If you're a game developer, into which house does your company's Sorting Hat put your UI team members? Art, Design, or Engineering? This question was posed by a fellow UI designer on Twitter, and as I answered, I realized that in one hand I had the teams I'd worked on myself and those sets of experiences, and in the other hand I had the way that I personally think game UI teams ought to be designed.
At nearly every company I've worked at prior to Uber Entertainment, where I am now, the question of what to do with the UI designer or UI artist was met with a shrug and a guess. Most companies think of their UI designers as artists (and the distinction between the two is something I'll get to in a minute) and put them on the Art team. The problem is that this set up only works if your UI artist is truly only an artist, and is not also responsible for designing the actual interactions of the UI. Once the UI artist's work begins encroaching into design and gameplay prerequisites, how is the Art lead supposed to help manage the work?
The answer might be, then, to put them on the Design team. This is the most logical place if your UI person is primarily serving in a design capacity rather than an art capacity, but at some point his or her work is going to begin shifting from being design-centric to being engineering-centric or, later in the project, art-centric.
And this is highlights the problem that many companies have regarding UI: a lack of definition in the role their UI people are supposed to play. I've interviewed at companies for positions that were advertised as a UI Designer position, only to go through the interview and realize that what the team was actually looking for was a UI Artist.
A UI Designer is focused on designing the macroscopic UI flow and user experience, and then drills down to design the individual microscopic interactions of the UI elements. His or her concern is not focused on the graphic design or aesthetic of the screens, at least not at the design stage.
A UI Artist is focused on the art look of the interface. While this person might have some experience designing interactions, their goal is to design the aesthetics, and he or she usually isn't involved in the macroscopic UI flow design.
But most UI artists or designers are not locked into only one of these roles on a game team -- they're often required to do both, even if the job title they were hired under is one or the other. These hybrid roles are the tricky ones when it comes to figuring out the management structure and where you have to put them on the org chart.
At Uber, we don't have to worry about this -- we're a small team of about twenty people, and because we all have hybrid skill sets that cover many areas, we tend toward autonomy rather than strict management. So as the only UI designer on Monday Night Combat and Super MNC, I've been a team of one according to title, but nearly everyone has had a hand in the UI design and art in some way.
But for those companies that do tend more toward org charts and structured management, it seems that a better understanding of how UI fits with the other disciplines might help when figuring out where to put it. UI is a three-legged stool: Art, Engineering, and Design. It requires all three to stand properly, and so rather than being shoehorned into any one of the three disciplines, it seems that it functions best as a fourth discipline that equally interfaces with the rest. And if you're large enough to have multiple people on your UI team (something I've only experienced once, while working on Quake IV at Raven), having a UI Lead that has an understanding of the individual pieces of art, engineering, and design will allow you to hire people for the team that are particularly strong in any one of those disciplines. For instance, the UI team for Quake IV was made up of three of us: one person whose strength was graphic design, one person whose strength was in scripting and the technical aspects of making the GUIs work in game (that was me), and a third person who was equally skilled in both who could see the overall picture of what was needed for the UI and how to get there, and how to present that to the rest of the teams we had to work with.
If you're a game developer, I'd love to hear how your team structures UI and how you feel it works for you and your team.