“Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject.”—Thomas Mann
As a young product designer, I worked hard to perfect my craft. I read widely, studied the work of the masters, and challenged myself. But I was also fortunate: My managers in those early years were good mentors. They gave me projects that would test me, as well as the autonomy to work, learn, and mess things up a bit. They looked out for me—assigning projects that were suitable for my skill level and helping me to avoid any serious mistakes. However, whenever I asked them what I needed to do to move up to the next level, they’d give me answers, but not a detailed career roadmap. What I was lacking was a comprehensive overview of the specific skills and objectives that would be necessary for me to make progress in the professional world of User Experience.
Although I was mastering the design skillset, I soon realized that this was not sufficient to take me where I ultimately wanted to go. Mastery of craft is simply not enough. It is also important to master the work context so we can design effectively within a product-development organization, as depicted in Figure 1.
In other words, I also needed to learn about the business and its drivers, development processes, project planning, dependency management, and even organizational politics. Design school definitely had not prepared me for all of this. So, just as I’d done before, I began to read, study, learn, and master these other areas of competency. I also asked my managers to assign projects of progressively greater complexity and importance to me so I would have the opportunity to gain more experience, exposure, and autonomy.
As the years passed, I gained seniority. I led projects, mentored others, managed small teams, and architected product experiences. While my progress showed that I had apparently done the right things, nowhere along the way did I ever receive any sort of tangible roadmap for my career.
So, when the time came for me to form my own UX team at a mid-sized company, I was determined that the UX designers and researchers who joined my team would have clear roadmaps for their professional growth and development. I also wanted to ensure that our team would build deep bench strength by hiring talent that could continuously up level itself. My strong belief is that a UX organization should not have to look outside the company for its future senior talent and leadership.
Working with two senior leaders on my team—Mark Detweiler and Victoria Stanbach—we set about crafting a series of career roadmaps that described the necessary technical and organizational skillsets and their weightings for different levels of UX design, user research, and visual experience–design roles. These roadmaps covered all individual-contributor levels, starting at entry level and going all the way up to the most senior architects.
Each career-roadmap document that my team created comprised two sections, as follows:
The first section described the expected skill levels for each role’s technical and organizational skillsets, as well as the expected weightings for each skillset.
The second section provided detailed descriptions of four levels of each technical and organizational skill.
In the remainder of this column, I’ll provide an example roadmap for the UX-design career track. Then, I’ll share some advice on how individual contributors, managers, and leaders working in User Experience might utilize such career roadmaps.
An Example Career Roadmap
In this example, I’ll outline a roadmap for the UX-design career track. First, I’ll define the expected technical and organizational skill levels and skillset weightings for the various UX-design roles at four different levels. Then, I’ll provide detailed descriptions of four levels of each technical and organizational skill.
Section 1: Expected Skill Levels and Skillset Weightings
In this example career roadmap, Table I covers the technical, UX-design (UXD) skills that are necessary for six levels of UX-design roles, as well as the overall weightings of their technical skillset. The technical skills include information architecture (IA), interaction design (IxD), UX research and user-centered design (UCD), visual design, and innovation. Table 2 covers the organizational skills for UX-design roles, as well as the overall weightings of their organizational skillset. The organizational skills include decision-making, strategic thinking, planning and coordinating, results orientation, and communication.
The numbers in the tables represent the expected level of each skill for a particular UX-design role—from Level 1, beginner, to Level 4, master. The following general descriptions indicate the expectations for each level of expected contribution:
Level 1—Works as a product-team member, typically with a more senior person working in the same specialty who serves as a guide or mentor.
Level 2—Deals comfortably with typical projects and can work independently with only some high-level guidance or mentoring.
Level 3—Provides UX leadership to a product team, as well as some mentoring to Level-1 and Level-2 people working in the same specialty.
Level 4—Provides broad leadership and mentors groups, product teams, and the overall company.
In both tables, the weightings in the last column indicate the approximate ratios between the technical skills and the organizational skills. Note that the balance between these two types of skills shifts as a UX-design professional gains seniority.
