The UX unicorn. Real or not?

Have you heard of the UX unicorn? Within the industry, it is a well-known concept that many people are either looking for or trying to become. But should you? And is it even possible? Let’s take a look.

UX Unicorn

Within this article, we’ll look at the UX unicorn, what it is, the required skills, and the first steps to take if you want to become one.

We’ll also look at ongoing discussions about UX unicorns, my views based on years of working in UX, and whether or not you should try to become one. But let’s start with what a UX unicorn is first.

Table of Contents

What is a UX unicorn?

A UX unicorn is a skilled generalist that’s a proficient designer and coder. They’re able to do a complete project from the first briefing until the final stage of development. It is as if you combine a front-end developer and a UX designer in one person.

Like the mythical creature, many people are looking for the UX unicorn. Yet, it is very rare to find one.

Some even say a unicorn doesn’t exist. And you could say the same about the UX unicorn. However, I do believe they’re real and that you can become one if you work hard enough. You’ll notice why once we look at the skills and roles of a UX unicorn. As it turns out, it isn’t so mythical after all!

Skills

Based on the skills of a UX unicorn, this person could also be called a UX generalist or X-shaped designer. The X-shape is a variation of the T-shaped designer you see and hear often.

First, UX unicorns need to be great project managers since they work two roles in one. In any other case, there would be a design handover from the designer to the developer.

Since that’s not necessary in this case, you need to be able to have a bigger overview of project requirements and scope. To make sure this works out fine, ask a lot of questions before starting the UX project.

Sales skills play an important part as well. If you can manage that, it is more likely you’ll be very successful. You’ll be able to help clients from start to finish, saving them a lot of time and effort.

Then, you need to have a list of skills from both a designer’s and a developer’s perspectives.

Design skills

From a designer’s perspective, you need to be a skilled visual designer and have a good understanding of design systems. Front-end developers and designers work together in a design system, and since you’re combining both in one role, knowing your way around the design system makes a lot of sense.

Development skills

When I first started to pick up smaller development tasks as a designer, the main thing I needed to learn was version control. Everything from push and pull requests in Git to branches in SVN was entirely new for me. 

To become a UX unicorn, you need to understand and be able to work using either Git or SVN. Those two are by far the most commonly used tools for version control. It’ll help you understand how developers work. 

And finally, having a basic understanding of how apps and websites are structured is also very helpful. Of course, you have to know how to use HTML and CSS. Knowing JavaScript (JS) is recommended but not required.

Roles

As mentioned before, the UX unicorn combines the roles of a front-end developer and a UX designer into one. Yet, it is not a role you’ll often find on a job board. If you’re looking for a job as a UX unicorn, you could look for these roles instead.

  • UX engineer
  • UX developer
  • Front-end designer

In practice, the UX unicorn can design a prototype as a part of his UX design role. First, he’s able to follow design thinking principles. Then, in a front-end role, he develops and tests the prototype.

After the validation phase, he returns to his UX role to improve his work. Depending on the project, you can do this multiple times. The UX unicorn can work with other developers to build, release, and maintain the final product.

Why companies are looking for unicorns

One important thing to keep in mind is the reason why companies are looking for unicorns. Sure, it is cool to be able to do two roles in one. Not many can do that, and it is an excellent opportunity for you to stand out. However, it is mainly a way to save money for many companies.

You’re doing two jobs in one but are you getting paid for two jobs? In most cases, the answer is no. With that in mind, it might be better to become an expert in one role rather than being somewhat above average in multiple skills and roles.

If you are interviewing to join a company in a unicorn role, make sure you ask a lot of questions to ensure you’re not getting tricked into a role that’s not good for you in the long run.

Frequently asked questions

There’s a lot to say about UX unicorns. Unfortunately, in today’s design world, we’re unsure if they exist. And that raises a lot of questions. Let’s answer some frequently asked UX unicorn questions here.

Is a UI/UX designer a unicorn?

Even though a unicorn is defined as a professional that can do multiple roles at once, I wouldn’t say a UI/UX designer should be considered a unicorn.

The roles a unicorn can do should complement each other. In the case of the UX unicorn, it makes sense because front-end development follows after UX in the overall project.

Unfortunately, UI and UX aren’t like that. Both roles overlap too much to consider a UI/UX designer a unicorn.

Are UX unicorns real?

Yes, some professionals are actual UX unicorns. Admittedly, they are pretty rare, but they do exist. Whether or not you should seek to become one is a different discussion, though.

Most people I know that I would consider a unicorn are programmers first and designers second. Given that UX is a relative technical design role, it is easier for programmers to learn design than the other way around.

UX unicorns that were designers first are even less common. But again, it is not impossible.

What coding languages should you learn as a UX unicorn?

As a UX unicorn, you should learn HTML and CSS. Both coding languages are the foundation of modern websites. In Figma, you can see CSS properties in the inspect panel, making it easier for you to learn.

Once you learn HTML and CSS, your conversations with other developers will become much easier. JavaScript isn’t a must-learn, but a nice-to-know if you have the time.

Further reading

To become a UX unicorn, start by becoming a UX designer first. On our website, we have a lot of articles to help you learn UX

Once you’ve done that, it is time to work on your first UX project. Chances are you’ll have to work together with developers during the project. I recommend you ask them a lot of questions and learn from them.

Reading about front-end development on websites like W3Schools is also something to start with sooner rather than later. 

Everything put together, that’s a great way to get started on your journey to becoming a UX unicorn.

Useful resources to boost your UX career 👇

Or check out all UX resources on Gumroad.
Profile picture of author Nick Groeneveld, a senior UX designer and mentor for The Designer's Toolbox

About the author

Hi! I'm Nick Groeneveld, a senior designer from the Netherlands with experience in UX, visual design, and research. I have completed a wide range of projects in finance, tech, and the public sector.

Take a look at my LinkedIn and Medium for more.