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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Learn fundamental design concepts. You should know about affordances, visibility, feedback, mappings, Fitt’s law, poka-yokes, and more. I recommend reading The Design of Everyday Things(Don Norman) and Universal Principles of Design (Lidwell, Holden, & Butler)
- Learn about user experience. This is becoming the umbrella term for the human-centered design of web sites, applications, and any other digital artifact. The classic primer here is The elements of User Experience (Jesse James Garrett). You can get an overview and the first few chapters from the author’s site.
- Learn to sketch designs. Sketching is fast way to explore design options and find the right design, whereas usability testing is about getting the design right. Paper prototyping is fast, cheap, and effective during the early design stages. Much faster than coding a digital prototype. The key text here is Sketching User Experience: Getting the design right and the right design (Bill Buxton). Sketching is a particularly useful skill when working with IA/ID/UX designers. Your collaboration will be more effective. For a good primer on how and why designers sketch, watch the presentationHow to be a UX team of one by Leah Buley from the 2008 IA Summit.
- Learn paper prototyping. The fastest way to iteratively test an interface before you write code. Different from sketching and usability testing. The definitive book here is Paper Prototyping(Carolyn Snyder). You can get a good DVD on this from the Nielsen Norman Group.
- Learn usability testing. Discount testing is easy and effective. But for many UIs, usability is hard to do well. You can learn the basics quickly, but good usability people are invaluable. If you want a book, the classic is The Handbook of Usability Testing (Jeffrey Rubin). It’s older but offers thorough coverage of lab-based testing. The famous starter book is Don’t Make Me Think (2nd Ed) (Steve Krug). I caution people about this one: Krug makes it sound easier than it is. But it is a good starting point. The user research books listed in the next point also cover this topic. And you can find piles about it online.
- Learn about information architecture. The main book here is Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (3rd) (Louis Rosenfeld & Peter Morville). A good starter book is Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web (Christina Wodtke). For more, visit the Information Architecture Institute or attend the annual Information Architecture Summit.
- Learn about interaction design. The main book here is The Essentials of Interaction Design (3rd)(Alan Cooper, et al). A good starter book is Designing for interaction (Dan Saffer). For more, visit the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) or attend the annual Interaction Design conference.
- Learn fundamentals of graphic design. Graphic design is not UI design, but concepts from graphic design can improve an interface. Graphic design introduces design principles for the visual presentation of information, such as proximity, alignment, and small multiples. I recommend reading The non-designer’s design book (Robin Williams) and Envisioning Information (Edward Tufte)
- Learn to do user research. Where usability tests an interface, user research tries to model users and their tasks through personas, scenarios, user journeys, and other documents. It’s about understanding users and what they do, then using that to inform the design instead of guessing. Some techniques are interviews, surveys, diary studies, and cart sorting. Good books on this are Observing the User Experience (Mike Kuniavsky) and Understanding Your Users (Courage & Baxter)
- Learn to do field research. Watching people in the lab under artificial conditions helps (ie: usability), but there is nothing like watching people use your code in context: their home, their office, or wherever they use it. Goes by various names, including ethnography, field studies, and contextual inquiry. Here is a good primer on field research. Two of the better known books here areRapid Contextual Design (Karen Holtzblatt et al) and User and task analysis for interface design(Hackos & Redish).
- Read UX design web sites. Some of the big ones are Boxes & Arrows, UX Mag, UX Matters, andDigital Web magazine.
- Use UI pattern libraries. There are patterns for interfaces. For web sites, I recommend The Design of Sites, 2nd ed (Van Duyne, et al) and Homepage usability: 50 websites deconstructed(Jakob Nielsen & Marie Tahir). For desktop applications I recommend Designing interfaces(Jennifer Tidwell), and for web applications I recommend Designing Web Interfaces: Principles and Patterns for Rich Interactions (Bill Scott & Theresa Neil). Online you should check Welie pattern library, UI patterns, and Web UI patterns.
- Attend UX design conferences. Some good annual conferences are: Information Architecture Summit, Interaction ’09 (IxDA), User Interface, and UX week.
- Attend a workshop or webinar. You can take workshops, webinars, and online courses. This is far from a comprehensive list, but you might try the UIE virtual seminars, Adaptive Path virtual seminars, and UX webinars from Rosenfeld Media.
- Get a degree. A graduate degree in HCI is one approach, but these programs are mostly about writing coding. If you want to learn about the design of digital artifacts and devices, then you want a graduate program that’s not in CS. Some options include Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon, thed-School at Stanford, the ITP program at NYU, and Information Architecture & Knowledge Management at Kent State (disclosure: I’m on faculty at Kent; we are seeing more and more people with CS degrees moving into UX design instead of management, which is interesting, because management is the traditional path for developers who want to move away from writing code while staying in their field). There are many more programs. Each has their own perspective, areas of emphasis, and technical expectations. Some come out of the arts and visual design, others out of library and information science, and some from CS. Most are hybrids, but every hybrid has deeper roots in one or more fields. If this interests you, look around and try to understand the differences between these programs. Some offer online courses and certificate programs in addition to full-fledged degrees.
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.