From Development

UI Developer: a mix of Design and Front-end

UI development is a concept that is not well defined around the internet. One thing we all agree on is that UI stands for User Interface; therefore, a UI Developer is someone responsible for designing and developing the user interface. Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, the description of this job function is not that simple.

In this article, I explore the role of a UI developer, considering the definition of the job function as well as the required software and graphic design tools, primary responsibilities, and how to become one. Further, we take an in-depth look at how UI development principles can contribute to the frontend and contribute to the creation of exceptional user interfaces.

Stay tuned to find out more about the fantastic world of UI development!

Table of contents

  1. What is a UI developer?
  2. What skills and tools does a UI developer need?
  3. What does a UI developer do?
  4. How to become a UI developer?
  5. What can a UI developer teach a front-end?
  6. UI principles applied to the development
  7. Why Front-end developers should also be UI developers?
  8. Conclusion

What is a UI developer?

As mentioned, a UI developer is someone that designs and developes the User Interface of a web application. However, to clearly understand what a UI developer truly is: it is first essential to comprehend the difference between UX, UI, and front-end.

UI vs UX

First, in both UI and UX, the goal is always to deliver the best user experience possible. As often misperceived, this is not an exclusive responsibility of UX designers. Unlike UI, UX is more concerned with how a user experience feels and what the users perceive from an interaction with the product (websites and apps). In other words, while UX focuses on the psychological aspects of the experience, understanding and mapping how the user navigates through a product, on a cognitive level. On the other hand, UI design focuses on visually translating that experience into a visual interface, dealing with look & feel, layout, brand guidelines, accessibility, etc.Therefore UX design is closely related to user research and information architecture, while UI design is related to the graphical layout.

UI developers take the guidance and vision generated in the UX research ensuring that users have the required navigation elements to achieve their goals and needs while interacting with the product. These navigation elements are created according to design concepts and can include menus, buttons, colors, font size, illustrations, text, etc. Now that a UX designer and UI developer's job roles are more explicit, the second question arises: what is the difference between UI and front-end?

UI vs Front-end

While some say the job of a UI developer is the process of designing the product, others argue that that is the job of a front-end, plus coding and bringing the design to life. On the other hand, at Imaginary Cloud, we claim it is a mix of both! Therefore, a UI developer is a front-end developer with knowledge of UI principles and concepts that can make more straightforward projects if needed.

It is hard to distinguish a UI developer from a front-end developer because they are both working on how a website or app will appear on the users' desktop devices. A UI developer aims to provide the user with digital software that makes the interaction between the user and the computer simple, easy to navigate, and fun. Overall, UI focuses on engaging the user in a positive website or app experience, making it extremely valuable to develop strong design skills and in-depth knowledge of how digital graphic elements communicate with the user.

Similarly (but not quite the same), front-end developers integrate visual elements into websites and apps, allowing users to interact and navigate easily by implementing designs through coding languages.

At Imaginary Cloud, we believe a UI developer is a mix of both worlds (front-end and design). It refers to someone capable of combining programming skills with creative design and in-depth knowledge of concepts and principles. Keep reading to find out the best tools when working on the User Interface of a website.

What skills and tools does a UI developer need?

As previously mentioned, good UI developers must be well acquainted with both design and web development skills. Ideally, they can work with graphic design software tools, like Adobe XD, Sketch, and Figma. These tools are handy to design digital elements, create design systems, and are also a great way to keep interfaces consistent.

In addition to these tools, a UI developer must work with web technologies. Typically, it includes having a good understanding of how to work with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Additional knowledge of AJAX, JQuery, and JSON can also be beneficial. Moreover, new web development tools (such as MaterialUI, CodePen, Chrome Dev Tools, Sass, etc.) are continuously showing up and can be extremely helpful when producing an interface output.

When working on the User Interface of a website or app, it is also valuable to have an aesthetic and intuitive eye for visuals. Despite the UI technologies available, no software or tool can better train this ability than the designer or developer. Design concepts and principles regarding colors, typography, patterns, and spacing can help construct the user's perspective when interacting with a product.

In extension to making it look good, UI developers also make products so intuitive that the experience is entirely effortless and smooth. Thus, a vital skill is being empathetic. Empathy allows UI developers to put themselves in the users' shoes and deeply understand their needs and wants when interacting with a product. This comprehension can help align the users' expectations with the website's or app's performance, resulting in higher satisfaction.

