UXmatters readers often want to know how to begin or advance in their career in User Experience or their chosen specialty. In this interview with Cory Lebson, author of The UX Careers Handbook, our conversation focused on UX career development. Cory, who is shown in Figure 1, has been a UX consultant for nearly 20 years—currently as Principal and Owner of Lebsontech LLC, which focuses on user research, usability evaluation, UX strategy, UX training, and mentoring. He is a frequent contributor to my column Ask UXmatters.
The Past and Future of User Experience
Janet: When reading your article “Why UX Careers Are Like Cheesecake,” I enjoyed your discussion of how and why there are so many fields within User Experience. Do you see even more UX specialties coming into existence over time, or will there be a realignment into a smaller set of specialties as the discipline of User Experience matures?
Cory: Reflecting back to the ’80s and very early ’90s, the umbrella term that many people then used for user experience was human factors. This term covered the smaller subset of skills that today we’d still call human factors, as well as what we’d now refer to as user research, usability testing, interaction design, and even industrial design. For many, the umbrella term subsequently shifted to usability, which still included human factors, user research, usability testing, and interaction design, but was more centered on products for screens.
User experience has been the prevalent umbrella term for many years now. It still maintains a focus on devices with screens—now including wearables—but also products without screens that typically tie back in some way to those with screens—as with Internet of Things (IoT) products. However, we also see User Experience widening to things that are tangential to technology—such as the relationship of technology to customer service. User Experience now has much more overlap with and inclusivity of disciplines such as customer experience and service design.
So, back to your original question, I think that User Experience five years from now will likely be more or less inclusive of the same disciplines as today. Sure, technologies will change and UX disciplines will continue to evolve along with the changing technologies. However, I think we’ll see some stability in the scope of disciplines. Looking perhaps ten years in the future, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that User Experience is no longer the umbrella term, but some other term that better describes the many careers that today we consider UX careers. Along with that evolved nomenclature, we could see a realignment of what we currently understand as User Experience.
Getting into User Experience
Janet: You recommend that UX professionals take charge of their career and pick their superpowers, as opposed to trying to be a UX unicorn. How do UX professionals go about choosing their own set of superpowers?
Cory: Just as for a superhero, the superpowers choose you. As a UX professional, you will find that you are naturally better at some aspects of User Experience than others. However, even within your areas of natural talent, you may not enjoy doing work relating to all of them. When you pick your superpowers, you are really identifying the universe of superpowers that have chosen you, then within that universe, selecting those activities that you most enjoy doing. Chapter 11 of my book reviews a wide range of UX-oriented activities that I’ve grouped under a number of UX professions. Beyond reading my book or other references, UX professionals need to try out different things to realize where their strengths lie. At the start of Chapter 11, there’s a great narrative by Tracey Lovejoy who talks about exactly how you can identify your strengths and interests.
Janet: Is it ever too early or too late to move into a UX career?
Cory: Last year, a local high school asked me if I’d take on an intern for a few weeks as part of their senior-year internship program. I agreed and since, at that point, I had started to write The UX Careers Handbook, the activities I gave her to do related to researching some topics for the book, as well as actually helping me with some UX research I was doing for a client. She knew that she was generally interested in technology, social science, business, and creative activities, but was not yet sure how those puzzle pieces fit together. However, her exposure to User Experience over the course of this internship gave her some insights into one potential avenue for her own career. The last I heard, she was considering a college offering a course of study that would lead her into a UX profession. So, no, it’s never too early to move toward a UX career.
Is it ever too late? Not as long as someone is willing to continue to learn and grow their knowledge and skills. In fact, continual learning is so important for UX professionals that the book dedicates two whole chapters to this topic: Chapter 2 is about formal-education pathways, which don’t actually always have to be UX related. Chapter 3 about taking advantage of more informal educational opportunities. By learning, by practicing, and by doing, it’s always possible to move into a UX career—pretty much from anywhere!
Interacting with Other UX Professionals
Janet: How can leadership in a professional organization or volunteerism affect a UX career?
