Tell me about being a UX monkey
January 17, 2012 11:48 AM   Subscribe

I think I want to be a UX/UI designer. Tell me about the nitty-gritty of daily life and whether a grad program would be worthwhile.

A few months ago, I visited the career center at my university to take a test and talk about the results. My test indicated that I would be happiest with careers in the vein of writing, art, psychology, and teaching. My advisor mentioned UX design. Since then, I've read up on the UX/UI canon, followed a lot of twitters, and visited a godawful number of blogs. And I'm finding I'm fascinated and kind of love interface design.

My background: I know HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Photoshop, and Illustrator very well, I'm involved in designing a school publication and several club pages, and I've volunteered to do a nonprofit's website. I have graphic design experience. I'm majoring in English, but I plan to minor in compsci and anthro. I'm looking into internships.

Finally, my questions:
- What else can I do to prepare myself for work or a grad program?
- What are your hours like? 40 a week? 45? More? What kind of company do you work for?
- What is your typical day like?
- Did you pursue a MA or PhD? If so, would you recommend it? Did you do HCI, Information Science, or something else?
- How did you end up in your current position? Networking? IxDA job listings? Indeed?

Any other information you want to share would be fantastic.
posted by jingle to Work & Money (7 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have some game UI designers that work for me.

Flash and ActionScript. Scaleform.
You work with content designers to determine software functionality and usage cases. Build mock-ups and test use cases. Work with artists to skin final product. Conduct playtests and iterate.
It's generally a 40 hour a week gig but things can get crazy near product launch. (I can't speak for non game industry shops)
None of my guys have graduate degrees (nature of the industry) - but it is hard to break into.
posted by jopreacher at 12:21 PM on January 17, 2012

Best answer: You probably don't want a PhD if you are going to be focusing more on interaction design as a primary profession, since a PhD is more for doing research.

There are lots of graduate programs around the US that might match your interests. For example, there are a number of Information Schools, e.g. at Berkeley, UNC, UT Austin, Indiana, University of Washington, University of Michigan, and others, all of which are good. Georgia Tech and CMU have master's programs in HCI as well.

Since I'm a faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, I can tell you more about the programs there that may match your interests. The first is a Master's in Interaction Design, which is based in the School of Design. The other is a Master's in Human Computer Interaction, which is based in the School of Computer Science.

Both are strong programs (obviously I'm biased), with very good placement rates in industry. The MHCI program has been around for 10+ years now with a strong track record. However, it's also worth pointing out that CMU is not very cheap wrt tuition. These programs are also very rigorous, and will work you very hard.

From a salary perspective, going from graphic design to interaction design is a pretty big jump in salary, around 2x for starting positions. Not quite as dramatic a jump if your background is in CS though.
posted by jasonhong at 12:23 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I got a B.S. in computer science with a concentration in user interface design, and have been working as a UI software designer/developer for the past nine years.

I wanted (and kinda still want...) to be more of a designer than a developer; I realized that I liked laying out UI widgets far more than writing the code that ran underneath them. But I graduated in 2003 and the tech-jobs market was still pretty crappy back then so I had to take what I could get. I was cold-emailed a few months after graduation by my eventual first employer; I've changed jobs twice since then, both with the help of recruiters.

My first job was with a small (~10 engineers) division of a 40,000-employee defense contractor; my next two jobs were with much smaller telecom and security companies but with slightly larger engineering teams. I've either been the sole UI person or part of a 2-3 engineer design/development team. And what that means is, unless you're working for a really big employer with cash to spend on someone who only does UI design (or you get hired by a design firm), you're probably going to have to pick up some of the development work too. You know Javascript and that's a really good start, but I've had to use Java, C, Perl, PHP, and Tcl too.

My day-to-day work is probably 25% designing and coding new features and 70% fixing bugs in existing UI features (defined in my experience as "anything that's not the backend", meaning the presentation layer of course but also any client-side data storage, the network transport layer, and the bits of the server-side code which talk to the UI). The other 5% is spent rolling my eyes at various co-workers who pop in and suggest new "features" which are usually impossible technically or fly in the face of existing UI conventions. Or both. Those percentages vary based on what my boss says my current priorities are; right now actually we're moving our UI from a Java desktop client to a Web-based AJAX one, so I'm doing way more designing than I usually do. These opportunities are few and far between, but they're also really exciting and fun.

Things you can do to make yourself more employable:
- keep working with Javascript absolutely but consider learning a server-side language like PHP, Ruby, or Java
- start reading (and contributing at) if you haven't already
- learn how to do usability testing of both the formal and the hallway varieties
- become familiar with internationalization (i18n), localization (i10n), and accessability (a11y), and how they might affect your designs. Too many sites and applications work like shit for anyone other than English speakers with perfect eyesight and hand-eye coordination.

Finally: you don't mention where you're currently enrolled or whether it's an option for you to transfer elsewhere, but Georgia Tech (where I went to school) has a fantastic interdisciplinary research center called the GVU which takes lessons from the worlds of psychology, art, and architecture and applies them to computer science and software development. It sounds like something that might be right up your alley.

Feel free to ask here, or memail, if there's anything I can answer for you.
posted by xbonesgt at 1:06 PM on January 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: What else can I do to prepare myself for work or a grad program?

