Hunting for Unicorns

UX vs UI, Who does what in digital projects and mythical beasts

Posted by Matthew Farleo on 29th Sep 2019

It takes a significant amount of work to create a successful digital product, software or application. Not only is there a significant quantity of work, but also a wide variety of skills needed to create all the components of a product and bring them together. This is why some more complex projects sometimes require robust teams of specialized individuals, be it user experience researchers, interface designers, various front-end & back-end developers, information architects and/or product managers. But what are all of these positions required to do and who is the mythic individual that can do it all?

Understanding Roles on a Digital Product Team

User Experience Researcher / Strategist: Primarily concerned with the discovery phase, a User Experience (UX) Researcher or Strategist’s role is to provide the team the information on which they will be basing their work. They are responsible for researching user types, producing competitive analysis, defining the business landscape, setting up & executing user interviews, strategizing and planning the project’s path forward.

User Experience Designer: A User Experience (UX) Designer performs somewhat of a hybrid role on the digital product team, and can be responsible for everything from limited user research and developing personas, performing the role of an information architect creating sitemaps, developing storyboards, leading kickoff / discovery meetings, writing project requirements, creating mood boards, and wireframing the digital product. UX designers need to have a number of skills focusing around developing empathy for product users as their primary role in the project is to be the consistent advocate for the users, ensuring that decisions made won’t interfere with the user’s ability to understand and use the product.

User Interface Designer: Creating the look and feel of a digital product is the responsibility of the User Interface (UI) Designers. Using the information and artifacts from the user experience process the UI designers develop the aesthetics of the product, shown in style guides, pattern libraries, compositional layouts (comps) at various breakpoints, and interaction design. They work very closely with the user experience designers to produce designs that will appeal to target users and front-end developers to build out interactive prototypes that function as they should.

Art Director: An Art Director’s role on a digital project is to ensure that the product remains within brand standards and advocates for the business’s brand. Additionally, when concerned with digital projects art directors provide detail oriented feedback to ensure accessibility, usability and consistency. Generally they are there to provide quality assurance to design artifacts and providing the means for jr. designers to improve their abilities through mentorship and design critiques.

Web Designer: This is a designer primarily focused with the design and development of websites Similar to a user interface designer but more focused on consumer-end websites. Additionally they may have some abilities in web front-end development using coding languages like HTML, CSS and JavaScript libraries like jQuery. Web designers also work to improve website workflows using analytics, heat-map data and working with copywriters to improve search rankings with various search engine optimization (SEO) techniques.

Front-End Developer: The development phase of the project is generally broken between two primary positions, front-end development and back-end development. Front-End development (FED) professionals are responsible for ensuring the digital product looks as it was designed. They are responsible for translating the designed comps into code using HTML, CSS and (now) various JavaScript frameworks (like React.js or Angular.js). They are responsible for creating the interactions defined by the UI designer that will allow customers to use the product.

Back-End Developer: Where the front-end developer is responsible for the code that creates the look of the application, the back-end developer is concerned with connecting the front-end to the various endpoints and services that are required to make the software function. For a common example, on an eCommerce site the front-end dev would be responsible for the coded look of the site whereas the back-end dev would connect the shopping cart to the payment gateway (like stripe) and ensure the site would work when deployed onto its hosting.

Project Managers / Product Owners: Last, but certainly not least is the project manager, business analyst or product owner. They are responsible for understanding the role the app, software or website holds within the business ecosystem. They provide the role of business or client advocate, ensuring the product will achieve the goals set forth by the business. This role is also the sole position that is available throughout the entire project lifecycle and as such is responsible for ensuring that knowledge is successfully passed from one production team member to the next.

So a UX designer, a Front-End Dev and Researcher walk into a bar...

All at once, because they are the same person, or should I say, unicorn. Finding an individual that can fulfill the above roles at a savant level of proficiency is like finding an actual unicorn (impossible). Personally, I got into the digital product business because I wanted to build cool stuff, so what that means is I have been attempting to develop a “T” shaped skill-set around the digital production process. T-Shaped skill-sets refer to individuals with a wide set of general knowledge with a deep understanding of one or two specific elements in the production process.

What this means is a user experience designer should have a fundamental understanding of how the product will be coded, as to not design something not feasible to build within budget. While a project manager having a fundamental understanding of each phase of the project will allow them to project timelines accurately and estimate effort needed for various tasks. And although an actual unicorn, performing all of the roles above successfully, maybe an impossible person to find. An individual that can perform a few roles particularly well, but has a fundamental understanding of the entire process can help serve that role, like gluing a horn on a pony for your niece's birthday.

My goal has always been to build a digital product, from conception to completion, with a rough understanding all the steps of the process contained therein. I just want to make cool stuff.