Cory: Before 2008, I was a happy usability consultant and enjoyed my work. I did go to some conferences and events—sometimes to listen to speakers and sometimes to speak or network with my peers, but that was the extent of my involvement in the UX community.
Then in 2008, Lisa Battle, at that time, President of the DC chapter of UPA, suggested that I should consider running for the UPA DC board. It sounded like fun, so I accepted the offer to run and joined the board. In 2009, Lisa stepped down, and I found myself the new President of the chapter. It was in that year that I started to realize how powerful UX leadership could be. People in the DC community who I’d never met before would come up to me and know all about me, even though I was just meeting them for the first time. I noticed the same thing happening with other board members, too.
My social-media numbers and in-person UX connections started growing to numbers that I had never really imagined before. When I got pulled into UXPA International, I observed the same thing happening on a more global scale. I was already on a freelancer path back in 2008, but with the power of all these new connections, I got all the freelance user research and UX training work I could handle via a network that my UXPA leadership activities made much stronger. Even if I had chosen to be an employee of a company, I imagine that the massive network I gained from my UX leadership activities would have been quite helpful in many ways.
So, for me personally, one of the biggest career benefits of UX leadership turned out to be the development of a huge network of other UX professionals. But UX leadership is also very exciting in and of itself and can help balance out the frustrations that most people experience from time to time in their day job. It also feels really good to get to help others in their own career. In fact, it was because of my UXPA leadership activities that I realized how much I wanted to help guide other UX professionals in their careers, which is what inspired me initially to write my book!
Janet: As an independent consultant, how do you interact with other consultants without jeopardizing your future projects?
Cory: User Experience is not a zero-sum game—that is, if I am chosen to work on a project, the result is not that my UX colleagues will no longer have work. In fact, once companies realize the value of UX professionals, they’ll often start to build out their UX resources, both with employees and consultants. Also, particularly in major metropolitan areas, there is often more work, both for employees and freelancers, than there are qualified people to do that work. Even beyond the fact that there is generally enough work to go around, User Experience itself tends to be a social set of professions. It just feels natural for us to want to interact with and get to know our colleagues and not feel like competitors.
User Experience as an Adventure
Janet: You have said that the key lesson of The UX Careers Handbook is to keep your eyes and mind open and always be prepared for the next adventure. Can you tell us about a particular adventure that launched your career to a new level?
Cory: First off, I think of a UX career as the whole of your UX involvement, paid or unpaid, day job or other activities, networking, learning, and so on. So, with respect to what I call a UX adventure—which, if someone Googles that term, I’m proud to say I get the top hits!—having your career reach new heights doesn’t necessarily mean a great, new VP position. It could mean doing an exciting job relating to UX stuff, then getting to do more exciting UX stuff.
If I had to pick adventure, I’d say my involvement with UXPA DC and UXPA International over the course of nine years, which was certainly an adventure that launched my career to a new level by building my UX network tremendously. However, adventures don’t always need to be so big. It’s actually all the exciting little adventures that have led to more exciting little adventures that thrill me the most: Whether writing the book or articles—like those I’ve written for UXmatters!—or blog posts; speaking at a conference or a meetup: doing a training video; or just participating in UX events all over the world, these UX adventures not only drive me to want more UX adventures, but the impact of one UX adventure seems to lead right to the next UX adventure.
Janet: Have you ever had a serendipitous connection unexpectedly lead you to an exciting project?
Cory: All the time! But at this point, nothing seems truly unexpected. I’ve grown to understand that the best thing you can do for your career is to keep setting things in motion—one after another, never stopping. Eventually, there will be so many things you’ve set in motion that you can forget they’re even there. Then, surprise—a new serendipitous thing that’s not really serendipitous pops on your radar. It’s true for UX adventures and for life in general, as long as you open yourself up to the possibilities.
You can find out more about Cory’s book The UX Careers Handbook, shown in Figure 2, on the book’s companion Web site.
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