UX vs UI: What Type of Designer Should You Be Hiring?

Whenever the topic of hiring a designer is being discussed, the distinction between user experience design and graphic design is sure to come up.

Someone will typically point out that while most companies think of a “designer” as someone that makes things pretty (i.e. graphic design), the real value of design lies in improving how things work and creating a better user experience.

And that’s a fair point. But it might leave you wondering what kind of designer you actually need: a graphic designer, a user experience designer, or both?

This article is a little long, so let me first give you the “tl;dr”. I’m going to talk about:

  • Why visual design is still important.
  • Why you shouldn’t hire a one-trick pony.
  • How to find out which designer your product needs.
  • How your company’s lifecycle will impact your design requirements.

(Note: this article was inspired by this thread on Hacker News, related to this post on how to hire a designer)

The Value of “Eye Candy”

First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way: whether you call it graphic design, visual design, or eye candy, the way something looks is extremely important and has a huge impact on how people use it and react to it.

Custom Candy UI by Charlie (via Dribbble)

Sure, some companies manage to do just fine without giving it too much thought (a famous example being Craigslist). But you can also find companies that thrive despite poor customer service or bad security choices. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for you to copy their worst practices.

So yes, visual design is valuable. Of course, just how valuable it will be to you depends on the specifics of your company (read on to learn how). But don’t make the mistake of dismissing it out of hand.

Watch Out for One-Trick Ponies

The second point to keep in mind is that design is not rocket science. Not everybody can be Jony Ive, but it’s not impossible to become reasonably competent in both UX and visual design.

In fact, I even know quite a few technical people who became good at design by iterating and experimenting. One such example is Steve Huffman and Adam Goldstein, who came up with a lot of Hipmunk‘s original UI concepts despite not being designers themselves.

Hipmunk circa 2010: not designed by designers

What I’m driving at is that whether you hire a UX or graphic designer, the person you hire should have at least basic skills in the other field.

Not to say that all designers follow this precept. It’s sadly still common to come across UX designers whose portfolios are filled with sites straight out of the 90s, or visual designers who never consider what will happen to their creations once they leave Photoshop.

But I would advise against hiring someone like this. Not because they won’t be good at their job (they might still be experts in their own domain after all), but because to me, it shows a lack of curiosity and willingness to push yourself.

(Note: of course, this applies mostly to web and user interface design, not things like logo design, illustration, etc.)

Choosing the Right Person

Now let’s say that you’re considering two applicants:

  • Alice is a great visual designer who also has a good grasp of interaction design and how her work will affect the user’s experience.
  • Brian specializes in user experience and interaction design, but is more than capable of producing simple visually pleasing designs.

So who should you hire? Well, it all depends on a couple factors.

Your Product

Different products have different needs and will require different profiles.

Let’s picture two different scenarios. Product A is a new iPad app that helps pharmaceutical companies organize trials and keep track of their results.

Product B is a new social photo-sharing iPhone app similar to Instagram, but for people who want to share photos of their pets.

Product A seems very complex and specialized, yet its end users will not always be that tech-savvy, and they might also not be used to touchscreen interactions. On the other hand since this is for the enterprise market, branding is less important and people will have much lower expectations when it comes to visual design.

Product B is “yet another photo-sharing app”, so it will require great branding and graphic design to make it stand apart from the competition. On the other hand, since it will follow interaction patterns established by other apps (and by Apple itself in its iOS guidelines) it probably doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to user experience design.

Photo Album UI crafted by Cuberto on Dribbble

I hope it’s clear from these examples which company should hire a UX designer and which one should hire a graphic designer.

Of course, these examples are not absolutes (for example, maybe you need great visual design to impress the manager in charge of buying Product A), but they show how a product’s goals and market will influence who to hire.

The Right Person at the Right Time

The current phase of your product development is also something to take into consideration.

The goal of the first version of your product should be verifying that people actually want it. Unless you’re targeting very specific audiences (such as the tech or design crowds) you probably don’t need to focus too much on visual design at that point.

