What Does It Mean to Be a UX Developer?

A UX Developer is certainly an interesting position. Doing a Google search for the term   yields some rather interesting results, as seen here: “Hi, I’m a UX Developer — You’re a   what?” and here: “What is a UX Developer, and is it really a thing?” Many people in the industry have often referred to it as being a mythical unicorn.

Jeff Gothelf, author of Lean UX, explains the concept in a Quora post:

"A UX unicorn is a designer who understands workflow, interaction design, usability (and related research fields), prototyping, etc., and marries that with strong visual design skills. Extra sparkles if they can code."

The primary difference between Jeff’s assessment and my own experience is that rather than being simply “extra sparkles,” my primary deliverable is code.

I think what lies at the heart of much of this confusion is the breaking down of the traditional workflow between design and development. Recent advances in technology both in modern web browsers and across smart devices are creating new avenues of interaction. We are long passed the days where having a purely static design provides the best user experience. 

Developing User Experience at 2U

Developing UX at 2U is personally very rewarding. Knowing that the features I am helping to build can provide a positive impact and ultimately result in better outcomes for students gives me a strong sense of purpose.  

It also presents some amazing visual and software design challenges. Our users are not just students — they are instructors, course coordinators, post-enrollment services, as well as the teams responsible for integrating content. A design that works well in one context might not provide the best user experience in another. 

For instance, in building an interface for the management of Live Sessions, the amount of displayed meetings will vary drastically between the different roles. While a simple drop-down menu might work well for a student with a small number of meetings, that same component would be rendered unusable as an admin where you might have 80 meetings in a single day.

In order to test out different approaches and come up with solutions, the most useful “arrow” in my UX quiver is a “functional” prototype. A functional prototype utilizes dynamic data and is created using the same environment and dependencies that exist in production. In the past, building simple prototypes was often done haphazardly and often with lots of spaghetti code. Part of my responsibilities include working alongside the developer teams in implementing any approved design, and for the sake of not being a bottleneck, it makes sense that any prototype is built to be functional.

One of the ways in which I increase that functionality is in the creation of a UX API that provides a dynamic environment from which to test and build new features. A “Data-Driven,” or “API-First,” gives us the ability to get more done and be more modular. 

One of the ways in which that approach helps is in prototyping the mobile app. Having the ability to provide the same API across multiple devices allows us more control of user experience. We can test how the same event might be viewed differently depending on device type and more easily prototype data synchronization between mobile and desktop.  

In Closing

As a UX Developer, I draw inspiration from a variety of sources across design and development. I am just as comfortable reading Hacker News as Designer News. Working closely with awesome designers and getting to partner with incredibly talented developers provides endless opportunities to learn and better my craft. To me, it represents the best of both worlds.

So, do you think I am a unicorn?  


 An avid technologist, Michael spent more than 15 years working as an engineer in the film and television  industry  before changing careers to focus on building software. Michael is an open-source enthusiast and  reads more  source code than books. He is especially passionate about crafting user experiences. When he is  not working, he enjoys teaching his 5-year-old daughter about algorithms.