Well dear, when a product manager and a developer love each other very, very much….. 🙂

Ahem! Not really! But there are a few main backgrounds that we tend to come from and it’s helpful for teams to understand these backgrounds to know what they’re likely to get.

Each background tends to have strengths and weaknesses though individuals from a given background may vary from the typical strengths and weaknesses of paths to this career.

Human Factors or HCI

Human Factors comes out of the field of Cognitive Psychology. Formal study of human factors includes principles of User Interface Design, Usability Testing and other evaluation methods, Cognition, Learning and Memory, and other cross disciplinary areas that help create user experiences.

This is the one that’s usually mentioned before “related fields.”


  • Formal training in all aspects of user interface design and various methods of testing interfaces.
  • None


Psychology seems to be the least often recognized place that user interface designers come from. But it’s a natural fit.


  • The study of cognition, learning, memory, and perception are keys to creating a top notch, usable design.
  • Research oriented degrees provide additional benefit to any organization that desires to do usability testing because that training provides a foundation to understand validity and reliability as well as study design.
  • Program of study may not include graphic design.
  • Program of study may not include computer engineering and programming.
  • May not know tools of the trade such as Adobe Suite or Omnigraffle.

Visual Design

Someone who has studied computer graphics may become a User Interface Designer. They have talent for making things pretty.

A visual designer who has been working in UX for awhile, is less likely to have any of the disadvantages noted below.


  • Customers tend to like pretty things and aesthetics can actually improve usability.
  • An ugly interface won’t be enjoyable.
  • Talent for visual coherence which improves usability.
  • May not have any experience with usability testing.
  • May not have an understanding of the “psychology” of user interface design, so while an interface may be pretty, it needs to also be coherent and make sense to users.

Computer Science

Whether self taught or formally trained, some UX people started out as software programmers and discovered a love for front end work and an affinity for people.


  • Likely have a deep understanding of what is and isn’t possible.
  • Can communicate well with software engineers.
  • Can build working prototypes for testing.


  • Engineers need to think in edge cases in order to create software that won’t break. Engineers often think of “what ifs” and will tend to push requirements to more complexity. The “what if” edge case scenarios are critical to quality software engineering, but can lead to unusable interfaces.
  • Not likely to have visual design skills.
  • Likely to be weak in usability testing.
  • May not have an appreciation for the psychology of users.
The main areas of expertise are in programming, visual design, interaction design, and usability testing. Finding someone with strengths in all 4 of these areas may approach the quest for a unicorn. But large companies can afford to fill all of these highly specialized functions by one or more individuals. Smaller companies can pick the area that is the most important to them and consider outsourcing some parts or pick an individual who has at least some of all 4 skills.

A Note on Unicorns

I see a surprising number of job postings looking for user experience designers with front end development skills and visual design skills. There are a few around but they aren’t much more common than unicorns.

Kayla Block is of the “Psychology” variant of User Interface designers so the Interaction Design and Usability Testing are her natural habitats. She has some programming and visual design skills too.


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