Further, UI developers tend to be very perfectionist regarding the way things look and work. Therefore, they are well aware of the difference an "apparently not so important" detail can have. In fact, the details are often their masterpieces, which is why a good UI developer has a unique eye for them.

UI Developer Skills

What does a UI developer do?

As said before, UI developers are neither designers nor frontend developers. Yet, their functions are in between and are of high contribution to make a website or app not only functional but also with excellent presentation. Overall, their main aim is to produce a quality interface output that understands user behavior.

To do so, some of the key responsibilities a UI developer might have include:

  • User Behavior Analysis: an exemplary interface should meet the users' expectations, needs, and goals; thus, UI developers need to have a clear and in-depth understanding of who the users are and their typical motivations and behaviors. Matching the interface with the user can be decisive to a web application's success. In order to have a complete and thorough analysis, UI developers can create surveys and gather users' feedback.

  • Storyboards Production and Prototyping: storyboards help to develop designs according to the clients' project plans. It is vital to ensure the user interface meets the users' needs and is simultaneously aligned with business goals. Moreover, UI developers must seek to develop concepts that enhance the user experience, considering that interactions in the web application are easy and intuitive.

  • Coding: in addition to making a website or app look beautiful, UI developers must also ensure that the web applications are functional and practical. Therefore, having coding skills in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and so on provides accessibility and navigation. Overall, through coding, UI Developers can insert design concepts into frontend technology.

  • Communication: to ensure overall outstanding performance and success of a web application, it is important to keep good communication with all parts, including not only UX designers but also web developers (frontend and backend). Collaborating with web developers and programmers can help improve navigation and functionality.

  • Research: research and continuous learning can lead to more creative and modern interfaces. Keeping an eye for design trends and best UI examples can inspire and make each project innovative.

As we can observe, the role of a UI developer can be extremely versatile and exciting. Each step requires an eye for detail and creativity aligned with functionality, users' behaviors, and business goals. Keep reading to find out how to become one.

How to become a UI developer?

We already know a UI developer is a mix of design and development; thus, there is more than one path to become one. When working in the User Interface of a product, good knowledge and comprehension of design principles, branding, and user research are essential components. Therefore, a degree in graphic design is often a great way to start a UI career since it will provide the foundations for digital product creation.

Commonly, a UI developer might also begin a career by taking a computer science degree with a specialization in front-end. This is a great way to acquire more technical skills by learning programming languages and computation concepts. Plus, it allows developers to understand the different roles within a web development team, consequently improving communication across team members.

Even though a graphic design or computer science degree is a significant first step to becoming a UI developer, there are still many steps to take in order to combine both skills. Meaning, a UI developer with a background in graphic design must learn programming languages, and a developer with web development skills must acquire design principles. Moreover, in order to become a UI developer, one does not necessarily have to follow a formal education. Other options can also provide the knowledge and tools to grow professionally.

As an alternative to a traditional degree, there are numerous courses and certifications (both in design and web development) one might get either online or in presence. These alternatives are usually more focused on the specific tools and knowledge the job function might require. Additionally, these courses' practical side is a great way to build a personal portfolio from day one and interact with other UI developers.

Despite the training and formal education each person has, it is crucial to develop a critical visual culture and to show it through a complete, versatile, and well-structured portfolio, which also exposes technical skills.

UI Portfolio

Simply put, a UI portfolio is an opportunity to show off. When applying to a job or directly to a new client, the portfolio is what makes all the difference. It gathers and presents the developers' personality, as well as their design decisions, creativity, technical skills, and overall experience in different domains.

An outstanding portfolio should be clear, easy-to-follow, engaging, and aesthetically appealing. These are key characteristics that every UI portfolio must consider and use as guidelines. Besides presenting and gathering the best projects, the way those projects are structured throughout the portfolio is also decisive, which is why some UI developers are often very insecure about the best approaches, especially in the beginning.

To overcome this (initial) struggle, researching and using other portfolios as inspiration can help finding a unique voice. Another great tip to create an excellent portfolio is asking for honest feedback from fellow UI developers and friends (or even people one might not know very well) since they will comment according to their truthful users' perspective.

What can a UI developer teach a front-end?

The User Interface is the first thing a user sees when interacting with the product. If it's not appealing and easy to use, the user will go away without considering the great product features. It is similar to judging a book by its cover! That's why a front-end developer must learn UI and design principles to help develop a better and, consequently, a successful product.

