Why Is It So Hard to Find Good UX People?

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A column by Janet M. Six
March 25, 2014

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss why companies have so much difficulty finding good—let alone great—UX people; what makes a UX professional good or great; and what it takes for a company to deserve a good UX professional.

In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our UX experts provide answers to our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Carol Barnum—Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm; author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set… Test!
  • Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; Past President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
  • Drew Davidson—VP of Design at ÄKTA
  • Nathaniel Davis—Director of Information Architecture at Prudential Financial and Founder and Curator of DSIA Research Initiative and DSIA Portal of Information Architecture; UXmatters columnist
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Senior Director, User Experience and Design at Apttus; Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Tobias Komischke—Director of User Experience, Infragistics
  • David Kozatch—Principal at DIG
  • Cory Lebson—Principal UX Consultant at Lebsontech; President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA)
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director of Human Factors Design at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist

Q: Why is it so hard to find good UX people?—from a UXmatters reader

“How do you define good?” asks Pabini. “Different organizations have different needs, so should hire UX professionals who can meet their specific needs—people who are good for their organization. Employing boilerplate job descriptions doesn’t help companies to do that successfully. Because user experience gained traction as a profession only relatively recently, most UX people are somewhat inexperienced and can successfully meet the needs of only certain organizations or projects—typically, those in product domains that are similar to domains in which they already have experience.

“Do you mean great? There are a select few UX people who have the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that would enable them to satisfy the needs of most organizations and projects—except in very specialized domains in which they lack experience. These are great UX professionals.

If a UX professional has the dedication, the work ethic, the ability to think strategically, the curiosity to learn continually, and the creativity that it takes ever to achieve greatness, gaining the level of expertise that it takes to be great requires 10 years or more because it depends on a UX professional’s having succeeded in diverse work experiences. With diversity of experience comes the ability to think outside the box and synthesize innovative UX design solutions. Achieving the level of expertise that it takes to be a great UX professional also requires a deep understanding of human factors and cognitive psychology and the design principles that derive from them, as well as expertise in user-centered design methods.

“Because great UX people never stop learning, their level of expertise will forever remain greater than that of most UX professionals. So, why is age discrimination rampant in the UX community?

“Can your organization attract and keep great UX professionals? That depends on the value your organization truly places on user experience, its willingness to cede ownership of UX decisions to User Experience, and its commitment to integrating the UX design process fully into the product development process. Most UX job descriptions—even for high-level jobs—are far too tactical to attract great UX professionals. Judging by the job descriptions that I’ve seen, it’s clear to me that, while most companies would jump at the chance to hire a 10X software developer, they haven’t got a clue that they should be trying to hire 10X UX professionals or how to identify them.

“But even if an organization has the sense or is lucky enough to hire a great UX professional, that organization’s leadership needs to create a culture that will enable that UX person to succeed. Some software development cultures are antithetical to the adoption of UX best practices. In fact, UX job descriptions often demand very specific skills that are no longer considered to be best practice. Because user experience is a relatively new profession, UX best practices are continually evolving. Companies should hire great UX professionals who can show them the way to succeed in user experience, not define UX jobs in ways that would discourage great UX people from even applying for them.”

What Does Good Mean?

“It’s always hard to find good professionals—as in experienced professionals—in any field,” replies Nate. “That’s because, when good UX professionals become available, they don’t remain available for long. Since there are many types of UX professionals, make sure that you are realistic about what good means for you and your organization. Finding a good UX professional might become easier if you force yourself to specify a baseline level of skills that you can accept now and define the desired competencies that you think your candidate could acquire efficiently in the workplace, over time.

“The DSIA UX Design Practice VerticalsPDF that I’ve defined cover eight distinct practices that are common in the domain of UX design. You can use them to help you identify the essential UX design competencies for particular roles.”

“I recognize two key factors behind this situation,” answers David. “User experience is still in its infancy. It was barely a job description twenty years ago—and the UPA changed its name to UXPA only last year! It takes time to develop a profession. Also, user experience requires a skill set that is both broad and deep. Knowledge of human factors and cognitive psychology; good UX design and written communication skills. Most people are likely to have one or two of the necessary skills, but rarely do they possess all of them together. These skills, along with sensitivity and patience when dealing with others, are what make a good UX professional.”

“UX may look easy,” challenges Drew, “because just about anyone can put buttons on a wireframe or learn how to use Photoshop to make slick mockups. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that anyone who has these minimal skills may claim to be a UX professional. Good UX people almost always have a strong background or interest in social or cognitive sciences. They realize that creating wireframes and mockups happens only at the very end of a longer process. They also understand that the true value and the spirit of an application begins with its first workflows, overall architecture, and the design patterns that a UX designer employs. This deeper knowledge is rare, and it’s not something that can be taught in a short course on UX design or by being the so-called designer on a few projects.”

Great UX People Are Really Hard to Find

“Good UX people are not really that hard to find, but great UX people are,” asserts Baruch. “With user experience becoming such a driver of commercial success, good is not good enough anymore. And in reality, how many people are there who are great at anything? We should be looking at this lack of great UX professionals as a positive thing. It helps all of us—both inside and outside the UX community—to recognize the value and influence of user experience on projects. Having a great UX person is a strategic win and a differentiator on a project. We also need to remember that what we consider to be user experience these days is still immature and ever evolving. That makes it hard to find an abundance of great people who are practicing this craft.

