Do You Want to Be a User Researcher, a Designer, or Both?
The first thing you should decide is what you want to focus on. There is a great variety of roles in user experience. Some UX professionals are generalists who do everything from user research to UX design—and sometimes even software development. Others specialize on a particular aspect of user experience such as interaction design, visual design, content strategy, or ethnography. And many fall somewhere in between—for example, a UX Architect who conducts user research and is responsible for every aspect of UX design except visual design.
Be careful not to get boxed into a too specialized role too early in your career. Wait to specialize until you’re sure what aspect of user experience you want to focus on. Beginning your career in a role with a wider scope lets you experience more variety and growth. It’s much easier to narrow your focus to a more specialized role later on than it is to expand your role once you’ve defined your role too narrowly. For example, if you start out as a generalist who does both user research and design, it’s easy to later transition to doing only research. But if you start out as a user researcher, it may be difficult for you to start doing design without any prior work experience. So be careful which path you choose early in your career.
Who Do You Want to Work For?
When you’re looking for your first job, it’s easy to forget that you should be evaluating potential employers as much as they are evaluating you. In seeking that job, your first step is to consider who you want to work for.
What Type of Employee Do You Want to Be?
Would you rather be part of an in-house UX team, work for a consulting company, or be an independent consultant, working for yourself? Each of these situations provides a very different experience.
As part of an in-house UX team, you may work on your company’s Web site, products such as software or devices, or intranet. Although you may work on a variety of different projects, the overall scope of your work is usually limited to a particular application or Web site. The advantages of working in house are the stability and the in-depth experience you get in your area of focus; the disadvantage—you may find that limiting and boring after a while.
Working for a consulting company is very different from working as in-house staff. Consulting and user research are two different sets of skills. You need both of them if you want to be a user research consultant. As a consultant, you’ll experience much more variety and gain a lot of experience by working for multiple clients on a wide range of projects. But, there’s also a lot of pressure that goes along with consulting. You constantly have to prove yourself to new clients and overcome skepticism—and sometimes hostility—from your clients’ in-house employees; and you have the pressures of maintaining positive client relationships, making sales, and getting the next deal. Sometimes you have to juggle multiple projects and clients at once, and consulting can involve a lot of travel. It’s not a job for everyone.
Working for yourself as an independent consultant provides the ultimate freedom, but also carries the most responsibility. In addition to being a user researcher, you have to be a salesperson, a client relationship manager, a project manager, and an accountant. Your job won’t come with benefits, vacation days, or a 401K match, either. It’s not something most people do when first starting out in the field. It’s better to move into being a consultant after years of experience working for a company.
What Type of Projects Do You Want to Work On?
Do you want to work on projects relating to the design of Web sites, intranet sites, applications, mobile devices, products, services, or something else? Do you want to specialize in one of these areas, or would you rather have variety in your work? It’s an important decision, because your initial choice can limit your future opportunities. For example, if all of your experience is in mobile devices, it may be difficult for you to transition to working on Web sites. Luckily, because user research techniques and the principles of human psychology remain the same regardless of the type of product you’re studying, it’s easier for user researchers to make transitions to other types of projects than it is for designers.
What Value Does a Company Place on User Research?
Unless you really like a challenge, it’s easier to work for a company that truly understands and values user experience and user research. Is user research a key part of their design process, or is it merely a minor side activity that is the first thing that gets cut when there’s not enough time or money for a project? You may relish the challenge of trailblazing and evangelizing the establishment of a UX culture in a company, but it’s much easier to start in a company that already has those values.
Where Does a Company Draw the Line Between Research and Design?
Find a company whose definitions of user research and design roles match your interests. For example, if you enjoy doing both user research and design, you’ll probably be dissatisfied in a company with a strict division between research and design roles. Usually the smaller a UX group, the more you’ll need to be a generalist. Larger groups can afford opportunities for more specialization. But don’t rely on job titles to make this distinction. The responsibilities for the same job title can vary greatly from company to company.
What Is a Company’s Reputation or Prestige?
Some companies are more impressive and look better on a resume than others. When you’re first starting out in the field, you should aim high and shoot for your dream job, but also be realistic. Prestigious companies are the hardest to get into. You may have to settle for getting experience in the best job you can get and later try to move to your ideal employer. Six months after I started my first usability job in 2000, at what some might think a boring bank, all of the exciting dot-com companies I had interviewed with had gone out of business. My classmates were struggling to find jobs, while I was learning a lot and gaining great experience in my seemingly boring job. By the time the job market improved, I had the experience to qualify for the better positions that became available.
Does the Job Title Matter?
Job titles in user experience mean both nothing and everything. They mean nothing because they vary so much that the titles don’t accurately represent what we do. For example, in the last 11 years, I’ve been a Usability Analyst, a User-Centered Designer, a Human Factors Analyst, and a Design Researcher; yet the activities that I’ve done in each of these jobs haven’t varied much.
On the other hand, job titles mean everything because they influence what people think you do. For example, on my first job, the title Usability Analyst limited our group; it made people think we did only usability testing and evaluation. When we changed that title to User-Centered Designer, people realized that we were generalists who could do both user research and UX design.
So the lesson is: don’t get too caught up in job titles, but be sure that your job title accurately describes what you do and doesn’t convey any negative connotations that limit your opportunities.