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How to Stand Out in the Expanding Field of User Experience

Ask UXmatters

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A column by Janet M. Six
February 19, 2018

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts consider what it takes to stand out in the growing field of User Experience. As more and more companies realize the importance of good UX design and hire more designers, many people outside the field of User Experience are attracted to the opportunities this field offers and becoming UX designers. While some have the necessary education and talent to become good UX designers, others do not. Unfortunately, the field of UX design is becoming commoditized because some weak UX designers are willing to work for ridiculously low wages, and companies that aren’t able to discriminate between great, good, and poor designers just go with the least expensive option.

Our expert panel explores how to make yourself stand out in the current competitive environment, making specific recommendations for how and what you should communicate about not only your skills, but also about how your design work can fit within a company’s goals. Because it is important to balance business goals and design goals in our work, we need to consider how our work will affect a company—and maybe society at large—over the long term. Our panelists also encourage designers who are working for companies that do not value them to look for other opportunities. Of course, this discussion could be applied to many fields.

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Every month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel answers readers’ questions about a variety of user experience matters. To receive answers to your question 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:

  • Stephen Anderson—Head of Design, Innovation Garage at Capital One
  • Mark Baldino—Co-founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Carol Barnum—Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm; author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set … Test!
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; UXmatters Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Csaba Házi—Co-founder and UX Expert at Webabstract; author of Seven Step UX
  • Ben Ihnchak—Co-founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Janet Six—Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Co-founder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Co-founder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: With so many new, inexperienced UX designers coming into the workforce, how can I make myself stand out so I can continue to get paid what I am worth? I do not believe I am a commodity and do not want to be treated as such. Yet, I do not know how to best convey my worth to a company or a client who does not understand the complexities of UX design or the value of my experience.—from a UXmatters reader

“We’ve come across this situation a lot in the last year or so while interviewing candidates for our UX Designer positions,” answers Mark. “One of the best ways for more experienced UX designers to stand out is to be able to explain their previous work, including specific details about why they did activity X, then Y, then Z. Why in that order? What did you learn in one step that you took to the next? I hope that would also include a clear explanation of why they followed a user-centered design process, along with what they would change if they could go back in time. I encourage you to interview your interviewers as much as they’re interviewing you. If an employer can’t tell the difference between a new and an experienced designer, is that a company to which you want to dedicate your time and effort on a daily basis?”

“What do you do differently?” asks Stephen. “Or how do approach things in a different manner so your work isn’t a commodity?

“The work you do could be an overt differentiator—such as special expertise in a vertical or a different approach or way of working,” continues Stephen. “What differentiates your work could be a philosophical orientation or a set of personal values. It could be your personality or style of working. Or maybe it is simply that, although you do the same things as other designers, you do them much better. In this last, most likely case, the differences between your work and that of inexperienced UX designers are much more nuanced, so expressing the quality of your work as a differentiator is a communications challenge.

“In any case, it is vital to zero in on your unique differentiators, amplify them through an effective narrative—for example, in case studies—and provide supporting evidence. Otherwise, in the eyes of the buyers, you are a commodity. Having viewed dozens of portfolios lately, I find that UX work does present as a commodity when portfolios cover the same superficial challenges addressed through the same rote process. This is infuriating to me because there are so many different kinds of companies and so many unique design challenges. However, I find that, where designers have truly engaged with a problem and dug deep into a space, the unique problem solving becomes almost self-evident in the work they show. Design isn’t a commodity!”

“Yes, stellar problem solving may be self-evident to a hiring manager who understands the work,” agrees Pabini. “But some may not get it at all—especially if they aren’t UX professionals. Too many hiring managers focus on UX designers’ tactical skills rather than their strategic value, and this bias can cause them to devalue the potential contributions of more strategic designers. In fact, because of experienced designers’ higher salary demands, these managers may disqualify the best, most experienced designers from consideration because they’re incapable of seeing the upside of making a greater investment in User Experience.”

