area. It is simply a matter of hard work and commitment.

This article reviews geniuses through the ages from Leonoardo to Einstein, and states "geniuses are likely to exhibit unusually wide interests and hobbies, often contributing to more than one domain of expertise."

"...creative achievement is strongly associated with the personality trait of Openness to Experience... the broad interests in art and music of many geniuses are clear manifestations of this trait."

This article is free and also quite good: http://www.ijdesign.org/ojs/index.php/IJDesign/article/viewFile/1087/604 It is written by an interactive designer who breaks down design and the role of technology. His thorough explanation highlights the design process and its relation to technology, which is broadly defined as "the use of instruments or means to reach an intended outcome." "Technology is thus central to the transformation of a situation through inquiry."

"Technology has a dual nature in this regard, since it is at the same time constitutive of experience and means of altering experience; it frames our understanding of the situation and at the same time facilitates out reconstruction of it. It supports our thinking and learning through doing and as such plays a role in constituting ourselves."

To me this is the key- understanding of computer languages provides a Vocabulary, a platform, building blocks. An understanding of the technology advances your creative intuition and thinking.

It is the same for anything; even when using a GUI.

For example, there are things I would never have thought to do or would have been able to do without first learning how to use Adobe illustrator, or photoshop, or after effects... etc.

The programs are not just tools, they are platforms for advancing creative thinking. There are ideas I have had that would not have been possible without the use of these programs at the base. The same applies to code/programming.

Sorry if that is so upsetting, but there is no harm in learning a lot of things. Having a vast array of mental associations will provide you with more insight than the average person.

PS Terry:

I am studying the relationships between designers and developers to identify existing gaps and overlaps, and learn how both fields complement and learn from one another. In doing so I intend show how code and can enable more complex systems for creativity and a more powerfully integrated approach to design.

That is what I have at the moment but it may change.

And I think there is a difference between having "too general skills" and actually being intermediate to expert in a range of areas. Some people say they have a lot of skills but they don't really have thorough knowledge of any of them; that is problematic. I think I have several domains of expertise. It is a matter of scope: the depth of knowledge that anyone has in a particular area.

There are systematic ways to gain expertise in any area; if it intrigues you enough that you are willing to continue to ask why, and spend lots of time educating yourself, there is no reason why you can't become an expert in many areas. It is just like being a polygot; there are people who speak many languages; that skill is not limited to linguistics.

65% of the children entering our schools today may have jobs today may have jobs as adults that do not yet exist. http://ase.tufts.edu/devtech/publications/kazakoffsullivanbers.pdf

There are crossovers with technology in many fields, particularly in design, having knowledge of code is not going to hinder you. It is going to get you farther so long as you are assertive, intelligent, smart in business, and demand the compensation and opportunities that you deserve as you progress through your career. Being a woman, this is especially important.

Specialists are the ones who need fear; there is definitely a need for specialists, but if their field dries up they're screwed. It happens all the time with the progression of technology.

Terry, it ain't trickin if you got it! haha.
Don't let anyone fault you for having too many skills; that is just a sign of fear.

I am at the start of my career but I know I have never been faulted for my broad range of knowledge and it has actually gotten me promoted and propelled me to high positions at a very young age. I have been given analytical and managerial roles because of the breadth and scope of my domains of expertise.

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This is really an argument for division of labour and it applies to many professions and even the natural world. Heck I reckon it's one of the laws of the universe up there with the second law of thermodynamics ;)... kinda...

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No doubt there is a need for developers, it depends on this size of the project however. And besides, code is fun. For larger projects with a lot of server side code yes for sure you need developers who are experts but for smaller things- HTML and CSS don't even really count- every designer should know the basics of styling at the very least. It also makes it a lot easier and more productive to work with developers if you know a decent amount of code- they respect you more and you understand the constraints of the syntax. I don't really know how people get by saying they are interactive designers or UX professionals when they don't know the syntactical vocabulary that are the basis of the platforms they are designing. If you take the time to learn it, no you don't have tobe the best and you probably shouldn't be the one executing the tactics on complex jobs, but if you take the time to learn it you will have an edge because you have sufficient understanding of how the system works, how to design for it, and you will gain more inspiration of what creativity can be wrought with any particular language. Yes maybe the unicorn toils too much in in the tactics on the ground, but it is not the pegasus that flies the highest. It is the pegacorn- the unicorn that learns to fly. If you can manage a team of developers and designers and communicate effectively and warrant the respect of both sides; then you become the pegacorn, and not even the sky is the limit.

