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UI Design: Should Designers Code?

Considering the facts and market forces at play, in an attempt to put to rest the age-old question once and for all. TL;DR: Probably not, unless they absolutely have to. Overview These days, you can close your eyes, toss a rock, and hit a conversation about whether or not designers should code. Both sides, the yea and nay, have reasonable points. Today we’ll be considering the facts and market forces at play, in an attempt to put to rest the age-old question once and for all. Defining code Before we get too deep into it, we have to consider what we mean when we say “code.” For us at DesignWalkthroughs™, we believe that coding is anything beyond declarative presentation, including logic, that involves writing or working with any language (markup, syntax, or dialect) outside of a standard design tool. Now there are some that do not consider HTML and CSS code, and this perspective can hold true especially for web designers. However, for the purposes of our definition here, we’re trying to be broad, but fair, in order to establish a jumping-off point for a reasonable foray into this debate. The problem with designers coding Let’s talk about the immediate problems with having or attempting to have designers code. 1. Designers are not programmers This seems obvious enough, as the reverse is also true, programmers are not designers, and in most professional environments are never be expected to be. You wouldn’t expect a plumber to frame a house, you wouldn’t have your lawyer diagnosing you with an illness, you wouldn’t have your mechanic working on your stove, so why are we trying to coerce designers to code? The short answer is that we shouldn’t be, and if we are, we definitely take a good hard look at why, which brings me to my next point. 2. Programming is its own discipline Look, I’m not saying that “T-shaped” skill sets are a bad thing, or that being cross-trained will somehow rip a hole in the fabric of spacetime, but we need to understand that coding isn’t some “side-dish,” it’s a full seven-course meal. There are a huge amount of things that you need to know and learn to be an effective programmer, and out of all of these, it makes little to no sense for a designer to know any of them, because all it does is take away from the skills they already have. Why designers should stop coding (written by a unicorn) I'll start by saying that there's a difference between " code" and " should not know how to code." Designers are in a… I’m not advocating for hyper-specialization here, but we need to be very cognizant of the fact that just because designers “can” learn to code, doesn’t mean that they should. 3. When designers code, your product suffers To date, even with the plethora of coding designers that exist, I have almost never seen designers write code that is even remotely scalable and/or maintainable. A designer’s time is vastly better spend designing, maintaining high-quality designs, and staying to areas where their competence is strong. Using a designer as a quasi-front-end-developer will almost always come back to bite your organization in the long run. Why I think designers shouldn’t code Code is as far away from the user’s experience as you can possibly get. If you have a coding designer that can actually produce well-written, idiomatic code, NEVER LET THEM GO. I mean it. Only a handful of these people exist, and they’re worth their weight in gold. 4. There are way better solutions out there Seriously, there are now so many solutions that save designers from having to code (and your devs from having to work with designer code) that it’s almost irresponsible to not take advantage of them. 14 Awesome Design Tools that let you Export Code The conversion of design into code, also known as handoff occurs when a design has reached a stage where the developers… Like I said, a ton of tools; take your pick and let your team run with it. They will absolutely thank you for it in the end. Should designers code? So, should designers code? The bottom line is that it’s not a hard yes or no, and it depends a lot on the context. Let’s talk about it. When designers should code If you’re going to absolute insist that your designers code, they probably shouldn’t ever go beyond HTML, CSS, and some basic JavaScript. This is because the further you move a designer into an area where they’re weak, the more you denature and dilute their strengths as a designer. In most cases, you REALLY should have a front-end development team who can transpose your designers’ work into a scalable, coded final product, and who are specifically tasked with knowing the languages, tool-chains, and ecosystems required to create the front-end for modern products. And yes, they amount of knowledge you need to be an effective front-ender is absolutely insane: you can see, it’s a lot. When designers ABSOLUTELY SHOULDN’T code Pretty much any other time. If you have the resources, it is vital to make sure your team is fully fleshed out and that you have at least one of each of the following:

  • Project manager

  • UX researcher

  • UX designer

  • UI designer

  • Front-end developer

  • Back-end developer

  • Systems engineer

  • Marketing coordinator

  • Support technician

Why bother doing this though, when you could have just a few people wearing multiple hats? Clear separation of concerns, that’s why. The reason for having this many people is simple: you want to make sure that everyone is highly effective in their given role, and knows exactly what to do when the time comes. The bottom line Hybrid professionals are great, don’t get me wrong, and they do exist, but understand that the more a person takes on at once, the worse they’re going to perform overall, no different then a boat that’s overloaded trying to carry too much weight across an ocean. We wouldn’t blame that boat for sinking, we would blame the people that overloaded it. Stop blaming designers, developers, and product teams, and start placing the blame where it needs to be: a misunderstanding about the types of professionals that need to be hired to get the job done. So should designers code? After reviewing the preponderance of evidence, and speaking with hundreds of industry professionals to get a good feel, well-rounded view, our verdict is that designers should not be coding unless they absolutely have to, and if you don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable with taking it on, it’s more than alright to just say no. Nick Lawrence |

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