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UI, UX and the Evolving Career Path of an Interactive Designer

Written By Nick Mendez | Jan 28, 2015

Interactive design is a booming and rapidly maturing field. Across apps and the web, designers are working to reach the more than one billion new smartphones sold each year, and to scale these experiences for the bevy of devices already in the wild.

The two predominant aspects of this process are UI and UX. The latter is focused on research, usage patterns and the user’s journey, whereas UI designers apply that research to decide what pixels (or materials) go where.

But the line between these disciplines is blurry, and differs from organization to organization. Some lump the whole process onto a single professional, whereas others design by committee. We set out to plot this new career path and see where, if at all, interactive designers see the divide.

“I never found that one thing that I could see myself doing for the rest of my life.”

“I never found that one thing that I could see myself doing for the rest of my life,” Scotty Mazariegos, an interactive designer at adidas, told me.

The wide definition of interaction design became apparent to Scotty when, in grad school, his experience with motion graphics seemed to translate into positions designing sneakers, or perfecting the recycled shoelace. 15 years in design and art have taught him to carefully define his own skill set.

“I’ve turned down jobs that I would have loved to have done, but instead straight up let them know that there are people out there that are way more qualified to be doing that sort of thing,” he said. “The beautiful thing about this approach is that they remember that. They remember that you did not screw them over and become a paper weight. As soon as something comes up that is more up your alley, you’re getting the call.”

Scotty sees the division quite simply: with UX mapping the idea, and UI providing the look and feel to fulfill it. He visualizes separate professionals, working in tandem to realize a project’s goals, and making each other’s jobs easier.

Consistently, the interactive designers we speak to are amped about the increasing availability of user analytics–the emerging science that will inform how interactive design evolves from here.

“Oh man, the numbers side of it,” Scotty said when asked what part of the future gets him most excited, “to learn about user patterns and behaviors.”

Angela Sun, an Art Director at Portland design house Ziba, shares Scotty’s enthusiasm to better understand her audience.

The study of user experience is decades older than the capacitive touch screen, or even the mouse.

“I want to design things for users and really be part of that conversation,” she said. “Solving people problems. I didn’t have that realization until this year.”

Ziba’s history perfectly illustrates an important point–that the study of user experience is decades older than the capacitive touch screen, or even the mouse. Ziba’s been analyzing how consumers interact with products and environments since their founding in 1984.

“It’s kind of a loose term,” Angela said. “You can design a user experience for packaging. User experience has been brought to the public with interactive design.”

In the past, designers worked just as hard to shape the public’s buying decisions and experience, but these new, ubiquitous devices are providing the average consumer with a cursory understanding of the discipline that they just didn’t have before.

Every design house divides this labor differently. Particularly in the digital space, Angela said, the split has yet to be defined. At Ziba, UX research is a holistic process that informs everything from digital navigation to packaging on a shelf.

“We try to blur the line a lot,” Angela said. “We have a strategist and a designer who appear together to go through the research process and challenge each other.”

Trying to codify the difference between UI and UX might even be foolhardy. Designers are expected to possess overlapping knowledge of both–their designs should be informed by research and purpose, and similarly, researchers need a functional knowledge of how their ideas might get pieced together.

“A UX researcher who has a design background is going to thrive more than someone who has no design background,” Angela said.

Educational institutions, for the time being, are focused on providing that foundational design knowledge.

“The discipline is so young. In the state of Oregon there are no interactive design programs.”

“The challenge here is definitions. I’d challenge the premise that UX is different than UI,” said Jason Germany, Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon. “It really depends on the organization. The discipline is so young. There’s not a ton of formal education that necessarily fits those professional gaps. In the state of Oregon there are no interactive design programs.”

Jason is right. Portland-area universities simply aren’t offering interactive design programs, and the few available in Austin are in the early stages. Students looking to study interactive might have to settle for more foundational coursework–in web or product design, digital arts, or computer science.

“Those programs are always evolving,” he said. “The types of products that folks interact with, whether it’s a piece of furniture or a wearable computing device, change. We’ll also see the growth of specialization. Once the specialization has been around for awhile, we’ll probably see the growth of certain degrees around this. This growth is happening a little bit, but not at the rate that the industry needs.”

A solid foundation is nonetheless extremely valuable. The University of Oregon’s product design courses strive to teach students user research and product development skills that are applicable to both furniture and smartwatches. Their digital arts program places strong emphasis on physical computing and animation–the supporting theory that an interactive designer will need.

“In most design classes, whether you’re doing furniture, footwear or computer-related design, we always have a research component,” Jason said. “It’s important for designers to understand the process of problem-framing.”

Therein lies one of the starkest truths in the industry: design and underlying research are inseparable. Good design has purpose, it seeks to solve an existing problem, it’s informed by the experience it seeks to replace. Any designer worth their salt knows this well.

“Designing for interactivity involves a lot of skills that have a lot of overlap.”

“Designing for interactivity involves a lot of skills that have a lot of overlap,” said Thom Hines, assistant professor at Portland State University. “The key is to be exposed to as many of these roles as possible, since our talents and desires rarely line up well with these neatly defined designations.”

Portland State, Thom said, has only recently begun to address UX in an interaction design context. Their web design coursework teaches a number of user interface concepts, and their more traditional graphic design program is rightfully heavy on UX research methodologies, but building apps just isn’t in their purview.

That specific experience, it would seem, doesn’t come until after graduation, where Thom believes UI designers have a distinct professional advantage.

“UI design is easier to demonstrate than UX, since you can throw all of your work into a portfolio and send that to a prospective employer,” he said. “It’s much harder to have your work be so self-evident when you do UX, since it is all so process-intensive.”

While universities rush to respond to the industry’s demand for interactive design talent, the general public’s awareness of the discipline is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We’re only recently getting to the point where non-designers are understanding that an interface is more than just pretty buttons on a screen,” Thom said.

On their own, both the personal computing boom and the advent of the modern web have the potential to completely change the way we tell stories, consume information and spend our money. Taken together, they also demand a massive, generational shift in the design world’s priorities.

It seems only natural, then, that it’s taking the industry some time to define roles, build specializations and offer coursework to properly train students. Angela recommended that aspiring interactive designers get in from an execution standpoint, to better understand how things work in practice, and then build from there.

“When students first graduate they want to do everything and that’s okay,” she said. “It’s a journey, but I’ve been fighting that analytical side the whole way through. I wish someone had told me ‘it’s okay, don’t beat yourself up.’”

One of the best things about a career in design is that you’re not stuck doing one thing for the rest of your life. The core design process will serve you in any business you work for, and across any medium–present or future. You get to choose how to apply it.

“I care about solving problems for people,” Angela said. “That’s when everything just switched on, and I’m happy. I found meaning in my work.”

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