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The way the term "Coders" is treated here is misleading.

There are two types of coders: Front End Developers and Back End Developers.

Front End Developers work with front end technologies/languages: HTML, CSS and JavaScript, at least some JavaScript.

Back End Developers work with programming languages and data bases: PHP, .NET, Python, Java, ASP, Perl, Ruby, Objective-C and yes, JavaScript too --- MySQL, Oracle, DB2, etc.

What a Unicorn really is, is a web professional that is capable of doing the COMPLETE spectrum of a web professional: Design, Implement and Program.

Some just Design (UX is "included" here). Some just Implement. And others just Program. Others Design & Implement. Others Implement & Program. But there are none that Design & Program AND do it well. There are those that Design and TRY to program, and those that Program and TRY to Design.

And that's where the whole chain and concept of Unicorn becomes unrealistic (not real, like a Unicorn ;]): Because someone that does all three aspects of a web professional and does it well, does not exist.

I say: UXers, by all means, learn to code too! Why not? ;)

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I run a small consultancy (The User Advocate Group) and it is essential for me to be well-versed in both UX and development skill sets. Even when I worked for larger companies it was useful for me to be able to cross the UX/development role boundary because it allowed me to weather several boom-bust cycles. Yes, there have been many times when I was confronted with the demand to do the ‘real work’ of coding and I frankly had little choice but to sharpen that skill.

I have found that a solid development capability is valuable when working with software products because it’s often the case that ‘code speaks louder than words’. As a UX designer I wasn't about to let developers win by default so I learned to fight for my designs on their terms. Rather than being a perpetual battle it became a source of mutual respect. Perhaps more significant was that it opened the doors to deeper UX strategies that guided system architecture.

I agree there is a ‘conflict of interest’ if one tries to perform 2 roles at once. But that is different from becoming *proficient* in both roles. For me it’s like travel: I don’t exist in more than one ‘country’ at a given time but my experiences in one are enriched by my experiences in the other.

It takes time and effort to acquire a multi-disciplinary ‘dual citizenship’ but I think my employers/clients benefit from my investment.

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This is a great in theory, but this statement is where the whole concept started falling apart...

"if your company doesn’t feel that design is important enough to warrant a full-time position, you should question how committed they are to an awesome user experience"

This is a total deflection of where the real problem lies. UX mainly gets a bad rap because of UXers. The bad ones make the process so cumbersome, time consuming and expensive that it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of product managers and CEOs. To define what I mean by"bad"... these are the UX folks who are too academic, hands-off, and too disconnected to actually recommend something feasible.

The "bad" ones pontificate about the UX process, talk in language that is above everyone's head and waste time wallowing (i.e. "drowning") in the details of their UX study, kind of a parallel issue to what you mentioned about designer/coders spending too much time wondering why the build has failed or which library to use for their interactions.

After putting up with the issues mentioned above, these bad "UXers" than usually come up with the same solution the designer/coder who just came out of college recommended when she was first brought onto the team.

This idea of "be a pegasus" further perpetuates this disconnect. As a UXer myself, I have always believed in it's power and have benefitted greatly from having informed insights and UX roles specialized for specific aspects of the process, but there are still many UXers out there that need to take a good look at themselves and see where the real problem lies. They are making it tougher for all of us. It's not the fault of the reluctant companies.

BTW...I'm sure if someone produced a study on this topic, they would find that 2-3 Unicorns can do the job of 10 pontificating Pegasus' and still produce fabulous products and a fraction of the cost. So, if you are concerned about the future, take a look at where it makes sense for a CEO to invest their funds.

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While I share your frustration with fluffy, non-productive UXers, this has nothing to do with being a pegasus. A pegasus doesn't "pontificate," he/she works to ensure that products benefit both users & the company.