Demonstrate Your Value to the Business

“The short answer is: by demonstrating your value and experience to those clients,” replies Adrian. “A mistake I see inexperienced folk make is trying to differentiate themselves by communicating how many practices or tools they know. Anybody can list skills such as Expert at Sketch or Facilitated usability tests on their resume. Anybody can put up a lovely looking customer journey map on their portfolio site. Anybody often does. The problem is that most clients don’t care. They care about improving their business. So you need to talk about the value you’ve delivered first.

“Instead of focusing on practices, tools, and artifacts when communicating what you do—tell stories about what those practices, tools, and artifacts enabled you to do. Don’t lead with the customer journey map—no matter how pretty it may be. Lead with the fact that the redesigned checkout process led to a 5% up-tick in conversions and made the company an extra £250K last quarter. Tell stories. Get referrals or testimonials. Provide some kind of social proof that you provide value.”

“As the foregoing advice shows, different hiring managers and companies may look for very different things in a UX designer,” responds Pabini. “So you’ll need to try to discern what they really want from their job descriptions, then make a determination about whether it would be worthwhile for someone with your expertise and experience to apply. Is it a type of company you’d want to work for? Does the company understand and value User Experience?

“There are many types of business value. While it may be relatively easy to measure the money a company makes or saves because of design improvements, it can sometimes be difficult for UX designers within a siloed organization to obtain this information. Plus, it can be challenging to quantify the monetary value of UX research or design in isolation from the contributions of other functions—for example, the value of research that has great impact on product strategy or a highly differentiated design that users love or a well-designed product’s innovation premium. Being able to do that requires the cooperation of Finance and Marketing, as well as the availability of analytics data. Hiring managers should be aware that some dysfunctional businesses are not willing to share the data that would let UX designers express their value in monetary terms. Thus, choosing to work for the wrong company can have a negative impact on your career going forward.”

Exhibit Your Soft Skills

“The most important predictor of the value a particular UX designer can potentially provide to a company is that designer’s soft skills,” states Pabini. “(Of course, the same is true for workers in any role.) A designer’s soft skills demonstrate that person’s character, maturity, and work ethic, all of which matter way more than experience with a particular domain, platform, or tool. A person with diverse experience and a strong work ethic can quickly learn new skills. But certain soft skills may be unattainable for some people—or at least take many years to develop. While these are the skills that really determine a UX designer’s ultimate success within an organization, too few managers give soft skills the attention they deserve.

“In my UXmatters article ‘13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life,’ I wrote about the value of some key soft skills: empathy, intuition, creativity, passion, being a life-long learner, listening, persuasiveness, responsibility and kindness, leadership, honesty and integrity, courage, self-awareness, and being wholehearted. These are the sorts of soft skills hiring managers should look for.

“The ability to collaborate effectively is perhaps the most important skill a UX designer should have. But, if you consider the barriers to collaboration that I described in my recent two-part series on UXmatters, ‘Overcoming Common Barriers to Collaboration,’ Part 1 and Part 2, most of them result from deficiencies in teammates’ soft skills:

  1. A lack of respect and trust
  2. Different mindsets
  3. Poor listening skills
  4. Knowledge deficits
  5. A lack of alignment around goals
  6. Internal competitiveness
  7. Information hoarding
  8. Organizational silos
  9. Physical separation

“Becoming a consummate collaborator requires the right mindset—those soft skills again—a certain degree of maturity, and lots of practice.”

Be flexible in your approach. Yes, be innovative, but don’t be rigid about making a perfect UX design your #1 goal. Remember, businesses exist to make money. Our work must fit within the complicated web of goals that define a company’s larger success. If a design is not practical for the business, it is irrelevant.

One way to make yourself stand out as an excellent UX designer is to show respect for your colleagues in all departments. People in every role bring an important talent to your company, but sometimes people can lose track of the fact that they are all on the same team. Our first UX clients are our colleagues.

Communicate Your Value

“Think of this problem of differentiating yourself like any other problem you solve as a UX designer,” answers Csaba. “It all comes down to communication. You have to convince companies and potential clients that you understand their needs and problems better.

“Personally, I’m happy that more and more people are becoming UX designers. I’ve never experienced this as a setback for me. The more a company understands and realizes the importance of User Experience, the more they will invest in it. Plus, when you’re working with many inexperienced designers, you can give them a lot of the simpler work and keep the most challenging problems for yourself.