On the other hand, bad interaction design at that stage can hurt your conversion rate, or even prevent people from ever finding out how to use your product. So bringing in a UX designer at this point might save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

Once you’ve established that your product is solving an actual need, it’s time to give it a voice, a personality, and a brand. That’s where the visual designer comes in.

FamilyLeaf just redesigned their site 6 months after first launching

By that point, you should also have a good picture yourself of what works (and what doesn’t) in terms of your product’s user experience, and you should be able to guide the designer in the right direction.

Once your product redesign is done and launched, it might be a good idea to get a UX designer’s feedback from time to time, especially before launching new features.

So to grossly simplify, a hypothetical startup’s design timeline might look something like this:

  • Months 0-6: come up with a prototype and hire a UX designer to refine its interactions.
  • Months 6-12: work with a visual designer to refine the look and feel of the app in preparation for its “real” launch.
  • Months 12-18: keep iterating on the UX while hiring a UX designer for short consulting missions from time to time.
  • Months 18-24: hire a visual designer to redesign the app for version 2, while applying all the things you learned from the past 18 months.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is no single good answer to the question of which type of designer to hire. It depends on many factors, most of which will generally be specific to your company and product.

But if you’re considering hiring a designer, one simple thing you can do is simply ask them if they think your product needs their skills at this specific time. Contrarily to what you might think, they won’t automatically answer “yes”.

After all, there is nothing wrong for a designer than to pour his heart out in a project, only to see his work scrapped when it turns out the underlying concept is flawed. So a good designer will tell you if it’s too early to focus on visual design, or on the other hand if your interactions are just fine and it’s now time to think about your brand.

And by the way, if you happen to find the magical unicorn who’s great at both interaction and visual design, hire them right away!

Just don’t ask them to code. That’s a whole other debate…

Note: you can join the discussion over at Hacker News

  • http://www.iconfinder.com/ Martin LeBlanc, Iconfinder.com

    “Not designed by designers” … If the Hipmunk guys are designing an interface like that, they are both developers AND designers.

    • http://www.sachagreif.com/ Sacha Greif

      I guess I should’ve said “not designed by people who went to design school” ;)

      • http://twitter.com/haziqmir Haziq Mir

        One need not go to a design school to be a designer ;)

        • http://www.sachagreif.com/ Sacha Greif

          You know what I mean! ;)

  • http://twitter.com/pagebakers Eelco Wiersma

    “the distinction between user experience design and graphic design is sure to come up”

    I keep finding this a strange comparison. In my mind graphic design is part of user experience design. The term UX designer is widely abused these days. UX design is what you achieve as a whole company it’s not something a single designer designs. Interaction design is much more suitable in your story.

    • http://www.sachagreif.com/ Sacha Greif

      I agree wholeheartedly with you, but in this case I decided to choose the easy route of using the term everybody else uses, even if I personally don’t like it.

      • http://twitter.com/oscargodson Oscar Godson

        This isn’t true. You could be a UX designer and never touch photoshop or illustrator. Look at Jakob Nielson for example. Terrible at design but no one would argue he’s bad at UX. You can do both UX and UI but they are different. UX requires research, testing, experimentation and even number crunching. UI does not.

        • http://www.sachagreif.com/ Sacha Greif

          Yes, and I think the Jakob Nielsen approach is very short-sighted. Basically like saying “I’m a great engineer, so who cares if I come to work in flip flops and t-shirt?”. It’s also about professionalism and showing you care.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisgillis Chris Gillis

    Nice post Sacha.

    A designer solves problems. So if you are going to do any type of interaction design, you have to understand the problems surrounding that medium (users, screen size, platform, etc).

    If you are print designer you need to have an understanding of the printing process (a problem for that medium) and solve design issues for your clients.

    Visuals (drawing, composition, color) should be inherent to any designer. What makes a great designer is one that solves complex design issues. You will not solve a design problem with a Photoshop Gradient.

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