Table 1—Technical skill levels by role—asterisks (*) indicate key skills
Senior UX Architect
Table 2—Organizational skill levels by role
Senior UX Architect
For example, a Principal UX Designer’s skill levels should emphasize technical skills, with a 70% weighting, versus just a 30% weighting for organizational skills. Plus, a Principal UX Designer should have Level-3 interaction-design and strategic-thinking skills.
In contrast, a UX Architect should have a more balanced, 60:40 ratio between technical and organizational skills, with higher levels of skill achievement in interaction design and strategic thinking—both at Level 4.
Section 2: Technical and Organizational Skill Levels
The second section of the roadmap for the UX-design career track provides detailed descriptions of four levels of each of the technical and organizational skills. These skill-level descriptions provide precise guidelines for both individual contributors and their managers, giving them a clear understanding of the expectations for particular roles. Now, let’s look at the skillset levels for UX-design professionals in detail.
UX-Design Skillset Levels: Technical Skills
UX-design technical skills include information architecture, interaction design, UX research and user-centered design, visual design, and innovation. The following sections describe four levels for each of these skillsets.
Information architecture comprehends the structural designs and organizing principles for information environments, Web sites, and software products.
Organizes relatively simple informational elements within an existing product framework.
Explores multiple, alternative information-architecture solutions before choosing a design direction.
Balances relatively complex user, business, and technical requirements to arrive at sound information-architecture designs.
Can explain the usability rationale and tradeoffs of one information architecture versus another.
Organizes complex information elements into new product frameworks.
Creates new architectural design patterns for a product when necessary.
Employs complex information-architecture concepts quickly and correctly.
Explores multiple, alternative product information architectures to create a broad range of alternative design concepts.
Balances complex user, business, and technical requirements to arrive at sound product information architectures.
Understands the usability rationale and tradeoffs for different product-level information architectures and can clearly articulate these to product-team leaders.
Designs and structures the key information elements of entire products and families of products.
Creates new architectural design patterns that impact entire product lines and user-interface frameworks.
Creates insightful, timely, compelling information-architecture designs for highly complex problem spaces.
Efficiently balances and manages complex user, business, and technical requirements to make sound information-architecture design decisions.
Anticipates and thinks through the entire breadth of impacts that information-architecture decisions can have on users, product teams, and UX designers.
Understands and can compellingly articulate the usability tradeoffs of various information-architecture design approaches for entire product families and frameworks.
Interaction design defines an application’s workflows and behaviors in response to a user’s actions.
Solves routine interaction-design problems effectively, gathering the information necessary to weigh a limited set of options and arrive at sound conclusions.
Applies existing interaction patterns, working with a more senior designer as a guide or mentor.
Escalates problems that are beyond the scope of his design capabilities for resolution by a more senior designer.
Efficiently and creatively solves moderately difficult or complex interaction-design problems that impact people within their group or other related groups.
Looks beyond obvious solutions and experiments with different approaches to solving problems.
Develops solutions for problems that stretch his design capabilities, but requests a more senior design to review and approve them.
Is a key contributor in group problem solving.
Efficiently and creatively solves difficult, complex interaction-design problems that impact other groups.
Creates new interaction-design patterns for a product when necessary.
Accurately defines the amount and kinds of information he must gather for problem solving.
Identifies underlying or hidden problems or trends across groups.
Anticipates and proactively works to circumvent roadblocks to solutions.
Challenges her team to think critically in solving problems.
Facilitates or leads effective problem solving in meetings and groups.
Efficiently and creatively solves even the most complex and difficult interaction-design problems that impact her organization or entire company.
Creates new interaction-design patterns that impact entire product lines and user-interface frameworks.
Asks critical, insightful questions and probes all fruitful sources for relevant information to facilitate problem solving.
Leads her team in critical, high-level, design problem solving
Strategically analyzes the risks, benefits, and opportunities of various solutions.
UX Research and User-Centered Design
UX research determines a target user’s characteristics, needs, and expectations of a Web site or software product and gathers and analyzes user feedback. User-centered design applies an understanding of the target user to guide decision-making for product design and development.
Conducts basic, early-stage design validations with internal and external customers—for example, by doing card sorts or heuristic evaluations.
