an ethnographic analysis of ux professionals

As a manager, you strive to see 6-12 months beyond what your team is currently working on. In addition to roadmaps, you’re also thinking about aligning projects with their professional careers. A while ago, I wanted to make sure that I was doing a service to our Meebo UX team and that I understood what career paths looked like for designers (it was also around annual review time). I started initiating coffee conversations with any design professional my schedule could withstand (it doesn’t hurt that Red Rock Coffee is just around the corner). And truthfully, I love talking about Web application design so it was a treat to break outside the technical community and meet people that I probably should have known years ago.

My take-away after 40-60 hours of caffeinated conversations is probably a bit controversial but here it goes. I would posit that:

UX professionals are some of the most professionally unhappy folks I’ve ever encountered.

Before reactionary sparks fly, I should clarify that professional unhappiness is very different than emotional happiness. Despite my upbeat and engaging conversations, it was clear that designers have fewer growth opportunities and are less valued than their engineering counterparts. If you are currently a UX professional, it’s pretty likely you work in one of these types of organizations:

“Just make it pretty“: This is the easiest organization to identify. This organization equates design with pixel eye candy. Design is the varnish that pulls everything together. Since you are the last one to touch a product, your influence is more limited, and your hours get squeezed when the engineering schedule slips. This type of organization could have contracted out its design service but perhaps it was more economical to have someone like yourself in-house. Hopefully, you’ve found yourself designing an amazing product with a team you love. However, it may be more difficult to see growth opportunities in the near future (especially outside of visual design). Or you may find yourself constantly trying to prove that it makes strategic sense to include UX earlier in the development cycle. Regardless, at some point you’ll have enough confidence and work in your portfolio to head to the next type of organization…

A Tried-and-True Monolith” Most of the largest consumer-oriented design teams in Silicon Valley were founded by engineers 10-15 years ago. At the time, HCI was just emerging as a respected industry discipline. It wasn’t until a few years after the company’s inception that the respective UX teams were inserted into the organization, well after the DNA of that company’s organizational structure and values were solidified. A decade later, these companies have the resources and millions of end-users to do amazing things. It’s a fantastic place to gain perspective and seasoning, especially in a contributor role.

However, a professional ceiling appears once someone progresses from a contributor to a lead role. To be a good leader, you need to create strategic goals to align your teams. However, there is no VP or C-level UX role at the head of these organizations. UX is frequently aligned with pre-existing Marketing or Engineering teams and as a result, there’s no place to grow strategically. As a manager or principal, you might find yourself in a lot of meetings saying, “My job is just to offer the existing data and my interpretation. It’s up to <other team> to incorporate it.” Perhaps you even create a UX board of advisors to counteract the non-UX organizational structure. However, after enough meetings, you start to realize that as much as you wish it weren’t so, UX still feels like a service instead of a strategic voice.

After a few years, you’ll most likely have the resume (maybe even a book!), professional network, and product breadth to turn to consulting where your contracting relationship presupposes that your client values what you are doing. Even though you might not be part of a long-term project or enjoy daily team camaraderie, at least your years of experience are appreciated. You might stay in consulting; you might satisfy your entrepreneurial itch to do your own start-up. Or you might find yourself craving stability but within a team that values UX. In which case, you could find yourself here…

“Team of UX Workhorses”: This UX team is building user scenarios, wire-framing, placing metrics on decisions, and participating in all levels of the development cycle. It sounds like Silicon Valley heaven. However, when the UX team is strong and talented, there is a tendency for non-UX teams to misuse its UX resources. Instead of resolving a decision at a meeting, someone might propose, “Let’s A/B test it!” and after the meeting, the UX team is off and running. Should we go with a 2-step or 3-step registration process? “Let’s run it through usability!” and now days are lost to scheduling and moderation. Someone have a new idea that just might work? “Let’s ask our ID team to spend a week or two creating new wires!”

Execs love the ability to go so quickly from idea to exploration. However, the exploration just leads to more data collection which, in turn, postpones critical thinking and decision-making. Soon, projects are canceled unexpectedly, other teams are complaining that their projects aren’t getting attention from your overtaxed UX team, and it’s hard to make gigantic strides forward when your designs are hung up in A/B testing micro-steps. Not only are you getting discouraged that only 20% of your projects see the light of day, it is especially disheartening that design issues are resolved through usability participants and other team members inaccurately interpreting data. You were hired for your expertise, it’s incredibly clear that the right answer is “the blue button,” and you can’t figure out why no one trusts you to make a call.

Experienced folks who suggest eliminating UX cycles are deemed illogical (why wouldn’t you do A/B testing?). Junior designers might suspect that an idea isn’t worth exploring but feel compelled to push forward in case perhaps the idea is good, but their creativity is lacking. Without an exec or a process to keep everything in check, the team is constantly spinning and being accused of not being strategic because their efforts are difficult to map to the bottom line.

