In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss the following topics:
career alternatives to management
best design practices for blogs
Every month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of experts answers our readers’ questions about 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 us at [email protected].
The following experts have contributed answers this month:
Jessica Enders—Principal at Formulate Information Design
Leo Frishberg—Principal Architect, User Experience at Tektronix Inc.
Colleen Jones—Partner and Interactive Experience and Communication Consultant at threebrick; UXmatters columnist
Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist
Robert Reimann—Senior Interaction Designer at Sonos; Past-President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
Jim Ross—Principal of Design Research at Electronic Ink; UXmatters columnist
Maura Schreier-Fleming—President of Best@Selling
Paul Sherman—Principal at Sherman Group User Experience; Vice President of Usability Professionals’ Association; UXmatters columnist
Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist
Daniel Szuc—Principal & Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd
Josephine Wong—Principal & Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd
Alternatives to the Management Track
Q: What are the different career paths for senior UX roles other than management?—from a UXmatters reader
“There are several paths I see for senior UX professionals,” responds Leo. “But first, I need to define some terms. I am going to assume, from your question, that by management you mean a middle-level manager, functional manager, or the like who is responsible for managing a team of UX-related individual contributors.
“From your question, I am also going to assume that you aren’t interested in pursuing a management path—perhaps because of prior experience with such positions. That management doesn’t permit you to pursue your true passions—maybe the act of design or user research. Understanding why you aren’t interested in management would go a long way toward helping frame a more appropriate response. For sake of this exercise, I’ll start with these two assumptions.”
Become a Principal or Technical Lead
“Unpacking the term senior is also crucial to giving you an appropriate response,” continues Leo. “Many organizations divide their engineering staff into several levels—I, II, III, and so on. In the organizations for which I’ve worked, a senior-level engineer—Level IV—is an individual with 10 or more years in their discipline who is able to identify a broad set of issues relating to a problem, establish a work plan, and identify areas to be delegated versus areas he or she can independently pursue.
“A Level V engineer—that is, a Principal Engineer—goes even further. This individual has even more experience, is considered a thought leader—either internally to an organization or externally or both—can identify strategic and business impacts of problems and solutions, and has a significant impact on the success of an organization.
“So, the first answer to your question is another question: Do you consider senior to be as I’ve described it, or might that term apply to someone with less experience? If less, the answer is to pursue employment at companies that offer opportunities for even deeper engagements than you have so far been allowed to pursue. If your definition of senior corresponds to Principal, as I’ve described it, there are different possible paths you can take.”
“Some of the larger studios and internal UX groups have a Principal Designer role,” answers Robert. “Typically, this role entails project-level leadership—for example, leading or directing the design of large projects in a hands-on fashion, coordinating the design work of a team of designers—and providing expertise in design for specific platforms—for example, the iPhone—or business domains—for example, healthcare.”
“Let’s face it, not everyone wants to be or is cut out to be a manager,” replies Jim. “Many companies have something equivalent to a Principal position, which is a nonmanagement position for highly experienced UX professionals. It’s a way of recognizing the expertise of high-performing professionals who are outstanding at what they do and don’t necessarily want to stop practicing in the profession to take on a management role. It doesn’t usually make sense to take these people away from the great work they do and give them management duties that limit their time practicing their profession. However, there is a limit to how high you can go in a position like this. Once you’re at the top as a Principal, where else is there to go?”
“Another option might be to position yourself as a technical lead or mentor to a UX team,” suggests Jessica. “In such a role, you wouldn’t have any projects of your own, but would provide guidance to other designers as they work through their projects. Such roles can also be distinct from that of a team lead—meaning you don’t need to do any staff management either. “
Make a Lateral Move
“Another option might be to move into a different area of user experience,” advises Jessica. “Have you worked mostly on desktop applications? Maybe a foray into the mobile world would present new challenges. Have you done a lot of work on government Web sites? Perhaps it’s time to venture into working on online retail or social marketing sites for companies.
“As you can see, I don’t think being senior means the next step has to be hands-off management. In my career, I’ve been a consultant, technical lead and mentor, and moved into a different area of UX, and each step has helped me grow as a designer, as well as giving me new and interesting work to do. And even if you stay in the same role—for example, Senior User Interface Designer—the ever-changing nature of technology coupled with learning more about people over time means there should always be plenty to learn.”