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Great thoughts and great read. My one concern (not with the article, but with a concept) is that many are starting to see UXers as coders. While some of us might have done some coding in a past life, the need to have this as part of our skill set (as opposed to having enough familiarity to empathize or communicate with developers or provide some degree of thought leadership regarding the coding arena from a UX perspective) couldn't be further from the truth.

I love the points presented by Wayne — essentially calling for coding aspirations to exist as a separate entity (and coming from a different person) than the UXer. As he states, in order to provide an optimal user experience, we have to spend so much time wading through and deep-diving various aspects of design details that we **don't** have time to code.

Points well taken. I'm all for the pegasus! :-)

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As someone who fits the unicorn role I have really struggled to figure out where I fit into the whole picture. Right now I work primarily as a user experience researcher even though I honestly enjoy coding much more. The reason for this is that as a coder my opinions were not taken seriously and I usually was under the thumb of a project manager with a marketing degree who had no idea what they were doing and were hiring outside companies who didn't understand our users to create designs. I finally got tired of being treated as someone who had no insight into what I was making and switched to UX. Now one of the my biggest strengths is calling out BS when developers say "we can't do this" and making recommendations something that people with human factors degrees often have difficulty doing.

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While I think that product management roles are closer to the existing skill set of most designers than programming, I don't think that this should exclude the unicorn idea at all. Not every designer is able to learn how to code well because most are, by nature, more visual in how they process and output thoughts and info.

But that doesn't mean that there aren't some who ARE able to code well in addition to being designers. In fact, the skills are (I think) complementary; programming is learned through practice while designing is learned through experience, two activities that can easily work in conjunction. And there are many well-known designers out there who are also programmers and it helps their work immensely

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A solid article and not bad advice at all. However, I think there's more of a need for cross-disciplinary insight now than ever before and I have yet to see any designers who learn to code turn into techies - noone shifts their perspective completely. Keep your eye keenly on the user and his experience and you'll be fine, coding skills or not.

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Great article and probably a wise suggestion for career trajectory.

That being said, What happens when you have a great idea and want to do something about it without having to hire engineers? (who are incredibly difficult to find much less hire). You're stuck. How about learning to code so you can build? Teaching yourself to code empowers you to do pretty much anything you can imagine, on your own (depending on scope). If at very least, get a MVP out and if it's worth something, bring on people to help.

There are infinite resources to teach yourself skills to last a lifetime. I can't think of any good reason why you shouldn't.

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Thanks for thinking in the same way like us!!!

http://www.apliki.de/usability-engineering/alleskonner-in-der-softwareentwicklung-unicorn-designer-sind-uberbewertet

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The key sentence: "Frankly, if your company doesn’t feel that design is important enough to warrant a full-time position, you should question how committed they are to an awesome user experience—and, for that matter, how you want to spend the next few years of your professional life."

For what it's worth, I believe this is an 80/20 thing - having an understanding of programming - current languages, practices, abilities and limitations especially with regard to front-end development. But that doesn't mean you need to actually be able to write code at a level of a great developer. Claiming you are both probably insults the great developers out there. It also undersells all the languages you need to learn to be a truly great developer.

To me, the "unicorn" is born from a hiring manager trying to fill two or three jobs with one person. We've all seen some of the job descriptions out there. There is an inherent conflict of interest in being a "unicorn". UX people should be able to distinguish this, given that we work with behavior and mindset. UCD revolves around empathy - for the user, not the developer.

Adding high-level coding skills (might) make you a better at your job, but knowing how to code does not make you great at UX. It's a skill that makes you a better engineer.

"Unicorns" I've worked with are actually just great developers that have worked on teams with UXers and have developed a decent understanding for UCD. So, from our standpoint, they are really easy to work with.

This article and discussion are great.

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The key sentence: "Frankly, if your company doesn’t feel that design is important enough to warrant a full-time position, you should question how committed they are to an awesome user experience—and, for that matter, how you want to spend the next few years of your professional life."

For what it's worth, I believe this is an 80/20 thing - having an understanding of programming - current languages, practices, abilities and limitations especially with regard to front-end development. But that doesn't mean you need to actually be able to write code at a level of a great developer. Claiming you are both probably insults the great developers out there. It also undersells all the languages you need to learn to be a truly great developer.

