What is a UX Developer and are they really a thing?

I posted a note on Twitter earlier today about a friend of mine who calls himself (at my suggestion, having worked with him and knowing his skill set and interest) a UX Developer. Several people suggested in response that a UX Developer was not really a thing and that the term was either pigeonholing, unnecessary, redundant or ‘so 1996′.

With respect, I disagree. UX Developers are definitely a thing, and more than that, they’ve become an essential part of my project team mix, especially when I’m working on the UX of an application style system (which is more and more the case).

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with front end developers who have plenty of sensitivity to creating good user experience for as long as I can remember, it makes perfect sense that most front end developers are more interested in UX than those whose work doesn’t touch the UI. These are great front end developers, but, by my definition, they are not UX Developers.

A UX Developer is all of that – a front end developer with a sensitivity and talent for crafting a UI that is going to be better to use – but in addition to that they have a declared interest in understanding more about the User Experience work that goes ahead of the UI design. I doubt many of them would ever be happy doing pure user research, but they’re probably keen as mustard to run some of their own usability tests, guerilla or otherwise. They’d probably go nuts having to do some of the workshops and stakeholder communications that forms a key part of the garden variety UXer’s role, but they want to understand the strategy and customer insight that is driving the bigger picture product decisions.

There are different layers of user experience – these layers sit on a continuum between the pixel and the person.

UXers like me sit further toward the ‘person’ end of the scale, focussed on understanding end users, stakeholders, and what is going to work well for them as a wholistic experience. UX Developers are situated much closer to the pixel. If you’ve met a UX Developer, you will not be surprised to hear them tell stories of videoing a transition in an application so that they could slow it down enough to understand how it was working so they can recreate it. It’s what they do.

UXers like me (and I’m all about Prototyping in Code, I’m just not particularly good or fast at it) work very well with UX Developers. Trying to get the finest details of the UI right is not something that someone with my rudimentary development skills should be doing, and frankly, it’s not where my real strength lies. With a UX Developer on my team, I can involve them in the strategic / research aspects of the project as a second pair of hands, then work with them to create prototypes quickly, moving from sketches direct to code – and really nice feeling code – quickly. Eliminating the need for putting myself or my stakeholders through the wireframing process and being able to iterate on the ‘how it works’ part of the design from almost the very beginning.

The UX Developer, having been involved in the UX process from the beginning of the project, understands the rationale behind the product and design approach and is able to make good, consistent, UX decisions without needing every piece of UI defined. In fact, in my experience, they’ve probably made better design decisions than I would have made… well, sometimes.

Is UX Developer a synonym for interaction designer? Perhaps, except that it makes strong front end development a critical part of the skillset, which I think creates a completely different team dynamic and quality of interaction than an interaction designer who uses prototyping tools like, say, Axure (and there are still plenty of those). If you can’t produce high quality, production quality code, then I don’t think you’re a UX Developer. (Although, you may well be a perfectly competent Interaction Designer ).

How do you work with a UX Developer?

  • get them involved in the strategic parts of the UX process – defining the product, the audience, the research, all the fun stuff. Let them increase their UX skillset and make sure they understand WHY things are happening the way they are in the project.
  • sketch together and get prototyping in code as quickly as possible. This is not a senior/junior relationship, this is the dovetailing of compatible skills to get to a better UI, faster.
  • share ownership of the UX, don’t feel like you have to make all the design decisions, let them own the finer details of the UI and you focus on the bigger things (that are actually pretty hard to stick to when you do get to obsessing about the details on the interface)
  • allow yourselves to push and pull focus from the strategic ‘person’ level to the pixel level – it is difficult for one person to maintain focus on both ends of the spectrum at the same time – a team like this helps enable this rapid shifting of perspective more effectively.

A UX Developer is not a silver bullet. You can’t work this way on all kinds of projects for all kinds of people, and it can be hard to find a good UX Developer to work with. I’m a freelancer, so I used to travel solo from project to project, but since I’ve started working with UX Developers, I now like to BYO team (where possible) and an essential member of my UX posse is a great UX Developer.

Works for me, your mileage may vary.

Customer Experience v User Experience

In the process of writing the book (A Practical Guide to Strategic User Experience, yes, it’s coming, I promise!) I found myself surprisingly flummoxed when it came to writing about Experience Strategy and the role it plays (or should play) in business strategy. I’ve talked about Experience Strategy with clients over the years, written Experience Strategies for projects I’ve worked on, and worked under the illusion that I was clear about what this actually entailed… however, in coming to write about and thereby define what it meant, it all of a sudden felt very fuzzy.

What is Experience Strategy?

Having done a review of some of the significant contributions to this topic from the UX community, I found myself dissatisfied… Steve Baty wrote a detailed essay on the topic for Johnny Holland some time ago. This essay does address a lot of significant issues around what businesses should be doing to create better experiences as differentiating opportunities… but at the end of it I can’t help asking myself – isn’t this just a part of a good value proposition? And where and how does/should a User Experience person get involved in these kind of activities that go way beyond the interface and into the mechanics of how the entire company functions?

Then I discovered Customer Experience (CX).

Turns out there is this whole other profession, born, it seems, mostly from the marketing discipline, who have an active interest in orchestrating company wide good experience for their customers. They are experienced in making strong, financially driven business cases to management at the highest level, getting decent budgets and then investing in infrastructure that enables an organisation to deliver good customer experience (such as ‘single view of the customer’  and ‘voice of the customer’ programs that enable an organisation to aggregate their understanding of a customer into one view (how rare is this for most established organisations, and how crippling is the typical fragmentation), and enables an organisation to hear and respond to what their customers are saying to and about them.

Reading some of their books (I particularly enjoyed this one) it strikes me that they have a much more mature and structured way to approaching company wide good experience than we User Experience people (generally) do. Given the choice of having a Chief Experience Officer (CXO from a UX background) or a Chief Customer Office (CCO from a marketing/CX background), I’d probably choose the latter – for the more comprehensive, well rounded view of the organisation and all its working parts than the interface obsessed UXer is likely to be.  And I’m more confused about where Service Design fits into all of this than ever.

I’m writing up a lot more about what people who do CX do, and what they think about in the book (and I’ll no doubt share some more of that here, now that I’m back writing again!) but I wanted to take a moment to flag how – from my own experience and a lot of the people i’ve been talking to – we don’t really know people who do Customer Experience, in fact, most of us probably don’t even know they exist and will be immediately skeptical upon discovering them.

Similarly, in reading what they write about, it is disturbing how little reference Customer Experience people make to User Experience people. I’ve come across several references to human factors and usability, but you’ll almost never find Customer Experience and User Experience in the same book/article/room.

This worries me.

It worries me because I think that actually, this is possibly one of the best, strongest alliances that could exist in companies. It worries me because so much of what CX people do is what we need done so that the experiences we’re designing have a real chance of being good. And it worries be because I think we as UXers could really benefit from understanding, in greater detail,  a lot of the structure and discipline and business focus that CXers bring to our combined cause.

We’ve done a lot of hand waving about Good Experience and Experience Strategy over the past few years, but we’ve done very little to explain HOW to make this happen. Getting to know our Customer Experience colleagues, getting more of them in our organisations and  making them aware of our existence could really help move this forward.