I will say, upfront, that ‘experience’ is one of my bug-bears. I am constantly amazed by the difference between what I’d call ‘senior’ (6-8 years, with or without a masters degree) and what recruiters deem to be acceptable (2 years + a masters degree).
As Oscar Wilde said, "Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing." So true. I have seen far too many mid-weights who feel like they have been working forever, desperate to become seniors. It may be just a money-thing but, from my point of view, its a disaster. Surely, to be a senior is akin to being a “master” of one’s trade. So that means you need to have quite a few skills - as opposed to techniques you may have tried once, or know someone who has! Would any of us be happy with a surgeon who’d had such little experience? Or even a bus driver, who’d only driven around the block a couple of times? “Puleeeese”, as they say.
What’s more, seniors manage people. Not too well, if they have no experience of being managed themselves. Classic example of the blind leading the blind. That’s not to say, being managed for longer will improve anyone’s management skills, but it will give them a pool of knowledge to draw from, even if its ideas on what not to do.
Patience is an undervalued quality these days. We all need to do our apprenticeship, serve our time and really learn our trade before we unleash ourselves onto the world at large. Its not actually fair to either ourselves or our clients. Lack of experience will deliver amateur solutions. And, when it comes to work, I don’t think that ignorance should be bliss. Confucius said "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." And we all know he was one smart guy.
Discovering what working environment suits you best can be a big breakthrough in terms of job satisfaction. I often meet UX’ers who are one-of-a-kind in the organisation they work for, and some are concerned about the impact this is having on their overall career experience.
I think each option has its pros and cons...
Being the “only UXer in the village” has the potential to give you loads of hands on experience in using all the tools you can think of as your manager is unlikely to know anything about UX and give you quite a free range in getting your job done. You will develop a wide array of skills, anything from graphic design to business analysis, on top of your original skill set. The downside is that you may feel that there are a million tools and techniques you know nothing about and you may feel compelled to invest lots of your own time in “keeping up”. Plus everyone in the organisation will think their X input is as valid as yours...
Working in a big UX department is quite different: you are surrounded by people who know exactly what you are talking about, have strong feelings on the same subjects you do and can often be quite inspiring. You may even find a mentor or two. The clients you work with will give you more of a free reign (within budget) as they regard the UX team as experts. But, you may end up being quite niche, with a lot of experience with a small number of UX tools and a belief that a wide range of specialists are needed for any task, however small.
It’s the old wide or deep knowledge debate. And, of course, neither is better than the other. The answer for me is the same in both cases:
Combining both approaches will make you more well rounded, which is a stepping stone to becoming an UX ninja.
Unlike other professions, there isn’t a clear UX career path. People come from a wide variety of starting point, the most popular, in my experience, being design, library science, journalism, computer science and psychology. And each of those foundational skills give the practitioner as slightly different perspective on this composite skill area called experience design.
For a practice with its roots in cognitive psychology and ergonomics, UX design has blossomed on one side to include, more visual aspects of digital experience, that touches on but shouldn’t intrude on the visual design space. Additionally, the advent of more dynamic interfaces has started to bring front end developers into the fold. Which leads to a wide spectrum of expectation by employers and collaborators. I often find myself talking to other UX’ers about what skills and experience one should have in this field and what additional study, if any, should one sign up to.
This is my view: we all have core skills that form the foundation of what we can offer and are likely to be our strongest suit. Mine happen to be design-oriented but, like I said before, others start off with quite different skills. You need to factor in inclination (what you are able to stretch to, essentially), to establish what you could add to your portfolio of abilities. In my case, having mastered very basic HTML very early on, I soon realised that my innate ability for programming was never going to take me very far. Then the rest is an open field.
Every year, hundreds of students pour out of under- and post-graduate courses, like hungry larvae, looking for jobs. Coupled with the fact that they are digital natives, the level of teaching they get gives them a hell of a head-start when it comes to doing great, creative work. Of course they need to get used to the rather more pragmatic world of work, but that doesn’t take long and soon they are pole vaulting themselves into rather amazing positions, often ahead of their slightly older alumni.