To me, the "unicorn" is born from a hiring manager trying to fill two or three jobs with one person. We've all seen some of the job descriptions out there. There is an inherent conflict of interest in being a "unicorn". UX people should be able to distinguish this, given that we work with behavior and mindset. UCD revolves around empathy - for the user, not the developer.

Adding high-level coding skills (might) make you a better at your job, but knowing how to code does not make you great at UX. It's a skill that makes you a better engineer.

"Unicorns" I've worked with are actually just great developers that have worked on teams with UXers and have developed a decent understanding for UCD. So, from our standpoint, they are really easy to work with.

This article and discussion are great.

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Great article! This is refreshing and relevant for those designers who think strategically and can understand the big picture from the business side, and can leverage design to drive strategic business goals and an improved end-to-end customer experience--regardless of whether they currently code or not.

Design is about problem solving--understand the needs and goals of a business problem and being able to creatively think about how to translate these things in a way that end users can understand and embrace. Tools are a means to that end, but not the end itself.

I started out in graphic design ... because at the beginning of my career UX was not a "thing." It was not a subject or a major and it certainly was not a job title or category. In my career I've designed vastly different things for extremely different audiences and purposes, and the majority of these have had vastly different production methods. Textbooks, posters, 3-D puzzles, cd-rom interfaces (remember those?), physical signage systems, web sites, posters, medical software, catalogs, online games, etc., etc. all have very different production means. There's no way in one lifetime that a person could become an expert in such a variety of methods and tools (at least not while having any kind of a life and occasionally getting a bit of sleep!)

Back when I designed catalogs, no one ever said I needed to know how to run a 6-color Heidelberg (but believe me, I did understand its limitations and capabilities, and knew how those factors impacted design). And similarly, while architects must understand structural constraints, fabrication details, (and much more)--how many of them do you see on the construction site actually building skyscrapers?

In all cases it is crucial for designers to understand the implications, benefits/limitations, cost, and capabilities of a production mode to understand what is feasible, but it's not necessary for a designer to be able to *do* this actual production. I'd far rather partner with an expert and concentrate on solving the design problem at hand than have to do the production myself. I enjoy working with experts--be they developers, press operators, or fabricators (or some role that hasn't thought up yet!)

Let the designers who want to code, code -- more power to them! I have no doubt many of them are designing great things. It's just not for me, and I'm glad that UX is broad enough (and expanding) that there are other opportunities. Bring on the wings!

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I do agree with the fact that focusing on the coding...thinking in terms of technical architecture and good coding practices all that stuff that goes along with it..moves the 'design thinking' into backseat...I have seen 'so-called UX designers' who skip the ideation part of the design process and straightway think in terms of feasible technology, They dont build prototypes, but build working code...I would rather call them 'UI developers' not designers. Nowadays, everybody is adding the 'UX' label to their job title, but most often it is a misnomer.

But, I wouldn't put a blanket statement like 'designers shouldn't code'. Creating a prototype is an integral part of design process. Turning an idea progressively into an tangible product is what design is all about. The fact is that designers should be able to build a 'prototype' that demonstrates their design idea into a tangible form that be experienced, and tested by the stakeholders as well the users. Remember we cannot test with users if we dont build a prototype. But the keyword here is 'prototype' not coding an actual product. Prototype means ..doing it fast so you can test it early. You dont need to bother about technical architecture and backend integration for a building a prototype. You are just designing an experience and trying to find out if your design solves the problem.

-Victoria
www.atotalx.com
@atotalx

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I do agree with the fact that focusing on the coding...thinking in terms of technical architecture and good coding practices all that stuff that goes along with it..moves the 'design thinking' into backseat...I have seen 'so-called UX designers' who skip the ideation part of the design process and straightway think in terms of feasible technology, They dont build prototypes, but build working code...I would rather call them 'UI developers' not designers. Nowadays, everybody is adding the 'UX' label to their job title, but most often it is a misnomer.

But, I wouldn't put a blanket statement like 'designers shouldn't code'. Creating a prototype is an integral part of design process. Turning an idea progressively into an tangible product is what design is all about. The fact is that designers should be able to build a 'prototype' that demonstrates their design idea into a tangible form that be experienced, and tested by the stakeholders as well the users. Remember we cannot test with users if we dont build a prototype. But the keyword here is 'prototype' not coding an actual product. Prototype means ..doing it fast so you can test it early. You dont need to bother about technical architecture and backend integration for a building a prototype. You are just designing an experience and trying to find out if your design solves the problem.

