User interface design - what's it actually like?
February 25, 2013 11:39 AM   Subscribe

What I would like to know is for those of you actually in the field who work in UI/UX design what the day to day is actually like.

I have finished attending a university and will be graduating with a degree with user interface design/usability as a concentration. I have a few different career paths directions to go in.

In doing some research and looking over resumes of those who do UX design, it seems like most people do not stay with a particular employer for long. For instance, maybe stay for a year or two max then move onto another employer. Is this due to the nature of the work, the field or since UI is nascent, due to better opportunities opening up?

In addition, I am a bit older of a student and will be 45 soon. I worry that age discrimination could rear it's ugly head and would like to know your thoughts on that as well.

posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I do web UX/UI for a marketing web agency. The job varies from agency to agency (as I understand it, this is my first dedicated role doing this kind of work). In some places it's a subset of design, in others it's folded into the account management side of things.

My role is a mixture of project management, user requirements work, actual UX/UI designing, research, training and content management. The one thing I would say about this job is that it has incredible variety. One day I might be figuring out the best way to increase the number of people who fill in a form. The next day I might be designing a multi-step interactive tool for helping users to choose between a half dozen different options for improving their homes, or figuring out how a public transport user is most likely to look for a timetable or a map. In between I'm normally handling a dozen or more requests for information, clarification from the design or dev teams (what does that button do? Where does the data for this table come from? Does this interface element have a completed state? Can you pull all of the emails of the 50,000 people subscribed to that list and match them against this list?). Again, this may be handled differently elsewhere - some companies completely split out the UI/UX stuff from the day to day site/content management stuff, but the common factor is taking very complex, sometimes half-explained or outright contradictory requirements, figuring out an approach and then working with the designers (who make it look amazing) and the devs (who make it work) while constantly talking to the account managers (who speak to the clients day to day and make sure everything gets planned, estimated and billed properly).

This is all very likely to be quite different, by the way, from someone doing UI for desktop software, for example. I've done a few apps and the requirements are quite different and the mode of thinking and functional detail too.

The short tenures are, I think, a reflection of the relative youth of the field (most UX/UI people are in their 20s or 30s still and likely to be looking for new opportunities) and the agency-centric world of web design, where business cycles are shorter and sometimes harsher.

This is all in the UK, by the way. Not sure about the US

I wouldn't worry too much about age. It might be an issue in smaller startups where there's a work-all-hours culture and nobody is over 25, but there are plenty of big agencies with older average ages and loads of big companies with internal software and web teams who might need a UX/UI person.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:02 PM on February 25, 2013

One point of clarification, hopefully helpful and not pedantic: UI design and UX design are not the same. Lis Hubert explains the differences well.

It sounds like you are a UI designer, which is totally fine and great and whoo boy, needed in general. But UX begins to work at a product and services design level, which lives a little above the UI and looks at fun stuff like cross-channel touchpoints from a user-centered perspective. (Not kidding when I call this fun.)

What I would like to know is for those of you actually in the field who work in UI/UX design what the day to day is actually like.

In my day to day as a UX manager, I am responsible for (ready?) cross-channel touchpoint consistency and quality. My team makes that happen, and I ensure they can do their jobs to the best of their ability. Much like Happy Dave's comment I will echo that there is a lot of variety here: there are days when I'm conducting research (in the field or in the usability lab), days when I'm in many meetings (I like these), and days when I'm influencing positive organizational change. All good. But really, it is my goal to ensure no one forgets about our users.

Is this due to the nature of the work, the field or since UI is nascent, due to better opportunities opening up?

The latter, in my experience. UI is a little more established than UX is, but both skillsets are growing and in demand to the degree that you may be able to call the shots well when it comes to salary and/or hourly rates.

For me, age is a non-factor.
posted by hijinx at 12:08 PM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

hijinx: "One point of clarification, hopefully helpful and not pedantic: UI design and UX design are not the same. Lis Hubert explains the differences well."

This is true, but there are roles (including mine) which include both. I consider things from a UX perspective (what are we trying to do here? what happens when the user comes to this competition form from their mobile phone) in concert with the client (what do you want from this?), design (how do we make this a good experience for the user) and dev (is this possible?). The UX side of things is about the first third of every project for me. That's followed by the UI side (where do things go, is this button bigger than that button - should it even be a button?) which is the middle third, then the rest is project management, testing, QA etc.

But I may have an atypical job for the sector - as I said, it's my first pure web job.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:20 PM on February 25, 2013

A couple of data points from someone married to an unemployed IA/UX guy: one reason some of them change jobs so often is that it is very difficult to convince management/executives to pay for it. Like graphic design and other web work, the "get some college kid/this isn't rocket science" mentality scales way higher up in the business world than you'd think. So in-house jobs really only exist in enterprises where UI/UX/IA etc are already considered business-essential. That's still a fairly narrow field.

For just about everyone else, it's consulting via design/dev/advertising agencies. When the economy is good and customers have money to spend, they'll pay for it. If strings are tight, they are the corners that get cut. So if you're contract, you get no contract work. If you're FTE and can't maintain utilization, you're out. Agency work doesn't always come with the greatest work/life balance, either.