Additionally, having a design comprehension will also improve the relationship between developers and UI/UX designers, as both sides will understand the reason behind a particular design. As a front-end, having this knowledge of UI principles will help to:

  • Find a better solution or alternative when facing problems during development;
  • Implement small details that make a difference in the product, that in most cases, are not possible to show on a design sheet.

UI principles applied to the development

Usually, the UI principles are used purely to design, and many different lists can guide us through that process. Today we will visit some of them on the developement approach to see what a front-end developer can add to the product and make it better.

1. Consistency

One of the first things you see in every list that guide UI design is consistency. The whole platform has to look similar, so the user can create an accurate mental model of the product and quickly understand what he can do with it. This aspect is visible in the design by having similar shapes, color palettes, and defined typography. Consistency can be the key to a smooth implementation as it allows to reuse elements, behaviors, and looks. But it can also be a struggle when dealing with different size windows.

Sass/SCSS variables and mixins

If you have the opportunity to use SCSS instead of traditional CSS, go for it! With Sass, you have variables that will allow to easily change a value that is used everywhere without searching and worrying about the possibility of missing it. Just give the intended value to a variable and use it wherever you want. They are perfect for defining the color palette, typography, and more complex things like shadows or gradients.

$lightBlue: rgba(77, 213, 255, 0.4);

.bg-lightblue {
 background-color: $lightBlue;
}

To save and reuse more information than a simple value, one can use Sass @mixin and @include to have multiple classes that include similar styles. Use the @mixin to define the style you want to reuse, and then use @include to have the style being applied to the target element.

@mixin input-caret-open() {
     position: absolute;
     top: 8px;
     right: 12px;
     width: 9px;
     height: 9px;
     ...
}
.input-red {
    @include input-caret-open;
    ....
}

Responsive structure and breakpoints

When implementing a design, it's easy to stick with the exact values given or approximations. It will look perfect at first, but if you try to play with the window size, especially width, you'll quickly realize that it does not work correctly in every case. Things can be cut out of the site or sent to a non-intended place, a real nightmare!

The first thing to have in mind are breakpoints. They will allow to restyle components from a specific window size, perfect to style two different versions of a page, like desktop and mobile. With that, one can have some mobile version changes without having to duplicate HTML to create two different styles.

For in-between sizes, make sure the structure is flexible and responds to width changes. Not everyone will use their browser on the full screen. Instead of using exact width values, try to use relative length units like percentages. If the design has a page with 2000px and an element that occupies 1400px with margins of 300px on each side, use a 70% width and margin of 15% instead.

Bootstrap, a CSS framework, can also help with both of these cases. It has column classes that can be used in various windows and be adapted to the current available width. Check below the example of the same layout styled with percentages (at left) and fixed values (at right). Use the resize of each element (a grey area, bottom right corner) to see what happens in each case.

See the Pen responsive vs non responsive element by Patrícia Silva (@patsilva_tese) on CodePen.

2. Efficiency of use

Most times, a system's efficiency is calculated through the time a user spends completing a task and the number of clicks involved. If the system uses familiar terms and has its layers well defined and organized, the user will quickly achieve his goal. The UI/UX design has a massive impact on ensuring the user knows where to go. But there are a few things you can do, as a UI Developer, to speed up the user experience and reduce the number of clicks.

Clickable form labels

When filling up a form, users may try to click on the name of the input (label) instead of the input itself. If you don't connect the label with the input, the user will need to make another click to fill the field. This can be easily fixed by defining an "id" on the input and a "for" on the label, as below.

<label for="fname">First Name</label>
<input type="text" id="fname" name="firstname" placeholder="Your name..">

Autofocus

Still related to forms, when entering a page where the main goal is to enter some information, the work is half done if the first field is already selected. Autofocus your first/most important field to remove one click from the process. This works on both desktop and mobile. On the last one, this will automatically open the keyboard. Of course, some of your users will still click it, but especially on login pages, this can shorten the time spent! Using the attribute autofocus on the input will focus on the input when the page is loaded. JavaScript and Jquery can also be used to do it by selecting the element id and using “.focus()”.

<label for="fname">First name:</label>
<input type="text" id="fname" name="fname" autofocus><br><br>

Clickable divs

One of the things that most annoys users is to see a section that seems to be clickable, but then only the text works (frequent on a lot of mobile versions of menus). These things create confusion and frustration and may encourage the user to leave. Make sure everything that is supposed to be clickable, in fact, is! If you have a big button with a small text inside, it is expected that the whole button will do the action and not just the space where the text is. Below there's an example of that: at the left side, a menu which lets us "click" on the hole row and at the right, only allows the text to be clicked.