-Victoria
www.atotalx.com
@atotalx

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aw, quit yer complainin' and learn to code :)

I suppose I'm a unicorn. I'm a UX Architect. I focus on interaction design AND I know how to bang out production code for the front end, and increasingly for the back-end too given Node and REST/service architectures. I believe software design is still a human endeavor. Those that get that wrong find out sooner or later. But, this is all a technology, so best better know your chops. Don't use "UX tools". Write code like a _real_ man or woman :)

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How can you truly understand how to design something if you don't know build it?

I started my career as an architect, and a good architectural education teaches you how to use a workshop, how to determine structural needs for a building, how the details of fabrication come together. It also teaches you broad, cross-disciplinary design skills, and requires a supplementary liberal arts education so you better understand the people for whom you're designing.

Design is by its very nature a multi-disciplinary field. Your point about time being limited is totally valid, and all of us should be wary of getting mired in details of any subset of our broad discipline. But understanding how to implement an idea is just as important as developing the idea in the first place.

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While I think there's nothing wrong with UX people being able to code (in general, I think we should have the ability to do the work of everyone we work with regularly), I do agree completely that within a project there is definitely a conflict of interest when all of both is done by one person.

The systems of thought are naturally at odds in most cases, and the argument/negotiation that happens between two people who've taken on these separate roles produces higher quality in each area—even if they're both unicorns. A single person is too prone to cutting corners on one or both areas. I think the same is true between each of the key corners: biz, tech, and UX.

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At least in my top 5 favorite UX articles ever. Love - "..coders must.." "A singular aspect.." "..the ultimate zero-sum game.." "..top three things.." My "trajectory" is refined – thanks!

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Worst analogy ever.
You're arguing for specialism, then encourage everybody to become Pegasus – a hybrid, a horse with wings!
If you're going to use analogies think them through first and make sure they are coherent and support your argument.

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Pegasus is a hybrid of nothing, he is a metaphor for creation, complete and whole, sprung like thought from a bleeding neck wound. You missed a golden UX metaphor with the whole Pegasus vs. Medusa thing... thats an opportunity you are never getting back.

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A unicorn is a hybrid designer/coder, while a pegasus is a hybrid designer/product strategist. Literary devices aside, do you have an opinion on whether or not designers with the aptitude and desire should aspire to influence product strategy?

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I design in code. I like it that way. I have no problem thinking about "why" and "how" concurrently. Often I write the content for the website as well. I research the business, build a library of pertinent searchable phrases, turn it into readable text, clip it in half, add it to the web page and edit it again there. I also create the graphics in PhotoShop or Illustrator. If I need a mock-up a sketch on a napkin will do. Having expertise in brand development, business objectives and user needs is not a problem.
Specialty silos are good for project managers and recruitment agencies. Good websites are built around the content and code is content too. Have the means of production at your control. All of it. Know the code.
Is it dangerous to know the code? Maybe. Is it worth all of the trouble? Yes. If you doubt this, you might read "Of the coming of John" by W.E.B Du Bois. It's an old story. http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/203/the-souls-of-black-folk/4457/chapter-13-of-the-coming-of-john/

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UX designers learning UI engineering isn't necessarily about writing production code, but having a better understanding of what you're asking for when you ask for it. If you're a UX designer who doesn't understand front end development and pitches designs over the wall to IT without knowing the full implications of your requests, you're really only doing part of your job in a modern web production workflow.

I'm also reading a lot of "coders think like this" and "designers think like that" nonsense. Front end developers are often coders who think like designers. They focus on the UI because they care about the user experience, and they understand better than anyone that lean, fast code that downloads and fires quickly is essential to good UX. And a good UX designer knows that the best way to get what they want from a developer is to speak their language and solicit their feedback and support rather than downgrading them to mere implementation status.

And think of the quality of your deliverables. Flat wireframes? A great first step, but they generate as many questions for developers as they answer. Tools like Axure? Their users are limited to whatever the vendor decides to support and they'll always lag behind current trends. You aren't going to revolutionize or innovate anything with them.

