When I interview design candidates fresh out of school I always ask them, “When you get assigned a new project, what part do you hope you get to do, and which part are you secretly praying someone else will do?”
Students are notoriously bad at knowing what type of UX professional they want to be, and often claim they love everything and are great at everything in design. I call shenanigans.
When you get assigned a new project, what part do you hope you get to do, and which part are you secretly praying someone else will do?
We all have our strengths and passions; being successful and happy requires you find a career path (and role) that intersects both. I’m going to shed some light on the archetypes not only for students but for hiring managers who are unclear where to start when building out a UX org.
Obligatory paragraph building up my credentials so you can quickly determine whether or not I’m completely full of 💩
I received a Masters in HCI from Indiana University in 2007, a month before the iPhone was released, thus setting in motion a sea change that really kind of rendered my entire design education useless (jk kids, that’s not how design works…this is why you learn theory, design critique, and philosophy).
I spent four years designing Windows-based software, then another four designing and building a UX team for a web-based product. Since then, I’ve been head of design for a fast-growing product agency. Over these 10+ years I’ve hired designers, built teams from scratch, and mentored design students. I also read books! Lots of them! Ones with big words!
Alright alright, I hope you’re still with me. Here we go!
1. UI Wizard
Alternate Titles: Web Designer, UI Ninja, or anything “UI” + some fantasy term like “unicorn”…or probably “griffin” in some countries?
Wants to: Prototype everything immediately and get an MVP before you’ve conducted a single user interview.
Avoids: Research. “Can’t we just be lean and test in iterations?”
Best fit: Early-stage startups with rapid timelines where design concessions can be made.
Yeah I know, all designers should code. I challenge anyone to prove it by citing just one single article ever written about this on the web (there were 3 more published while you read this sentence). I won’t rant about it, but rest assured…I could. Instead, I’ll point out that there are, in fact, designers that have a propensity for UI code.
The toughest decision for this person to make is whether or not they want to join the engineering team or the design team. On an engineering team, their career path will lead them toward UI architecture. For a designer, these UI dev skills can be put to good use creating prototypes that could actually be put into the product.
A person in this role can also be extremely valuable on a startup where iterations are fast and frequent. In these situations design is important but there may not be time or money to get high quality design AND front-end code for alpha or pilot projects – this person can be a terrific asset to hit those early product deadlines.
Alternate Titles: Usability Engineer, UX Researcher
Wants to: Keep researching…just…forever and ever and ever. And ever. Often heard saying, “Hold on, we need to be absolutely certain before we start designing.”
Avoids: Designing. Often gets flustered turning massive amounts of research into actionable design work.
Best fit: Products disrupting a new space or mature products seeking to optimize usability.
My above overview may sound critical, but it’s not! There are people in UX design that love research and are damn good at it, too. When left to their own devices this passion can lead to paralysis, but when put on the right team, will generate insights most designers are too lazy to ever uncover.
It’s important to note that there are different flavors of research, essentially boiling down to formative and summative. Formative is more exploratory and meant to reduce uncertainty before a product is designed. I find this to overlap with product management (more on this later). Summative is more after-the-fact and often takes the form of usability testing, or focus groups — activities that are best conducted with mature products.
3. Product Manager
Alternate Titles: Project Manager, PM, “ugh, not you again”
Hopes to: Own feature priority and manage how a product is executed.
Avoids: Design. Well, usually.
Best fit: Post-funded startups or mature software companies
This is the murkiest archetype of all because it’s still an oft-misunderstood role in the industry. It gets conflated with project management which this absolutely is not (that role is more akin to a scrum master or account manager in agencies).
Product Management is a leadership role that takes responsibility for seeing a product through from inception to implementation. I often see this role as being a cross between designer and researcher. It’s someone who loves design and understands it, but isn’t quite as comfortable staying in the details. They are extremely organized, meticulous, and always methodical.
Product Managers should stay up on market trends and do exploratory research to understand what the market needs. Once development comes into play, the PM is guiding the team’s work. If developers and designers were left to manage their own work, they would spin out of control or get bogged down on minute, inconsequential details. My design team could not survive without the PM team.
The PM ensures that all work is prioritized against business and customer requirements, and consistently keeps design and development teams focused on the right priorities.
