Early in the Fall, a colleague asked if I would connect with some students currently studying computer science who might be interested in User Experience Research or Design.

One student reached out and we had a lengthy email correspondence about User Experience (UX), User Interface (UI), and broader challenges breaking into the industry.

I have duplicated the questions and my responses below, with some modifications for context. This conversation is one I’ve had many times throughout my career and I’m excited to share the knowledge with a wider audience.

What is the UX/UI Field?

Student: I hope you’re having a good week, I’m a freshman majoring in Computer Science. I don’t think I understand it too comprehensively, but I’ve been looking into the UX/UI field and was referred to you for insight and advice about the industry and how to break into it. I would love it if we could set up a time to talk more.

David Farkas: Thanks for reaching out! To get to know more about your interests, could you tell me more about:

  • What originally interested you in computer science?

  • What now interests you in either User Experience or User Interface work?

  • What do you currently understand of those fields?

Student: To answer your questions, I’m not really interested in pure theory or a traditional software development career, but I always found the applications of computer science to be extremely useful and interesting and wanted to have a good foundation in it. In choosing my major for college, I struggled choosing between graphic design, psychology, and computer science. I decided on computer science because I wanted to gain that skillset and develop a better problem-solving mindset.

I heard about User Experience and User Interface from upperclassmen and researched it a little online, and it always mentioned how UX/UI is like an intersection between design, communication, psychology, informatics, and technology, which sounded really appealing to me. As someone who doesn’t really know which direction to head career-wise, this field seems like something I’d definitely want to explore, but I’m not completely sure where to begin.

At this point, I was really interested to chat more with this student. My own background started as an Industrial Design (physical product design) student and it was through an upperclassmen I learned about Human Computer Interaction and found the career path I have been on for over a decade. 

David Farkas: Thanks for sharing a bit more about your background. The description of User Experience and User Interface as an intersection between design, communication, psych and technology is a fair one.

I would caution the blending of UX/UI as these are two distinct fields though.

User Experience is much more about the communication, psychology, and business focus of a product. Understanding the intent and value.

User Interface is much more the design and implementation of that intent with technology. The blending of UX/UI is often done unintentionally by business/IT folks lacking the clarity that there are different tools, approaches, and mindsets for each.

Differences between UX/UI and software development

Thinking of UX, UI, and software development as three different, but complementary career paths, don’t feel you need to choose now, during your studies. I know plenty of folks who have bridged the gap between one and the other over the course of their careers.

In my opinion, the main difference in the work is as follows:

User Experience practitioners may be doing qualitative research, collaborating across the business and end-user, and sharing feedback with developers with a more traditional computer science background on the product needs.

User Interface practitioners coordinate with the UX practitioners on the findings and mold that intent into the wireframes and design artifacts. UI is the bridge between UX and Technology, creating the visual representation of the product.

Developers, or those most often with computer science backgrounds, ultimately have the most control in the sense they write the code to implement the solution, but also the least power in shaping the solution since the business requirements are often already defined.

These three definitions, and the roles, are far from prescriptive. The higher anyone goes in their career, the more collaborative the decisions and work is and the more everyone becomes an equal player where product, design, and development share ownership of the delivered solution.

As a decision in choosing your immediate path, it’s important to think about what you want to make (e.g. reports, visual artifacts, or code) and to use that insight to take a first step. The industry has changed at least twice during my career and the roles are constantly in flux, so whatever the choice is today, will be different 3-7 years from now.

What challenges are there in the UX design field?

Student: Thank you so much for taking the time to write such an informative response and explaining the different aspects of UI and UX. If you wouldn’t mind sharing, what are some of the biggest challenges you face working in UX design, and do you have any advice for anything I could do right now to get started if I am interested in the field?

David Farkas: This is a difficult one to answer simply, as the challenges change as someone goes through their career. For instance, in my current role leading UX Research and Strategy, a challenge is building a business case and finding advocates across the organization to build momentum for the practice.

Thinking back to those starting in their career, I see three key challenges:

Empathy: Empathy for the users is standard. But also empathy for business stakeholders. And empathy for our colleagues. We all have different backgrounds, experiences, and goals (project goals, family goals, financial goals). Having empathy is key.

Resistance: Throughout our careers we get pushback. Pushback about the “right” solution, or simply told our recommendations won’t be used. It’s important to learn how we each handle resistance, and rejection, and grow from those experiences.

Flexibility: One challenge I continually see in folks coming directly out of formal programs (both higher ed and bootcamps) is they try to hold to the documented way of doing research or design. The real world is messy, and while it’s important to learn the “rules of the game” for processes, it is equally important to be flexible with those approaches within real-world constraints.

There is no clear playbook in addressing these items, but an awareness of them, and yourself, is key in identifying and working through them.

At this point, our conversation came to a natural close. A special thanks to Gracia Xu from the Thomas J. Watson Collage of Engineering and Applied Science at Binghamton University who asked such insightful questions and was open to having our conversation shared more broadly.