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UX Role Grids and Individual-Contributor Career Paths

May 22, 2017

Setting up a UX practice inside any organization—whether small or large—can be a challenge. As a UX leader, to ensure you keep the highest-performing individual contributors on your team, you should make sure they have a clear understanding of what they must do to expand their careers within your organization. While leaders often have a clear growth path inside a company, it is often less clear how individual contributors can nurture their professional career.

For example, in some companies, the only way to advance from an interaction designer, visual designer, UX researcher, or other individual-contributor discipline is to become a manager. But, for individual contributors whose talents are less as people managers and more as superstars in their discipline, who love what they’re doing, and who want to continue to be the best at what they do, their way forward is unclear.

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A well-understood role grid enables individual contributors to understand the value proposition they can offer their team or organization going forward. It also helps them to understand the reward structure and how they can grow their career within their company.

An Example of a Role Grid

This discussion revolves around the example role grid shown in Table 1. While this is a highly simplified example, it serves to illustrate this article’s main principles.

Table 1—An example UX role grid
Individual Contributor UX Roles UX Leaders
Grade Interaction Design Visual Design UX Research Content Creative Direction

CXO

12

VP

11

Executive Creative Director

Sr. Dir.

10

UX Architect

Creative Director

Director

9

Principal UX Designer

Sr. Mgr.

8

Sr. Interaction Designer

Sr. Visual Designer

Sr. UX Researcher

Content Strategist

Manager

7

Sr. Interaction Designer

Sr. Visual Designer

Sr. UX Researcher

Content Strategist

Team Lead

6

Interaction Designer

Visual Designer

UX Researcher

Content Developer

Note—From Grade 7 and above, you can choose to advance within an individual-contributor track or move into management.

Being good at a UX specialty is very different from being an effective UX leader. In fact, these strengths can sometimes be antithetical. Outstanding individual contributors are highly focused on tactical and process issues, while UX leaders must be strategic and focus on the big picture. Great UX professionals who love their craft should not have to manage people to expand their career. Being a manager is not better than being an individual contributor. They’re just different roles. Individual contributors should have the opportunity to grow to the same heights as UX leaders, but though an individual-contributor pathway.

As I mentioned earlier, there are often clearer roadmaps for career paths on managerial or leadership tracks, so in this article, I’ll focus specifically on the paths open to individual contributors.

Implicit in the role grid is an underlying pay-scale structure. People should be motivated to advance in their career by leveraging their strengths as an individual contributor. Therefore, managers should recognize that someone in a senior individual-contributor role who reports to them might make more money than they do. UX leaders must realize that they are not more important than the individual contributors who work for them. In fact, the real job of a leader is to set the right conditions for individual contributors to excel and do the best work of their career. Without great researchers and designers, who are fully engaged and excited about producing excellent outcomes, a UX leader can never be successful. Also, according to their role, individual contributors must report to the right level of management to ensure their position has the organizational weight the work demands.

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Discipline-Based Individual Contributors

At the beginning of their career, individual contributors are most likely subject-matter experts in one of the core UX disciplines shown the role grid: Interaction Designer, Visual Designer, UX Researcher, or Content Developer. The four roles I’ve included in the role grid are typical within digital application companies, but not necessarily hardware companies. If a company requires Web-portal design, its role grid would also include an Information Architect role. Depending on your company, you may be lucky enough to have front-end developers on your UX team. But I’ve included just the four most common, core UX disciplines in my example.

As an individual contributor who is an Interaction Designer, Visual Designer, or UX Researcher becomes more experienced and proficient in his or her discipline, that person advances to a senior role in the same discipline. The competencies for senior roles become more complex, and these roles require greater responsibility and a higher level of proficiency in the craft.

For instance, while an Interaction Designer must understand the design constraints that implementation technologies impose, a Senior Interaction Designer should be able to articulate design requirements to Engineering and get more involved in the choice of these technologies. While a Visual Designer must create a detailed design that is sufficiently specific for implementation, a Senior Visual Designer must go beyond that to ensure a design accommodates globalization, cultural, and accessibility requirements.

In a majority of digital product companies today—especially those that differentiate on the experience—User Experience includes a Content team with both Content Strategists and Content Developers. A Content Developer would likely progress to being a Content Strategist, a significantly more complex and demanding role on a team.

Individual contributors could continue to dive deeply into a particular domain and build a great career as a subject-matter expert and thought leader in that domain. In fact, such individual contributors can influence an organization at the highest levels by helping to envision future product concepts. They may become evangelists for the domain within their team, keeping the team apprised of developments that advance the domain. Because the pay scales for domain experts are broad, they are likely to earn as much as a Senior Manager of UX.

