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Growing Your Career as a Multidisciplinary UX Designer, Part 1

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
September 21, 2020

Unicorns are mythological creatures, as UX unicorns generally are. But UX designers who are working in enterprise environments must often shoulder the entire burden of UX research, interaction design, visual design, and related functions and have proficiency in multiple design programs, tools, and methods as well. When UX designers must take responsibility for multiple disciplines, it becomes difficult for them to grow their career in a way that maximizes their abilities as a UX designer and helps them gain positive exposure within their companies and professional networks. How can you grow your career when you’re burdened with so many different functions that might or might not serve you well in the long term?

It’s often up to UX designers to forge their own career path within organizations that lack UX maturity. Most enterprise environments don’t have a formalized career ladder in place for UX designers and teams. Nevertheless, after nearly 20 years of working in such environments, I’ll reflect on how I’ve grown my career despite these challenges—and I’ve seen others do the same. In this column, which is Part 1 in a two-part series, I’ll present a strategy for growing your career as a multidisciplinary UX designer working within such an environment, as follows:

  • Understand why you want to grow your career.
  • Define your desired career path.
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Understand Why You Want to Grow Your Career

Before you define your desired career path—and what actions you should take as a result, which I’ll cover in Part 2—it is important that you first determine why you want to grow your career. It might seem like common sense for people to want to grow their career. Many perceive successful people as those who either climb their company’s corporate ladder, start their own venture, or develop expertise as an individual contributor in a specific function. However, growth and success look different for each person, so assuming that you should grow in a certain way without first understanding why you want to grow could lead to your inadvertently choosing a career path or role that isn’t right for you. This could lead to frustration.

The role of a UX designer is to dwell in the problem space and understand what issues exist before jumping into the solution space. Use this same mindset to understand the driving motivations behind your desire to grow, as well as what issues might be contributing to your desires. Do you feel that your organization is under-utilizing your skills in your current role? Are you experiencing burnout from having to juggle too many disciplines? Do you want to lead others or remain an individual contributor who focuses intensely on a single role?

Understanding the why behind your desire to grow your career is critical because it could influence the path you choose and the actions you’ll take as a result. For example, the skills you would need to manage others effectively are very different from those you would need to become a senior or principal UX designer. You might already have excellent skills in your discipline or your collection of disciplines, but that doesn’t mean you’d be good at achieving through others, which requires a vastly different mindset. Plus, the skills you’d need to become, for example, an accomplished user researcher are quite different from those of an expert interaction designer.

Take the time to reflect on your driving motivations. Live in this problem space for a while. Once you’ve determined exactly why you want to grow or change, it becomes easier for you to define a path for achieving that growth.

Define Your Desired Career Path

“When you’re good at something, you’ll tell everyone. When you’re great at something, they’ll tell you.”—Walter Payton

Once you understand why you want to grow your career, you can shift into the solution space and determine how you want to grow. Does a logical path forward present itself? Or are you still unsure what path to take?

In my experience, it helps to consider your T-shaped skillset, shown in Figure 1, in which the stem of the T represents the competency in which you have the deepest knowledge and the cross stroke of the T represents those competencies in which you possess some knowledge. It is, of course, natural that the levels of your competencies in other disciplines aren’t as deep as your core competency—nor should they be. It’s impossible to be an expert in every discipline.

Figure 1—A T-shaped skillset
A T-shaped skillset

The concept of a T-shaped skillset has been around for a long time, and Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, has further popularized it, so you’ve probably heard of this before. Its popularity endures and is especially relevant to multidisciplinary UX designers who want to grow their career.

Ask yourself whether your T-shaped skillset represents you the way you want to be perceived. When I decided I wanted to grow my career in a different way several years ago, I used this metaphor to identify the skill or set of skills in which I wanted to develop deeper knowledge. So I recast my T-shaped skillset as T-shaped growth and began to think of the T’s cross stroke as a shelf upon which I could place certain skills that weren’t high priorities for me so didn’t require further development. I could dust off such skills and bring them down from that shelf from time to time, but they didn’t warrant the same attention as the skills on the stem of my T. If you’re struggling in determining which competency, skillset, discipline—or any combination of them—should be the stem of your T, step back and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What inspires and fulfills me?
  • Do I prefer juggling multiple disciplines?
  • What do others tell me I’m good at?
  • Where do I see myself in five years?
  • What form does my T-shaped growth take?

What inspires and fulfills me?

When you wake up in the morning to go to work—even if your office is currently your spare bedroom or walk-in closet—what inspires you the most about your work? When you go to bed at night and reflect upon your day, what memories of the day give you the most fulfillment? There’s a good chance that clues about your desired growth path abound in such memories and inspirations. Some might surprise you. Don’t fear them. Recognize such desires as possible seeds of tremendous growth, even if that growth is lateral or relates to a discipline you’ve not previously explored.

Do I prefer juggling multiple disciplines?

