Making the switch from developer to designer

February 09 0 Comments Category: Design, User Experience, Work

Recently, Jared Spool and Robert Hoekman, Jr. addressed the question of making a career move from developer to designer on their Userability podcast. I listened to it with great interest, having made this move myself not too long ago. Jared and Robert had some great advice, like to just start observing how people use your software, but I thought I’d add some thoughts from my own experience.

I found there are four things you need to do in parallel: learn, stay current, practice, and evangelize. Sometimes you’ll focus on one more than others, but to be successful, you really need to juggle all four. (And it doesn’t stop after you’ve made the switch, you just have less to learn and more to stay current on.)


Although a lot of design is common sense, you still need to learn how to recognize what sense is “common” and what is not. To this end, I recommend attending conferences and seminars and reading books.

Depending on where you live, there may be a local SIGCHI, UPA, or IxDA chapter that organizes events and seminars – that would be the first thing to check out because local events are usually less expensive and more intimate than the big national conferences put on by these organizations. Regarding the bigger conferences, I can’t speak for UPA or Interaction, but CHI tends to be more academic, so it may not be the best use of funding (if you’re lucky enough to get it in this economy). I found UIE’s UI conference to be great for a beginner, with great speakers and day-long seminars that cover subjects like design strategy, intro to interaction design, paper prototyping, and many others in full detail.

For books, I recommend Robert’s first book Designing the Obvious and Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. These are quick reads, but they manage to cover a lot of design basics – definitely enough to get you started. Books like About Face by Alan Cooper, while comprehensive and often recommended, are more useful as references when you need to look up how to solve a particular problem. It’s not something you’ll want to read cover-to-cover (unless you have a lot of time on your hands).

Stay Current

There is a bit of overlap between learning and staying current, but I think they deserve to be called out individually because the resources you use are different.

To get and stay current in the field, you should make Google Reader or another RSS feed aggregator your best friend. Blogs are by far the best way to stay in touch with the design community. Here are a few that I recommend:

If you find an author you like, they probably have a blog – look it up. If you do some development, read developer blogs. Subscribe to Gizmodo if you have time to spare. Whatever you’re interested, subscribe to the feed and you’ll be on top of all the latest news, trends, and techniques.

Another fantastic resource for staying current is the SXSW Interactive conference. This will be the best investment you make, guaranteed. You’ll be surrounded by bright and creative people and all the emerging technologies. It’s a great motivator and a great way to meet all those internet ‘celebrities’ like Jared and Robert (not to mention Kathy Sierra, Jason Fried, Jeffrey Zeldman, and many others).


The only way to become a designer is to design. Even if it’s not in your job description, start incorporating design techniques you read or hear about.

Do some hallway usability tests, make a paper prototype, create some mock-ups before diving into the code. One of the first things I did was create a paper prototype and run some usability tests with people in the office. We got some great feedback this way that led to a much better design. It’s amazing how much a quick and dirty usability test can uncover.

Another thing you can do is start asking questions: Who are the users? Why do they need our tool? How do they currently accomplish their tasks? Why do we need features x, y, and z? What workflow are we trying to support? These are the types of things a designer needs to tackle for every project, so the sooner you start asking questions, the sooner you’ll figure out the right questions to ask. If you’re lucky, you may get to talk to some real users and observe them in their environment.

Find the low-hanging fruit for your project – something that would be easy to improve – and do it. It may not be the most visible thing or lead to impressive results, but at least you’ll get to practice your skills and it’ll give you something to talk about when you need to convince others of the value of design and usability. The more you do, the more people will start to see you as the “expert” in the field.


There’s no getting away from this one. You have to be passionate about great design and usability and you need to talk about it. Make it a point to know all the key decision makers in your company and meet with them on a regular basis. Even if it’s over coffee in the break room, you need to spread the idea that usability is a priority, not a “nice-to-have”. It’s usually not hard to convince people that usability is necessary, but it is hard to get them to act on that belief.

One of the things I did is establish a Usability Special Interest Group where we review our current products and mock-ups, read and discuss design-related books, and share other interesting information we learn at conferences or read online. We have a group of people interested in usability (developers, managers, interaction designers, and technical writers) who learn together and all now evangelize usability on the projects they’re involved with. In addition to being a support group for like-minded individuals, it’s also a great way to spread the influence.

What you do will depend on your organization and its culture. Just find the right people and talk, talk, talk. This is a great way to establish yourself as a usability expert and to start swaying the company culture in the direction of usability, where they will actually value your work.

Remember, it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. The best way to make the switch to interaction designer is to start doing the work. As a developer, you are intimately involved in your products, so you have a great chance to influence them. Don’t wait for someone to ask you to design something or run a usability test – just do it and then present the results. Time may be a concern, but if you don’t find the time for design, no one else will either. Learn, stay current, practice, and evangelize and soon enough, people will see you as the designer you want to be.

Then order your new business cards. :)

Write a Comment

Commenter Gravatar