Uses basic feedback techniques to improve relatively simple design concepts.
Works with more senior team members to plan design-validation activities and incorporate user feedback into design changes.
Generates user profiles, recruiting screeners, study scripts, and reports.
Plans moderately complex requirements-gathering, analysis, design-validation, and usability-testing activities—for example, requirements elicitation and role-based content and workflow inventories.
Independently conducts design-validation activities with internal and external customers.
Employs user-feedback techniques to improve moderately complex design concepts.
Communicates usability findings and provides recommendations for improving user-interface designs to product teams on the basis of those findings.
Plans and conducts complex requirements-analysis, design-validation, and summative usability–testing activities—for example, contextual inquiry, role-based content and workflow inventories, and metrics-based usability testing.
Independently conducts all aspects of complex user-research programs—from early-stage requirements to summative usability testing.
Adapts user-research techniques to inform both new and on-going, complex, product-development efforts.
Communicates usability findings, metrics, and associated design strategies to large, distributed product teams.
Discusses usability metrics and their impact on product ROI (Return on Investment).
Expertly conducts all stages of user research—including market analysis, requirements definition, early-to-mid-stage design validations, and summative usability–testing activities—for example, contextual inquiry, metrics-based testing, competitive evaluations, and usability testing.
Simultaneously plans and drives multiple user-research activities across widely divergent product domains.
Drives and conducts all aspects of formal summative testing, including the use of metrics and competitive benchmark testing.
Communicates usability metrics and findings to broad internal constituencies of product teams, general managers, and executives.
Clearly articulates the impacts of perpetuating usability issues, including their negative impact on the company’s overall business.
Creates new user-elicitation methods and techniques to suit novel research needs and requirements.
Visual design creates visual elements and applies visual treatments and branding to Web sites and software products.
Competently creates basic layouts and produce mockups of designs.
Builds accurate wireframes, following visual-design guidelines.
Coordinates with other visual designers to produce graphics resource files for user interfaces.
Builds complex, accurate wireframes, following visual-design guidelines.
Competently collaborates with product teams to understand how all aspects of a product’s functionality would work within an established visual-design framework.
Maintains an awareness of trends in visual design and guides other visual designers in implementing cutting-edge, visual-design solutions for their products.
Expertly builds complex, accurate wireframes, following visual-design guidelines.
Expertly collaborates with product teams to understand how all aspects of a product’s functionality would work within an established visual-design framework.
Stays abreast of trends in visual design and expertly guides other visual designers in implementing cutting-edge solutions for their products.
Innovation involves applying UX insights to devise uniquely valuable design solutions and products.
Identifies necessary changes in direction in a timely manner.
Deals competently with technological shifts.
Adjusts to changes in priorities and technologies with minimal direction and support.
Demonstrates market awareness, projecting how product ideas might play out in use.
Recognizes good, innovative ideas.
Determines when changes in direction are necessary.
Deals effectively with technological shifts.
Motivates others to find new ways of using and looking at technology.
Demonstrates insights about which creative ideas would work in the marketplace.
Adeptly realizes the creative ideas of others.
Nurtures good, innovative ideas.
Continually adjusts high-level innovation strategies and plans in response to changes in priorities and technologies.
Develops and drives strategies to introduce innovative ideas into the marketplace.
Champions good, innovative ideas
Accurately anticipates changes in priorities and technologies and confidently alters their group’s or organization’s plans to address them.
Energizes others by getting them excited about change and innovation and motivating them to pursue and create innovative solutions.
Makes important, innovative advances.
Stays attuned to the marketplace and knows which innovations would gain adoption.
UX-Design Skillset Levels: Organizational Skills
UX-design organizational skills include decision-making and judgment, strategic thinking, planning and coordinating, results orientation, and communication. The following sections describe four levels for each of these skillsets.
Decision-Making and Judgment
UX-design professionals must have good judgment and, thus, the ability to make practical, effective UX decisions.
Structures basic information effectively and draws informed conclusions.
Makes good decisions in well-defined situations.
Selects the best options from a limited number of possible actions.
Makes effective decisions within their scope of authority, which primarily affect their own work.
