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The Commoditisation of UI Design and the Rise of the Product Designer

Makaziwe Qobo

April 2019

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"When this awesome design system matures, what will be my role in the team?"

These were the words from a clearly-concerned UI Designer, Sipho, who had come to a startling realisation. For him, the penny had dropped. The jig was up. He had come to realise that his role as the go-to guy for beautiful user interfaces and components was under threat. The recent trendiness of design systems, UI libraries and artificial intelligence had made Sipho question if his job has become a readily available commodity for all to use.

Maybe Sipho is right to worry.

UI Templates & Kits

For years, savvy designers like Sipho have been designing and selling high-quality pre-designed templates and UI kits that cater to a variety of uses. Essentially, these are libraries of common UI elements like cards, buttons, navigation, icons and even entire screens.

A big benefit of using these is the fact that many sellers of themed interfaces and kits sell templates that have already been tested for optimum usability and experience. You’re essentially paying for the service of a UI & UX designer without ever employing either. Even UI designers themselves often use templates and kits as a foundation to avoid starting from scratch each time they design an interface.

Products like Shopify and Wix have made templates even smarter by allowing users to build websites from the ground up using drag-and-drop functionality.

Templates are useful, but they are only libraries of pre-designed components and screens. Where this approach fails is its inherent lack of scalability. Enter design systems...

Design Systems

"How do we ensure that the user interfaces we design are reusable, easily maintained and can be scaled?"

A design system seeks to answer this very question. It can be defined as a constantly evolving ecosystem that is comprised of a set of reusable components, assets, language and patterns. A decent design system will also include standards and guidelines on how to elegantly combine these elements into consistent and usable user interfaces.

Imagine there’s a designer named Thembi who has recently joined a product development team. How do we ensure that Thembi has the confidence to quickly integrate into the team workflow and start crafting delightful and consistent interfaces? How do we then ensure that multiple Thembis spread across different parts of the organisation have access to a single source of truth that encapsulates the organisation’s UI language, UX rules and design patterns? This is the power of design systems today.

And what of the future?

Automation: Rise of the Machines?

The year is 2029 and technology now has the ability to joke and reason with humans. The machines are now more intelligent than us. This is the future that awaits us if Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, is to be believed.

Some might scoff at Mr. Kurzweil’s assertions as nothing more than hyperbole, but recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have made this future a reality (albeit distant, perhaps?).

The creativity of designers has also been affected by the unrelenting disruption of technological advancements. Design Technologists (yes, that’s actually a thing) at Airbnb have recently demonstrated how low fidelity sketches can be automated into high-fidelity visual designs using technology.

A few years ago, a startup from San Francisco created The Grid - a website builder that claims to use AI to essentially design itself. In reality, the software wasn’t as seamless and elegant as the pitch they sold. After an underwhelming reception, the company has since begun work on an improved version. Despite the challenges, you can already see the potential of what AI can bring to the Sipho vs Terminator design war.

As Adrian Shaughnessy (of Computer Arts magazine) writes: a lot of what we do as designers can be broken down and codified into rules that can be learned by machines.

The Rise and Need for Product Designers

Though there’s enough reason for concern, I think we’re still years away from when R2D2 renders Sipho unemployed. That is no reason to be complacent, however. In the same way 2019 software developers are increasingly required to master multiple languages, UI designers must also find ways of reinventing themselves to suit the ever-changing needs of product development.

So, what is a product designer?

You might have heard someone say "designers, at their core, are problem solvers." I believe this statement to be correct. Michelle Roya Rad, a professional psychologist who often writes for the Huffington Post, describes one of the characteristics of problem solvers as having the ability to:

"See more than one solution to a problem and find new and productive ways to deal with new problems as they arise"

This is what a product designer is. Someone who possesses the skills and mindset to solve customer problems throughout the stages of the Design Thinking process. Contributing to all these stages means the product designer must have expertise in multiple facets of design. This is someone whose problem solving skills extend beyond Photoshop or Sketch. The aspiring product designer must be able to:

  • Empathise and define the problem by spending time with real customers to understand their goals, motivations, context, pains and opportunities
  • Ideate, visualise and prototype a number of potential solutions based on their research
  • Test their assumptions with real customers and objectively incorporate the feedback

As you can see, this encompasses various forms of experience design: user research, business analysis, interaction design, visual design, information architecture, content strategy and even service design! This may seem like a tall ask, but with technology advancing at such a fast rate it has become crucial for the UI designer’s survival to upskill on competencies that will keep them relevant.

So what’s going to happen to Sipho in the not-too-distant future? Adam Michela, the creator of Facebook and Airbnb’s famous design systems, has this to say on the matter:

"Yes, design systems will replace many design jobs as we know them today — they already have. Interface development patterns, processes and tools are like interchangeable parts and factory assembly lines — tools of industrial productivity that enable fewer people to create the same product as before."

I agree with most of Adam’s statement, though I do feel it offers an unnecessarily bleak look into the future of UI design. We’re still a far way off from 100% machine-driven design and there’s still ways that 2019 UI designers can prepare themselves for the future while they transition into product designers.

One of those ways is for companies to centralise their UI design capability into a dedicated design system team. A company that has done this well is Envato - the brains behind ThemeForest and GraphicRiver. Envato have structured their design team in such a way that UX designers embedded in teams are empowered by a living and a constantly evolving design system. A design system wholly owned by UI designers like Sipho.

This, in turn, allows Sipho to get a headstart on product designer principles like:

  • Researching what his company’s design needs are
  • Prototyping, designing and iterating on the company’s design ecosystem
  • Testing that his design ecosystem actually addresses the needs of its users

So, should Sipho be worried? Yes, he should be worried for his UI design future. Fortunately, with so much to learn, there’s plenty to look forward to as well. Good luck, Sipho.

Makaziwe Qobo