“As somebody who often trains and evaluates UX designers, I can easily spot talented, experienced designers. My primary focus is the business. As a UX designer, you have to understand that every design decision must be based on user needs and business goals. An aspiring designer might have some great thoughts on product design or even the ability to create something beautiful. But UX design is about the business and meaningful design. That’s not a level of understanding you can acquire after just a few months of training. You need to find the companies and clients who can benefit from your skills and expertise.

“You might want to reposition yourself to communicate your value better, concludes Csaba. “Focus on UX strategy instead of design. Show clients how your designs impact their business. Share case studies that showcase your expertise. Focus on solving problems. That’s easier said than done. Every UX professional I’ve met has told me it’s vital to focus on problems. But inexperienced, junior designers can’t demonstrate this talent because it takes time and practice to develop it. These are the things that can set you apart from the competition.”

Reflect on the Long-Term Implications

Dan and Jo offer this an excerpt from their UXmatters article, “Reflections on Making Meaningful Work:”

“We need more moments in our work when we can consider the data we’ve gathered—not just the short-term implications of our observations, but what they’ll mean in the long term. We must consider what questions we need to ask and their answers’ implications for the product roadmap, people, their lives, and how our work impacts others’ work. The practice of reflection can afford us moments that encourage the practice of curiosity, prompting new thinking right now and informing a better future.

“The questions we ask need not speak to an immediate—perhaps misguided—digital focus or provide an instant—though misinformed—answer that fits into a sprint cycle. Instead, reflection can spark other practices that take us beyond a focus on now to a place where we can make enlightened decisions about a better future. By slowing down, we can gain greater clarity and perspective and look further ahead.”

Apply This Advice to UX Research and Other Fields

“You’ve asked this question about UX designers, but I think it applies equally well to UX researchers,” replies Carol. “These days, it seems that employers are looking for a one-size-fits-all solution for UX design and research. Yes, they want a designer, but they think they can also get a researcher in the same hire. It’s easy to understand why this happens when many people seeking work claim to have both skills.

“While I have met and worked with some people who have both design and user research training and experience, it is more often the case that they don’t have the user research experience and expertise that their resume might suggest. In a best-case scenario, they have gotten a certificate, attended a conference, or taken a course that covers the basics of user research. But they may not have had much hands-on experience doing user research. Plus, their employers may not know what to expect or how to judge the results. After all findings are findings, right?

“My job as a user researcher is to help prospective clients understand what they get from experience and expertise and why it matters. Similar to the challenges that UX designers encounter in presenting the complexities of UX design to potential employers, UX researchers must explain the complexities of conducting user research. That means helping clients shape the design of their research, promoting the best approach from the many options in a UX researcher’s toolkit, and conducting the research in a proven, unbiased, reliable way that produces actionable results. Doing this takes more than reading a book or attending a conference or course. Developing this know-how takes practice and continuing education to grow in your profession and stay abreast of new methods and solutions. That’s not to say we should not welcome new people coming into the field. We have to grow the profession. But, at the same time, we must showcase to prospective employers what our experience can mean for the success of their product.”

Go Somewhere Else If A Company Doesn’t Value UX

“If you’re applying for a position at a company that doesn’t understand the world of UX design in general or the complexities that come with it, you may want to search for a job elsewhere,” advises Mark. “You know what your experience is worth, and you want to a feel a connection with a team—just as they want to feel a connection with you during the hiring process. So make sure you dive deep into what the company is looking for in terms of User Experience. A company might be integrating UX design into one project, or they might be bringing in a full-scale UX team. By researching the various types of UX employers, you will be prepared to answer the kinds of questions they will ask you during an interview. This research will also help you to ask them insightful questions about the work environment, culture, products, processes, and more.

“In terms of distinguishing yourself among the competition, let your work speak for itself. Embrace your capabilities. Bring tangible examples from your portfolio to the interview. Be prepared to explain your design process in detail, specify your field of expertise, and don’t be afraid to show off your personality.”

Publish!

“One way to build your brand as a UX designer—or as a UX professional in any specialty—is to publish books and articles. Write for UXmatters!” invites Pabini. “We always need authors who have new, interesting ideas and approaches to share.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. 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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