Should UX designers know how to code?

I’ve been challenging the team recently to think about different topics and share their thoughts. It’s always interesting to see how they differ depending on their roles, experience and viewpoints. I rubbed my hands in glee when I landed on this month’s topic. It’s one which has divided opinion for many years and will no doubt continue to for years to come…

So, here we go… Let's see what some of our team makes of this old chestnut; should UX designers know how to code?

Adam, Managing Director

I believe healthy projects require people to serve different roles – ie. a designer, a developer, a researcher. Within that project, someone should be pushing the case for user /business needs, someone should be in charge of aesthetics and someone should be pushing for it to be implementable. In my opinion, the best products sit somewhere in the middle of that negotiation.

If you have to build the thing as well as designing it and making it work for users, you’ll end up taking the easiest route. That’s just human nature. It's why I tend to shout at the computer when I see jobs advertised for “UX/ UI Designer / Developer”. Seriously, finding someone with all those skills is tough!

Despite what you’d think though, this isn’t an argument against designers learning to code. I don’t think it’s a must and certainly shouldn’t be mandatory but understanding the materials that our designs will be made out of can help to a certain extent.

A great example of this is Jony Ive from Apple. He went to China to spend time learning about aluminium because its used in a lot of Apple products. He wanted to understand what it can do so that it could (and does) inspire his design decisions.

Adi, UX consultant

Many moons ago, when my sole purpose at Natural Interaction was keeping Adam organised & sane, I wanted to be of more use so Adam signed me up to Treehouse and I tried to learn to code. I. Was. TERRIBLE. I loved the end result – it was so satisfying when I coded something that looked nice and worked correctly, but I absolutely hated how much code and effort it took to get one thing right. (Does that shed some light on why I love prototypes so much?) I didn’t absorb it naturally so it took reading and rereading and rereading the same material for me to absorb simple instructions. I’d miss out one stupid bracket and get incredibly frustrated when I couldn’t get something simple to work. I definitely was NOT cut out to be a developer – I spent many hours on Treehouse and can barely remember any of it.

BUT, what I can remember is actually really helpful in my UX role now. Please don’t ask me to code a website. My 9 year old is learning how to build websites at school at the moment and she could probably do a better job than I could. But, I do have a basic understanding of how HTML, CSS & JavaScript work, the potential limitations and amount of effort that would need to go into something. It helps me remember everyone involved in the design process – not just the customers & the client, but the dev team too. We all need to work together to make something great, so having a basic understanding of code means we can collaborate with more empathy for each other.

So yes, UXers should know how to code, but it doesn’t need to be anything too fancy!

David, UX Project Manager

I’ve never been very skilled at coding, I dabbled at college but it was never my strongest skill. While I do think UX designers should have an understanding of how HTML / CSS works, I don’t think knowledge of how to code is essential. The primary goal of a User Experience designer is to have an excellent understanding of user centred design and to be able to test it. Wireframes, sketches and building prototypes do not require the ability to code.

A knowledge of coding would help you understand what can and can’t be built at the development stage, it does however risk potentially creating a situation where you gravitate towards the easiest to implement solutions. People tend to gravitate towards what is familiar.

Code,wireframes and digital design

Dave, Senior Digital Product Designer

I think it’s important, if not crucial, for digital designers to have a passing familiarity with somecode. As websites are our bread and butter, I think it’s important to know how HTML and CSS look and roughly how they work together. The knock-on effect being that they’ll have a good idea of what a developer—who is generally next in line—wants in a handover. With increased familiarity with code, you also benefit from acquiring a good idea of what might practically work or not.

HTML and CSS are to digital design what CMYK and printer profiles are to print design. You can get by without really understanding any of that, but you’re more likely to put out something shit and/or unworkable.

All that said, every year or so I decide that I want to learn a proper programming language. I only ever get only so far before my brain explodes. So far I’ve been bested by Python, Swift, PHP and Javascript. Maximum respect to the legit coders out there and in answer to your question 'should designers know how to code' I think the answer is probably no.

Elena, Digital Product Designer

Ok... Should UX designers know how to code? I think the answer depends on what level we’re talking about. Should they be able to code an entire complex website from scratch? No. Should they have a basic knowledge of coding? Yes.

I believe that designers, and UX designers in particular, should be able to do a bit of everything, or at least to know the principles of the different aspects involved in the design of a digital product or service. Knowing how to identify the users’ and stakeholders’ needs is rightly considered a fundamental skill for UX designers, together with all the tools and methods to do so, but understanding the whole product development journey can also be valuable. It’s important to keep an eye on the whole process, from the discovery stage to the development of the product, to ensure a high quality of the outcome. If you design an amazing product that can’t be built there’s not much point, right?

UX designers can understand complex environments and situations and often act as mediators between stakeholders and teams. They are able to prioritise and balance everyone's needs to ensure that the final product is right. Even though nowadays coding and programming capabilities are impressive and generally there’s not much that can’t be built, being familiar with coding languages can encourage better conversations between designers and developers. This has the potential to establish a more efficient process. And this means designing a product that’s more relevant and useful for its users.

Knowing how to code could also be useful to have a broad idea of what can be done, how it can be done and what’s the best way to do it, which can help designing the right product from the start. For similar reasons UX designers should have some knowledge of visual design, even if it’s not their role to design interfaces. Likewise, we could also ask: should developers know how to design? The answer, again, would be no, but having a little knowledge of design principles could improve the collaboration between different teams and departments.

Having said that, designers can have very different skills. Each person might want to focus and specialise on certain aspects and there's no one rule that works for everyone. I know that some people like to both design and code, and that’s great but it’s a personal choice. In my opinion, it shouldn’t be expected from every designer in every context.

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