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Distinguishing Yourself as a UX Professional

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A column by Janet M. Six
November 23, 2015

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel discusses how to distinguish yourself among a growing population of UX professionals. Seeking a career in User Experience seems to be fashionable right now. Unfortunately, some who claim to be UX experts, in fact, do not have the experience or expertise it takes to be effective in this field. Worse, the advice of UX posers is often counterproductive and actually degrades product designs, which gives our profession a bad reputation.

Now that more and more companies are looking for UX experts—and there are more people who actually are UX experts to fill the jobs—how can you stand out among the crowd? Our Ask UXmatters expert panel offers some suggestions.

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Every month in my column, Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers 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].

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!
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Author of UX Careers Handbook (forthcoming); Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA)
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist
  • Amanda Stockwell—VP of UX at 352 Inc.

Q: User Experience is an emerging field, and it seems that many people are jumping into it. How do you distinguish yourself among an increasingly larger group of UX professionals?—from a UXmatters reader

“There is plenty that you can do to distinguish yourself,” answers Baruch. “But the best approach I’ve found is to figure out how you want to differentiate yourself first. Is it through your design work? Your user insights? One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to, at first, stick with what you know best, then build your capabilities around that. If you have specific domain knowledge, couple that with your design knowledge and contribute to that domain.

“Once you’ve established yourself, try to build out your brand to cover different areas of User Experience. So let your work speak for itself, but make sure you seek multiple venues for promoting your brand. Get out there and speak at conferences, contribute to our profession’s body of knowledge, and don’t be afraid to speak your mind.”

Tell Your Story

“Differentiating yourself is very much about the stories you can tell,” replies Cory. “While it’s easy to say, ‘I’ve done this, and I’ve done that,’ your UX value emerges when your narrative takes the form of a story that allows you to articulate your deep understanding of User Experience. What was the problem? How did you apply your UX skills and knowledge? How did you solve the problem? And you should relate your story both verbally and by illustrating it with portfolio items that provide depth and color to your narrative. If a single story covers only one aspect of your experience, consider explaining your background through multiple, shorter stories, each with a separate set of work samples.

“While there is an increasing number of UX professionals, remember that there is also an increasingly large range of jobs available for these professionals. So you should feel good that the number of opportunities is increasing and that there are more UX jobs available to you, just because there are more UX professionals.”

Share Your Thoughts

“Over the years,” responds Jordan, “I’ve realized that the way I look at the world is different from the majority of people, so simply sharing my perspective is enough to differentiate myself. I think this applies to everyone. Share your ideas, thoughts, opinions, musings, and work whenever and wherever you can. Help people to develop their own impressions of who you are and what you could contribute to a team.

It’s unusual to be able to get a really good sense of a person just from an interview, which is why many organizations have started examining candidates’ social media footprint. It’s pretty easy—if you take the time to look—to find out whether UX professionals are passionate about User Experience, or they’re still trying to figure out whether this is the right field for them.

“Don’t get me wrong. There are many organizations with archaic recruitment and hiring processes who will hire someone considering only a resume and portfolio. But such organizations are slowly going away. They’ve been hiring garbage employees for years this way—often alienating the true talent they need. Such companies often rely on a single shining star to elevate their reputation in the UX community. But I believe these companies will eventually go out of business, and it’s going to be those companies who know how to identify and foster talent that will succeed in the coming decades.

“Become a passionate student of human behavior and share your thoughts. This will help ensure that you get paired with teams who will complement the individual that you are. Any organization who reads or hears your thoughts, ideas, and opinions will either say to themselves, ‘This person sounds exactly like someone we need,’ or they’ll keep looking. Those that keep looking are usually the teams you wouldn’t have been happy working with anyway. The organizations who contact you are more likely to respect and understand the value that you’d bring to their team.”

Be Rigorous in Practicing UX Methods

“The good news is that the numbers are going up for those who identify themselves as UX professionals,” says Carol. “The bad news is that some among the growing number of people who take on or are given a UX title and responsibilities do not have the knowledge or experience to apply UX research techniques rigorously. The result is that some companies who hire consultants or use internal staff for UX research may, in fact, be applying UX research to product development without really knowing or understanding whether there is validity in the results of that research.

“Because the goal, these days, is to learn whatever you can, whenever you can, and wherever you can, some would say that validity and rigor are often not what they used to be. Of course, the same folks might argue that knowing something about user experience is better than knowing nothing. Others, myself among them, would say that there’s a time and a place for hallway testing or person-on-the-street research, but there must also be some validation of research findings, which results from greater rigor in our methods.

Rigor doesn’t mean that you have to be formal in your process or methodology,” continues Carol. “Rigor means knowing how to screen for participants who are real users, how to ask questions that don’t lead participants; and how to respond to questions in an unbiased, non-committal way when engaging with users. Rigor also means knowing which tool in your toolkit to recommend to answer the type of research questions you need to answer. One size does not fit all.

“Granted that everyone is a newbie at some point, so there’s always a learning curve. But if you’re just jumping into the field of User Experience—either because of your own desire or because someone has given you a task assignment—it helps if you understand that you need to find ways to gain both knowledge and experience. In this way, you can evolve into a UX professional who can confidently support a user-centered design process in any development environment. Of course, to gain this knowledge, you can read voraciously—both the resources that are available on the Internet and the growing number of books on general and specialized UX topics—and you can attend local, regional, national, and international conferences.

Some think that getting certification is the way to get up to speed. But, in my view, nothing can replace experience. For those of us who have been at this for a while, we have the distinction of experience, but there’s still plenty of room in the pool for those who want to jump in.”

Use Your Background to Your Advantage

“Because User Experience is such a rapidly growing and divergent field with so much opportunity,” replies Amanda, “I think more in terms of defining and achieving my own version of success rather than comparing myself to others. Precisely because there are so many coming into the field from so many different backgrounds, I'm never going to have exactly the same experience as someone else, so I use that to my advantage. I’ve used everything from trivia about the town I grew up in to an exercise class I teach to make connections with potential partners or clients.

“Just by virtue of the length of time I’ve been in the field of User Experience, I’ve worked on a broad range of different types of projects. Plus, I’m constantly applying my skills to new situations. If you’d told me, when I first started out, that I might do design for a watch that would count my steps and display text messages, I’d probably have asked you what a text message was. Being flexible and willing to embrace the constant change in technology has definitely helped me find success.

“Helping others to embrace a user-centered perspective has also contributed to my success. Sometimes UX professionals have a reputation for trying to own everything about the experience, but I think we can have the greatest impact as advocates and ambassadors within our organization or industry. Rather than trying to own the entire experience, I feel that it’s better to guide other disciplines that may not always consider user needs.

“Lastly, I make a concerted effort to build my personal brand by constantly expanding my horizons. I’ve submitted articles when I didn’t feel like I was a writer, proposed talks when I didn’t feel like an orator, taken positions for which I wasn’t sure I was qualified, and even signed myself up to teach others about User Experience. Finding ways to get involved in the community and stretch myself outside the limits of my 9-to-5 job has helped me to develop skills and confidence that have opened doors to opportunities that I’d otherwise have never even known existed.”

Conclusion

First, be sure you know how you want to stand out from the crowd. What is your unique UX strength? Figure this out so you can pursue the UX career that is right for you.

When approaching a new organization or project team, be sure to share how your unique experiences qualify you as the right UX expert for that particular job. Share your thoughts. Tell your story. Not only should your background and experience be points of strength for you, you also need to be rigorous in your technique. And remember, to get the best pay, you need to be the best. Do a good job, so you have a good story to tell. When you’re interviewing for a new job, there are no words that substitute for a job well done. 

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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