Note: This post is evolving. I am taking a different approach on this one – I am publishing my first pass with the expectation that I will iterate on it publicly. Otherwise, it will sit in my Drafts folder for eternity.
For all the talk of User Experience, both in terms of an applicable skill set and as a role, I find it odd that there is very little discussion of a career path. Yes, there are many different types of UX professionals. Some focus purely on the skeleton, building wireframes and testing layout assumptions before the visual skin is determined. Others work on that next step – lovingly crafting the presentation, while others focus on the implementation. And of course there is a lot of overlap amongst these skill sets, as well as others that I have not written down.
The point being – there are a lot of people focused on user experience, many of whom have UX in their title or job description, but unlike many other fields, there isn’t an obvious progression that a UX pro can follow in his or her career.
I think about this a lot, in large part because I’ve spent a significant portion of my adult life in this field, starting well before UX was ever added to a job post (I’ve had more than one ‘Webmaster’ title in my belt). I don’t tend to wait for a voice from above to tell me the direction to follow, so I’ve pushed into a few areas on my own, making it up as I go. Our industry, and the Austin Web community have also afforded me many opportunities to discuss this with others to broaden my understanding.
I think it’s time for us to lay out some possibilities for the good of our field, the individuals who make it great, and the organizations where we ply our trade. So, here’s my first take on career possibilities for user experience professionals. I’d love your feedback, good, bad or ugly on it.
Laying Out the Trails
A note on terminology: I specifically use ‘management’ over ‘leadership’ as not all leaders manage direct reports, and not all managers lead, despite their intent.
The Management Path
As with programming and graphic design, there are some obvious paths leading toward management, which swaps the time spent creating with managing people and projects.
Taking the Lead
The first step is most visible when “Lead” is tacked onto your title. This is actually one of the most critical decision points in your career. You’ve been doing this a long time, you know your stuff, so yeah, you deserve a better title and the raise that comes with it! (it comes with a raise right? IF not, you need to have a talk with your boss).
But here’s the thing you need to think about – are you truly comfortable spending less time doing what got you that title in the first place? Is the expectation that you will be leading people? If so, don’t lie to yourself by thinking that you’ll get to spend as much time doing what you’ve always done. Managing people is hard. IT can be very rewarding, but don’t expect to have the same amount of time as you did.
And don’t let your boss tell you that you should be able to produce at the same level as before, while managing one or more people. It won’t happen.
If your organization and group grows, you will have the opportunity to grow with it, quite possibly into a role that has ‘Manager’ in the title. This can be awesome. You’re moving up and living the dream! But again, you need to pause for a moment. This title brings with it certain expectations, deliverables and meetings. Are you ready to move away from the skills that delivered you to this place? Are you comfortable directing other people in their work, without taking it over? Trust me, this can be hard – “just send the file to me, I can knock that out in five minutes” is way too easy to say. It’s also the wrong thing to say in most situations.
The one area where this may be different is in a startup, where everyone is expected to wear many hats, so a VP of Product may well be building wireframes alongside a junior UX designer.
Outside of a few very large organizations that have truly embraced design-thinking, Vice President or Chief level titles don’t exist for UX or creative types. I think this will change over the next few years as the field evolves and as industries continue to recognize the important of experience, but for now, it is something that we as a profession need to work toward.
The Architect Path
Many people have no desire (or ability) to lead a team or interact with customers and prospects. They know what they love to do, and are recognized by their peers as being ‘the expert’. The architect role is prominent amongst engineering teams, and I think it works well for user experience groups as well. As a career path, it provides the perfect balance of challenge and respect, with the ability to produce, assuming the team is large enough to accommodate the role.
The Architect has ‘soft power’ – she may not manage people directly, but her opinions should have a bit more weight to them amongst the team. She is pulled in for the most challenging projects, either to lead the effort, or to consult where needed.
The Individual Contributor Path
There’s nothing wrong with a path that doesn’t result in a leadership position. It’s important that we as an industry make it clear that those who love what they do can be productive, and well compensated for delivering time and again. That said, it’s a bit hard to provide a path here. I personally despise the numbering that you often see in large organizations (Designer II, Programmer IV). “Senior” is a good designation to provide some recognition and separation, but that dead-ends pretty quickly. I don’t have any recommendations for the next step. For that matter, do we even need a next step, or is it perfectly acceptable to keep this at two ‘levels’, assuming that the compensation reflects the skill set of the individual?
And now we come to what may be a surprise for many, but I include it as it is the path that I am on, and I believe it to be a great match for many user experience professionals. The role often provides a greater opportunity to impact the work that your team is producing than any other. It also provides the opportunity to spread the importance of user experience and design. But it is a significant shift away from the comfort zone of user experience.
In a recent conversation with a friend and mentor, who is a VP of product, he noted that the current state of the User Experience field reminded him of the early days of Product Management, when he had to fight to prove the importance of the role and the work it produced.
So… Where Does this Leave Us
We still have a lot to figure out, but I think we’re at a critical juncture. We can take the reins of our industry and define our future, or we can let large HR organizations define expectations, and be saddled with paths that include User Experience Specialist III.
Maze photo courtesy of golbenge (골뱅이)