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User Interface Design




I have spent the last third of my life exquisitely in love with User Interface (UI) Design so my account of it may be a slight biased. But the reason is that UI for me constitutes the crux of what intelligent Design (not the religious notion, but the word literals) can accomplish. And as per some of my assertions about Graphic Design, I feel that a common misconception of UI Designers must first be addressed;

A lot of people assume that a UI Designer is basically a Graphic or Visual Designer who makes mock-ups or composited screens for interactive products like apps and websites. I have to admit that that is the unfortunate reality - so, many UI Designers you may meet are actually Graphic Designers targeting digital products rather than print. But despite that being the overwhelming reality in workplaces;
UI Design is not Graphic Design.

A system card depicting one story for a task interface element
An interface "story" card, making the agile SD process a Design-and-Develop centric workflow

They make Applications instead of apps

The first problem is that a UI Designer does not make apps or websites, they make software as either desktop applications or web-applications, there is a critical difference between them, which might require a further blog-post down the track to distinguish. But in essence, Applications observe decades of theory from Software development, while apps are largely trend-driven, flouting established wisdom in search of the latest cosmetic treatment. To make software, UI Designers need to know a great deal of the theory of the field of Interaction Design, an interdisciplinary domain that borrows heavily from;

  • Human Computer Interaction (HCI)
  • Psychology
  • Cognitive Sciences
  • Anthropology and
  • Industrial and Visual Design

This means that an understanding of composition, colour and typography will not be enough, a UI Designer needs to know how users behave (principles), what conventions (patterns) can be utilised to solve existing problems and what methods (user research) can be employed to solve novel problems. Theory from the above fields is critical because UI Design is an interactive field, that means on top of the concerns of visual perception and communication are bundled the concerns about how people think and behave. Donald NORMAN has always done this best, as here he illustrates the Psychological concept of mental models, which he later furthers with conceptual models and their subsequent interrelation; the conceptualisation of a mental model.

“In interacting with the environment, with others, and with the artifacts of technology, people form internal, mental models of themselves and of the things with which they are interacting.” Donald NORMAN
A learning dashboard Designed for a tertiary eductaion institute's ability to more transparently communicate key learning metrics
The tablet UI for a tertiary education institute's teaching dashboard

Making does not end with skinning

The second problem is that UI Design is not solely a graphical domain. UI Designers need to know how to code. Many companies build distinct roles such as "Front End Designer" and then accompany them with "Front End Developers" and these two roles interact with "Back End Developers". These distinctions unfortunately are meant to cater to — if I can be blunt for a moment so as not to be ambiguous — weaker Designers who choose not to span the technical and creative divides. This essentially allows Graphic Designers to portray themselves as UI Designers without demonstrating control over the prototype in all its forms — which a UI Designer must always have. This is a misapplication of the title UI Designer, such a description is better suited to a "Visual Designer". Let me be perfectly direct;

a UI Designer that can't code is not a UI Designer.
Just as a Surgeon that can't operate is not a Surgeon.

I say this because a UI Designer needs to be able to prototype effectively from paper to programming, at every stage of the Design process they should be able to manipulate the visible configuration of the application and fine-tune its behaviours, especially to coincide with user behaviours. A UI Designer largely relegated to "PhotoShop" or "Sketch" only has mastery of the desired appearance of the prototype, not the prototype. In effect, UI Designers that list Adobe Creative Suite as their primary skills are only able to accomplish 30% of the job.

“Good interface design doesn’t start
with pictures. It starts with an
understanding of people.” Jenifer TIDWELL

Given the rarity of Designers that comfortably span technical and creative capability in this way it is understandable that many people think that such a description of UI Designers is unrealistic, an assessment I would partially agree with. But the solution is not to water down the role so that it caters to the skillsets of more commonly available people, the answer in my mind is to finally acknowledge that UI Designers who merge creative + technical + theoretical + methodological expertise are a rarity and to respect the role for what it is: a niche. The answer is not to credit more people with the label by breaking up these components into separate jobs, that only creates a series of knowledgeable silos that can't orchestrate any unified whole. And it undermines the purpose of achieving a balance of these reiprocally linked Design factors.


Seems like hogwash ?

UI Designers have to know a lot, they must ideally first possess Visual creative skill (because this takes the longest to master) and then they must read and remember a great deal of theory pertaining to how people use computers. To this they must also append technical skill of being able to program their own applications and work alongside more proficient developers. Ideally, they should also be proficient in user research, usability testing, Design thinking and critical analysis.

If you think people with this combination of skills simply don't exist, I'd happily introduce you to some rare gems that I've worked with and more still that have passed through my classes. The latter I trust only because I've taught them myself, and as each of them can attest in person, my standards of UI Designers is unreasonably high. That's because, as I mentioned at the beginning, I only consider Designers "UI Designers" if they are at the peak of technical/creative capability.

After talking up UI Designers as I have above, it would be unseemly to tell you I fit into this category I respect so much. So I won't say I do, as with anything Design-related you should look at a person's track record rather than their self-assessment, which would only make you privy to the DUNNING-KRUGER types. If you decide the seriousness with which I treat UI as an undertaking appeals to your serious need for a UI Designer, please get in touch.