See the Pen Full width mobile nav dropdown by Patrícia Silva (@patsilva_tese) on CodePen.

Hierarchical order of components & white space

Usually, on a User Interface, things that have the same behavior look similar. Items related to one another and items not related are different and separate from each other. Besides typography, color, and shape, white space conveys this feeling of proximity and relation when we look at the UI. It helps the page breathe and reduces the amount of information the user receives at once, making it easier to decide what to do next.

In case you are making the design by yourself, have in mind that white space works as an invisible border. If you feel like you need a limit to separate those two sections, maybe all you need is white space! On the other hand, if you are implementing a design, try to respect the proportions and amounts of white space - they are there for a reason. Use relative length units, so the proportions are kept on the width and apply exact height values. A margin of 47px is exactly that, not 45px or 50px. Be especially careful when giving margin/padding to an element. If there is another close that already has these attributes filled, make the math, so you use the right amount of space in the end.

3. Transparency of user actions & Visibility of the system status

It's essential to inform users about what they can do to, report what they are doing, or even what they have done. Give feedback on the system status when, for instance, an action has been successfully accomplished or when something takes more time than usual. No matter what happens, always inform the user. Let them know all of those things so that they don't doubt the results of their actions.

Cursor

Cursor images are standards we deal with every day. When we see a specific cursor, we know which type of action it represents. Because of that, when we don't use the expected type cursor, we confuse the users. If something is clickable, we are expecting a pointer type of cursor. If it is draggable, we expect an open hand followed by a closed hand, etc. Ensure you are using the right cursor on custom elements and take advantage of the HTML elements that already have those and other properties defined.

Animations

Animations aren't exclusively used to make things look prettier. They can be handy when applied to small elements and give the feeling of continuity, action, and progress. The user is more likely to remember what he has just done if he remembers seeing something change little by little instead of all at once. The perfect example of this is the animation of the on/off buttons: if you see the button change on the click, you'll probably question yourself if you clicked it or not and start doubting how the button was before. However, if you have an animation, you'll remember more states of that transition and be aware of what just happened.

See the Pen on/off buttons example by Patrícia Silva (@patsilva_tese) on CodePen.

Animations can also be very helpful when telling what is happening behind the curtain. If the users request an action that takes more time to execute, give them a waiting animation instead of a blank page (or the same one that later changes). You can use things like a loading circle or a progress bar to let the user know that it is not a problem. It's just taking longer.

Why Front-end developers should also be UI developers

Last but not least, if you are working in frontend development, talk with the UI/UX designer. There may be good suggestions that never got into a paper and that can be easily implemented to bring value to the product. In case you are struggling with the implementation of something in particular, check with the design team and give any suggestions you may have so you can find an excellent solution together.

Even if you are designing by yourself, consult with a UI/UX designer to help point out your work flaws. This way, you will better understand if things are out of place, if the sizes are right, and possibly excellent suggestions that you would never think of.

Here at Imaginary Cloud, our front-end developers and UI/UX designers work closely together to design and implement solutions for new projects. Our front-end developers also understand UI principles to speak the design language and make valuable suggestions.

Think you could need a hand? Drop us a line here!

Conclusion

Despite the similarities, a UI developer is neither a front-end nor a designer. These job functions are often interchangeably misused, and consequently, their specific responsibilities may become confused. To us, a UI developer is a mix, and it is precisely this duality that makes the job's essence so exciting and challenging.

UI development requires both design and computation knowledge. Thus, a good understanding of technologies (such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) is desired, as well as additional graphic design tools (e.g., Adobe XD and Sketch) and well-developed visual culture. A great UI developer can combine functionality and navigation with beautiful aesthetics. Moreover, to create a fantastic User Interface, it is also important to have an in-depth user behavior comprehension, which can be attained through user research practices.

Furthermore, as one starts gaining work experience in this field, it is essential to keep a well-structured portfolio that exhibits technical skills, creativity, and personality. A clear and outstanding portfolio can be a game-changer when applying to jobs or directly to clients. Further, continuously improving skills and obtaining new ones can be highly advantageous.

Even though a UI developer is not the same as a front-end, front-end development should definitely pay attention to their design skills and knowledge. UI principles, such as consistency, efficiency of use, and transparency, can contribute tremendously to a user's experience when navigating in a web application.

Overall, keeping open communication with UX designers, UI developers, and front-end developers can benefit a project's outcome and individual professional growth.

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