Who is a “UX Engineer”?

I work as a UX Engineer and this unusual title attract many curious questions about what a UX Engineer does and how can one become a UX Engineer? Well, “UX” stands for User Experience but what is the “Engineer” part doing there?

The pyramid of web product development

The pyramid of Mazlo is probably the most abused scientific illustration after Darwin’s evolution of man. Nevertheless it’s a great tool for illustrating the requirements of a human experience.

The user sits on top of this pyramid and the infrastructure (hardware, data, network, etc.) is at the bottom. A bunch of people are involved in between eventually converting bits and bytes and mundane dance of electrons into a human-perceivable experience that can be sold as a product. To put is very briefly:

  1. The UX experts do the initial studies to define user stories, carry on lo-fi and hi-fi prototyping which eventually translates to wire-frames for the graphic designers.
  2. The graphic designers get those wire-frames and sexify (style) them using mood boards and branding guidelines with tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.
  3. The front-end developers take those designs and implement.
  4. Back end developers work closely with front-end developers to create the APIs that provides the data and services for carrying user tasks.
  5. Database administrators take care of storing, retrieving and structuring the data. Sometimes, there’s machine learning involved as well.
  6. IT Ops or Dev ops guys make sure that everything runs securely and smoothly on the infrastructure and can scale well.

This whole pyramid is what the Product Manager controls one way or another and just like any other layered illustration if something goes wrong in any layer, it’ll affect other layers and eventually the user experience.

Developer, graphic designer, user experience expert

The pyramid model above is too abstract. In reality the guys in those layers form two groups that typically spend most of their time together:

  1. The people who work on the client side: UX experts, Graphic Designers and Front-End developers
  2. The people who work on the server side: back end developers, database administrators and dev ops guys

Well, this diagram is not very accurate either, because usually the developers back-end/front-end work very closely (and often the same people do both).

Now here is where things get interesting. In a healthy work environment, the people who work in either of the groups above tend to learn more about each other’s expertise. For example the front-end guys learn a lot about UX and graphic design, while the graphic design guys start to think more about the implementation aspects and user experience in their design. In this environment UX experts grow into something more:

  • UX expert + front-end skills → UX Engineer
  • UX expert + graphic design skills → UX Designer
  • UX expert + front-end skills + graphic design skills → Unicorn

Of course it depends to interest and talents.

Unicorn is something that is very hard to create and most often a UX Engineer or UX Designer tend to call themselves Unicorn even though their skills are not really balanced — they are not as good in all 3 aspects.

Why do you need a UX engineer?

In general it’s good to have multi-disciplinary skills in teams but the UX engineer particularly shines in teams where the interaction model is extremely complex. For example if you are creating a game, it greatly helps to have someone in the team who understands the game psychology as well as in-depth knowledge of how game mechanics are implemented.

If you are implementing an enterprise application, it greatly helps if the user experience designer can speak the language of the system architect and have a more effective understanding.

In my observation, mere UX experts who have no knowledge of design or engineering are not very effective. The designers see them as yet another stakeholder to keep happy. And the engineers see them as yet another user only with a microphone to shout. I’ve discovered that it goes a long way when you can speak someone’s language and you know what you are talking about. Do you want people to listen to you because of your job title or because you have earned their respect? Of course you can earn people’s respect by only being an extremely good UX expert as well but that relies on the assumption that the engineers and designers actually value such isolated expertise and find themselves unable to interfere in UX matters. But that’s not the case for UX. Everyone and their dog has an opinion about UX “because we are all an expert being a user” (graphic design is even more vulnerable to such inexpert criticism).

Do unicorns really exist?

Even though this post is about the UX Engineer, let’s take a minute and talk about unicorns a little bit.

Every human being has 24 hours a day. People spend this time budget in different ways but we can assume that most professionals spend some time:

  1. Keeping up to date with the latest trends (otherwise they wouldn't carry the title “professional” for too long).
  2. optionally learning new skills in another (relevant) field.

No matter how much time is available, one can choose to spend more on learning new stuff or dig deeper into the stuff she already knows.

If a UX expert invests most of her time budget on learning front end technologies and graphic design tools that means she’ll have less time to spend on pure UX concepts like psychology and usability research. Here are 3 star diagrams from how 3 UX experts spend their time:

That “super duper UX expert” who is good in all 3 aspects is a Unicorn. Of course being good in all 3 aspects takes time and talent. Graphic design particularly is something that requires artistic talent. Front-end coding also requires an interest to problem solving and stubbornness for debugging it. In reality most “unicorns” that I’ve seen look something like this:

But just like any other skill, given enough time and devotion one can get quite good at it:

However being extremely good at these skills is not very common because they often attract people with totally different interests or character:

  • Great graphic designers are usually people who have an artistic taste, are visual thinkers and have a good intuition about how to communicate visually.
  • Great front end developers are usually abstract thinkers who have no problem handling complexity and creating a bigger whole combining smaller modular parts.
  • Great UX experts are usually very good at communication, psychology and have an analytical mind.

Even though there might be a great overlap between these people, there’s still a good chance a person leans toward one or two of the above fields. Therefore in order to be a Unicorn, one not only has to have a lot of time, but also equal interest in fields that are not necessarily equally appealing.

That being said, it’s hard to measure one’s skill on such simplistic one-dimensional diagrams. These are just for quick demonstration purpose.

Cool title

Most professional skills have a title that expresses their role:

  • Graphic designer → designs stuff
  • Database administrator → administers stuff
  • Back end developer →develops stuff

But UX Engineer doesn't “engine” stuff, if you know what I mean. ;-)

Education

Q. Do you need to have an engineering degree to be a UX Engineer?

A. Depends who you ask it from. But let me ask a similarly formulated question: do you have to have a doctorate degree to call yourself a doctor? The practice of engineering is something that anyone can adapt to a workflow, but just adapting those practices doesn't make a person “engineer” pretty much like being able to carry a CPR doesn't make a person “doctor”.

“Everyone is a UX expert”

I want to close this post with a little story. A couple of years ago I was presenting a client with the above pyramid and when I explained how the UX expert is the closest to the user, she said:

but I don’t agree that it is up to the UX expert to decide about all aspects of the product that affect user experience. For example if a back end developer doesn’t care about UX, the API is going to be slow and that will affect the perception of the application. Also if the front-end guys don’t care about UX, they try to sell inferior but easy to implement solutions to the UX experts which don’t necessarily guarantee a good user experience. I think everyone should be a UX expert.

That was a thoughtful opinion that shows a flaw of the abstract illustration models like the pyramid above. I do agree that all people who are involved in creating the product should care about user experience, but I don’t expect all of them to be good at it or necessarily understand the full range of implications of their decisions for the user experience. It is a UX expert’s duty to help the team for those matters. This automatically happens in a healthy development environment where knowledge-sharing and collaborative decision making is common practice.

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You may also like to read about job titles: Junior, Senior, Expert, Lead, Experienced, Professional and Specialist.

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Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer

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