“And it is because of the commercial implications of good user experience that we often find ourselves lacking the patience to grow good UX people into great ones. I compare this to the challenges facing Bourbon and Rye Whiskey, which, for years, was unappreciated, so no one drank it. Now its popularity has exploded, and every distillery in the US is trying its hand at making it. But the demand is no longer for good whiskey, it is for the hyper-premium, great whiskey—of which there is a very short supply because no one foresaw the demand coming and cultivated the good stocks into great products. This is the time for us to identify and groom those good UX people who have the potential for greatness.”

There Aren’t Even That Many Good UX Professionals

“It is so hard to find good UX people because they’re scarce!” exclaims Tobias. “There just aren’t a lot of people out there who are actually UX people. Right now, there’s such a demand for people in UX roles that a lot of people call themselves UX designers after they’ve just read a couple of books and a few blogs. They speak enough UX lingo to get past recruiters and HR people—and all too often, even past hiring managers—but they cannot deliver on the job. There are not that many people coming out of the right college programs—for example, CMU, Bentley, or Clemson—and those few get hired right away.”

“The first problem that I’ve observed is with the supply to demand ratio: there is so much UX work out there that those with UX experience get snapped up very quickly,” replies Cory. “Because of the supply and demand issue, I’ve seen employers who end up lowering their required number of years of experience. It’s simply too hard to find UX professionals who are super experienced. However, employers do not always recalibrate their expectations to match a UX person’s years of experience.

“The second thing that I’ve seen is the problem of seeking a UX unicorn: companies want a UX professional who has expert knowledge at strategic UX thinking, UX research, information architecture, interaction design, and perhaps visual design as well; and list all of these skill sets as required. The number of people who can do it all and show experience in all areas of user experience is small, if not nearly non-existent! Just last week, I had to talk a client who was looking for a UX unicorn down from ledge! Employers hear that there are great UX professionals with all of these skills and want to find someone like that for themselves, but get frustrated when they either don’t get such applicants or get applicants that can’t meet their expectations.

“My advice to employers: pick one defined skillset that is absolutely required. Pick a second skillset that is pretty important, but not absolutely essential. Then anything else is a nice-to-have. I’d also tell employers that, if they pick the skills that are going to be the most critical for them and are hiring only one person, they can pull together other skills by hiring contractors who have specialty skill sets for limited scope efforts. This is how I get a lot of my UX research and evaluation projects!”

What Is a Good UX Professional Anyway?

“Good question,” answers Carol. “I think it comes down to what you mean by ‘good UX people.’ The ads I see want one person who is all things to all projects, with the right degree in HCI or a closely related field, and with at least several years of experience. Where does that leave great UX people with the wrong degree or well-educated people with the right degree, but little or no experience? How do people get going in the field if they haven’t had the good fortune to have an internship or a mentor? And how do seasoned UX professionals overcome the requirement for a degree in HCI?

“An excellent Nielsen/Norman Group report on ‘User Experience Careers: How to Become a UX Pro, and How to Hire One,’ by Susan Farrell and Jakob Nielsen, does a good job of documenting all of the things that UX professionals do, what their backgrounds and degrees are in, and much more. It’s a great resource because it documents the views and experience of current UX professionals and demonstrates that we continue to come from many diverse fields, with different backgrounds and work experience.

“Here’s a personal experience that sheds some light on the problem of companies’ thinking too narrowly about the qualifications of a UX professional. When I was leaving my teaching career in May 2013, I briefly pursued the prospect of taking a UX job in industry. I found what sounded like the perfect job to match my skills and interests, and it was a one-year contract, which was even better from my point of view. I applied for the job, using the application software on the company’s Web site. I made it through the lengthy application process, but when I posted my application, it was rejected because my degree did not match the stated requirements. There was no one to talk to about it either.

“The other problem with job postings for UX people is that employers want everything in one person: design skills, mediation and business skills, tools skills—oh, and user research skills. It is rare to find jobs, at least in my experience, that focus on the many talents and requirements of user research only, without all the other baggage. I think the lack of job postings for UX researchers is an indication of the lack of respect or appreciation for this person’s role in improving user experience and strengthening products for the market. And believe me, there are a lot of skills that go into making a really good UX professional.

“Some of my former students tell me that they can’t find these jobs, so they take jobs in design or interaction design and hope that they can do user research, too. My hope would be that the field would soon reach the level of maturity that companies would understand that one person does not wear all hats equally well. When a company wants an interaction designer or a Web designer, that’s what they should seek. And when they want a user experience researcher, they should understand the special skills and insights this person will bring to managing and improving user experience for their products.”

Does Your Company Deserve a Good UX Professional?

“Why should it be easy?” asks Steve.

“When anyone asks me why it’s so difficult to find good UX people, I try to find out whether they’ve been interviewing bad UX people, hiring bad UX people, or manufacturing bad UX people,” replies Jordan. “The easiest way to get to the bottom of this issue is to ask: ‘May I see some of the work that would attract a good UX person to your team?’ 80% of them will have nothing. 20% will have something that’s won some industry awards or gotten a write-up on Mashable. These people really think they deserve good UX people, but for some reason, aren’t able to find them.

“Let me tell you, the places that consistently produce good customer experiences, good products, or good services don’t have a hard time finding good UX talent. The UX industry is full of snake-oil-salesmen; as is the landscape of professional services. Those organizations with effective UX practices attract UX talent that thrives when they’re hired. Organizations that don’t have effective UX practices will need UX professionals who are also capable of compensating for bad practices. There aren't many people who are capable of doing that. In the same way that house plants need to be put in the right environment—you can’t put shade plants in direct sun—even the most coveted UX person will regress in the wrong environment. In my experience, difficulties in finding UX talent often say more about an organization than the market.” 

Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixAs Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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