agile ux · interaction design · soft skills · user experience

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.

11 thoughts on “What is a UX Developer and are they really a thing?

  1. These are very real and part of a collaborative team I work with on every project. UX Specialist, UX Designer, and UX Developer on every Discovery session. Works wonders every time!

  2. To have a “UX Developer” that is focused on the solution and not the technology would be a definite asset I agree. Often times, certain types of projects may require additional engineering resources to implement than some front-end developers can produce much further than prototype.

  3. I’m really interested in this discussion.

    The concerns I raised on Twitter about the term really extend to my frustration about how all such labels (‘ux designer’, ‘visual designer’,’interface designer’, ‘interaction designer’, ‘front-end developer’) tend to draw sometimes arbitary lines between skillsets, as though people can only be one thing or another, whereas I feel that skillsets and roles can often be much more fluid than that.

    The question “so are you a designer or a developer” is one I’ve been asked on more than one occasion, and its a question that gets asked because there’s a widespread assumption that its fine to have broad design skills, or broad development skills, but if a skillset spans the area where those disciplines overlap, then alarm bells of ‘jack of all trades’ start ringing.

    Which illustrates my concerns about the pigeonholing such job titles create, but also illustrates why I agree with a lot of what you say, and why I actually welcome the term ‘ux developer’, as it recognises that a ‘cross-discipline’ skillset, far from being a jack-of-all-trades skillset, is often *more* specialised than a broad design or dev one (eg. a print/digital designer or a front-end/server-side developer are stretched more thinly than a ux developer).

    I’d like to be able to call myself a Web Practitioner, but people would laugh at me :) So I call myself an interaction designer, though there’s not much agreement on what that actually means. Maybe ‘UX Developer’ will catch on, in which case it’ll be a hat that fits better than most.

  4. You’re right of course Leisa, but to me these people are all simply Front End Devs.
    However as things have evolved, you’ve got “Good Front End Devs Who Get It” and you’ve got “Front End Devs”. Also you’ve got other people who are “Front End Devs Who Do Other Stuff Too”.

    The title and the labelling is pretty irrelevant. I’m pretty sure if my team were looking for a new person we would do our best during the interview process to ensure that the candidates had the right skills and attitudes towards the job at hand. Regardless of the role.

    Finding a “UX Developer” is simply fitting the person to the task and the team.


  5. I’m so torn on calling myself a ux developer, but my job is exactly as you describe. I go through the initial ux discovery with our CEO, who is actually pretty good at Balsamiq, and then transform his work into prototype code. When I’ve nailed down the interactions, I then work in the code base with our tech dev to make sure all the hooks are there. I think that last phase distinguishes ux devs from web designers or interaction designers.

  6. I think since web such a new, rapidly evolving field, we have fallen into the habit of creating titles based on the skill set we are looking for instead of the function of the job.

    UX Designers typically have interaction design, visual design, and coding skills. They have enough technical knowledge to help Dev translate the concept into a final product. They have enough human factors knowledge to perform research and usability tests.

    However, there is a real danger in defining UX Designers by their skill set and not by the role they play in product discovery and development. A UX Designer is committed to utilizing any skills necessary to help the product organization figure out what new products or features customers would actually like. You make user experience a priority because there are already other peeps defending budget and feasibility.

    If you do that, you are a UX Designer. If you don’t, your company may not realize how much value you can bring to the table. You are the difference between investing thousands or millions in a product that is unusable and unliked to a product that raises the bar for the whole industry.

    Of course, some UXDs are more analytical and prefer coding, some are more people-oriented and prefer user interviews, etc. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you can use your particular skill set to get the job done. And you don’t work in a vacuum. It’s okay to get help with coding or designing a usability test. A balanced team can pull its strengths to cover its weaknesses.

    Also, Product Owners/Managers and Devs should be involved in the UXD stuff. They should have the opportunity to watch usability tests in action, join concept brainstorms, etc. The UXD is really a facilitator too.

    1. i think ux developers are ux designers who can do more than just scribble and sketch. They get the whole interaction design thing and the importance of sketching out ideas, but they code elegant, accessible prototypes too, without having to rely on limited tools such as axure. ux community seems to look down on people who are technical, which I find surprising considering that at the end of the day, ux is about designing better technology so it is important to know the technical limitations rather than be ignorant of the possibilities that front-end technologies such as jquery bring to the design.

  7. Hi Leisa, I have been looking for something like this for a long time. Someone with a lot of experience and reputation speaking up for people like me. I have heard many people say it’s possible and many people turning their nose up at at the idea of a ‘UX developer’. We just want to build better projects, better user experiences. I think this is post is more need to read. Employers need to utilize their workforce the best they can. Someone passionate is always going to be someone who works well, wants to learn and in the end benefits the project. So cheers, I will defiantly be sharing this post.

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