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User Experience Design Career Development – Part 1: A Formal Career Path

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User experience (UX) design has a reputation for being both hard to get into and hard to progress from. I talked about how to get into UX design in my last article, so now I want to talk about where you go once you get in. In some ways, this is actually a harder problem. There are books that introduce you to UX design but none that really show you how to branch out once you’ve established yourself as a UX designer. Fortunately, I work at Evantage, where in 2006 Mary Donnelly and I helped management and HR to define a comprehensive UX design career path. I’m going to share it with you here and then discuss some 5 mg original brand cialis other options to consider in a follow-up article.

First, a little background. Evantage is an e-Business consultancy with a flat reporting structure. We’ve got the partners at the top and everyone else underneath. There are no directors of this or vice presidents of that. Just partners and consultants specializing in UX design, business planning & analysis, and marketing & analytics. While this sounds great (and it is!), it actually presents additional challenges in terms of a career path. There’s nothing to shoot for unless you want to be a partner! On the surface, UX design looks like a career with two paths. You can do sitemaps & wireframes the rest of your life or you can go into management. These paths might not fit your personality.

So what we did was to articulate four (well, technically five) levels of consultant. These levels are based on obvious things like skills & experience, but also things like thought leadership activity, strategic acumen, client management, professional recognition, and business development. We defined specific criteria for each of these levels so that consultants can identify where they meet the criteria for their desired level and where they need to put in more effort. Granted, some of the criteria are pretty specific to an agency/consultancy model. But my hope is that those of you who work internally at large corporations, tiny startups, and anywhere in between can still use elements of our UX design career path to help structure your own. (Note: Where we use the term “Consultant,” feel free to interpret that as simply “Designer.”)

User Experience Consultant

This is our base level. Frankly, we don’t hire many people at this level because a key component of what Evantage brings to the table is experience. But when we do find people particularly talented in one or two aspects of UX design, we’ll bring them in at this level and then work to broaden their experience.

This level requires the consultant to be capable of delivering high quality work, with occasional supervision, in at least two aspects of UX design. (At Evantage, we consider these to be user research, information architecture, interaction design, usability evaluation, and accessibility evaluation.) The job description indicates that at least one year of UX design experience is required to Cialis online canada no prescription be considered for this level, but in the real world those we’ve hired in at this level have had more experience but less breadth. We will also consider people for this level if they have worked for three or more years in a related discipline such as business analysis, SEO, or general Web design. Prior consulting or agency experience is a must.

Senior User Experience Consultant

Senior Consultants are the heart of our UX design practice. They are expected to deliver high quality work with little to no supervision in each of the five aspects of UX design, but they also must excel at one or two.

At this level, consultants become involved in planning and strategy by providing input into the scope of UX work outlined in proposals. With this, they also take on direct accountability for the profitable delivery of their work (e.g., accurate estimation, time management, & communication).

The background we require of a senior consultant is similar in scope to that of the consultant, but greater in degree. Senior consultants must have

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at least three years of direct UX consulting experience. In reality, most of the people we hire into this role have five or more years’ experience. Our current crop of Senior consultants averages around ten years’ experience.

Lead User Experience Consultant

This is where things get interesting! Most of us who became UX designers during the dotcom boom

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are currently Senior Designers and are wondering what the next step is. Management? Independence? Status quo? The Lead role at Evantage is an alternative to all of these. There are five things that distinguish this role from the previous two, multiple paths, framing & scoping multidisciplinary projects, accountability for business development, and leadership of internal projects. Mind you, this is on top of standard things like excellent client service. To reach this level you must first have rockstar UX and consulting skills.

Lead Consultants can go down one of two paths, thought leadership or account management. The thought leadership path requires that a consultant consciously cultivate expertise in one or more UX-related topics and actively work to use that expertise to benefit the UX community. This includes writing blog articles, presenting at conferences, writing articles for magazines, and more. Of course, we are a business, so this is not entirely altruistic. Eventually, business opportunities must come from these activities.

Leads who go down the account management path focus on managing an entire client relationship. These relationships are not limited to UX design but can extend into our other service areas as well. Account management Leads are strategic partners for our clients. They understand the ins and outs of a client’s business deeply and they help them identify where UX design can significantly impact their business. I need to be clear about something here; account management leads are not salespeople. Leads who go down this path are business strategists who are passionate about helping clients meet their goals.