Omni-Disciplined Roles

Some individual contributors, while extremely proficient and knowledgeable in a particular UX specialty may also have skills that cross over into other UX specialties. This is especially likely for people who have been in the field for a number of years. For example, someone might have started as an Interaction Designer, but then moved into research for a number of years, later returning to design with a much more empathetic understanding of users.

In his book The Ten Faces of Innovation, Tom Kelley describes such people as T-shaped individuals: “They enjoy a breadth of knowledge in many fields, but they also have depth in at least one area of expertise.” Pabini Gabriel-Petit wrote about T-shaped people in her UXmatters article, “Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy?

For omni-disciplined UX designers—who have a high level of competency in interaction design, visual design, user research, and content development—a career path exists that progresses to Principal User Experience Designer, then to User Experience Architect. While the definitions of such roles may vary across different organizations, in the example role grid, these roles are analogous to a Senior Manager and Director of UX, respectively.

Principal UX Designers set the bar for world-class design in all the UX disciplines. They can rapidly handle everything from high-level concepts to design details, helping their team to solve whatever problems they encounter. They have excellent communication skills and can cross-functionally evangelize design best practices and help enforce robust design for all products and services. While Principal UX Designers do not have direct reports, they are responsible for mentoring researchers and designers on the UX team.

UX Architects embody the competencies of the Principal, plus they inspire the whole UX team. They define experience-based product objectives that can transform markets and ensure all products and services meet these objectives. A UX Architect can also be a useful partner to a UX leader or Creative Director, carrying out that leader’s vision and allowing the UX leader to focus on the organizational issues he or she needs to address.

For a small set of individuals who fully understand each of the four core UX disciplines—interaction design, visual design, user research, and content development—there is a further opportunity for their career progression, but it’s a difficult level to attain. Just as you might find one or two engineering fellows within an organization, there might also be a UX fellow or two.

The Role of the Creative Director

UX teams often need a Creative Director who can provide creative inspiration that supports the organizational leader’s vision. The UX Creative Director is a dedicated resource who continually provides creative inspiration and uplifts the team and increases employee engagement among UX professionals. This Creative Director may report to a Director or VP of User Experience—or even a Chief Experience Officer (CXO)—but does not have any direct reports. Rather, the Creative Director supports the creative vision of the UX leader and carries that vision through all projects. At the same time, the Creative Director challenges the UX team creatively, increasing engagement among the designers on the team.

Within a UX team, a Creative Director must be unencumbered by the bureaucracy of leadership. A UX Creative Director is an emotional leader who leads by example, inspires the UX team to conceptualize and converge on the right solutions across all products and services, and functions as the right-hand person to the organizational leader.

The job of the UX Creative Director is to raise the bar for all designers on the UX team. They both create designs for their own projects and help other members of the UX team execute their projects with excellence—through ideation and design—assisting them with their deliverables and raising the quality of all deliverables.

The best UX Creative Directors have a deep understanding of the audience they are addressing, demonstrate creative brilliance, bring single-minded drive to making great ideas take shape, and have the ability to deliver design solutions that inspire the entire cross-functional UX team. Creative Directors’ true value is in scaling their creative talents across multiple projects and, thus, raising the level of quality across many designers at once.

Such Creative Directors excel in the arts of constructive criticism and facilitation. They can inspire and lead design efforts in which the best ideas are born and thrive. Having the best, brightest Creative Directors enables you to acquire the best individual contributors for your Design team. Designers want to work with the best. Your UX leader can attract great talent, but only when the best designers get to work with outstanding, talented Creative Directors can your UX team shine.

Pursuing the Right Track for You

There is a wealth of opportunity for both management and individual-contributor careers in User Experience. Whether you want to pursue a management or an individual-contributor track, you should approach your career with a level of clarity about the skills that each role requires.

Being a manager is no better or worse than being an individual contributor. It’s a matter of what will let you thrive and do what you love to do most. A Creative Director and a Director of User Experience may be at the same level and even have similar titles, but the positions are a world apart. In deciding your career path, the key thing to recognize is that dynamic, rich careers exist for individual contributors who want to remain focused on their specialty’s craft. 

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Chief Experience Officer at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Corinne WayshakCorinne has led the design of experience-first, cutting-edge products and services for twenty-five years, most recently at Apple. Currently at Experience Outcomes, Corinne defines and designs experiences that customers love—experiences that make companies #1 in their industry. She had previously built a successful design consultancy that startups and Fortune-100 companies engaged to lead UX strategy and design for market-disrupting products. These market disruptors included HP’s first Internet Café device, Schwab’s first mobile-trading application, and Citibank’s first color ATM display. She is a co-author of several design patents. Corinne holds two degrees from MIT—one in engineering, the other in film.  Read More

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