short order cook working at an outside festival

Do You Need a Short Order Cook or an Interface Scientist?

5 minute read
Debbie Levitt avatar
Before hiring for a design role, you should know the difference between a short order cook and an interface scientist — and which of the two you need.

UX practitioners, visual designers, graphic designers, artists and other creative people can be generally split into two general buckets: people who do their best work when you tell them exactly what you need, and people who do their best work when you present them with the problem to be solved. We might call the former group short order cooks and the latter interface scientists.

What You Get With a Short Order Cook

You order two scrambled eggs with bacon, and that's exactly what you get. You’d be surprised and disappointed if you got anything else or some creative variation. Short order cook types deliver on the exact idea that was concretely expressed. Their main focus is to get the task done quickly and accurately. 

A great short order cook is excellent at understanding instructions so that they can prepare the correct assets, files and designs. They are creative, but are most often delivering on someone else’s vision or instructions.

The downfall of the short order cook is they will normally follow a request down to the detail, even if the request isn’t a great idea or might work against the usability. In their mind, it’s often more important to do what they’ve been asked versus offering other ideas or taking the project in a new direction. They sometimes feel the best way to get the job done is by saying “yes” to all requests.

Related Article: How Important Is Talent When Hiring for UX?

What You Get When You Hire an Interface Scientist

You know you want breakfast, but you’re not sure what to have. The answers and choices are open, you just want the best thing for you today, and you’re open to whatever is the best solution. Interface scientist types would rather be given problems and questions than proposed solutions. They are typically unhappy when told to design or wireframe someone else’s idea. Their strengths are more in the areas of critical thinking, problem solving, possible outcomes and cognitive psychology. Interface scientists have a process informed by research and validated by testing.

The interface scientist doesn’t want to “just take orders.” They want to experiment with creative ideas and possible concepts. It’s more important to learn, design, test and iterate, even if that approach opens cans of worms or suggests that the project needs to go in another direction. They might have a pre-made set of components, but will always choose the best solution over that option or what they happened to have handy.

They are agreeable where possible, but are never “yes people.” They are more likely to be the, “no, but,” or, “let’s try this another way,” people.  

How Does This Relate to UX and UI?

Visual, graphic and UX designers can fall into either bucket. You have met highly creative visual designers who were interface scientists. You have met less creative UX designers who were happier and “did a better job” when they could just wireframe the idea the product manager described.

You get very different work from these two types of people. Workplaces get it wrong when they put the wrong type in place. Teams struggle when they wanted one type, but hire the other.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Why User Experience Matters — For Customers and Employees

UX Practitioners Should Be Interface Scientists

If your UX designer is wireframing what the CEO requests, they are doing what is expected of them. But that’s not really UX work. They are simply turning the CEO’s ideas, declarations or whiteboarding into what looks like UX documentation. A UX practitioner using the user-centered design process is informed by research and validates or invalidates hypotheses and designs through user testing.

It’s not UX without incorporating the users and their needs into a valuable product. If you’re not allowing a UX designer to work through the user-centered design process or you’re giving them orders of how this feature will lay out or work, then you have a position more suited for a short order cook.

Hire More Carefully

“I’m not getting what I need from my UX designer,” said the product manager at a Fortune 100 company. “I can’t seem to get what I want from him unless I wireframe it and tell him exactly what to do.” He wants an interface scientist — but hired a short order cook.

At another company, “They said they hired me for my extensive experience in this industry, my seniority and my subject matter expertise. But the UX lead just wanted me to wireframe her ideas,” lamented a principal UX architect, who soon after left the job. They wanted a short order cook — but hired an interface scientist.

When hiring, companies must consider talent, skill, experience, abilities, process, approach and other factors. But for better matches, they must also look at whether the candidate shines as a short order cook or as an interface scientist.

About the author

Debbie Levitt

Debbie Levitt, CEO of Delta CX, has been a CX and UX strategist, designer, and trainer since the 1990s. As a “serial contractor” who lived in the Bay Area for most of the 2010's, Debbie has influenced interfaces at Sony, Wells Fargo, Constant Contact,, Oracle, and a variety of Silicon Valley startups. Her new book, "Delta CX," burns down what's hurting the UX industry and builds up what we must do instead to prioritize quality in every area.