All leads, regardless of which path they choose, are directly accountable for some amount of business development. Lead Consultants have a lower utilization target than do Consultants and Senior Consultants. This extra time is to be spent on thought leadership and/or account management activities that will eventually result in new business. While individual Lead Consultants are not responsible for a specific dollar amount of new business, Lead Consultants as a team are.

Lead Consultants are also responsible for framing and scoping our approach to client projects. Whereas Senior Consultants are asked for their input, Leads actively shape our response, even beyond UX design work. UX Leads are expected to be able to effectively propose work from at least one other Evantage service area.

Finally, Lead Consultants are accountable for leading and successfully completing internal projects. These projects are wide ranging but all aim at making Evantage better in some way. This could include everything from leading our wellness program to dealing with the knowledge management problem once and for all.

Principal User Experience Consultant

A Principal Consultant is like a Lead Consultant and then some. While there are a few additional responsibilities, becoming a Principal Consultant mostly requires that you expand the breadth of your influence and capabilities as a Lead.

Consultants on the thought leadership path need to develop additional areas of expertise. Those on the account management path must take on that role for additional clients. Consultants on either path must take on the framing, scoping, and leadership of multiple interdisciplinary projects, delegating tasks as necessary, and they must be comfortable working with and presenting to clients at every level from analysts to executives.

The new responsibilities of a Principal Consultant focus on industry-wide leadership and innovation. A Principal Consultant represents Evantage within the business community and on the national/international stage through participation, presentation, and leadership. It is their responsibility to keep Evantage in the minds of potential clients. Principal Consultants are also expected to have a strong positive impact on the way UX design is practiced. This could be through developing a new research technique or coming up with a better way to communicate design. But it’s not enough for a Principal to just come up with this stuff; they must work to disseminate it within the greater UX design community as well.

User Experience Design Practice Lead

In a sense, this is the easiest job description to talk about. We’re really not sure what it is yet. When we get people approaching this level we will begin defining it with more urgency. The general thought is that a Practice Lead is all but a Partner. Practice Leads fully understand every aspect of the work that Evantage does and can speak compellingly to all of it.

The Pattern

The path that I outlined above, as promised, is agency/consultancy centric. But I want to point out the important elements of this path that can be abstracted into a UX design career path for any organization.

Element 1: Expansion into strategy. UX design can be tactical, sure, but it becomes even more valuable when it becomes a key component of your business strategy. Gaining a deep understanding of your customers and aligning your business’s goals with theirs leads to great things.

Element 2: No abandonment of design. If you’re going to expand into strategy you have to keep doing the things that make UX design interesting, namely research, ideation, and collaboration. If you must move into a management position to advance, work with HR, etc. to define that role to include strategic activities that will keep you connected to the core of your practice. If you have the option, consider a new role like “Evangelist” in which the focus of your job is to be out there in the community listening to users and speaking to designers, customers, and clients.

Element 3: Time as an investment. Higher levels of UX design practice require time to develop ideas and cultivate relationships. This could mean organizing company or community-wide interest groups, developing workshops & conference presentations, or simply taking clients to lunch to get a sense of their strategic needs. Managers, give your ambitious and talented employees the time to do this and within a year you’ll start to see the rewards. Designers, to ask permission is to seek denial. Do your advanced thinking outside of the workday, if need be. Use what you develop when you get back to work and be prepared to show the bosses the benefit it brought. Advocate for yourself and for the time that you need to help take the company to the next level.

Element 4: Leadership does not equal management. The top three of our five roles have a significant leadership component without having a managerial component. Thought leadership, account management, internal leadership, accountability. You can accomplish all of these without touching a single budget or scheduling even one performance review. Take these components to your bosses and tell them that’s what you want to do. In many cases, you’ll be able to take things off their plates. I don’t know a manager who wouldn’t be happy about that.

UX design is not a dead-end career. It’s a new career, sure, and it’s going to take a while for us to figure a lot of this stuff out. I hope you can see that there are a lot of different paths to go down as a UX designer. There are plenty more that I haven’t even discussed. My next article will address some of these by talking about what you can do to evolve outside of a formal career path.

So what do you think? Is our path something that can be extended into other organizations? If your organization already has a UX design career path, how is it different? Is it better?

