Jan 18

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.