But from my conversations, it certainly wasn’t all bad news. Almost everyone was optimistic that things were getting better. The stereotype of UX teams comprised of unapproachable design divas is being replaced by the concept of well-rounded teams that successfully partner business expectations with end-user experiences. Ten years ago, it was difficult to find someone seasoned who could step into a Director/VP of UX role. However, through my coffees alone, I met several professionals with many, many more years of experience than I have who would bring amazing perspective to a willing organization. Finally, the organizational placement of UX professionals is becoming more clear. UX folks want to be close to the action. They think about the UI and want to be beside the people who build the UI – the engineers. And finally, I’m especially excited about the somewhat controversial conversations popping up about UX hybrids and how that can influence team dynamics.

I’m still compiling my notes on UX hybridization… but more on that later.


19 responses to “an ethnographic analysis of ux professionals”

  1. I’m very glad you had the courage to post this – I think many in the UX community would agree with your observations.

    I’ve always thought the problem is one of expectations. It’s absurd in most companies that there would ever be a great career path for what is seen as a specialized role. Most specializations have the same problems, and the same culture of complaints.

    To expect to be promoted demands becoming less specialized. If the people who truly control design direction are general managers, then the only way to control design direction is to become a general manager. There is no law that says a UX professional can’t grow into being a group manager or VP or CEO or anything else. In fact it’d be a great bit of research to seek out designers who have moved into general management roles, and see what happened. And ask why, if it’s as rare as I think it is, it isn’t more common.

    I fundamentally think UX design skills are not the problem – we have an army of good individual designers and UX folks. The problem is a lack of UX leadership, and people with design knowledge who are willing to take on the challenges of operating on the tougher turf of C-Suites, general management and the rest of it. That’s where the next wave of progress will, or won’t, happen.

  2. Great post Elaine. I have experienced the edges of each of those situations — However, from the good news front: I have been a part of a scenario where the company hired me directly as a Web Strategist which would probably be described as a Director-level UX Hybrid. This position answered directly to the head of the most independent arm of the organization, the IT department under the Global CIO.

    I’d say four great things came out of that experience:
    1) We controlled the User Experience, and marketing remained secondary to ensuring the user had a great experience.
    2) We were arbitrators of functionality — so we could ensure that design, function, purpose, redesign, consolidation, and growth went hand-in-hand and had equal time but governed by corporate goals.
    3) Marketing could be developed independently of what we wanted the corporate Web property to ultimately do for people.
    4) We could consider new product options with an eye to universal use, not just aligned to a business division.

    The entire experience was a pleasure and to me, it’s the companies like this who have actually considered, embraced and empowered their Web strategy with an independent directive that do get the most bang for their buck. In turn they get back a UX team that’s happy to be a part of a world they’re empowered to fix and improve.

  3. I like the cross-practice thinking and growth thinking here. It needs to happen more often IMO. I did my part in the CS world here – Perspective stuck out as one of the key words in this post for me. The more you have the better the end result and the journey getting there.

    PS – Happy Meebo user here


  4. I’m very interested in issues around UX and organizational politics, and I thank you for posting this thoughtful analysis of how UX people see their roles within organizations. UX roles can fit into a number of different places within an organization—how many other careers are there that could sit in the engineering group in one company, the creative group in another, the strategy group, or the marketing group?

    For most people I’ve talked to, professional dissatisfaction seems to come from days spent in petty skirmishes, having one’s contributions ignored or outright rejected. One quote from an interview subject I’ve always remembered: “my job can’t be trying to convince you that I should get to do my job.”

    To Scott’s point, I think the issue of specialization vs management track cuts both ways. Some people want to move up in the company, and face the same (well-documented) challenges anyone faces in moving from being a contributor to a manager. For many, though, I think they’d be happy as a contributor but only if they’re getting the right “air cover” from management. I’ve talked to many people who were brought in to play a UX role in the absence of any other changes to process or culture, and that’s a hard row to hoe without external support.

    Elaine, I’m also excited to see your comments on UX hybrids, as I’ve been observing changes in the way that people’s skills break down across roles, and am curious to see how that changes the process and culture within teams.

  5. I really enjoyed reading it (if enjoy is indeed the right word here).

    The people you have been talking to are going to be the instruments of change. They will likely help create
    organizations that are different from any of those you have described. They are agents of change. The practice of
    their craft for over a decade has created in them a potential to be able to contribute at a higher level. The exercise of
    creating a structure that will actually allow them to contribute in this manner has been left as an exercise for them.

    In addition to moving up the management track, and becoming (and being perceived as owners ) for “more than the UI”..
    they also need to be agents of organizational change.

    This will be an exciting space to watch in the next few years.

    Thank you for posting, and for giving us a place to have a deeper conversation about this.

  6. Speaking as a web design professional….

    My professional “happiness” stems from knowing that a creative problem has been solved. Design is all about problem solving.

