Aquent Aquent

Where Are UX Careers Headed?

Matthew T. Grant

Where Are UX Careers Headed? image
Where Are UX Careers Headed?

"It's a good time to be in UX," Cory Lebson, a UX consultant and president of the UXPA International told a sold out crowd of UX folks at the Wix Lounge in Manhattan on Tuesday night.

Another panelist, Chad Vavra, UX Director at Rosetta, echoed this statement by telling the audience, "Don't waste your time doing something you don't love. You don't have to. It's scary not having a job, but it's not hard to find another one."

Cory and Chad were speaking as part of a panel discussion on UX careers, where the field is headed, and how to stay current. The other panelists included Jennifer Bove, VP of Service Design at Fjord (recently acquired by Accenture), James Torio, Digital Manager at McKinsey and Company, and Andrew Miller, Program Director for Aquent Gymnasium. The event was hosted by Aquent, Vitamin T, and Wix.

The hour-long conversation moderated by Amanda Stockwell, a senior UX analyst who also serves as a UX expert for Aquent, centered around six basic questions:

  • What's the next big thing in UX?
  • How are UX teams and roles changing?
  • How do you learn new things and keep up with trends?
  • What makes candidates for UX jobs attractive?
  • What red flags pop during interviews?
  • What advice do you have for people going forward?

What's the Next Big Thing in UX? 

Amanda initially asked what people saw coming five years out, but everyone agreed that that was impossible to predict (with Andrew Miller quipping, "If I could see five years out, I'd be in Vegas right now.")

Cory put it this way: "The future is up for grabs." That being the case, he said, people will need to be "phenomenally flexible" in order to adapt to coming changes, whatever form they might take. 

Nevertheless, there were a few ideas about the immediate future.

Chad, for example, foresaw a "reduction of screens," meaning not that screens would get smaller and smaller, but that user experience design would be less and less about screens. In the movie Her, he pointed out, most of the interaction took place in the main character's ear. As a result, he said, "We'll need to get better at articulating ourselves without the screen."

Along the same lines, Jennifer said that UX thinking would be applied to a wider range of objects and situations. She, too, saw us moving away from screens and designing more for interactions with "technology in space over time."

Finally, James saw "personalization" as the next big thing. An commerce site, he said, should be different for me than it is for everyone else. In order to foster this increased level of personalization, he went on to say, we need to start asking, "How does the data get smarter? How does the data learn?"

At the mention of data, Chad said one of the most intriguing things of the whole evening: "The more data we collect, the more we kill UX." Putting it another way, he said that, as objects get smarter, user interaction gets replaced by user intervention.

To illustrate he pointed to the Nest thermostat. Once it's up and running, he said, you only interact with it when you need to change what it does. In other words, looking forward, we need to imagine a world in which users spend more time experiencing the effects of a product or a device than they do experiencing the device itself. 

How are UX Roles and Teams Changing? 

Given the changes predicted (or the prediction that change, one way or the other, was inevitable), Amanda asked what impact this was having on UX roles and the make-up of UX teams. The panelists tended to answer this question by describing the specific skills they were seeking in UX professionals.

Seeing "smarter data" as part of the future of UX, James naturally said that he was looking for people who were comfortable working with data. Beyond that, he was looking for cognitive scientists with insight into how humans make decisions and how we can influence that decision making. Finally, he also sought people who could "connect the dots" and help clients uncover new opportunities.

Coming from the world of service design, where you have to think both about the customer facing side of things as well as the back-end, operational side, Jennifer was especially interested in people who understood business and organizational change. "Designers aren't necessarily going to be good at that," she added.

Chad responded to the question by talking about an agency he knew of that was disbanding its strategy department with responsibilities being shifted to the UX team. At another agency, however, he said they were disbanding their UX department because, "UX is not a department; it's a competency." 

(When I asked him about this after the talk, he said a couple things. On the strategy front, he said that director level people in an agency already need to be thinking strategically, so it didn't make sense to isolate that as a separate function. Similarly, UX isn't a thing that happens at one point in the process of developing a product or service; rather, it's an approach or methodology that needs to be applied all along the way. For this reason it doesn't (or won't in the future) necessarily make sense to have it serve as a stand alone department.)

Finally, Andrew pointed out that "the UX designer's role has always been to straddle," be it the gap between design and development, the gap between design and the business, or the gap between technology and the user. As he saw it, the field was going to continue to need such straddlers.

At this point, the concept of the "UX unicorn" came up and was summarily dismissed, with Chad expressing doubt that you could "make unicorns" and Cory saying, "You can't be good at everything." 

How Can You Stay on Top of UX Trends?

Amanda then asked the panelists how they recommend people learn new things and stay on top of trends.