“I am a strong believer in cross-discipline experience,” offers Paul. “When I was just starting out in user experience, I decided I needed to understand the product development lifecycle better. Since I didn’t have the ability to code, I became a Systems Engineer at Lucent Technologies for two years—a role that corresponded to a business analyst or requirements analyst role at other companies. I found this experience to be invaluable. To this day, I draw on it practically every working day.”
Work in the Business Side of UX
“Some—but not many—larger companies also have a UX PM (Product Management) role that focuses on product definition from a UX standpoint and may involve a melding of market research, business analysis, user research, and design skills,” Robert explains.
“Another natural career path for senior UX people is to own the business case for the products they work on and become product managers,” counsels Paul. “The advantage of going this route is that your becoming responsible for the business case and P&L (Profit and Loss) for a product opens up positions in general management and executive-level jobs as well.”
“One path is to broaden your involvement in the financial, marketing, and strategic aspects of your business,” advises Leo. “UX professionals bring a unique vision to many problems—a vision often missing at the table. The specific roles vary by company, but could include leadership positions in Innovation or Strategy, a CXO (Chief Experience Officer) position, and the like. While these titles might seem to imply you would be responsible for managing others, in some companies, these are individual contributor roles reporting to General Managers, C-Level folks, CTOs (Chief Technology Officers), Advanced Development Vice Presidents, and so forth.
“You may need to become intrepreneurial and define this role within your current company—or even more exciting, define this role for a company you would really like to work for.”
Become a Consultant
“Another path is to become entrepreneurial and open your own consultancy,” suggests Leo. “By its nature, doing this requires management experience, but managing your own affairs—or eventually, hiring staff to assist you—is very different from being in middle-management in someone else’s company. A final variant on this last approach is to partner with others in forming your own business—for example, to create a product or services business in which UX plays a strong strategic role.
“In any case, there is nothing more satisfying than taking command of your own destiny and pursuing work you are passionate about. In that context, senior and manager fall away and are replaced by owner.“
“I would argue that one alternative career path for a senior UX person is to go into consulting,” recommends Jessica. “That’s what I do: consult on how to create forms that provide a good user experience. My clients range from small businesses right up to federal government agencies and large corporations. Many of my peers are freelance UX designers.”
“Another option is becoming an independent consultant,” agrees Jim. “You’ll only be managing yourself. Or starting your own company is an alternative. If you add employees, you can always hire someone else to manage them.”
No Matter What, Become a Better Practitioner
“Management is not for everyone, but everyone should be looking at how to become a better practitioner,” advise Dan and Jo. “You should never, ever stop learning. If you can find ways to do this, you should naturally become more senior in whatever you choose to do, independent of whatever role you are in today or take on tomorrow.
“So how do you become a better practitioner?
read—Create a routine for reading that ensures you keep up on the latest industry knowledge.
follow—Use tools like Twitter and discussion lists, which are handy for following people with UX knowledge.
network—Connect with the UX community.
debate—Engage in spirited discussions—not for the sake of debating, but to see whether there are better ways of doing something.
contribute—Write articles, submit papers to UX conferences, and present your ideas. Put yourself out there and test your own thinking.
meet—Take the time to meet fellow practitioners.
lead—Facilitate a workshop, walk through a design, moderate user research, or find your own way of taking ownership of a piece of something.
interview—Get out of your comfort zone and interview for a challenging job—you may learn something along the way.
be open—Always be open to other roles you might be able to play. Don’t confine yourself to one UX specialty, skill, or discipline.
“A mix of these should give you more insight on the career path to follow.”
Best Design Practices for Blogs
Q: Please share some best design practices for blogs.—from a UXmatters reader
Blogs have changed the face of publishing: they offer a wealth of—often free—information on many topics. People in this aspect of the publishing world have had to learn to adapt to an ever-quickening pace of making frequent updates, designing for desktop and mobile devices, dealing with comments, and promoting their blogs. Many people who have never published before are now able to do so at a low cost. Readers, on the other hand, are flooded with information, so they must discern which blogs are dependable sources of information. To attain good readership, blogs must be well designed. We can subdivide the best design practices for blogs into the following categories:
design and implementation
Many people who are new to blogging forget to determine their WHW. Who is going to read your blog? How exactly will your blog help them reach their goals? Why are you the best person to write this blog? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking If I build it, they will come. This is absolutely untrue in the Internet age. People have the same number of work hours they had 10 years ago, but now have many, many more sources of information. Why should they spend their precious time reading your blog? What is in it for them? If you do not have good answers for these questions, it is unlikely your blog will be a success.
