Picking Your Career In XR: Designer Vs Developer Path
As extended reality (AR, VR, and MR) is continuing to become more present in our daily and professional lives, the job market is only increasing its demand for AR and VR development and design skills. There’s no better time to prepare for this inflection point.
Despite there being a promising future to those looking to enter the extended reality industry (AR, VR and MR), those seeking to grow their skills to enter the market are faced with a big decision: going into the development route and building applications into (virtual) existence from the ground up or taking the path as a designer, and crafting end-to-end experiences for the metaverse, ensuring users have an intuitive interaction through every touch point.
If an XR app were a house, the XR Designer in this case would be the architect, who draws up the plan, and thinks of how the house will be used (i.e., where to place the doors, how the doors will be interacted with, and how the home-owner will intuitively navigate through there house). The XR Developer on the other hand, would be the builder who decides on the building materials, and assembles them into what was planned.
Both paths are rewarding if you dedicate yourself to them. To pick the right choice, you just have to know what to expect when you take a path at the proverbial career crossroads.
Ask Yourself First
Before jumping into the deep water, you’d want to check how deep it is, right? Or before that, do you even like swimming?
The first question that you should ask yourself is: “What do you want to do?“
Do you enjoy puzzles, physics, and building complex things from scratch? Were you into physics, math and logic growing up? Do you enjoy finding and breaking down problems and resolving pesky bugs? What brings you the most enjoyment from your or your team's finished project: is the fact that you’ve built it with clean code or more than that you’ve visualized and drawn out the map?
Both Design and Development Need Each Other
Have you ever built legos without a blueprint or assembled IKEA furniture without a manual (such a pain)? When you see a construction site on your walk through the city - do you think the construction company just got there, dug a hole, set some pillars, and started building upwards towards the sky.
Probably not, because those legos wouldn’t be that much fun, you’d return those Malms and Bjorns to the shop, and I’d be really worried about the structural integrity or practical design of the building that the construction company erected without blueprints.
A similar relationship stands between design and development in software engineering and building applications in general (and also for XR technologies).
Design professionals think about the striking balance between user problems and business opportunities, solving them through intuitive and seamless experiences. Designers do a lot of storyboarding, planning scenarios, research and testing , and in the end opting for the solution that makes the most sense to the user and product.
Developers, on the other hand, take the design blueprint and build it up using dedicated software. They check the schematics and blueprints, determine the right approach, pick the right tools, collaborate with design to offer feedback on what’s technically feasible and where adjustments may be needed. These alterations could come because of hardware (i.e. CPU or GPU performance), software limitations (there might not be sophisticated tools out there to do the job properly) or alternatively, resourcing.
The XR Double Diamond Process
Let’s borrow the famous Double-Diamond Design Process model — one of the best known and most popular design visualization models. In this case, we will adapt it to the XR development case.
The model is structured from four different phases: Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver.
- Discover — a phase of brainstorming, observing, and gathering ideas. The goal is to understand what and why an XR application is needed. In an XR example, this would be observing human behavior (XR tries to mimic natural behavior in the physical world) and trying to understand how users would behave in the application. In this phase, designers need to know what is the nature of the problem.
- Define — here’s where we go a step deeper and find answers to burning questions about what should be included, what matters most, and what is realistic. A good designer will think about the user first and adapt the application around them and not the other way around (trying to teach the user to learn controls that aren’t intuitive). In the Define phase, designers need to narrow down to the most important goals and get rid of unnecessary clutter.
- Develop — Here’s where the convergence between design and development starts. Once the goals and flows are defined the designers start working with developers to build the first prototypes. Here’s where designers and developers consider multiple options on how to reach the main goal. Developers give feedback on what’s feasible and what is possible to build with current technological limitations, while designers adapt their plans according to the feedback they receive.
- Deliver — Here’s where the final product is being produced. Based on numerous iterations and testing in-house and most often on alpha and beta users, the final product is ready to hit the market.
Even though the “double diamond” Design Process was modeled for designers, the same principle befits the product development process between designers and developers in XR.
However, the main idea of both pathways is - they are both reliant on each other. Designers have to test and deliver the application plan to developers based on research, experience, and testing while developers have to find the best way to piece it together.
Skills and Competencies needed for your XR Design or Development Job
By now you should have a good idea of whether you prefer a design or development job. But to make sure your expectations are met, let’s cover the crucial competencies you’ll need to work on to meet the market’s requirements.