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10 Responses to “User Experience Design Career Development – Part 1: A Formal Career Path”

  1. Jane Pyle says:

    Hi Fred. Great article. I’ll have to challenge myself to think about how I can best apply this knowledge to my current situtation, which is one of two UX designers in a corporation of 12,000+ people. We used to have a formal UX group with a manager. She played the role of UX evangelist, and that didn’t sit well with management. It’s a fine line to walk. I’ve been more successful by letting the work and results speak for itself. I need to figure out how to promote user experience, but steer clear of preaching.

  2. Fred–Thank you for this. I’m thinking about the context of Higher Ed, where hierarchies reign and user experience is not generally found in job titles… I especially appreciate the notions of growing breadth, focus on strategic work, thought leadership, level of involvement in multi-disciplinary projects and internal problem-solving. I’ve started listing these types of activities as performance goals and identifying outcomes. Explicitly articulating utilization rate echoes recent discussions I’ve had with my manager and a January Peter Merholz post ( http://www.peterme.com/2010/01/21/dont-allow-yourself-to-be-abused-by-employers-what-i-would-tell-interaction-design-students-4-in-a-series/ ), but frankly not something I’d run into previously.

  3. John says:

    Great article, I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last two years, especially as it relates to professional development activities and salary. I wonder if you’ve seen Joel Spolsky’s article on programmer compensation at Fog Creek and whether you think that the career progression you list here could form the basis of a UX equivalent of Spolsky’s career ladder? I’ve been trying to create just such a system at my own place of work, and have been using a competency model to try and model the skills at5 each level of progression, but a lot of this is quite subjective. your measure of years of experience can be a poor proxy for capability, though I understand it’s a good rule of thumb.

  4. Fred Beecher says:

    Jane: YES! Preaching is the surest way to be ignored. : ) But in your situation, I think taking the initiative and identifying aspects of how your company does business that you could help to make more efficient would be a good first step. Maybe even sneak in some research, design, & prototype testing time. If you can show & prove your value at a strategic level, that’s a great way to rise higher.

    Julie: Utilization is pretty much the uber-metric of the consulting world, but I think what you’re getting at is using it organizationally. Google’s famed 20% time is an example of that, but outside of Gmail I’m not sure exactly what’s come of it. At an organization (at least like Google), success is defined by great products that lots of people use. In consulting, success is more achievable, e.g., getting a business inquiry as a result of a conference presentation. Maybe there are more direct, achievable measurements of success like that that you could tie to lower utilization?

    John: I’ve ended up on Spolsky’s blog a couple of times but I never saw his proposed career ladder. Now that you point me to it, that’s very close to what I’m trying to do. There are, of course, salary bands for each of these levels that I’ve articulated, but I can’t share those. While Spolsky is focused on coding skills, one of the things his ladder and the path above have in common is that at the higher levels it’s less about task skills (high levels are assumed) and more about leadership. I think something important to mention here is a designer’s portfolio. Regarding years of experience, I agree. It’s a starting point. The definitive factor is a designer’s portfolio and their ability to show the thinking that led them to given solutions, conclusions, etc.

  5. [...] The user experience design career pathUser experience (UX) design has a reputation for being both hard to get into and hard to progress from. I talked about how to get into UX design in my last article, so now I want to talk about where you go once you get in. In some ways, this is actually a harder problem. There are books that introduce you to UX design but none that really show you how to branch out once you’ve established yourself as a UX designer [...]

  6. Amy says:

    This is a great post, Fred, and very much needed–I think a lot of us have some idea of our own career paths, but there hasn’t been a lot of in-depth discussion about the topic. Your elements 1 and 4 are particularly salient, and again, not often discussed. The non-managerial strategic role seems like a natural progression for those of us who would rather not become administrators; I just wish more organizations would make that logical connection too.

  7. [...] About Dialogue around issues and ideas that impact user experience « User Experience Design Career Development – Part 1: A Formal Career Path [...]

  8. [...] Patnáctého února mi v RSS čtečce přistál zajímavý článek User Experience Design Career Development od konzultantské firmy Evantage. Jelikož se považuji za člena tohoto tajemného spolku, který [...]

  9. Thanks for the post and sharing how things are done at Evantange. I sent this to a VP I used to work with. It’s important to find career paths for UX people who aren’t interested or necessarily suited for management but who want to continue to grow both in their UX knowledge and responsibilities as well as their seniority within a company.

  10. Fred Beecher says:

    Alexis… That’s fantastic, thanks! That’s exactly why I wrote this. Designers need to grow and management doesn’t always mean growth to us. I hope this article ends up helping the company you sent it to!