What to do? I am a big fan of formal education. I know it is expensive and time consuming and can sometimes load you with information you know you’ll never use. But, UX, as practised on the ground, can often veer into the pseudo-scientific and it helps to be able to tell one from the other.
There are lots of options, starting with a vast array of undergraduate courses all over the UK. The OU do some short courses and I am noticing more and more short courses being offered by companies like Syntagm, Webcredible, Interaction Design Studio, Econsultancy and HFI in London covering basic UX skills. Please note, I have never attended any of them so this is not any kind of endorsement or otherwise, from me.
I got a lot out of a masters degree from UCL in HCI with Ergonomics: what attracted me to the course was the chance to get my head around ergonomics and cognitive psychology. I knew a bit about each of them before I went there, but having a formal approach filled in a number of gaps. I personally find it hard to absorb that level of information on my own, despite the text books being freely available to all. I guess I like the lecture format, with the ability to ask (in my case, stupid) questions until it is all clear in one’s mind. I hear good things about other courses in London and around the country.
What you also get out of attending any course, is new links with like minded people who are in your field, who are (usually!) doing really interesting things. That helps form a virtuous knowledge circle, as they go out in the world and then share what they know with their fellow students.
Having worked in a number of organisations over the years, I am always amazed by the variety of structures people have devised to house the creative outputs. Depending on the background of the founders, the structure often echos existing models, like advertising with creative directors and account directors running the show or publishing, where the creative leadership will come from the editorial team and product management.
Alternatively, it may be based around the skills and experience of the founders, and I have certainly seen places where IAs or planning or sales or technology is the strongest muscle in the studio. And I’ve seen all of these models work brilliantly - and a couple where it wasn’t so good...
Is there a “best” way? Probably not. But there are certainly a plethora of “worst” ways. The key to getting it right isn’t about who is in charge - someone has to be and its always great if its you or at least someone in your gang and criminally terrible if it isn’t - but really, its more about finding a way for each disciple to contribute in a meaningful way.
The process can get broken because ownership is often seen as being exclusive, so that one person or team is ruling the roost, telling everyone else how its going to be done - often to quite extraordinary (and unnecessary) detail. This is very demotivating for the other disciplines which often leads to creative withering in those areas, where the inspired staff leave and are replaced by more docile characters.
A better approach is where each team member is encouraged to feel as if they co-own the project and to be actively encouraged push for the most excellent outcome possible. The trick is to live it rather than talk about it: lots of places espouse this view but it rarely actually happens because too few people really believe in it. The trick is to get everyone involved right at the start, brainstorming, talking, reviewing, and keep that going every step of the way. Of course there needs to be a leader, the one keeps the project on course, but the fact that they believe that a great idea can come from anywhere (and anyone) is what will allow brilliance to rise to the top and deliver great outcomes.
One of the perennial debates in our field is whether to work agency-side or client-side. Having done both, I’d say, each one has its benefits.
Working in an agency give you breadth: you will be working on a variety of projects and probably employing an equally wide variety of tools. Assuming you work on a number of projects, you will be exposed to quite a few clients, all very different, which will stand you in good stead for the future. And you’ll learn to do awesome documentation.
Life client-side is completely different. Its all about patience, taking a long term view and, most critically, stakeholder management. This side of the fence, the quality of outputs is less important.
As to which is better, I don’t think there is a clear cut answer. The longer you stay on one side, the harder it is to switch over to the other. Too much time agency-side, can make you impatient and superficial, ready to leap before looking too hard. But is can also keep your creativity - and your confidence - levels high. Too much time client-side can make you less of a blue-sky thinker, as your familiarity with the system makes you second guess what could be possible. But your diplomacy skills will be second-to-none.
So, which way to go? The answer, as always, is that “it depends” - on you, on what you’ve done before, on what you feel happiest with, where you want to go in the future. Me, I can’t decide. Which is why I do a bit of one... then a bit of the other... Best of both worlds!
I want an easy life - for everyone. The only way to achieve that is if we all work together, to make the world a better place, one interaction at a time. This blog is aimed at people who are either starting out in UX or just want to know more about it.
Freelance user experience strategist. Passionate about making life a little easier, through intelligent use of design.