This emerging field is an evolving career, leaving the door wide open for opportunity.
It’s easy to paint a picture of a user experience (UX) designer at work:
“There’s a young person in a conference room, pointing with a dry erase marker at Post-it notes pasted up everywhere and whiteboards covered in scribbles,” says Jonathan Anderson, managing editor at UX Magazine.
It’s harder to explain exactly who that young person is and how they got there.
An evolving career path that often goes by different names—from user experience design, to user interface design, to Web design (though this last title doesn’t best describe the UX job, Anderson says)—UX design focuses on improving customers’ experiences with products.
So, user experience designers can be many things. According to Anderson, they can be engineers with interests in industrial design or human factors. For example, how the retina reacts to an image on a screen. They can be more visually inclined marketing or Web designers who want to develop and refine products to enhance users’ well being.
“The thing that holds the industry together is that it’s aimed at thinking about how people are going to interact with a product and trying to make that interaction more effective,” Anderson says.
Only the curious need apply
While their education, skill sets and work experiences may differ, UX designers do share some characteristics—inquiring natures and entrepreneurial spirits, according to Anderson. Jess Eddy, an independent UX design consultant in New York, would add empathy, which drives the desire to do right by the customer.
“Honestly, if you have the right traits I don’t think formal education is necessary,” says Eddy. “But lots and lots of practice is.”
Considering the breadth of the field, Eddy recommends interested people first study the components of UX design, then “think about what is really interesting to them, and do that.” Anderson agrees, saying people should start with what they know and explore the UX elements that naturally extend from their base knowledge, whether it’s Web, marketing, engineering, visual design or something else.
Once they have settled on a possible niche, aspiring job seekers need to rehearse the UX design process, applying it to their own ideas. Eddy still constantly tests her ideas, and blogged about a year’s worth of experiments she conducted in 2011 on http://jesseddy.com/blog.
“When I was first starting out I thought that I was doing it right but I just didn’t know if I was. It wasn’t until after a few years of practice on real projects that I was really confident. You just have to make mistakes to have the value of hindsight and become better at what you do,” she says.
Demand for UX designers outpaces the number of qualified people, creating a market ripe with possibility and steadily increasing salaries, Anderson says.
Companies ranging from technology start-ups to large banks hire UX designers to consult on their customer interfaces and new products. There are also user experience agencies that employ designers full-time and serve an array of clients.
Anderson sees high-level corporate UX design openings popping up more and more and chief experience officers claiming spots in executive suites. According to Eddy, elevating UX designers makes smart business sense.
“UX people are trained to look at an idea and see the holes and figure out where the idea might fail,” she says. “I personally think UX people make great business leaders and are great at building not only experiences but [also] companies and processes that make companies run really, really well.”
But even with all the job possibilities out there today, Anderson urges that prospective UX designers don’t wait for opportunity to come knocking. He advises they create their own.
“The people who are succeeding are the people who are getting in and just doing it,” Anderson says. “There are lots of people out there anointing themselves UX professionals. The biggest mistake is waiting for someone to give you permission.”
Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.