    The reason designers want to come into a project early as a strategic voice is to make sure the problem they are being handed is the right one.

    Using statistics (Omniture) to measure both business and design goals, in turn supports a stronger business confidence, rapid deployments, and our own design instincts.

    I’m happy to be a part of a UX team that has allowed us to create, measure, fix, and improve the site we created.

  7. This article is spot on! As a UX professional I have often felt misunderstood. I have worked on a variety of products within a large IT companies as well as smaller companies. The term UX has many interpretations which I always try to level-set in my interview. Having an HCI background, and a CS foundation has helped, but in the end I struggle in many fronts: getting the organization or culture to understand that while I am there to holistically improve their product or service I have to do this while learning a new domain (each job requires getting up to speed quickly on many deep and broad topics, currently Enteriprise Finance), Products), new culture, and technology/platform. While I am skilled in UX Research and then articulating concept level findings through wireframes/patterns/specification there is always a struggle in explaining why I may not be the resource to then produce the final visual renderings. And yes, in some cases that is the expectation that I am suppoed to make it pretty. In other cases the expectation is to be the source to churn out quick usability testing results – which for me is limiting as I can take the results as far as articulating them in a concept framework and wireframs, with IA and Interaction Design recommendations. Currently, I am a UX Manager within the ‘Technology Strategy’ department within a large Finance company. I face a mix of challenges described above including the pressure to quickly before the expert of the intense finance (legacy) applications. Sigh! BTW I still love what I do, just not the way in which my role is utilized. And yes, I constantly educate and try hard to patiently navigate through the political waters.

  8. Elaine, your study was admirable. The findings really resonated with me, and apparently many others.

    I’ve done UX and managed UX at several companies. In a couple of large companies, we conducted surveys that asked designers (among other things) their preferred organizational structure, their preferred roles and responsibilities, and their current level of professional happiness.

    Many respondents said they were unhappy. The reasons they gave were (if I may paraphrase):

    (1) I have no seat at the table during strategic discussions.

    (2) The product team wants me to leave the centralized group and report to a product manager.

    (3) There is no career path for a designer here.

    The happiest designers usually reported into a product team, perhaps through a design manager. They rarely reported into a centralized UX organization. Decentralized designers were usually happiest because:

    (a) Most product teams considered the centralized design group to be an “internal agency” (the “service” that you referenced). They regarded centralized designers as outsiders whose first loyalty was to the centralized design group, not the product team.

    (b) Most product teams that had designers reporting to them regarded their designers as loyal “insiders”. They usually gave them that coveted “seat at the table” as well as career growth opportunities–opportunities not just within the UX field, but also in product management and project management, often in leadership roles. (These were the “well-rounded teams” you discussed.)

    It is important not to apply these findings to other large, established companies without conducting surveys and closely examining cultural factors like team dynamics and historical events. For example, in an engineering-driven company company, a decentralized designer might get a seat at the table but not a carer growth opportunity into the driving function.

    I do sympathize with UX professionals in companies that “don’t get design”. The tales of woe that you cite are too familiar. But I wonder if some unhappy designers are getting what they think they need to be happy (in the above example, a unified, centralized, collocated design organization) and are consequently not getting what would actually make them happy (in the example, to be treated like a full-fledged member of the product team).

  9. Fantastic post which resonated strongly with my own experience. I would also agree with Larry’s point. From managing centralised design resource, and working in decentralised and freelance resource, I have found that more respect is paid to the abilities (and time constraints) of a decentralised resource. And respect helps make designers happy!

  10. “Well let’s test it to see shall we?”
    Who’d have thought that such a powerful tool (testing) could be used against us, the UX professional?!

    Sometimes I think we sold the ‘User’ part of UCD too hard!


  11. At the end of the day, the success of a UX professional is the effortless (perceived) ability to empower the right people. We (UX) are a bridge. We are a bridge to a few places e.g. business->technology, designers->marketing, ethnographic research->budget office, you get the idea. Mainly it is about helping inspire a process to gain a resounding ‘wow’ between how elegance, efficiency and the command of the domain speak directly to technology, business and design teams. Big plate to eat for most. That is why, I believe, the UX professional is the most stressed: If your bridges are not balanced and not pointing in the right direction there will be stress on the people who traverse your bridge and all the parts which hold your structure together. It can take a lifetime to understand the business and technological constraints of an organization and how all of these pillars of knowledge can translate into a multitude of seamlessly branded and elegantly usable software. The people who I met who do very well are the ones whos parenets are a doctor and a poet, and engineer and a painter. It is the left and right brain working in perfect unison. Most people do not have that. I love UX because I feel I live well in that space: Foundation in Fine Arts (painting) and can program in Java, .NET and PHP fluently and have a dad who is a successful businessman who weened from childhood me on Og Mandino (University of Success).

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