This industry is suffering from a lack of clarity about roles, skills and methods. Every job description is vague, every recruiter is confused, every role seems to hinge on agile and every big organisation seems to really, really want us right now. Even if they don’t know quite what to do with us.
Many UX designers started their careers as Information Architects, Visual Designers, Writers, Strategists. We are used to seeing job titles change from time to time, as companies start to understand the depth of our work, and to accommodate trends and market needs. — The State of UX in 2017
The intersection of huge tech growth with increasingly available design and research talent has given rise to a new industry. One where we not only pump out websites and apps and services, but where we spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about how to make them better.
That’s my job. I work as a UX designer in Government in Australia, and I spend my entire day trying to work out what would make everyone’s lives a little easier, interactions a little truer, transactions a little funner, and — let’s be real — costs a little lower. I’m a thinker. I built on my background in tech and design, picked up some solid research skills, added some business process and a sprinkle of marketing, and voila! A user experience designer.
Or a service designer? A UX researcher? A digital strategist? An experience analyst? Design thinker? Stuff tinkerer? Unicorn? Power ranger? You tell me. Because I’m not sure I know the answer.
This isn’t the first time this issue has hit the digital industry. In fact, this issue is probably going to keep hitting the digital industry with every advancement in technology. I remember participating in online polls 6 or 7 years ago, where we all seriously hashed out how to describe the front-end developer role — web master or code jedi were still acceptable terms. I still hear from recruiters seriously confused about exactly what that role entails, throwing around some fancy words and hoping something will stick.
But I want to talk about where the UX role is, how we got here, and some of the very simple things we can do to get ourselves out of this fix.
I want to put my hand up. I need to confess. I have been part of the problem. I think I actively participated in what went wrong here.
I feel like this may be all our fault over here on the web design side of the industry. Not software engineering, no. Because most people enter that field with some formal learning. I’m talking about the web kids, who learned how to throw together a website and picked up an awful lot of bad habits along the way.
When I was starting out, I wasn’t actually employed. Actually, I wasn’t even really starting out. Let’s be real: I wasn’t even in high school yet, and we just got the internet. I taught myself. I was a secret nerd, bashing away at an online forum and learning html and css to support my addictive internet habit. Back then, no one knew how. There were no courses. We just winged it.
We did this. We worked things out. We got better. There was work, and we took it. We made it up as we went along, and we never really learnt about the founding principles and huge bodies of study behind half of these disciplines.
And that’s not actually ok. I have always taken a perverse sort of pride in how I learnt to code, but as an educator I now realise how totally backwards that is. And the mistakes this process has led to, throughout an entire industry.
So maybe you’re a little like me. Tell me where exactly in this scenario you sat down and learnt about the academic principles of best practice that founded the human-centred design movement, user research methodology or design thinking. Show me your PhD — nano degrees don’t count, I don’t think there even is one that covers this stuff. Somewhere along the line all these concepts worked themselves into your buzzwords, without you ever actually realising these were formal disciplines.
And now, suddenly, people are getting their shit together. The industry is organising.
You know you need to say “ethnographic research” and “identifying user needs”… But can you honestly, hand to your heart, promise me that you know your shit? What’s a service blueprint? Why would you affinity diagram? What’s the best way to build empathy in your team? What is RESTful? Diverge what? Agile or waterfall? Kanban or Lean? Proxy PO? I know you can make shit work, because this is what you’re good at. But do you even know what you don’t know?
Because I didn’t.
I am one of the unicorns.
I code, I design, I research, I map, I interview, I facilitate, I cost, I write, I test, I publish, I teach, I optimise.
And I also know that I’m missing out on great big gaps in my education. And I cannot for the life of me imagine how you might have filled them in, and still slept enough to function.
Maybe we’re a little behind in Australia, maybe I should have done a degree in software engineering. But I didn’t, and I’m guessing you didn’t. Because it’s rare to cross back over to the UX side of the dev/design world if you progressed in serious tech.
It’s time to educate.
