The Industrialisation of Design (or why Silicon Valley no longer hires UX designers) | February 3, 2016

Despite having their roots in Silicon Valley, UX designers are a rare breed inside traditional tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. In some cases they are so rare that other designers claim UX design doesn’t even exist. As a result I thought it would be interesting to explore where this attitude has come from, to see if it can hint at where our industry is heading.

In my (largely anecdotal) experience, Silicon Valley startups are focussed on hiring product designers at the moment. If you haven’t come across the product designer term before, you can think of them as next generation web designers; talented generalists with an affinity towards mobile and a desire to create great digital experiences for all.

While hiring product designers is all the rage at the moment, that hasn’t always been the case. Many early stage start-ups were originally conceived by individuals who considered themselves user experience designers. Many of these individuals have subsequently moved into design leadership roles at companies like Amazon, Adobe and IBM.

UX design is undoubtedly a specialism, focussing on the strategic and conceptual aspects of design, rather than the more tangible elements of UI. In that regard it has close similarities with service design, but is typically scoped around digital experiences. As practitioners traditionally came to UX design later in their careers, either through Information Architecture and Human Computer Interaction, or UI design and front-end development, there are naturally fewer experienced UX Designers than other disciplines.

This lack of supply, combined with increased demand, started to cause problems. Thankfully, a rising awareness around the general concept of user experience (as opposed to the practice of user experience design) saw more and more UI designers explore this space. Designers started to gain an increased sensitivity towards the needs of users, the demands of different platforms, and an understanding of basic interaction design practices like wireframes and prototypes. A new hybrid began to emerge in the form of the product designer; somebody who understood the fundamentals of UX Design, but retained their focus on tangible UI design.

The viability of the Silicon Valley product designer was made possible by several interesting trends. First off, tech companies started to hire dedicated design researchers; a role that UX designers would often have done themselves. They also started to hire dedicated product managers, releasing the need for designers to engage in deep product strategy. The has led many experienced UX designers to follow careers in research and product management, while others have moved towards IoT and service design.

At the same time, the rise of design systems has reduced the reliance on traditional craft skills. Rather than having to create interfaces from scratch, they can now be assembled from their component parts. This has allowed product designers to spend more time exploring newer fields of interaction design like animated prototypes. You could argue that thanks to design systems, product designers have become the new interaction designers.

This is further helped by companies with a vibrant developer culture and a focus on continual release. Rather than having to spend months researching and strategising, you can now come up with a hunch, knock up a quick design, launch it on a small subset of users and gain immediate feedback.

As a result of these infrastructure changes, tech companies no longer need people with deep UX expertise at the coalface. Instead these skills are now centred around management and research activities, allowing the companies to grow much faster than they otherwise would.

However this approach is not without growing pains, as I learnt when chatting to a design team director at one of the big tech companies recently. There was definitely a sense that while the new breed of product designers were great at moving fast and delivering considerable change, they lacked some of the craft skills you’d expect from a designer. Instead, design languages, prototyping tools, research teams and multi-variant testing were maybe acting as crutches, hiding potential weaknesses. There was also a concern that product designers were so focussed on the immediate concerns of the UI, they were struggling to zoom out, see the big picture and think more strategically.

All these concerns aside, it’s easy to see why, inside the tech industry bubble, UX design may no longer be recognised as a distinct thing.

Posted at February 3, 2016 6:00 PM