4. UX Designer
Alternate Titles: Interaction Designer, Product Designer
Hopes to: Design detailed interactions and workflows and prove it with research.
Avoids: Highly visual concepts.
Best fit: Junior and mid-level designers are best for post-funded startups and mature software companies. Senior designers can handle startups.
When someone says they are a “pure UX designer,” this is what they mean. (They also mean to say something less condescending but hey!…this is how we learned to talk in design school. It’s in the books! Probably.)
This is an evolving role. Gone are the days where this role focused primarily on flow and usability. The stakes are higher, due to technological advancements in UI tech and design tools, and general market awareness. It’s become less acceptable for a UX designer to say, “I don’t do visuals, I work on the experience.” Nowadays, UX designers must still maintain accountability to a user’s flow and interaction, but also take visual details seriously. Usability is not a professional competitive edge, so UX designers must consider the marketability of their work as well (a usable design that doesn’t sell is not a good design).
5. Visual Designer
Alternate Titles: UI Designer
Hopes to: Make beautiful UI. Post on Dribbble. Capture hearts.
Avoids: Detailed interactions.
Best fit: B2C startups that need more marketing push, or alongside mature design organizations to pair with other designers and researchers.
These guys effectively run the Dribbble-sphere and cause UX designers the most heartburn about their craft. The positive spin on this role is that they can push UI trends in ways UX designers do not. They will break rules but innovate while they do it. Designers in this role love to experiment with new visual styles (turn that drop shadow up to 11!) and while they can sometimes handle designing product from scratch, will greatly excel when working with a seasoned UX designer.
It’s also not uncommon to see this role intersect with the UI Wizard role because many visual designers dabble in animation and front-end development to bring their work to life. In fact, I find that this is the group most often clamoring for designers to learn to code — ignoring the fact that product design requires a lot of behind-the-scenes grunt work to think through application architecture and scalability. But because of this perspective, this role can be an incredibly valuable bridge between UX and development.
6. Process Manager
Alternate Titles: UX Manager
Hopes to: Own the UX process, build a team, or implement a design system at some point in their life (right?!)
Best fit: Mature software teams
This is another archetype that may cause some debate but I tend to believe that UX managers don’t even have to be designers themselves. They should, however, certainly be knowledgeable of the field. This is counter to what most students believe — that being a manager is the career path of the UX designer. Not true. Yes, it is a possibility, but not the only one.
Someone who is passionate about process or who thrives handling escalations and intra-group communication is perfect in this role. It’s actually best if this person is not passionate about the tactical design work. I have played this role before and didn’t enjoy it because it took me too far away from design.
This is a senior role and up the path from a number of the previous archetypes — this archetype exists because it involves many areas that have little-to-nothing in common with design itself. While this not the only role which includes mentoring and leadership (senior and principal positions should as well), it is often a big component for managers to help bring the best out of his or her team.
Alternate Titles: CEO, Principal Designer
Hopes to: Design the next __________
Avoids: All obstacles in the way of their vision
Best fit: Agencies, startup founder, or senior roles at mature companies with innovative initiatives.
This is who most design students see themselves as when they graduate — The Hand-Waver. The person with ground breaking ideas that the world has never seen.
But despite a couple of exceptions due to amazing circumstance or privilege, this archetype requires a lot of hours spent in one or more of the previous archetypes. To become more than just an idea generator and one who can initiate action, this person must have learned how great companies are created first hand, how products “make it” and succeed in a market, or have built and run design groups on more than one team to understand what success looks like (bonus points for experiencing failure).
I tried to be this person when I graduated, and as a result, butted heads with a lot of people I worked with. Over time I realized how far away I was from becoming this person. Even today, a decade after graduation, I still see so much I can learn. Design schools produce design thinkers with an amazing capacity for taking large problems and creating amazingly creative solutions. But to actually be the person who can have the power and articulation to communicate this vision is a monumental task. It requires you see patterns most don’t. The skills you learned in school are so engrained that they are now deeply subconscious habits.
I hope this overview of UX Archetypes is helpful for students and enlightening to anyone involved in building product. Understand that there are different skills within the field, each which lend themselves to different roles, which are then suited towards different types of companies.
Stop asking whether designers should code. Instead, ask what they should be learning. Those answers are driven by how your personal passions and skills intersect.