“Before all else, think long and hard about the purpose of your blog, who you’re trying to reach, and the content you plan to post, including the types, topics, and frequency of posting,” advises Colleen. “For inspiration, visit a lot of different blogs, including these:
“A good blog delivers genuine content and respects the reader’s time and attention,” says Jessica.
“When I write my blog, I’m focused on my audience,” explains Maura. “What do I think they want to read? My topics are sales and business related, and there are tons of things to write about. I see challenges that I can write about all the time.”
Design and Implementation
Of course, there are many technicalities behind blog design. Here are some tips from our expert panel.
On page design:
“Don’t back yourself into a corner with a hard-to-maintain design. Keep it simple and readable!”—Paul
“Make the visual design of your blog appropriate to the purpose of your blog and your audience.”—Colleen
“To get up and running quickly, consider using a theme as is or with some small, customized tweaks.”—Colleen
“Make sure the template structure fits the complete range of content types and topics you plan to post.”—Colleen
“Column widths for your main content should be around 700 to 800 pixels.”—Paul
“If you include advertising, ensure the advertising is relevant, doesn’t disrupt users reading experience, and matches the quality of your content and design.”—Colleen
“If you find yourself spending more time maintaining and tweaking than writing, you’ve got your priorities wrong.”—Paul
On writing good content:
“Make sure your content is the primary focus. The design should complement the content, but not overwhelm it.”—Paul
Study the works of Edward Tufte for examples of keeping the primary focus on your content. Remember, a cool-looking blog is useless if it lacks good content or the content is inaccessible.—Janet
Make sure the content you post makes sense. Your blog is your face on the Internet. You want to look good.—Janet
Proofread your posts. Misspellings and other similar errors make your blog—and you—look unprofessional.—Janet
“I’m focused on keeping my writing crisp, concise, and conversational. How’s that for alliteration! That works well in writing.”—Maura
“I keep the paragraphs short.”—Maura
On easy access:
“Always ensure easy access to the latest content on your blog.”—Colleen
Publish frequently enough that people perceive your blog as being current. I am surprised by how many people tell me to check out their blog, then I do, to find out they have not posted in two years. Also, be sure to date your posts.—Janet
Have a well-organized archive of previous posts.—Janet
Once you’ve created a well-designed blog, you’ll need to promote it. Some forget this essential step! Again, think about things from your readers point of view. They are your customers. Why should they read your blog? Respectfully promote your blog at professional meetings and conferences. Announce your new blog postings on Twitter or Facebook. My preference is to announce posts in both places, which is easy to do by linking your accounts together. Post once, announce twice. Maura “includes her Twitter address and a link to her blog in her email signature.” Colleen suggests “integrating your blog and your email updates, if you have a newsletter or mailing list. And make subscribing to your RSS feed prominent and easy.” Provide an easy way for readers to opt in to announcements of new posts.
Also, make it easy for readers to promote your blog to their colleagues. First, be sure to give your blog a good name. You might be surprised by how many people do not name their blogs! Some of your best promotion will come from readers who tell their friends, in person or by email: “Check out this great blog!” Make sure both your blog name and domain name are easy to type and pronounce. Another caution: avoid blog and domain names that can be spelled in multiple ways. Having a cute name could cost you dearly. Often, it’s best to give your blog a descriptive name, so readers understand what your subject matter is before they even reach your site. Provide a Share button for each post, so readers can easily share a post with a list of their colleagues. Make it as easy as possible for people to find your blog, then tell others about it.
Include a comments section that engages your readers. Once they start posting comments, they will be invested in your blog. People offer better support to something they’ve help to create. Useful discussions in comments can increase the value of your blog. “On individual posts, strive for greater reader engagement by surfacing related posts or encouraging comments,” recommends Colleen. “To increase readership, I answer reader comments quickly,” says Maura.
One final piece of advice, if you want your blog to promote you and your skills, be sure to provide your name and some personal contact information. Yes, you want to avoid being spammed, but if potential clients or employers like your blog and want to hire you, be sure they can find you.
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. Read More