GUI Career Options
June 25, 2008 9:02 PM   Subscribe

I want to go into graphical user interface design. What type of college program should I investigate? What type of careers are available? Can I make good money in this field but still have free time, or is it like any other programming job with long hours?
posted by parallax7d to Education (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I think to some extent the answers to your questions depend on what you find interesting about UI design. How much programming do you want to do? Are you more interested in the visual aspects of interfaces or the behavioral aspects? What kinds of products do you imagine yourself working on?
posted by jjg at 9:25 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

As jjg mentions, there are several distinct roles within UI design. There are the artist/designers that make things pretty. They're graphic designers, basically. They rock Photoshop and the like.

There are the programmer types that connect the buttons/widgets/whatevers to the underlying functionality. What technology they use depends highly on what they're working on. It could be Javascript, Flash, Ruby, Java, C++, Python, etc.

Finally there are the User Experience/Interaction Design folks that actually lay out the interface, understand lots about workflow, HCI, cognitive load and kinds of other interesting things. They run user testing, create wireframes, prototype, etc.

What is it that you actually want to do? That makes a pretty big difference on what to investigate next.
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:45 PM on June 25, 2008

Lots of schools have graduate programs in human computer interaction. I'd say get a standard CS degree and then look into graduate programs.
posted by delmoi at 9:47 PM on June 25, 2008

The graphic design doesn't interest me as much, but the layout and user experience part does. User testing and prototyping sound right up my alley.
posted by parallax7d at 9:50 PM on June 25, 2008

Okay, now we're talking. You're looking for programs in "human-computer interaction" (HCI) or "interaction design". If you have a more technical bent, seek out the former -- they'll usually be run out of CS departments. If you're more into the creative aspects, seek out the latter, which will often be offered by design schools.

As for careers, the variety is rich and wide. You can work for a big company and nurture a single product through iteration after iteration. You can be a consultant and jump in just to solve a particular problem for a particular client, then roll on to the next one. You can be part of a team where you're collaborating with other designers to create a solution. You can be a one-man band where the whole vision belongs to you. You get the idea.

You absolutely can make a good living in this field doing rewarding work without sacrificing your personal life. Sure, there are employers who will try to wring every hour out of you, but there are plenty of good options that don't carry this expectation.
posted by jjg at 10:11 PM on June 25, 2008

I'm getting a degree that approximates what you're looking for. It's a Master of Science in Design, Visual Communications concentration & in the area of Human Factors. Most graduate programs I think will really let you drill down the specificity to whatever it you want to do. If you don't have the undergrad degree yet, I'd wager that graphic (or even industrial, purely for the human factors bent) design would get you off to a better start than would a CS degree.

Vis. Comm. is the new p.c. term for graphic design, created in a attempt to differentiate between what designers actually do and what people think they do ("make it pretty.") In reality, making it pretty is more of a fine arts thing and a matter of style that evolves over time, mostly out of the classroom. The meat of design education is learning how to making things functional. If you're getting a generic undergrad degree that thing might be a poster or a widget and not a web form or whatever really compels you, but they share similar development processes and succeed or fail on a lot of the same criteria.

I can't really speak for the GUI career options vs. regular programming positions, because I've just got a regular programming position where I do all the back-end stuff too, but I can say that interface design is easily among the most interesting and nuanced aspects of application development.
posted by moift at 10:13 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

My apologies for the grammatical slaughter going on up there /\
posted by moift at 10:15 PM on June 25, 2008

I feel like informatics has a lot to say about interface, if only because good GUI without good information is useless (and vice versa).
posted by Skwirl at 11:53 PM on June 25, 2008

Probably the #1 conference in this area is the ACM's CHI (Computer Human Interaction). This attracts a mixture of programmers, researchers and business people from a wide variety of related fields. Have a look at who was giving papers, who they worked for and where they studied to get to where they are. Hopefully you will find some stuff to inspire you. There are many small companies working in this area but the best places to get experience are a fairly small number of colleges, some large software companies and the military.
posted by rongorongo at 3:38 AM on June 26, 2008

You might also want to make a list of your favourite GUIs and then find out who was behind their design. For example Bruce Tognazzini had primary responsibility for the original Mac UI, Bill Buxton has been doing some interesting research and design for a long time, IDEO is a consultancy with particularly prestigious track record in this area, Microsoft's Adaptive Systems and Interaction group will give you an idea of how things work in large companies. In terms of selling the design you might want to look at Steve Jobs showing off the i-Phone and then look read about some of the graft that went into achieving this.
posted by rongorongo at 4:01 AM on June 26, 2008

If you think you might be interested in the HCI/UX/ID stuff, check out Bill Moggride's Designing Interactions. It's pretty insightful into what usability folks focus on.
posted by Nelsormensch at 7:16 AM on June 26, 2008

One thing to toss into the mix is that except in rare situations, you will find far more job opportunities for this living in or very close to a big city - like NYC, Boston, Chicago, SF, LA, etc. If you are the type of person who may be happier living way out in the countryside, or in a smaller, cheaper city, you will probably have very limited options for jobs at first - or you may find a place where there is one company that would hire you to do that, but if you want to leave that company, you might have to leave town, unless you are willing to do something tangentially related to UI design. If you eventually make a name for yourself, you probably will have more options and flexibility.

Not trying to sound like a downer, but the people I know who are actually UI designers live in big cities. The people I know who trained to be UI designers but do something else live in smaller and more remote places, doing things that are sort of related (web design, graphic design, etc.)
posted by chr1sb0y at 7:19 AM on June 26, 2008

I stumbled upon this collection of sketches related to UI design. Piggyback question: what would I actually do as a GUI designer? Do I just submit sketches like the one above?
posted by theiconoclast31 at 8:35 AM on June 26, 2008

I got my BS in Computer Science from Georgia Tech with a concentration in human-computer interaction. Since then I've been working as an interface designer on a bunch of pretty interesting government and private projects. I'm paid pretty well and I like what I do. As far as I can tell my workload is generally the same as that of other, non-UI developers. I'm treated as a developer who happens to work mostly on the UI; I get the feeling that it's rare to have someone with programming skills work exclusively in a design/layout role.

From what you said, it doesn't sound like you're as interested in the look-and-feel side of things as you are in the information presentation side. Who cares how ugly an interface is as long as you can quickly and intuitively find the information you're looking for, right? If so, you might want to think about concentrating on heavier-weight tools like C++ and Java instead of tools like PHP and Flash which might only qualify you for Web-based UI jobs that involve a lot more graphic design than you might be interested in.

That said, you really should take one graphic design course in school anyway. Also take a couple of psychology classes, and intro to anthropology if your school offers it. All of these will help you figure out how people think and how to create simple and elegant but still useful tools.

Also, take some time to fool around with some of the free UI toolkit libraries available. Write some toy apps using GTK, Qt, Java's Swing library, or even Motif. Know and love the standard set of UI widgets and when to use them.

Finally, good on you for wanting to be a UI developer. To customers and end-users the interface IS the product, and making it elegant (and getting positive feedback because of it) is a really rewarding thing. Good luck!

feel free to email or MefiMail if you'd like more information.
posted by xbonesgt at 9:11 AM on June 26, 2008

human usability/ interaction.
posted by radsqd at 11:21 AM on June 26, 2008

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