What to Consider When Choosing a UX Job

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
January 4, 2016

Lately, it seems like there are more jobs in User Experience than ever before. It still isn’t exactly easy to get a UX job, but there’s definitely been a huge growth in UX positions, as well as in the number of companies struggling to fill them. In fact, user experience designer ranked number 16 in CNN Money’s list of top 100 careers for 2015.

Deciding whether to accept a particular position is always an important decision, but in a hot job market like this, with so many opportunities, choosing the right company to work for is more important than ever. As with any other job opportunity, there are typical criteria to consider such as salary, benefits, company culture, and the commute. But, in this column, I’ll focus on the special considerations when you’re contemplating a new UX job.

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What Would You Work On?

Whatever the job, you’ll spend most of your time working on projects, so find out what you’d be working on and decide whether that interests you. Find out

  • what the company designs—software, hardware, consumer Web sites, enterprise applications, intranets, mobile apps, medical devices, consumer products, or something else
  • the subject matter or domain of the projects—financial, medical, pharmaceutical, government, non-profit, gaming, retail, or another domain

Once you learn what you’d be working on, consider how that fits your career goals by answering these questions:

  • Would the job allow you to specialize and get in-depth experience in a particular product type or domain? Or would it allow you to expand your experience to a wider variety of platforms or domains?
  • How would taking the job affect your future career prospects?
  • Do you want to continue working on things you’ve done before, or do you want to branch out and do something different?

How Much Variety Does the Job Involve?

Find out whether the job would provide the type of variety or stability that you’d prefer. Some people enjoy the challenge and stimulation of working on a variety of different types of projects. You can find variety in working for different clients, in different domains or subject matter, and on different types of applications—for example, Web sites, desktop software, mobile apps, or products. Consulting is a good choice for those who like variety in their work. However, other people may prefer the stability, depth of experience, and satisfaction that come from a long-term focus on a single product. Find out what the job involves and determine whether that matches your interests.

How Long Would You Remain Involved in Projects?

When considering variety, you should also find out the length of time over which you’d be involved in projects. In consulting, clients typically pay for your hours on a project, and they often want to keep that time as short as possible. So, after completing the research and design phases, you’d usually move on to the next project. In contrast, when working with in-house project teams, you’d usually be involved for the entire project, so once the design phase was complete, you’d probably support development.

Some people like being involved throughout an entire project. They experience the satisfaction of seeing their designs realized in the final product. Others get tired of working on the same thing, so prefer the fast pace and variety of moving on to the next challenge. The downside of consulting is that you’re often not around to see the final product. In fact, unless it’s a major, consumer-facing product, you may never see it again.

What Would Your Role Involve?

The job title UX Designer can mean many different things to different employers. So find out exactly how a company defines the role. Is it a generalist role that requires you to do user research, design, and usability testing? Is it a specialist role, focusing only on UX design, with other specialists who focus on user research and usability testing? Or are they looking for a UX unicorn who can do research, design, and development? Once you know what a company expects, ask yourself whether you want to be responsible for and can do all of the required activities.

Who Would You Work With?

If a company doesn’t expect you to do everything yourself, who else would you work with on projects? How closely do people in different disciplines work together? Is there collaboration and communication, or do people work separately in silos? While it’s hard to determine the answer to this question during an interview, try to find out whether there’s a culture of respect and collaboration or mistrust and competition.

Does the Company Really Practice User-Centered Design?

If a company is hiring a UX professional, your assumption might be that their intent is actually to practice user-centered design. However, a company’s commitment to providing a good user experience is similar to a person’s being committed to eating healthy and exercising. Almost everyone would say that these things are important, but not everyone actually does them. So it’s important to investigate beyond what people say. Find out what they actually do to provide a good user experience.

The key is whether and how often they conduct user research and usability testing. If they aren’t involving users in the right ways, at the right times, they aren’t truly practicing user-centered design. So find out the answers to these questions:

  • Does the company conduct user research? If so, what methods do they use? Do they conduct any field studies—going out to visit users in their natural environment and observing them performing their typical tasks?
  • Do they conduct usability testing?
  • How often do they do user research and usability testing? On every project or only occasionally?
  • How extensive are these studies? How long do they last, and how many participants do they usually involve?
  • Who are the participants? Are they representative of users, or do they use subject-matter experts or friends and family?

