Why is UI design so hard for most developers?

Try asking the inverse question:

Why is programming so hard for most UI designers?

Coding a UI and designing a UI require different skills and a different mindset. UI design is hard for most developers, not some developers, just as writing code is hard for most designers, not some designers.

Coding is hard. Design is hard too. Few people do both well. Good UI designers rarely write code. They may not even know how, yet they are still good designers. So why do good developers feel responsible for UI design?

Knowing more about UI design will make you a better developer, but that doesn’t mean you should be responsible for UI design. The reverse is true for designers: knowing how to write code will make them better designers, but that doesn’t mean they should be responsible for coding the UI.

How to get better at UI design

For developers wanting to get better at UI design I have 3 basic pieces of advice:

  1. Recognize design as a separate skill. Coding and design are separate but related. UI design is not a subset of coding. It requires a different mindset, knowledge base, and skill group. There are people out there who focus on UI design.
  2. Learn about design. At least a little bit. Try to learn a few of the design concepts and techniques from the long list below. If you are more ambitious, read some books, attend a conference, take a class, get a degree. There are lot of ways to learn about design. Joel Spolky’s book on UI design is a good primer for developers, but there’s a lot more to it and that’s where designers come into the picture.
  3. Work with designers. Good designers, if you can. People who do this work go by various titles. Today, the most common titles are User Experience Designer (UXD), Information Architect (IA), Interaction Designer(ID), and Usability Engineer. They think about design as much as you think about code. You can learn a lot from them, and they from you. Work with them however you can. Find people with these skills in your company. Maybe you need to hire someone. Or go to some conferences, attend webinars, and spend time in the UXD/IA/ID world.

Here are some specific things you can learn. Don’t try to learn everything. If you knew everything below you could call yourself an interaction designer or an information architect. Start with things near the top of the list. Focus on specific concepts and skills. Then move down and branch out. If you really like this stuff, consider it as a career path. Many developers move into managements, but UX design is another option.

Why UI design is hard

Good UI design is hard because it involves 2 vastly different skills:

  • A deep understanding of the machine. People in this group worry about code first, people second. They have deep technological knowledge and skill. We call them developers, programmers, engineers, and so forth.
  • A deep understanding of people and design: People in this group worry about people first, code second. They have deep knowledge of how people interact with information, computers, and the world around them. We call them user experience designers, information architects, interaction designers, usability engineers, and so forth.

This is the essential difference between these 2 groups—between developers and designers:

  • Developers make it work. They implement the functionality on your TiVo, your iPhone, your favorite website, etc. They make sure it actually does what it is supposed to do. Their highest priority is making it work.
  • Designers make people love it. They figure out how to interact with it, how it should look, and how it should feel. They design the experience of using the application, the web site, the device. Their highest priority is making you fall in love with what developers make. This is what is meant by user experience, and it’s not the same as brand experience.

Moreover, programming and design require different mindsets, not just different knowledge and different skills. Good UI design requires both mindsets, both knowledge bases, both skill groups. And it takes years to master either one.

Developers should expect to find UI design hard, just as UI designers should expect to find writing code hard.

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