Look at the challenges of UX for responsive design. Content and interactions can be completely transformed in ways that someone without an understanding of JS and CSS would never likely consider and design tools like Axure could never realistically support.

Fast in-browser design and prototyping is the iterative, lean UX design process of the future. Meaning today. You don't have to learn how to code if you don't want to, but you're limiting your toolset by not doing so.

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It's like you were in my head the entire time I was reading this article! Solid reply Jay!

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I am not sure that being able to write production code was ever the definition of a unicorn. Being able to understand business, customer experience, and development was. I understand what a view is, and what the business implications of a design decision are. That is more that enough to be a unicorn.

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I believe the first article to define the unicorn designer was written by Braden Kowitz of Google Ventures:

"Seed-stage startup looking for rockstar junior designer to sketch wireframes and design beautiful mockups. You’ll be responsible for crafting our logo and brand and writing UI copy. Must know how to run usability studies, prototype and write production-ready HTML and CSS."

"When I read a post like this I think, “Great! There’s a team that understands all the skills they’ll need!” But I also think, “They’re looking for a unicorn — a magical designer who can solve all their problems.” It’s too bad unicorns don’t exist."

You can read the rest of the article here:
http://www.designstaff.org/articles/hiring-a-designer-2011-11-01.html

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Wayne, I've have made this argument for years...that there is so much complexity in designing for users and therefore, so much work, that if you're coding then you are neglecting the work that will create a great user experience. I like the Pegasus path and have become one in many ways, but my experience is that some designers have an affinity toward coding, leading design, strategy, etc. I think it depends a lot on the person. Great article.

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Thanks, and I agree. I believe that UX/Code, UX only, and UX/Product Strategy are all valid career paths. Which path is taken comes down to aptitude, skills, & desire.

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UX Designers should spend their time designing. It's what they enjoy so they naturally will tend to be better off doing this than if they spent time trying to get a handle on coding. I agree with the premise of the article but wonder if all UX designers would make the transition to Product Officer very well.

Thankfully there are alternatives for UX Designers who don't have the time or inclination to take up coding. Browser based drag and drop mobile app prototyping tools don't require you to know a single line of code. You focus on what you do best, and they let you show clients and colleagues how an app will look and perform on your own mobile. If you need a fast easier solution try http://www.fluidui.com/

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Coders mostly concentratу on how while designers concentrate on what. each process requires a different thinking approach. it's simply defectively to combine them both in a single person - "coding thinking" will not let the design flow happen in your head the way it should happen. and when you abstract from the "how" frames you can really concentrate on analyzing, thus creating.
I mean being just a designer is a huge advantage. It's just that the market requires us to be a unicorn. but if you're a "pure" designer you have all chances of becoming a great product manager for instance. Or create a revolutionary product. Or even a concept.
p.s. i also think that the best UXers come not from coders. best problem solvers and analysts I know come with (almost) no technical background. I hope I did not sound rude, this is just what I see (or want to see, maybe, as a designer who can't code. and proud of it, i am)))

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This is fraught with paradox. Which makes it a fantastic article and subject of discussion. :) Your closing argument is a call for UX designers to become UX strategists. I would love to see many great designers to take up those positions, in all industries. But let's not assume that designers -- who have chosen to specialize in delivering great design work and insight into user behavior, and not become coders -- are well-suited to "level up" to the world of business strategy and corporate politics. I think a lot of UX designers would suck at becoming UX strategists, and they shouldn't try. There is some overlap, but there is also much divergence in the skill sets required to be a user researcher / interface designer vs. a UX business strategist. Perhaps the true "unicorns" (extremely rare, highly valued) are designers who can successfully become strategists and thrive in the corporate boardroom? Much to talk about here. I look forward to attending the UX STRAT conference in Atlanta next month - this article gives me much to chew on in advance of great discussions I hope to engage in there.

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This is a good point! I've worked with visual designers who are way better than I am. I've worked with interaction designers who are better than I am. In fact, I'd say, for a single specialty, in the course of my career, I've been fortunate to work with at least one or two designers better than I am. :) That's a good thing!

