Not sure what kind of UX talent will best suit your organization? Read on!

A Quick History of HCI Skills

While HCI began as a domain much earlier, Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Professionals started formally working in the IT industry en masse only about 25 years back. As they continued working in the nascent field, their Skills and methods matured as well as diversified over time.

So UX Design is relatively a new skillset in the industry. It was barely 15-20 years back that I recall reading job descriptions titled ‘Usability Engineer’. However, there were no accredited or popular educational institutes which taught Usability Engineering as a full-time degree course.

This was the point where Information technology industry had realized the need of a particular kind of expertise – someone who would evaluate the Usability of their interfaces, conduct some usability audits, and create a thickish report on the various ‘Usability Flaws’ that the application interface might have.

As the requirements elucidated, this Usability professional came in when the application was ready to be deployed, or even when users had already started using the product and were, in all likelihood, already complaining about the issues they were facing.

Since those days things have obviously changed a lot, and the term ‘User Experience’ has become more popular and the understanding of UX design skills is getting much more nuanced and recognized.

Even so, most Technology Leaders, and even Business leaders categorize this ‘group of skills’ as UX/UI ie. ‘User Experience’ and ‘User Interface’. This is certainly not inaccurate, but the categorization is not yet sufficiently calibrated to the level of Industry needs.  At some level, this is perhaps like simplistically deciding that an engineer is either a mechanical engineer (if the domain is physical products), or a software engineer (if the domain is digital products).

Necessary HCI Skills For IT Software Development

Let us first understand what UX Professionals can offer in typical ‘Software Development’ Environments.

As I indicated, now UX professionals come in at a much earlier stage of the development as compared to the ‘Usability Engineer’ (who was supposed to somehow fix the Usability of workflows after the code was deployed). In other words, the basic paradigm for the involvement of HCI professionals has travelled from ‘Testing and Fixing’ to ‘Implementing it at the time of Inception’ – moving upstream in the product life-cycle.

Over time, the 3 broad skillsets of HCI that have emerged are:

  • User Experience Design (UXD) – Involving Interaction Design, making detailed wireframes, iterating these and defining how users interact with the interface.
  • Graphics Design or Visual Experience Design (VXD) – Involving the design of all the visual assets like images, icons, colors, fonts, layouts, visual hierarchy and so on. In the industry this skill is often referred to as ‘UI Design’ (to be considered separate from ‘UI Development’, which takes care of coding of the visual design).
  • User Research (UR) – Involving Research activities which are needed at every level of the software development. This is often broken into Formative Research (which is conducted before the development starts) for establishing or validating the product/feature requirement in itself, and Summative Research which means validation of the design with users and customers at every level.

Does My Company Need a Team with all Three skillsets?

In an ideal case scenario, yes – these skillsets do complete each other, and if budget allows, you can engage all 3 skillsets. However, for moderate budget limitations, one can figure out if the projects need all these 3 persons as full-time employees. For more stringent budget limitations, one can hire a single professional having mastery over one of these skills (User Experience Design), and moderately trained in the other two (UI and Research). These are the ‘Do-it-all’ UX Generalist Professionals who would define their processes, do the user research, and even create all the required visual assets themselves.

But as far as mature product companies go, who may have the budget and width of projects, it’s better to have specialized teams comprising some Generalists and some Specialists. If your company portfolio is much bigger, you may easily need 3 departments within your team with one lead each for UXD, VXD and UR.

Type of Companies and Their Needs

Let us broadly classify IT companies, for the ease of understanding their specific needs of HCI skills.

1. IT Services & Consulting Company

An IT consulting / Services company typically has projects from multiple industry domains, and also a wide variety of projects from designing portals, web tools, to enterprise products. It is quite likely that HCI professionals will be working on variety of projects, yet engagement of HCI skills could be shorter, because larger projects are pre-budgeted and hence have a stricter timeline per project. Depending on the domain, complexity and the nature of the project, skills and teams are selected.

2. IT Product Company

In a product company the HCI professionals need to be aware of the exact problem that is being solved by the product. The User Research will have to be much deeper and engaging over time, User researchers might get involved in meeting the ‘Customer Advisory Boards’ and even get to co-create the product along with the customers & users. For Product companies, HCI professionals will typically have longer engagement, and end up building a deeper domain knowledge-base. Additionally, HCI professionals here will have to wear different hats apart from the usual 3 channels of UXD, VXD and UR – ie. Service design, Customer experience, Information Experience, Support and so on.

3. Other Types of Companies

  • Internet Service Portal
  • B2B Cloud Service
  • B2B Cloud Service
  • Enterprise Product Company
  • Consumer Product Company
  • 8. Consumer Product Company
  • Next Billion users focused service
  • Industry Domain specialized
  • Mobile First app

All the above types of companies will need specific sets of additional skills apart from the usual trio of the UXD, VXD, and UR.

For example, Customer Engagement journey for each type of project/product will be different, and even the specific stage of the product or service offering will matter when it comes to rightly skilling your UX team. Some will have a focus on increasing their conversion funnel, and some will be at a stage where Customer adoption is the key. At higher levels of product maturity, churning out new features (or products) on a platform often becomes important, and additional skills are almost certainly required. Some such specialty skills are listed below –

  • Design System Expert
  • UX Manager
  • UX Architect
  • UX Strategist
  • UX Writers
  • Information Experience Specialist
  • Design-Ops manager
  • Product Manager
  • UX Project Managers
  • Domain specialized UX expert (Ed-Tech UX designer etc.)
  • AR/VR/UX expert

As the HCI domain becomes more systematized within the industry, we can be quite assured that we will start seeing more of the above job titles in the near future.

Established Product Companies v/s Startups

Pretty much any Product Development endeavor needs a Tridev (Trinity) of skills – DEV, PM, and UX

DEV: the Technology team or the Development team that will code the IT product. This is the talented team which will make the product a reality with their deep understanding of technology, and ability to engage and deploy technology.

PM: The Product Manager who will make sure we are solving the right problems, and customers are ready to pay for the solution,

UX: The UX team should bring in the User-Centered design methodology and build a delightful user experience. right from the beginning. Product Companies do not just need UX Designers, they need ‘UX Product Designer‘ skills. Product designers are likely to look at wholistic product and service and not just Interaction design.

Recommendations for Startups

As far as startups go (since most of them will be tight on budgets), they should typically be looking at ‘do-it-all’ kind of generalist profiles having a good mix of all these 3 primary skills, UXD, VXD, and UR. Specific domain expertise would be good to have. Also depending on the maturity of the product, it would be good to have Customer experience, User adoption, Documentation, kind of skills.

Recommendations for Matured Product Companies

Large product companies typically should look for specialists, because they would have the luxury of having 3 different department UX, VD and UR, and their product design processes are much more likely to be structured and streamlined.


UX Design or UX-UI are generic terms explaining the type of HCI skills, and depending on the type of company, Industry domain, and maturity of your product/service offering, the skillsets required could vary significantly.

Hiring managers should carefully understand this nuanced requirement of the skills and select the candidates thoughtfully.



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