VX: Visual Experience Design at Epsilon

Is UI dead? ☠️

I think it might be.

As digital products and services become more ubiquitous in our daily lives, the challenge to adapt to the influx of digital work and responsibilities has largely been ignored. Traditional agencies and design shops continue to struggle with implementing and staffing skillful experts in design and development. Hoping to dump all visual and development needs into hybrid roles like “Product Design” or “Full Stack Developer”.

For those who have built their careers on UI or Web Design, they have seen their skillsets devalued and shoved under the now classic “UX/UI” position.

As more companies and agencies invest in digital application design, they should consider the skillsets and roles needed to create compelling and visually appealing interfaces. The term VX is here to fix that, but first, let’s dig a little deeper.

To solve some of these design needs, agencies have tried the catch-all approach by hiring the mythical UX/UI unicorn; a fictional creature that can magically pitch high-quality mocks, conduct thorough research, and artfully craft expressive animations — all while still doing their daily tasks of user testing, wireframing and requirements gathering. By Frankensteining all design disciplines into one role, agencies have willingly diminished the time and energy needed for each skill. Forcing designers to wobble towards deadlines with half-baked ideas and uninspired screens.

It’s the old “Jack of all Trades” paradigm. 🃏

During the digital growth of the early 2000s, web design gigs would require an unreasonable amount of responsibilities. (Arguably, this still holds true.) As web work outpaced traditional graphic design work, designers were expected to build Flash sites, edit video, crop photography, write ad copy, design sitemaps, create wireframes, and any other creative request that came in— establishing a design practice that undervalued UX. Since then, the industry has “fixed” this issue by establishing UX as a distinct and important discipline.

However, this UX “fix” has unintentionally undervalued UI. Today, UI suffers because UX is doing too much of the UI work.

When you visit an orthopedic doctor, do you expect them to clean your teeth too? I bet she could offer feedback after peeping at your teeth, but would you expect her to bust out their dental tools too?

“It’s 2023. We are still having this UX/UI talk?!” 🤔

Yep. You know it’s true. Just Google search. You’ll find them in abundance.

97 more!

Much like full-stack development, product design is a cheap way for agencies to cover their bases. With the rise of Product and UX roles, agencies failed to preserve the artful craft of UI. Believing that if designers can craft intelligent wireframes, surely then can design beautiful webpages too? Of course, there are individuals that are capable of both, but much like full-stack development, when you build an eco-system of hybrid roles, the quality of the work suffers.

Sorry CSS, no love for you in a Full Stack environment.

We need to preserve UI as a dedicated discipline whose devotion is centered around the visual integrity and interactive experience of their products. I challenge the design community to think about how we can define permanent roles for these designers. I suggest rethinking how we title the UI role. Over the years my role has been defined as a UI, graphic, web, digital, UX, or interactive designer. What have I become!

It’s time for an evolution. It’s time for VX.

“Oh, cool. Another title.” 😑

I know, I know. But we are still battling the “UX/UI” mindset and it will not change. If you are working on digital products, at some point, everyone is doing “UX” or “UI”. Right? But, venn digrams or the classic UX sidewalk metaphor, isn’t helpful in establishing the balance of how much effort is needed for a product’s visual needs. UI is often associated as a “subset” of UX. As demonstrated by this infuriating visual:

UI requires too much effort and skill to be tossed aside as a subset of UX. And UX shouldn’t be tasked with designing the visual complexities of a product interface. UX and UI should be partners, each with a different set of responsibilities to enhance a product’s design.

You wouldn’t want a graphic designer to wireframe a complex form for enterprise software? So why would do companies expect a UX designer to define a product’s color themes?

For years, the UX community has soundly stated “UX is not UI”, but if we want to stop using UX/UI titles, maybe we should stop devaluing UI? Maybe common nomenclature makes it impossible to keep them separated? Maybe it’s time for a new title?

Maybe it’s time for VX.

VX? 👽

So what could a VX role bring to the already crowded space of UX and Product design structures? Let’s think through a few…

  • A critical voice for the visual integrity of the user experience — which was present, but has been devalued over time.
  • Advocates for traditional design principles and art direction.
  • Evolves beyond the role of “graphic designer” by being able to design and demo interactive experiences via FED or After Effects.
  • Conceptualizes interactive states — hover, focus, accessibility, product theming; by prototyping in a tool like CodePen.
  • Utilizes the principles of motion.
  • Proposes alternative solutions to industry standards that delight and push the boundaries of creative asks.
  • Collaborates early and often with UX & Dev — pushes to move out of wires early, so the team can tackle hi-fi mocks and get to the true canvas, the BROWSER.
  • One second, let me get my soapbox. *Ahem.* “Clients hate wireframes! Stop spending so much time reviewing wireframes with your clients!” VX designers should be responsible for “wowing” the client and “selling” the big ideas internally and externally.
  • Experiment with new technologies to foster new interactive experiences, i.e. D3, VR, AR., etc.

That’s the shortlist. But it’s a role for a person that has a trusted UX team that provides them with requirements to create the best visual experience their users and clients expect.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now and there is much more to chew through and digest. I wanted to place this out in the world to open up a dialogue and give a voice to those who have felt lost. I hope to continue this conversation, in the order to build a stronger coalition for all digital design roles to thrive and grow.

It’s a small step in “fixing” the systemic issues that, I believe, continue to plague web and app projects. Obviously, there are an abundant amount of beautiful websites and applications, but I’m curious how many of those are led by visual designers vs. UX-led design projects?

Want to work with us at Epsilon? Check out our careers page.

Article initially published in March of 2022.