Some people do enjoy working in multiple disciplines—or at least they think they do. For a long time in my career, I had striven to be a UX team of one—a UX professional who could conduct up-front user research, create detailed interaction-design specifications, design high-fidelity mockups, and write production-level copy. But the situations in which I found myself often demanded this. I had worked on small, agile teams and for bootstrapped startups that couldn’t afford the luxury of engaging the efforts of multiple UX professionals in different specialties—a topic for another day. But when I stepped back and questioned the pride I’d felt in being a jack-of-all-trades, I had to determine whether I really wanted that multidisciplinary role or it had been thrust upon me and I simply had to grow into it because there were no other alternatives?

If you’re in such a situation, ask yourself how you’d feel if your company’s leadership came to you with the amount of money it would take to hire one additional UX design resource to help you with your job. How would you spend that money? What skills would you abdicate and why? The answers to these questions can help you determine what skills you should deprioritize. This is a step in the right direction to determine the stem of your T.

What do others tell me I’m good at?

Often, others recognize skills in us that we might not readily perceive in ourselves. Take note if someone says you’re a good communicator or are great at interviewing the users of your company’s products and services. Take time to reflect if someone notices your ability to make complicated systems easier to use. Compliments don’t come along often, and most people don’t offer them freely—unless the recipient of their compliment has demonstrated an obvious skill in a certain discipline or competency. Moreover, if multiple people recognize your skill in a certain area, they might have already chosen your desired growth area for you. We often invest ourselves in being good at things we want to be good at.

Where do I see myself in five years?

Imagine yourself five years into the future. What are you doing and why are you doing it? Are you speaking at a conference? Are you doing high-impact work within a group of talented individuals? Are you managing others and achieving through them? Try to conjure a clear mental picture. If this vision is highly aspirational and even a little scary to think about—good. Your career goals should give you a twinge of nervous excitement. If they don’t, you’re not setting high enough goals.

It also helps to be specific about your goals. Consider the following goal statement: In five years, I want to be a leader in the field of User Experience. While this goal might sound great on the surface, what does leader actually mean in this context? The field of User Experience is quite broad. What exactly would you be leading?

Compare the following goal statement to the previous one: In five years, I want to be the Director of User Experience at [insert company name], managing an annual budget of [insert amount]. The company you name could be your current employer, or it could be a company you admire. The budgetary amount could be completely fictional, but would imply that you’d have significant decision-making authority. Referring to a title such as Director implies that you’d have attained a certain level at a company that respects User Experience enough to give it a place on its leadership team. Is five years an unrealistic goal for such a position? It might be. But creating an aspirational goal encourages you to extend yourself further than you otherwise might if you set your goal too low. Finally, when goals are specific, it is easier for us to take specific actions to attain them.

What form does my T-shaped growth take?

Once you understand how you ultimately want to grow, you can begin defining the skills necessary to achieve that growth. What form does your T-shaped growth take? Keep in mind that the stem of your T doesn’t have to be narrow or short. It can be as wide or as tall as you want it to be—perhaps accommodating a broad skillset. I took this approach several years ago when I decided I wanted to focus more on UX design competencies such as information architecture and interaction design with the ultimate goal of earning a leadership position in my company. I knew this would likely necessitate my deprioritizing other specialized skills such as coding, visual design, and having in-depth knowledge of quantitative user research methods. As Figure 2 shows, the stem of my T also included general communication and leadership skills. These were the skills I wanted to develop further.

Figure 2—My desired T-shaped growth
My desired T-shaped growth

Making this decision helped me prioritize what actions I should take to focus on growing the skills on the stem of that T—which I’ll cover in Part 2. Did the skills on which I chose to focus represent the hallmark of every UX design leader? Of course not. I chose the skills that were most important to me and reflected the professional I wanted to become. Your T-shaped growth path would probably look very different from mine—as it should. You might want to become an expert user researcher or a creative director, each of which would require your developing different skills. But being specific about what skills you want to grow lets you better align your thoughts and actions toward achieving that growth. If your vision for your career resembled a nebulous swirl of thoughts, your path to career growth would be more difficult. Give it definition. Make it tangible. Whether you write a list, create a spreadsheet, or draw an illustration as I have, producing a tangible artifact lets you better visualize your career growth and your ultimate success.

Conclusion

Most UX professionals whose goal is to grow their career are likely to possess multidisciplinary skills to some degree. But there are certain disciplines that would serve their career growth better than others—depending on their desired career path. This would be especially true if you were currently a multidisciplinary UX designer who must juggle a wide range of skills and competencies.

To achieve growth, you should start by trying to understand your driving motivation. Why do you want to grow? Dwell in this problem space long enough to gain clarity before leaping into the solution space. Failing to do so could result in your growing in the wrong way. Once you better understand your driving motivation, you can begin to define how you want your career to grow. If you need a clearer definition of what form your growth should take, ask yourself the questions I provided earlier. Be honest in your answers—they might surprise you. These answers can help you define your T-shaped growth and clarify what actions you should take next, which I’ll cover in Part 2. 

User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. In 2013, Jon joined Rockwell Automation, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. In 2020, Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell, where he balances design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals.  Read More

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