Business leaders who seek a partnership with a software development firm are smart to come with a list of items the digital solution must accomplish or include — an administrative portal that supports complex user hierarchies, or a website that conveys company ethos in a way that converts contacts into leads, for example.
What could be missing from this checklist is a UX team that can enhance software functionality. The important role that design plays in making any kind of software successful is not always apparent to clients, even to those who are tech-savvy. Too often, design is considered as a “nice-to-have,” or an extraneous step between discovery and development.
Technology vendors that demonstrate the value to be derived from involving design early in the product development process will achieve better outcomes. But questions can arise when it comes to staffing a design team for a project.
Both product owners and design leads should understand the basics of how different skillsets within a UX team can be leveraged in order to fulfill particular requirements and maximize resources within one project.
How UX Designers Help Your UX Team
UX designers are good at asking, “Why?”
What is a person looking for in a software journey?
Why do they do X when they encounter Y on this screen?
They lend structure to journeys through a website or an application in a way that anticipates the user’s tendencies within digital interfaces.
Wireframes provide the frameworks that support the design and refinement of user journeys. As such, the work of a UX designer can be — but is not always — devoid of visual design.
Wireframing in UX
Wireframes may appear simple, but they are actually crucial to building streamlined and successful experiences in software.
Low-fidelity wireframes support the efforts of designers and developers early in the process of creating software. Designers use low-fidelity wireframes to determine how users will move between different pages and content while developers will reference them to understand and write code that supports the intended user experience.
High-fidelity wireframes serve a similar purpose, yet are polished and resemble more closely the final version of the software.
User Testing in UX
The skills of specialized UX designers will feature prominently and earlier in design engagements, particularly when user journeys have yet to be mapped and validated.
UX designers target the needs, pain points, and how optimal pathways can anticipate user’s instincts. These skills are important to include in teams where the client’s needs are complex and expansive, like when stakeholders look to build an internal administrative portal for an enterprise.
Additionally, to conduct user testing in a way that validates the essential reason behind the software demands specialized UX designers.
Devoting the bandwidth from the beginning — when getting it right is most important — will determine whether the solution can actually help users to meet their needs.
When Are UX Designers’ Skills Most Crucial?
Seeking feedback from users in a formalized setting is a large undertaking that cannot be taken lightly. From seeking permissions, to creating a test plan and moderating trial sessions, UX designers need to devote a lot of time upfront before any development can begin, especially in instances where the software is meant to reach a large target audience.
When software projects start at square one, design team leads should emphasize UX design skills to advance both designers’ and stakeholders’ understanding of end users, the pain points they encounter, and the types of features that will best fulfill their needs.
Any assumptions made initially can be tested over the course of future sprints, validated by the UX designer as he or she collaborates with other team members, developers, stakeholders, and usability testers.
How UI Designers Help Your UX Team
Generally speaking, UI designers’ work is distinct from UX designers, in that they are often responsible for bringing wireframes to life with visual elements like illustrations, photography, or other brand assets. Additionally, UI designers typically create a design system that establishes consistent, reusable interaction patterns and visual cues.
In instances where the client approaches technical teams with complete and validated wireframes, or a solid understanding of how the software journey should unfold, then the UI designer can populate screens with the assets mentioned above, building the interface that enables users to execute tasks defined during discovery.
Similarly, if the client needs to build a marketing website that captures the user’s attention through polished design elements that highlight key aspects of a branded message, devoting a UI designer to this task would be adequate for fulfilling that need.
When to Combine UX and UI Roles on Your UX Team
Making distinctions between UX and UI is not to say that they can’t be blended into a single role to great effect.
Generally speaking, during the discovery phase, and before the project’s scope is well defined, one designer can advise on questions relating to both UX and UI design. Sustaining roles that combine the responsibilities inherent in each skillset is viable during some projects, like those that aim to build small to medium-sized applications.
This overlap comes into play during instances when, for example, a designer is tasked with determining how what is on the screen impacts the user’s experience. Does the user act differently when a button is orange instead of blue? Answering this questions requires expertise from both practices.
In such instances, it can be effective for a single person to combine the roles of UX and UI designer. At smaller scales, when one person fulfils both roles, cohesive ownership of the ideas and product details is maintained by that person throughout the entire discovery and design process.
One only needs to ensure that the designer representing the UX team is skilled in both areas. Many are because of the overlap in the two practices. UX informs UI — and vice versa.
Divide Design Roles in Your UX Team to Conquer Different Requirements
Understanding the nature of UX and UI design roles, and when and how they can overlap, helps business stakeholders and team leads alike to staff a project in a way that optimizes available resources according to project timeline.
The roles of UX and UI designers may overlap significantly, but the actual skillsets achieve distinct ends. The roles can and maybe should be blended and implemented by the same person when scope allows.
Meanwhile, separating UX and UI tasks helps designers leverage their personal expertise to achieve better results in the final product for larger projects with longer timelines.
Understanding how to get the most out of blended or separate UX/UI roles in a UX team depends on project scale and scope.
How to Staff a UX Team to Meet Project Needs
Projects that evolve into larger engagements — with longer timeframes and more complex features — demand more time and more specific expertise throughout the duration of their development.
In these larger projects, it is advisable to split UX and UI roles within your UX team. But splitting these roles should not suggest an absolute separation. Good design cannot take place in a vacuum — or without UX and UI designers working in tandem.
While a designer can balance to some degree the roles of UX and UI designer, a single person often simply does not have the capacity to manage both the UX/UI requirements in very large projects.
Why You Need a Specialized UX Team to Keep Up With Project Scope
Designers can and do handle projects that demand expertise in both UX and UI design at various junctures. They are used to adapting quickly to overcome unforeseen challenges, as well as realigning roles within the team so as to optimize specific skillsets in order to meet the client’s needs.
Depending on the project, one designer with advanced capabilities in UX and UI design can functionally incorporate the roles of both in her day-to-day tasks.
But this takes a special kind of designer, as extending one’s abilities to both ends of the design spectrum becomes less sustainable as the size of projects grow and their complexities run deeper.
Designers can economize and adapt their roles to take on smaller projects, but teams will want to divide roles in order to conquer requirements in complex projects for large organizations.
Split, But Attached, Roles on Your UX Team
For those larger projects, and as much as their roles are split, UX and UI designers should engage equally at many of the same intervals, attending the same whiteboarding sessions and meeting with development teams together. Both roles can share their findings or opinions in a conversation, but execute tasks specific to their area of expertise.
Splitting these roles without sustaining collaboration within the design team risks a breakdown in communication and overall progress. Working together within and beyond the design team allows each designer’s experience and expertise to shape, inform, and improve the work accomplished by the collective team.
Aligning early and often also helps designers to cohere with development teams down the road. Developers rely on design deliverables, like wireframes, to inform the shape of the solution, in addition to how their own staffing efforts can best serve the project as a whole.
Visual designs that cohere with wireframes, which in turn illustrate the capabilities that developers must work to support, set clearer expectations between teams. An established review cadence offers distinct opportunities to validate functionalities at key hand-off points against the product vision outlined at project kick-off.
Why Communication Is Essential to a Properly Staffed UX Team
Staffing design teams should be approached delicately, especially during large and long-lasting engagements with clients. Design is a crucial — yet too often overlooked — component of the software development process.
Having one or more designer at the table during discovery session represents a step in the right direction towards a successful software product. But if design leads and product owners do not communicate how resources can support evolving roles in the UX team over the course of a project, progress can be disrupted as responsibilities in UX and UI overwhelm the bandwidth of designers staffed to the project.
Image Source: Unsplash, Justin Luebke