Beyond UX – and UI design: the evolution of design roles in organisations

UX – and UI design are often mixed up or conflated into one single profession. We see this in recruitment all the time. Designers are subjected to an enormous list of skills and expectations. Whether that’s due to a lack of understanding of what both roles entail, or because designers are required to be proficient at both: they’re really not the same.

I’ve worked with, and hired, designers that considered themselves to be UX designers, while their skillset and heart belonged to that of the domain of UI design. And vice versa. So what is the difference exactly? And what do we expect from the designers we onboard?

Let’s start with explaining what UI – and UX design actually are.

UI design

UI design is short for User Interface design. And is associated with visual design. It focuses on the surface (layout, colours, typography and iconography). Historically, a lot of UI designers have backgrounds in print design for example. They often have a keen eye for the rhythm of a page (the balance in color, whitespace, etc).

UX design

As a specialism, this is fundamentally different from UX design (which stand for User Experience design). UX design focuses on interaction (workflows, wireframes, etc). The earliest UX designers had no formal education in design, but had backgrounds in the behavioural – or computer sciences. People who are skilled to think in terms of systems and structures.

You can imagine these are different types of people, with different backgrounds and with different types of skillsets. So, what is the reason then that we require designers to cover the whole spectrum?

Well… let’s start by stating that we shouldn’t require designers to be skilled at everything. But we can pinpoint two clear reasons as to why we started to conflate design roles:

  1. Because of the immaturity of design organisations
  2. Because of a more holistic approach to design

Immaturity of design organisations

Design – however old and everywhere – is still rather immature in the current market. With more and more services transitioning to the digital domain and the consumerisation of software, there’s a growing need for digital products and – by extension – people who can build them. In that sense designers are getting more and more valued. But not very many businesses know how to get most out value out of them. A lot of these businesses don’t have a rich design culture and no experience with how to build successful design teams. So, they start looking for those ‘design unicorns’ who are able to solve all their design challenges.

I’ve seen – first-hand – how designers are perceived as the people who make ‘pretty pictures’ (ugh, I know). But at the same time are required to provide marketing copy and solve highly complex challenges.

A holistic approach to design

This demanding market (or market that has limited understanding about what design actually is), forces designers to adhere to a list of requirements that they should never have to feel comfortable with. At the same time the historical division of UI vs. UX seems outdated too. It’s not about the artists vs. the behavioural scientists anymore. Design becomes more and more a holistic field. With designers starting to develop a broader set of skills themselves. Not limiting themselves to a narrow set of tasks and challenges. They start taking responsibility for the larger scope of the design process. From interaction design, to the visual design and sometimes even for the implementation, as frontend developers.

No need for unicorns

But doesn’t this then mean that designers do need to be good at everything after all? Or that you need to be an educated specialist? No. I heavily believe in T-shaped designers who excel in one discipline, but also have a fairly strong understanding of what the rest of the design spectrum entails. That way design teams can still have interaction-oriented or visual-oriented designers.

The beauty of that is that they can complement each other and learn from other experts. I’ve seen it actually stimulate communication and collaboration. And design leaders should nurture and stimulate this in return. It also encourages designers to keep bolstering their skills and promotes growth. Because of a lot of the skills that unify us as designers – empathy, collaboration – aren’t necessarily taught in the class room. We learn them from others, on the job. Which – in the end – stimulates the maturity of design as a discipline, more than anything else.