If you discover that the company doesn’t really practice user-centered design, ask yourself whether you’d relish the challenge of helping a company to progress to a higher stage of UX practice or you’d prefer to expend your efforts working on projects for a company that’s already enlightened about User Experience.

Would You Have Access to Users?

Regardless of how committed a company is to user research and usability testing, if it’s difficult and expensive to find research participants, they’ll tend to do less research than at companies where it’s easier to get participants. So consider the types of participants you’d need to recruit and how easy or difficult finding them would be.

For example, I started my career at a large corporation, working on a UX team that designed intranet sites and employee applications. It wasn’t as glamorous as working on consumer Web sites or software, but recruiting users to participate in studies was extremely easy and inexpensive because they were fellow employees. So I had the opportunity and the freedom to conduct extensive user research and usability testing just about whenever I wanted. As a result, I learned a lot and gained much more experience than I would have at a company where access to participants would be much more difficult and expensive.

How Established Is the UX Team?

Is the UX team already established? Do defined processes and roles already exist? Or is the team still growing and figuring out where it fits within the organization? Some people enjoy building a team and creating the process, while others prefer having the direction of predefined processes and roles. How open is the team to new ideas and processes? Some people find it very frustrating to be stuck working with a team that’s too rigid and doesn’t welcome change. 

What Process Do Development Teams Follow?

Do the company’s development teams follow an iterative, user-centered design process; a traditional, waterfall process; an agile or Lean development process; or something else? Each of these approaches has its pros and cons, but it’s easier for UX professionals when there’s sufficient time for user research, iterative design, and usability testing.

If development teams follow agile or Lean practices, find out how well they’ve integrated User Experience into their process. Of course, UX activities can fit into agile and Lean development processes. But working with a company that’s already learned how to incorporate UX activities into its agile or Lean process is much easier than having to figure out how to make this work. So, unless you really like a challenge, avoid companies that are still trying to figure this out.

Would Taking the Job Be a Good Career Move?

In addition to considering that next new position, you should also think ahead to your future career path. How would the job affect your future career prospects? In particular, ask yourself these questions:

  • Would this job allow you to broaden your experience to new activities or allow you to work in a new domain?
  • Would it let you specialize in a particular area that’s in line with your career goals?
  • Are there opportunities for advancement or moving into other positions within the same company?
  • Does the company provide opportunities for advanced professionals who don’t want to become managers?
  • How impressive would the job title and company be on your resume?
  • Would you be able to add your work to your portfolio? Would the work be a good addition to your portfolio?
  • Is the job located in an area where you could easily find other UX jobs, or would you have to relocate to find another job later on?

What Are the Learning Opportunities?

Would you learn something new from the job? Would it expose you to new experiences, new types of projects, or new methods? Often, you can learn the most by working with other very talented people. So consider the people you would have the opportunity to work with. If you’re in your early career, find out whether there’s someone who could be a mentor to you.

Find out how the company feels about its employees attending conferences. Would the company pay for you to attend UX conferences? If so, that’s a nice perk, and it shows the company would be committed to your growth. Of course, many companies can’t afford to send all of their employees to a conference every year, and that’s understandable. However, if you get accepted to present at a conference, most companies are willing to pay your expenses and give you the time off. If the company wouldn’t support you in this, you should consider how important building your brand is to you.

Making Your Decision

In an ideal world, you’d be able to get the answers to all of these questions and have enough time to consider them before making your decision. But, in reality, you often can’t know what a job would be like until you’ve worked there for a while. You should still try to learn as much as you can by asking questions during interviews, reading about employee experiences on sites like Glassdoor, and asking current employees about their work experiences.

Of course, the stage you’re at in your career also plays a large part in your decision about whether to accept a particular position. Trying to get your first job in User Experience can be difficult, so you won’t be able to be as selective when you’re just getting started. While it can be tempting to leap at any offer you receive, you should still carefully consider the position and the company. Once you’ve gotten some experience in your first job, you’ll be able to be more selective in choosing your second job.

If you’re out of work, you may be even more desperate to take anything you can get. Having a steady salary, benefits, peace of mind, and being able to continue working in User Experience is often sufficient in such circumstances. Once you’ve re-established your career, you can begin plotting your next career move more deliberately.

As a more experienced UX professional, you’ll likely have many more opportunities available to you. But before making a move, it’s very important that you consider all of the issues I’ve outlined in this column to ensure that you make the right decision. Good luck! 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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