UX engineer: the essential role no-one’s heard of

Does it sometimes feel like your engineers are talking a different language to your UX designers?

That’s because, in many ways, they are. But this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s great. It means they’re true dab hands in their respective fields.

It’s also why engineers and designers can struggle meeting in the middle when it comes to UX.

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Is there engineer vs. designer beef?

There’s no beef here. If anything, it’s a testament to their specialist skill sets.

When your engineers are all “React this” and “Node that”, it’s because their happy place is at the back end of product development.

This means their world is the database more than anything the user sees, feels or experiences.

But so much of what’s important from a UX perspective happens in the browser with HTML and CSS, which sits further towards the front end of development.

And then there’s your designers, whose focus is creating a product that’s straightforward, functionally delightful and visually stunning. Their work impacts the front-front end of development, where it is turned into HTML/CSS by your engineering team.

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Here’s the thing though: users can’t actually experience your product if your designers’ concepts aren’t faithfully developed.

Great UX design without thoughtful, intelligent development is like making a car without doors. It looks lovely from the outside, but you can’t do much driving if you can’t get inside it, can you? 🚗 🚫

Sound like you’re missing a piece of the puzzle?

Enter the UX engineer: someone with expertise that stretches across design AND development.

These wizards have the know-how to ensure brilliant design work is transformed into a product that will flourish in terms of its accessibility, architecture and aesthetics.

And, quite remarkably, almost every company and UX design agency doesn’t seem to have a UX engineer (or even know their role exists 🤯).

Get ready to discover the secret weapon you never knew you needed. But be warned: you might feel naked without a UX engineer after reading this article. Sorry about that.

So what is a UX engineer?

It’s somebody who is a developer at heart, with knowledge of everything from React to HTML/CSS, but with a focus on UX.

A UX engineer bridges the gullies between your engineers and designers by having an understanding across both disciplines. Essentially, this means UX engineers appreciate that great code (and following coding best practices) is the bedrock of great UX.

It’s why we have a UX engineer on our team. And why we believe every UX agency and enterprise organisation shouldn’t be without one.

What’s a good analogy for a UX engineer?

Think of them as someone with skills that lie between an architect and a builder.

They can read and help draw (or engineer) the blueprints for your house, but they also understand bricklaying, roofing, wiring and plumbing.

It means when the decorators (or designers) come in to feng shui your swanky pad (or digital product), there’s no chance of bumpy walls, leaky pipes or wobbly foundations. Your decorators can just get on with their job.

A paint roller rolls up and down

How do UX engineers help the user?

  • They understand that performance is more than just page loading speed, taking a holistic approach that ticks all the boxes across development and design.
  • Alongside your designers, UX engineers will be on top of applying best practices for usability and accessibility, like page layout, visibility and colour contrast, unique situational challenges for your users and, of course, user testing.
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  • They’ll help make your product an inclusive experience for all your users too. Thinking about data input options for people of all gender expressions, international alphabets (for users who span different continents and cultures) and minimising data download (for users in areas where having WiFi and 4G would be a luxury not a given).
  • Supporting your engineers, they’ll cover all the other crucial bits and bobs that contribute to great UX, like internationalisation and localisation techniques, adaptability and performance across different browsers and devices.

Learn how our UX engineer helped make a video education platform accessible to all

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It’s a lot to take into account (in fact, the above is merely the tip of the development iceberg).

And it’s no surprise when some of these UX must-haves get lost in the gap between engineers and designers.

Why not just train engineers in design skills (and vice versa)?

There are many great reasons to familiarise your engineers and designers in each other’s disciplines (as we discovered at Config), but that can only take your team so far.

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The UX engineer is a specialised role with all those wonderfully unique, cross-functional skills above. And your engineers and designers are boffins in their individual fields for a reason. That’s where you want them to focus their energy (even if it’s beneficial they have an appreciation of one another’s artistry).

When you have engineers, designers and UX engineers working in harmony, everyone (especially the user) will be a winner.

OK, I’m sold. Where can I find one of these unicorns?

It just so happens that our UX agency has one of these secret weapons in our arsenal.

During the second phase, a front-end web developer (although this massively understates this person’s ability and talents) was embedded in our team.

Nick Myers
Director of Digital Technology, Digital Theatre+

Our UX engineer helps ensure that the UX designs we create with our clients are implemented with such expertise, they’re even better in the browser than when you first got excited about them in Figma.

There will be no: “Huh, that doesn’t look like I thought it would.” Just high-fives and happy users all round.

Honestly. We don’t know where we’d be without our UX engineer. 🤘