My life as a unicorn

Last year, the UX uniform I’d worn for a decade started to feel like a straightjacket. I wasn’t learning as rapidly as I once did, and my work had plateaued. I felt I was coasting, and falling victim to dangerous nouns like boredom and arrogance.

I think the UX industry has found a local maximum; undeniably comfortable, but somewhat short of what it could achieve. I voiced these concerns at the 2011 IA Summit, suggesting that corporate recognition wasn’t the endgame, and that the community should refocus and magnify its efforts on the world’s most pressing problems. One year on, there’s very little I’d change about the talk. While the UX industry has been very successful, and I adore the friends and peers who make it up, I worry it too has begun to coast.

UX no longer felt quite like home, and I yearned for open waters. So I dived in. Moving away from the labels and language of UX, I adopted the title Digital product designer. Great experiences are still my objective, but I wanted to explore beyond the boundaries of what the UX role had become; to use my interest in writing, typography, brand, and graphic design to enhance my work. Not a wish to generalise so much as a wish to specialise in more areas. In particular, I’d come to view the gap between UX and visual design as arbitrary: “You take the wheel, I’ll do the pedals”.

Over the last year I’ve spent long hours studying graphic design, learning more about its techniques and tools, and creating a new role for myself that combined my interaction design expertise with my new visual design skills. In popular digital parlance, such a designer has come to be known as a ‘unicorn’: a rare, flighty being never encountered in the wild. It’s a cute label, and a damaging one. It reinforces silos, and gives designers an excuse to abdicate responsibility for issues that nevertheless have a hefty impact on user experience.

There are of course different flavours of UX person. From the design-heavy position I occupied, the leap to digital product design has been feasible. The mindset is virtually identical. A senior UX designer with practical knowledge of the design process, excellent client skills, and an understanding of ideation and iteration already has many of the key skills required in visual design. Someone whose strengths lie more in research or polar-bear IA may find the gap a bit more daunting.

I’ve found I now have a deeper involvement in a product’s lifecycle, from inception through concept to the end product. I feel far closer to the product than I did previously. This has meant I’ve been taken more seriously on issues of product strategy, seen less as a user-centred advocate and more as someone who can bring a client’s vision to life, and shape a complete product over time. I also can’t deny the ego-massaging pleasure of presenting work that elicits an immediate ‘wow’ – something a wireframe could never do.

I was already well-read about the theory of graphic design, but improving my technical skills has taken no small effort. I’m still working hard on my sketching and visual facilitation skills, but thankfully the software knowledge has come easier. Forcing myself to finally master design software has been a blessed relief. For all the flak Adobe get, Fireworks or Photoshop are so much better suited to UI work than Omnigraffle – although of course they too have serious limitations in an era of fluid design. I’ve also started to experiment with print design, and have enjoyed poking my fingers into more of the Creative Suite.

I’m creating fewer of the classic UX deliverables, and have tried to forge a wider variety of tools for each situation. If the situation demands visual detail, I’m able to pull together a detailed comp. If we need speed, a sketch suffices. For interactivity, I’ve been knocking together scrappy image map walkthroughs, or more solid HTML prototypes. I’ve also spent a lot more time worrying about words and labels, and have again been reminded of their importance in design. I firmly believe that any designer who overlooks the importance of copy, thinking it someone else’s job, is missing a powerful way to improve his work.

But I still have plenty of angles to figure out. My design process has become more pliable, which confers both benefits and disadvantages. I still practice UCD frequently, but I’ve also become more familiar with ‘genius design‘. There’s been lots of expert opinion and less recourse to the user, although in part this is also a property of the startup market I’ve been working in. My clients appear to have enjoyed this flexibility of process. Certainly some companies still believe UCD to be unnecessarily bulky; and it can be hard to disagree (hence the rise of Lean UX). I genuinely don’t know yet whether taking a more fluid approach to process has led to better outputs – I’m still evaluating – but it has certainly broadened my viewpoint.

In moving away from UX, I’ve taken a hit to my reputation. Previously I was fortunate enough to be seen as someone near the top of the UX field; now, I don’t fit so well into established mental models. Some members of the UX community have noticeably edged away from my views, and I don’t get added to the same lists or invited to speak at the same conferences now. I expected this, and have no problem with it, but I do feel sometimes that I’ve lost the safety in numbers that an established community offers. It’s also been difficult at times to explain my angle and how my service differs from others’. However, this has upsides. I’m no longer hired as a UX-shaped peg to fit a UX-shaped hole; instead, my clients hire me for my individual skills.

I’ve also had to fight against expectations of speed, from both clients and myself. Time moves more slowly at the quantum levels of pixels, and my broader remit has meant that my work takes longer. It’s made estimation and project planning trickier, and has also raised issues around pricing. The obvious response to my shift would have been to raise my rates. However, I no longer have a clear market rate to price against, and I’ve been very conscious of not asking for too much while I was still making the transition. Right now I’m undercharging. That will change in due course.

So was my move the right one? For me, yes. I’ve found a far deeper appreciation for the craft of design, and I’ve rediscovered the excitement that had started to ebb away. In this period of massive change in the digital world I feel more flexible and valuable, and I’m positive that I’m a better designer as a result.

However, the digital product design role isn’t for everyone, and I shudder at the thought of this being seen as a manifesto, roadmap, or one of those odious ‘[Discipline X] Is Dead’ posts. Specialisation is still highly important, and many projects will be better off with separate UX and visual roles, rather than chasing unicorns. But personally, I’m glad I made the leap.

Cennydd Bowles