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.

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Awesome article, this will be my inspiration! Coding and Ux Design are two beasts to master and be up to date with all the new tecniques + frameworks etc..................I prefer 100% focus in one career.I will be an "UX Designer" and a future "Pegasus" ;) 

"Coders must, above all, serve the machinery, the OS, and the programming language."

That's not true at all.  What?  You think a "coder" doesn't "serve" the business?

I've been a developer for over 10 years now... never once did I ever choose a platform or develop a solution that didn't meet the need of the business.


Geez.  I am reading some crazy stuff on the internet.

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.

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...

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.

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? ;)

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.

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.

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.

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! :-)

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.

I'm so glad this is not just me who has to deal with lazy developers and whose insights to development strategy isn't taken seriously because I am designer. I sit in the middle of this so-call unicorn/pegasus debate. There is value in knowing how to code and again there is value in being able to strategize and fill Product Management roles. I currently deal with Product Owners and Chief Product Officers who have no concept or understanding of developement or UX. It has greatly impacted our projects. It would be a dream-world/fantasy-fairyland kind of wonderful place if they did. Hopefully, marketing will stop sticking their greedy fingers into roles they don't belong. 

That's just my opinion, I don't mean to stir the pot.

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