Makes good decisions in relatively complex situations.
Asks questions and collects information to gain an understanding of alternatives before making decisions.
Makes decisions that impact people within their group or other related groups.
Makes good decisions—even under some uncertainty or pressure.
Applies lessons she’s learned from past experience to the current situation.
Involves others in making decisions that affect them.
Makes insightful decisions in difficult or complex situations.
Uses a mixture of analysis, experience, and judgment to make key decisions.
Makes decisions that significantly impact other groups.
Helps others to think through the likely impacts of alternative decisions.
Perceives the implications of decisions and makes sound judgments and recommendations.
Makes insightful decisions in difficult or very complex situations.
Quickly and efficiently sifts through relevant information to identify key issues to consider in making important, strategic decisions.
Makes decisions that have broad impact across a business unit or even the entire company.
Anticipates the scope and depth of the impacts that a decision would have on key external constituencies and people at all levels in the company.
UX-design professionals’ ability to think strategically requires understanding the business and anticipating UX priorities for future implementation.
Understands the business issues that are relevant to their work and applies this knowledge to solving problems.
Thinks about what he needs to do today to accomplish his goals for the next one to six months.
Differentiates problems from symptoms.
Understands the business and strategies in interdependent areas and applies this knowledge to solving problems.
Thinks six to twelve months ahead and drives planning to take advantage of potential opportunities.
Proposes alternative scenarios for long-range plans that are relevant to running his projects.
Demonstrates strong knowledge of the variety of issues that could impact future success.
Deeply understands how our products and technologies work within industry.
Thinks 12 to 18 months ahead, projecting scenarios and devising strategies to take advantage of opportunities.
Recognizes competitive threats.
Thinks globally, taking a broad view of all variables that could impact future success.
Develops long-term strategies that impact the company, taking advantage of his position in the business.
Thinks more than 18 months ahead, devising breakthroughs that enable the company to maintain a strong competitive advantage.
Advises business leaders effectively on strategic issues, problems, and challenges.
Planning and Coordinating
UX-design professionals can develop, adapt, and implement plans efficiently to accomplish UX processes and goals.
Prioritizes her own work effectively so she can meet her work objectives.
Uses her time efficiently.
Organizes resources to complete her projects efficiently.
Participates in routine planning activities related to her work.
Keeps appropriate people informed about her progress on tasks and projects.
Manages her own time and that of others efficiently.
Develops sound plans and determines the length and complexity of tasks and projects.
Implements and monitors moderately complex plans effectively, so she completes her tasks and projects on time and meet all her objectives.
Keeps appropriate people well informed of her plans, decisions, and progress.
Recognizes problems and takes corrective action to avoid poor outcomes.
Provides high value in helping groups to plan, organize, and coordinate their work efforts.
Develops efficient work plans for complex projects, involving multiple groups, and coordinates these plans effectively.
Demonstrates a deep understanding of the relationships among the various components of large projects and programs.
Is prepared for and effectively navigates problems and bottlenecks.
Assigns priorities effectively to multiple, complex, competing activities.
Expertly defines and drives complex or difficult plans, having a large impact on our business.
Demonstrates a deep understanding of the relationships between different organizations.
Takes timely, large-scale actions to lead and facilitate groups and organizations in working together efficiently and effectively.
UX-design professionals’ continual focus should be on achieving positive results that contribute to UX success.
Works proactively with her manager and others to clarify, understand, and define clear goals and focus on getting the desired results.
Takes responsibility for achieving successful outcomes.
Accepts goals and assignments and quickly gets to work.
Demonstrates a strong work ethic and completes all assigned tasks.
Shows a willingness to do even mundane work that is necessary to achieve the desired results.
Defines all work efforts as results to achieve.
Finds the most effective ways to achieve the desired results.
Works efficiently and puts in the time and effort necessary to do a great job.
Realizes when progress toward desired results is stalling and takes action to get back on track.
Accepts difficult assignments and gets right to work.
Perseveres in the face of difficulties.
Guides others in defining their assignments as results to accomplish.
Emphasizes the successful achievement of her intended results.