However, what I've not found is a designer who's better at strategy than I am, who can also produce all of the artefacts and deliverables needed, at a professional level.

My boss has recently asked me for a new title suitable for all the extras I've been doing that don't traditionally fit under the UX banner. More of CX. But at the same time we want a title that doesn't imply that I *won't* be doing my UX stuff anymore either, since I still will be. For that reason, CX didn't seem feasible. Now, UX strategist... Hmmm. ;) Maybe! Thanks!

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Ben:

I agree the pegasus track isn't for everyone, for the same reasons that not every coder wants to (or should) be CTO. I believe we need to have a conversation on career paths within the UX community, as opposed to hiring managers defining them by default.

For my part, I'd love to see more UX professionals—those with the skills, aptitude, & desire—in roles that guide product strategy. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

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I'd say you are referring more to the concept of generalists versus specialists. There are some people who are exceptional at one area, and others who are moderately good at a wide variety of things- I am one of the latter types of people. I would say I am even an expert in a few different fields I have two undergraduate degrees- one in fine arts and one in business from one of the top ten business schools in the country. I am currently working on my masters in design at pratt. But I also enjoy coding and learning syntax; I work as a systems analyst and frequently deal with developers and act also as an in-house designer. It is great to explore and work hard to understand a variety of areas of expertise because it makes you a valuable liaison and much more employable in smaller work environments, which are often times more enjoyable and personally rewarding than large corporations.

Eventually, later in my career, I would like to get out of the tactics and more into strategy and creative direction; but at the end of the day I will always want to learn the newest languages and experiment with them. Things are very fast paced now, and to be an effective leader in the realm between creative and tech you need to constantly learn new things and be willing to adapt. The only way to do that and remain sane is to be passionate about it and remember to have fun and challenge yourself to learn things you never thought you were capable of.

This whole debate actually relates to my thesis topic so if you are interested in talking to me please let me know.

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I can completely relate to your thoughts in this post, Christie. I have a similar path, but started with business degree and then self-taught programming and worked as a developer for a long time before getting a master's in human factors - to be more specific, HCI. What I find interesting is that we are faulted for having too general skills and at the same time they are coveted. All of this while we love to focus on specifics of he UX field because we are passionate about it. I am writing something about this diversity in ux paths, what is your thesis topic?

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A very pertinent article for myself. As a pure UX designer for over 15 years I feel under pressure these days to develop JS skills although I know that it will take me years to compete with our FE developers who are half my age. I'd much rather leverage my experience in running businesess and seek those more strategic positions you suggest. I think it would be a better personal fit. Unfortunately, while JS courses are easily found, identifying a path to one of those sort of positions can be hard. Are management courses a route to explore?

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having hard skills is always more valuable. read a book on systems design as it is the essence of both good management and good design. And take the time to learn js- what can it hurt its a fun challenge and you can learn it for free from tons of online schools and resources.

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I think every developer needs to have a good view of UX, however sometimes the designers lack of knowledge of development lets them go in roots the logical mind of a developer would never go.

I am constantly surprised by the insanity that my designer comes up with, and yet you have got to think, aside from guiding them, and informing them that deadlines are real, why stop them? Help them and help create something new!

I think some of the best things that have been created have been thought up, and someone has gone 'that is impossible' and someone else has gone 'no it isn't, let me try'. I think that is what keeps this industry consistently developing. Its what makes it fun!

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As Pete says, there's a huge difference in coding for a living and understanding how code is used to bring designs to life. I would suggest that it's the responsibility of every designer, who designs for web, to gain a basic grasp of how their designs are built. that can only improve the workflow and communication between them and their developer(s).

I would also go further and say that it's responsibility of a good web programer to take the time and effort to gain a grasp of design concepts and improve their 'design eye'. An understanding of what the designer is trying to achieve will help when a solution for that 'unbuildable' bit of design is needed.

I am a designer and developer, I work probably 60% programming and 40% design. Much of my programming work is with other designers who greatly appreciate that we can talk through issues and ideas on the same level. I also encourage them to gain basic understanding of code.

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I can't agree. Some of the world's most respected web designers are also programmers.

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Yup. Code is but another platform for creativity. Most people are just too lazy or fearful.