I find myself in the weird position of trying to educate our bright new minds, while also educating myself. I’m doing courses in research techniques and data science while writing course material defining UX practice and what it includes.
I don’t have imposter syndrome. I have an imposter career. I have a made-up role that no one can quite define. And we need to sort this shit out, because the world needs stuff that works.
Can you even be a UX designer fresh out of school as a new graduate? I don’t know. I can’t imagine trying to do my job without having first been in the trenches — learning about the realities of work in each of my core fields.
I don’t know if I can teach you what years of experience taught me. I don’t know if I can teach you how to be smart. I don’t know if I can teach you how to teach yourself. I can try and prime you to be the kind of self-initiated learner who never stops seeking new knowledge. I know I can teach you about design thinking. I know I can give you the tools and methods you need to do all the fancy things an employer expects of you.
But the reason this industry suddenly shot into the limelight is that the world changed.
We invented stuff, and then got stuff, and then improved more stuff, and now we’re in the future and we need really, really smart people to make everything play nice together and give people the happies.
Hell, that’s just the normal UX role. If you are really, really amazing (or really, really lucky) you might be working on one of the next big advances in technological evolution. You might be the brain behind it. But I don’t think I can teach you to be that. I’m really sorry.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
Every day I get messages from recruiters saying “UX designer! Service Designer! UX researcher! Magical sparkly unicorn!” and — while yes, they are still taking a shot in the dark about what the role will actually do — we’re starting to see some consistency in terminology.
But when I ask what the role involves? The deliverables? The end game? Nope. No one can tell me. I’m left with the impression that I could waltz into a place and tell them what I’ll do. When I ask what a role pays? They make it up. Each time. Or they ask me to make it up! They give me ranges that vary by hundreds of dollars an hour.
Barely anyone in Australia is even touching on the concept of an annual salary in this industry — that’s how fluid this situation really is. It’s horrifying. It’s irresponsible. It’s greedy. It’s fantastic. It’s the opportunity of a life time. It’s scary. No one knows where the limits are, but we know that this shit is hot right now and these people seem to be gold. And if you’re on the other end of that and need to employ one of these sparkly humans? Tough.
When we look at academic applications, and go further into the software engineering schools of thought, there’s actually a lot of clarity out there that could help define these roles. A huge part of the problem seems to be that they need to be vague, because organisations don’t want to hire someone to do a thing. They want to hire a magician who can wear every hat, and solve every problem. While there might well be a very clear definition of a User Researcher or a Usability testing practitioner, hiring either would imply that they may need to hire even more people to work together to solve their problems. And right now? We’re all too damn expensive.
And that’s dangerous.
Because I find myself in a position where no one believes that I might like my job enough to stay, when the market is so volatile and swinging in our favour. I find myself shut out of projects I would love to dig my teeth into, because they don’t think I’ll be there to see it through. Others find themselves with unsolvable tasks — the only UX practitioner in an organisation, tasked with somehow influencing change.
The very thing benefiting people in my industry is also starting to bite us in the ass, because seriously — how far do we think we can take this? Especially when hardly anyone understands what the hell we do.
We’re starting to pull this thing together, and establish some guidelines around the different skill sets required for each role, and the shared techniques we consider acceptable. But it’s not enough.
So what can we do?
Devour everything. Look up every acronym. Google. Read books. Read the (design) classics. Take a class. Learn design history. Learn general history. Watch a TED Talk. Give a TED talk. Subscribe to stuff.
Tell your friends. Explain what you do. Share what you’ve learned. Go to a meet up. Educate your team. Talk to humans. Talk to business people. Talk to the enemy. Talk to your boss. Talk to your mum. Write a guide. Post it on Facebook. Reach out.
Seek consistency. Learn methods. Create processes. Teach others. Give the recruiters feedback. Think about culture. Clarify your role. Communicate gaps. Solidify deliverables. Manage expectations. Set boundaries. Form teams. Recruit others.
We have great skills when it comes to working out how things should work. We are our own users. We can look at our own industry and design a saner version, and get that version communicated. This is what we do. Let’s start practicing what we preach.