The consensus was clearly that people should attend conferences, network, and meet people. Chad saw these activities as the crucible of innovation. "Where is innovation coming from?" he asked. "It's passionate people finding each other. It naturally happens."

James had a particularly pointed answer: "There's too much noise. I don't believe in staying on top of everything."

Since there is simply too much to keep up with, he advocated focusing instead on what you are interested in—healthcare, hacking, what have you—and doing targeted research around that subject.

Both Andrew and Jennifer mentioned specific resources that they found valuable. Andrew liked GitHub because that was a place where "smart people were giving away stuff for free." Jennifer encouraged people to check out the IXDA and particularly the stories behind the products recognized as part of their awards program.

What Makes Candidates for UX Roles Attractive?

When it came to the question of assessing candidates for UX roles, and what made certain candidates stand out, each panelist had their own unique criteria.

Jennifer said that she looked for curiosity as well as an understanding of "what you've mastered and how that fits into the big picture."

Cory looked for the ability to truly understand people, not in the psychological sense, but when you are actually speaking with them and listening to what they have to say. Furthermore, he valued "precision" in candidates, which he described as the ability to say, "This is what we need and I'm doing it."

For his part, James seemed to be more concerned about cultural fit. His evaluation of candidates is guided by questions like, "Would I want to come to work every day and work with you?" and "Will you thrive in this fast-paced, unstructured environment?"

Chad focused more on a candidate's relationship to technology saying, "If you are going to work in technology, you have to love technology." Furthermore, he prefers candidates who "love making stuff," since, as he put it, "Clients don't pay us for the process we choose; they pay us for the product we produce."

Finally, he is attracted to candidates who can admit what they don't know, believing that an acknowledgement of what we don't know, and what we thus need to discover, actually leads us to create better, more simple products.

Because UX professionals need to be able to communicate effectively with a wide range of interested parties, Andrew said he liked candidates who were "clear thinking and articulate." He also wants candidates to be able to "show their work." A finished product can be impressive, he said, but "show me the messy notebook and the creative process that got you there."

What Are the Red Flags?

The flip side of what makes candidates attractive are the red flags that indicate that a person might not be right for the job.

When Amanda asked about red flags, Jennifer immediately responded with, "I, I, I." She was suspicious of people who downplayed the collaborative nature of their work and focused excessively on the centrality of their own role.

Along the lines of being able to acknowledge what they didn't know, Chad was turned off by people who weren't open to suggestions or to hearing the opinions of others about their work. 

Cory focused on the inflation of skills, particularly when people claimed that they were equally good in all aspects of UX. "Everything can't be as good as everything else," he said.

And James was concerned when people couldn't describe the process they used to arrive at particular design decisions. He also considered it a red flag when people couldn't answer interview questions succinctly or went off on long tangents. 

Good Advice for UX Professionals

To wrap up the discussion, Amanda asked the panelists to share one piece of advice for people pursuing a career in UX. 

Cory said that his mantra was, "Believing is seeing." What he meant was this: When you have a clear idea of what you want to do, what you need to do to achieve your goal will become clear as well. He recommended deciding on a specific career goal and then carefully aligning your efforts with that goal.

Jennifer reemphasized the importance of getting out there and networking. "Every opportunity I've had in my career," she said, "has come from meeting people and talking to people." She also stressed the importance of "surrounding yourself with people smarter than you."

Chad encouraged people to think of time as their "equity," and to be careful how they spent it. With the high demand for UX professionals, he insisted that you do not have to stay in a position that you don't enjoy or where you aren't gaining new experience.

Along similar lines, James said that he was always asking himself, "Am I still having fun? Am I still learning?" His personal goal was to be "doing something different six months or a year from now," and that is how his career at McKinsey has played out.

To wrap things up, Andrew told the audience to "try anything." While it's important to know what you want to do and single-mindedly pursue that end, he also suggested that you might not know what you want to do or what exactly you will enjoy. You owe it to yourself, he said, to explore, take chances, and experiment with different career options.

A Few Takeaways

As you can gather from the above, the discussion covered quite a bit of ground. Nevertheless, I heard three distinct themes during the course of the evening. 

1. Change is inevitable in the field of UX. For this reason, it is critical that you remain flexible and open to new opportunities.

2. The future of UX design isn't necessarily about design. In fact, it might be much more about the possibilities that arise from the convergence of data, technology, and social science. Deepening your understanding in any of these areas will serve you well in your career.

3. Be part of the community. The pace of change and the increasing complexity of the field mean that you need to stay connected to other practitioners, be willing to learn from them, and remain enthusiastic about collaborating when the opportunity arises.

Were you there? What did I miss?

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