Who Are We and What Are We Doing?
For the past several months, I’ve been actively investigating the UX jobs market as part of an effort we announced back in January to explore the employment issues endemic to our field. Through in-person research in several major cities and by working with Didus, a UX-focused recruiting and career development agency, I’ve seen the opportunities and problems up close.
In part, this research has exposed the immaturity of the UX field. For all the growth, interest, and importance surrounding user-centered ideas and practices, our professional milieu is still a disorderly jungle. The fundamental issue is that we’re growing outward faster than we’re firming things up inward, and new concepts enter the conversation before old ones have been fully established, methodized, and universalized.
This problem is in evidence wherever you look in the field. One of the vexations of editing for UX Magazine is trying to keep up with what the latest trends are, and feeling like we’ve only fractionally set the knowledge base on a subject before a new one captures the spotlight.
For example, what about persuasive design? Is that a real concept, or was it just a passing fancy on our way to lean UX or whatever the most current thing is? Have we, as a field, entirely grokked the concepts of information architecture or of usability, let alone newcomers such as decision architecture and content strategy? It’s hard to find anything except research methodologies that have been fully and thoroughly established, let alone methodized and universalized.
This failure to firm things up seems to be wreaking havoc in the UX employment market. What job titles and functions have we, as a field, fully established, methodized, and universalized so that everyone understands them? I assert the answer is none.
Lost in Translation
One of the primary ways Didus provides value to clients and to jobseekers is in providing translation services, ensuring everyone’s talking about the same things in the same ways. In our field, no conversation ever seems start with both parties speaking the same language, and everyone wastes valuable time groping awkwardly for a shared understanding.
“There’s really no consistency in how people look for these positions,” says Minoru Uchida, Associate Interaction Design Director at IA Collaborative in Chicago. Uchida’s design career started with print design for magazines, which is just the sort of experience that has relevance to UX work but is hard to capture in a title or properly represent on a resume, especially for someone whose main billing is as an interaction designer.
“It gave me training in terms of paying attention to minute details. I had to pore over every pixel of the magazine from corner to corner and make sure everything was visually tight,” he explains. “I see things as objects with meaning.”
Companies often struggle to find, for example, a “lead interaction designer” because the right people for that job seldom describe themselves using the same terms. It’s also unlikely that they’ve had similar titles in previous jobs. I’ve seen senior interaction designers called everything from “UI Designer” to “Creative Director” to “Information Architect” to “Usability Specialist” to “User Advocate” to “Chief Experience Officer.”
Uchida’s job has shades of variation to match. “A lot of times I’ve played a role that is similar to an art director," he says. "In the middle of the design process I’ll ask why certain text is so tight or why there’s not more white space.”
There are authentic differences in the ways people describe what they do. Two parties are often talking about exactly the same thing using entirely different terms. On both sides of the hiring equation, this makes it difficult to communicate who you are and what you’re looking for.
“I don't think we'll ever get an umbrella big enough for everyone to fit in comfortably,” Uchida adds. “At the same time, I do recognize some patterns emerging for how UX is being leveraged within an organization, depending on various factors, like the size of company, whether they're in-house or agency, marketing versus product development, etc.”
Easier for the Initiated
Is a self-described information architect at Amazon in Seattle the same person as an information architect at a marketing and interactive agency in Omaha? Certainly not. Is either lying, exaggerating, or being untruthful in portraying himself or herself as an IA? No. But if you’re an executive or HR person who’s unfamiliar with UX, how can you know the difference?
“The most important thing for me isn’t a title or an argument about a title,” says Scott Stroud, a consultant for NPR and the former Director of User Experience at LivingSocial. “It’s all about the collaboration and understanding, which requires a lot of humility and brilliance.”
Erik von Stackelberg, Creative Director at MyPlanet, echos that notion: “The only thing that is trite in my mind is a hasty generalization or something sweeping. I would rather see someone who is very specific or breaks down their title and lets me know what they like to do.”
The trouble here is that experience with UX is required to acquire experience with UX. HR departments find it nearly impossible to do a good job of servicing the staffing needs of their UX teams. Companies like Living Social and MyPlanet are already sophisticated with UX and have an easier time with hiring, but navigating the translation issue is a huge problem for companies that are trying to adopt, or improve, UX competencies.
Who Are You?
So far, I’ve mostly focused on job titles, but it should be noted that the problem with inconsistent terminology extends far deeper and befuddles job seekers, not just employers. In my time at Didus, I’ve looked through countless resumes where people, lacking a vocabulary for describing their actual skills, describe themselves in terms of the deliverables they produce.
Knowing that someone created “annotated wireframes, user flows, personas, interaction designs, and graphic comps” in his capacity as a “UX Architect” tells me very little about what specific UX role he’d be a good fit for—what tier of seniority, what specialty/subset of UX, what type of business setting, what sort of product or project, etc.
For companies, the problem also goes deeper than translation: they have no clear means of figuring out what sort of person they’re looking for, let alone what that person might call himself or herself. You can’t know you’re looking for an IA if you can’t know what information architecture is.
Let’s Do Something
The problems I’ve pointed out in this article may not trouble people who have deep experience in UX—which is to say, nearly everyone reading this article. I expect to get some scathing comments, especially from people who hate discussions that seem to be about “naming the thing.” But we, the UX-savvy, need to remember that the next frontier for UX isn’t in digital agencies or technology companies, it’s in companies that are newly adopting UX as a competency.
It’s also in universities that are trying to understand how to adopt user-centered practices into their design and technical curricula. We’re making all of that even more difficult to attain when we keep the subsets and specialties of our field obscure.
Of course, naming the thing (or rather naming the hundreds of things) won’t be easy. I’m reminded of something Uchida told us—a tactic he has for describing what he does to someone unfamiliar with user experience, who might be expressing frustration over user interface with a mobile device:
“Don’t you wish this was easier?” he likes to ask. “Well, that’s what I do.”
That’s what we want to do, too: make this easier. Next week we’re going to launch a campaign that we hope will do just that.
So stay tuned, and be ready to tell us who you are.
Image of hunting bird courtesy Shutterstock