Sounds like you're doing it already. In addition to the excellent suggestions above, keep designing for mobile on your radar -- if nothing else, figuring out how to adapt the same interface for both a mobile and a desktop-sized screen is an excellent exercise.

- What are your hours like? 40 a week? 45? More? What kind of company do you work for?
- What is your typical day like?

Varies wildly. Over my career I've either been or worked closely with several very different types of designer:

* design house / "sweatshop" monkey: these are the places that churn out high volumes of mostly cookie-cutter or template driven sites. Hours here tend to be high and the quality of work low; if you do this sort of thing for more than a year or two at the start of your career, something has gone very wrong with your life.

* in-house corporate design teams: large corporations will generally have one or several small design teams in house, which may work on anything from standalone software products to public-facing websites to "make the intranet slightly less ugly but don't change anything substantial" kind of work. Hours here are, well, office hours (with occasional product launch crunch time). The quality of work ranges dramatically from company to company; some places understand the difference between interaction and graphic design, some places still think all you need is more clip-art icons. Media, tech, and publishing companies are more likely to "get it" than, I dunno, mining conglomerates or something, but it's still not a guarantee; always make sure before you hire on with one of these that you meet the people you'll be working with first and decide if they're worth working with.

* small tech companies or web startups where the product being designed is what the company does: this tends to be higher stakes, longer hours, and more interesting and rewarding work. Unless you're a real rockstar, though, it's not a great place to begin your career; you need to really know what you're doing and have a solid portfolio.

* independent designer: another late-career category. Either you're a solo consultant, or you've come full circle and founded your own sweatshop and hired some monkeys of your very own. What type of work is involved here is all over the map, depending on your niche.

That's not the whole industry, of course, just the subset I've been involved with personally.

- Did you pursue a MA or PhD? If so, would you recommend it? Did you do HCI, Information Science, or something else?

As far as I can tell this industry is more about the portfolio than about what letters you can put after your name. An MA wouldn't necessarily hurt, and there are certainly a lot more relevant programs than there used to be (i.e. none), but it wouldn't necessarily help more than the same number of years of work experience (provided it's good work experience.)

A PhD is definitely overkill, and may do more harm than good (there is the perception in the business world that PhDs are more interested in theorizing about problems than in actually solving them. I do not know if this is an accurate perception, though I will say I've worked with some sterling supporting examples of the phenomenon.)

- How did you end up in your current position? Networking? IxDA job listings? Indeed?

I got into this too long ago for my origin story to be relevant; none of these degree programs or the IxDA existed yet... pretty much if you knew all fifteen HTML tags and how to find the Photoshop "Filters" menu, you were hired. Things are a little different now.
posted by ook at 1:23 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oooh, one of my favorite subjects! I'm a newly-minted UX designer who arrived at my job via a long and winding career path that involved media, entertainment, "new media," design and finally UX/IA. You are lucky that you get to start out so fresh from school.

School is great if you can handle the debt (I didn't do this, but I know people who have). It allows you space and time to truly learn the fundamentals of the craft, instead of having to piece it together book by article by successful/failed side projects in your spare time AFTER your full-time job. And if you attend one of the top colleges, you'll have the opportunity to talk to recruiters at some large and well-known organizations when you're about to graduate. School won't guarantee you a job, but it can help.

If you don't want the debt, or just want to dip a toe in to see if this is really for you, I'd recommend trying to get a job. Agency work is a great place to start because you have the chance to work with a lot of people on a variety of different projects. Unfortunately, the pay is lower than it may be otherwise, the hours are long, and the work is uninspiring.*

I disagree with ook a little about small tech startups. My first and current real UX design job is at a startup, and yes I do have to wear all the hats, but startup jobs usually don't pay as well as corporate gigs and they are more willing to take a chance on people who may be smart but who don't necessarily have a specific list of qualifications. They aren't running resumes through keyword software. That said, sometimes wearing all the hats isn't ideal (switching gears all the time is mentally draining), and sometimes you won't have access to mentorship or valuable, relevant, UX-related feedback. All startups are different, for one thing, and while many require long, hard hours, some are more workaday places. It all depends on who they are and where their funding comes from. I work a 40-45 hour week, maybe more depending on the feature and the release. I hope to either move on to a more promising startup with a bigger team or to a corporate gig from here, and eventually contract once I have the experience.

Anyway, good luck! UX is a fun gig and there are a lot of opportunities out there right now.

*More experienced folks may find this work uninspiring, but you may love it for a while. When I was new to the working world, I found most work to be fascinating and awesome because it was all new to me.
posted by MsMartian at 2:34 PM on January 17, 2012

Best answer: and sometimes you won't have access to mentorship or valuable, relevant, UX-related feedback

MsMartian brings up some excellent points here: not all startups are alike -- which is easy to forget -- and more importantly, good mentorship is invaluable. Lord knows I could have benefited from some while I was faking my way through my first two or three jobs. It's difficult to get informed feedback on the quality of your work if you're the only one at your organization who understands what you're supposed to be doing for a living. (And contra my earlier post, this may be a good argument for an MA as opposed to jumping straight into the workforce...)
posted by ook at 11:23 AM on January 18, 2012

I started work in Graphic Design, have been doing so for 6 years. Slowly my job has become more and more UI/UX centric. I would say anyone with an interest should have a solid understanding of Graphic Design, Layout, Composition etc.
posted by stackhaus23 at 5:04 AM on July 26, 2012

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