Sets high standards, then once she’s attained them, raises these standards even higher.
Helps others to orient toward achieving results, coaching them to persist when facing problems and issues.
Holds others accountable for their commitments and results.
Anticipates unusual issues and problems, taking steps to minimize their impacts on results.
Always looks for ways to improve on results.
Overcomes strong resistance and difficult problems to meet her goals.
Takes on complex or difficult projects, seeing them through to successful completion.
UX-design professionals can write, speak, and present UX information effectively across communication media.
Effectively communicates the correct message to others.
Communicates his thoughts in a well-organized way.
Makes effective presentations to smaller groups.
Targets communications precisely for the intended audience.
Gets his points across quickly, concisely, and clearly.
Explains information in a manner that is easy to understand.
Makes effective presentations to small and mid-sized groups.
Communicates complex ideas and information effectively and efficiently.
Answers questions effectively in many different contexts.
Makes effective presentations to various audiences—both small to large; internal and external.
Communicates effectively with senior management.
Communicates complex concepts, issues, and strategies effectively and efficiently.
Responds easily, clearly, and concisely to difficult questions in any circumstance.
Communicates effectively with diverse audiences in a variety of contexts—for example, press conferences, customer meetings, or internal meetings—even in controversial situations.
Easily makes compelling presentations to sophisticated audiences.
Communicates very effectively with senior executives.
Using Career Roadmaps
Next, I’ll provide a few ideas about how individual contributors, managers, and leaders working in User Experience might employ career roadmaps.
Advice for Individual Contributors in User Experience
To advance your own career, do the following:
Develop your own skillset. Focus on one skill area in which you’d like to grow, then work to achieve the next level by talking with more senior UX professionals, studying exemplary projects, and reading more broadly on the topic of interest.
Discuss your career with your manager. Use your career roadmap to guide regular discussions about your professional growth and ways in which your manager can support your growth—for example, through project assignments, formal mentoring, or even specific training courses.
Assess the maturity of any organization you’re joining. When interviewing for a job, formulate questions that are based on the technical and organizational skillsets I’ve outlined. You might also ask whether the company you’re considering joining has its own set of roadmaps.
Think several steps ahead. If you’re only a few years into your UX career or just starting out, the roadmaps let you see how your career might progress, help you to assess your strengths and areas for growth, and work to advance over time.
Advice for UX Managers and Leaders
To help your team members advance in their careers, do the following:
Define common reference points for your UX team members. Give them a single source of truth for the various career levels and job titles.
Have professional-development conversations with your team members. Guide them in all related career-development activities.
Work with Human Resources. Establish specific levels, competencies, and salary bands.
Assist team members with writing their performance reviews. Ensure you’re both on the same page regarding performance assessments.
Create job descriptions for all the roles on your team. Use them in recruiting and hiring.
Develop example-based hiring questions. These might cover specific skillsets and levels.
Drive growth and develop bench strength on your team. The primary function of a leader is to create more leaders. Having clear guidelines is helpful in conversations with your team members about how they can build strong careers over the long term.
Let me be clear. I am not making any claims about the universal applicability of the roadmap I’ve presented here. An enterprise-software company that builds business applications might prioritize skillsets and weightings differently from an ecommerce company or a company creating consumer products or medical devices. Company size and the maturity of your UX team would likely factor into this equation. Because of its unique business requirements, your organization almost certainly has its own slant on what skills are essential to an individual’s success in a particular role. However, none of this negates the benefits of this overall approach to systematizing career pathways. Creating career roadmaps enables UX designers and researchers to more effectively manage their professional growth over time.
The roadmap I’ve shared in this column provided good business value to both our UX team and our company. We believed that our roadmaps would stand the test of time, but also acknowledged that we should periodically revisit and update them whenever necessary.
Liam is a UX-design architect and leader whose experience spans nearly three decades. He has worked for large and mid-sized companies, as well as startups. His professional work focuses on the intersection of people, design innovation, and technology. Over the course of his professional life—working in a variety of product domains—Liam has defined and delivered a diverse portfolio of UX-strategy, architecture, and design work. He also has deep experience in design management and leadership. Read More