As an XR designer, the following skills are the most sought out for:
- Understanding 3D objects and spatial environments
- Problem solving and coming up with creatives solutions
- Strong knowledge of usability principles and techniques
- Fluency in best practices for information architecture and UX Design to craft solutions for complex workflows
- Guide product development through concept sketching, storyboards, wireframing, product mockups, high-fidelity prototypes for XR experiences
- Interest in qualitative and quantitative methods — deeply grounding design decisions with real data, business OKRs, and product market needs
- A deep understanding of user-centered design, best usability and accessibility practices to shape intuitive immersive experiences
- Strong presentation and communication skills - clearly articulate design decisions to stakeholders
- Aligning cross-functional teams (PMs, engineers, researchers and Q&A teams)
- Contribute to strategic decisions
Developers should be technically adept and possess problem solving-skills, solving puzzles, and of course, enjoy building next-generation applications.
As an XR developer you’ll work on acquiring these skills:
- Build, code, and publish software using XR coding language (C/C++, C# or similar language)
- Learn how to build using 3D engines (Unity, Unreal, etc.)
- Developing 3D pipeline procession models
- Debugging complex, system-level, multi-component issues
- Profile performance issues and drive optimizations of software applications
- Understanding of hardware and software limitations
- Experience reading and understanding design documentation
XR Job Market Insights
Here’s the important fact. Extended Reality jobs (for designers and developers) are relatively new, and a majority of new hires only have about a year or two years of experience. What does this mean for you? You can find a great role at an established company with only a year of dedicated XR experience.
According to Snap Consumer AR Research Report, 50% of AR developers have less than one year of development experience.
Examples of main roles and job titles as an XR designer:
XR Designer, XR Product Designer, XR UI designer, XR UX designer, XR Narrative Designer, Interaction Designer
XR Designer Salary Expectations:
Salaries for XR designers are ranging from $65,000 to $115,000, and will vary depending on location, company type, and experience.
Examples of main roles and job titles as a XR developer:
XR Software Engineer, XR Developer, XR Programmer
XR Developer Salary Expectations:
Base salaries for XR developers start at $79,000 per year. Depending on location, experience and company type, the salaries for engineers will often exceed $150,000 per year.
*XR can be interchanged with augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) prefix
The average salaries statistics are pulled from Glassdoor.com in United States. The salaries will vary depending on the location and seniority.
Professional designer salaries as shared anonymously by users of salary.design website.
How do two career paths manifest themselves in Circuit Stream Courses?
At Circuit Stream, we’ve developed a 10-week program that caters to both careers: design and development path. Prepared and produced by a specialized team led by Jerry Medeiros, senior XR instructor and Unity certified developer. Jerry has been at the forefront of numerous game development teams and handled massive projects from start to finish.
The courses at Circuit Stream are a result of the combination of more than a decade of years of experience and daily interactions with the XR market ranging from students, instructors, partners or observing marketing demands and new emerging technologies. All courses are industry-recognized and certified under OpenBadge 2.0 accreditation.
Interaction Design and Prototyping for XR
This course is designed for students or professionals interested in understanding how to apply best UX practices when designing experiences for AR and VR.
Skills and competencies acquired:
- Discuss conceptual and technological differences between VR, AR, MR, and XR.
- Discuss strengths and weaknesses of VR and AR for new XR applications.
- Devise a strategic plan to incorporate XR into new projects and initiatives.
Create storyboards and digital prototypes of new XR experiences
- Present Ideas, Test with users
XR Development with Unity
This course is designed for students or professionals interested in understanding how to use Unity and C# to implement XR solutions.
Skills and competencies acquired:
- Analyze the technical feasibility of XR projects
- Implement XR features using C#
- Implement Physics Interactions
- Optimize Publish and Deploy applications
In both programs, students will learn the core fundamental skills which will push you down the road to mastery in your selected domain.
Design and Development careers serve different purposes and require a dedicated skill level to do them properly.
One can’t exist without the other- designers and developers work collaboratively on the same projects. While designers write the guidelines and think about the user’s experience, developers build the applications while relying on those plans.
Both types of jobs offer fulfilling opportunities in today’s market (which is still growing).
To pick a path that works best for you, you should take into consideration what you like to do in general, what kind of problems you enjoy solving, and check out areas of responsibility from your potential employers.
At Circuit Stream, we offer live courses that cater to both career pathways. Both educational opportunities will teach you the fundamentals of XR design or XR development.
If you see yourself building XR applications, check out XR Development with Unity course. If you’re more into thinking about the user’s experience and aren’t too keen on writing code, the Interaction Design and Prototyping for XR would be the right choice for you.
Download the Interaction Design and Prototyping for XR Syllabus