I'm definitely not seeing any shot-calling going on these days. My husband has worked on successful projects for names even my mother would recognize, and still gets a little contract work now and then so he must not be completely dreadful at it, but the work coming in is infrequent and hits on his resume are occasional (and my own watchlists are not seeing fresh jobs posted like the field is booming). I'm guessing it would be a little better if we lived in Northern California, or wherever else software and web applications get made these days. Though most of those cities, in the US anyway, seem to be chock full of un/underemployed candidates.

Entry-level anything is hard when you're 45, and you're competing against 23-year-olds who won't even figure out how crap their pay is for a couple of years. You might think very very hard about a masters program. Even at "entry" level, if you have advanced chops in, say, testing and statistics, you'll distinguish yourself.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:07 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Like graphic design and other web work, the "get some college kid/this isn't rocket science" mentality scales way higher up in the business world than you'd think. So in-house jobs really only exist in enterprises where UI/UX/IA etc are already considered business-essential.

Boy, howdy, this. And, it extends down onto the dev floor where there is sometimes a huge chip on some devs' shoulders over having to take instruction from someone else over something like UI. Doubly-so if you don't have the sort of background that gives you adequate cred in their eyes.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:23 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've seen two organizations lose their only UX specialists for essentially political reasons: not enough support from management, not enough support from development teams, and not enough social acumen to overcome those challenges. In both cases, they were not replaced. In one case, what happened instead was the organization went to an outside agency to do enough analysis to make some things better, and they may do that again periodically.

I don't know how generalizable that is, but if I were going into a UX role, pretty much anywhere, I would assume I had a serious organizational ethnography / 'win friends and influence people' problem in front of me just to get my job done. Having some maturity and experience in other organizations is probably a bonus.

If by chance you have UI development skills (i.e. you're a programmer too), then in my area at least that's a much more stable / high demand role.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:48 PM on February 25, 2013

I'm a user experience architect (i.e. interface designer + information architect + experience strategist), based in London, UK, so your experience will likely vary depending on where you are based. I'm a freelancer, so I move round significantly quicker than yearly. Some freelancers take a few days or weeks here and there, but personally I look for two month to six months. The reason I work like this is simple - firstly, senior UEA resource is still in high demand, so I can pick interesting projects, clients, and agencies, and secondly, it pays more than full time. That said, at a more junior level, the best UE architects (and opportunities for them) are full time, with junior freelancers tending to just be fill-in resources who haven't had the ability to build up a long term relationship with a client or develop their skills.

I work agency-side (digital agencies not ad agenices), rather than client-side. This means that I get to work on a a few different clients within one agency, and maintain a long term relationship with that agency. Generally I've found that agencies have a far more friendly, less corporate and more dynamic work culture than working in-house client-side. Sometimes this can edge into "work hard play hard" territory, but as a whole the industry here is maturing and so that seems to be less of a thing (also dependent on the age of the agency, as new start-up types are still pretty manic / fun in that way). In terms of age, when I first started (2002), I'd say the average age was 25-35, but obviously everyone has got older, so I'd say the age range is now 25-50 - you don't see too many folks older than that in agencies.

Agencies have, on the whole, an established and respected place in their workflow for UEA, given that they know it makes the subsequent design and build stages run more smoothly, so it's much less of a battle to fight for the relevance of UEA, although you do still have to fight for the user when it comes to the occasional (good natured) clashes with art directors, designers, clients, and developers...

In terms of what I do day to day, it's a combination of industry research, processing client requirements, processing internal strategy documents, sketching and scamping, creating (cross-platform) user flows, site/app-mapping, storyboarding, wireframing, internal presentations, client presentations, design reviews, project mangement meetings, build reviews, general R&D, plus the usual office banter and nonsense. In general I work 9-6 days, and take a proper hour for lunch. Obviously this varies depending on how many projects you have on the go at once, and whether you are in a project that's being run on traditional waterfall or trendy agile management processes, and how good your project manager actually is. One advantage of being a freelancer is that I rarely have to work on pitches, so the timescales are always (hopefully) realistic, and my time is never too manic overall.

Overall, I'd say I enjoy my job - it's interesting, it's fun (well, as fun as being in an office all day ever is), the people I work with are all very nice, I'm respected, and I'm paid well.
posted by iivix at 3:14 AM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've done UI and UX in-house for most of my career. A note about the job titles below - they are just what I worked under during my career, the actual roles seem to vary by company.

Day to day as a UI Designer:
- Talking to internal stakeholders to clarify requirements
- Concepting and sketching time where I sketch task flows and wireframes. Get feedback from fellow designers and internal stakeholders. Think about what topics would be good candidates for usability testing.
- Actual wireframing time when I fire up something like Visio or Axure and get into details. More feedback. Think about what particular tasks would be suitable for prototyping for usability testing.
- Maybe actual attend a usability testing session if there is one going on. If not, talk with the usability specialist about upcoming tests or results from previous tests.
- Helping out with user acceptance testing, ie working with the test team to define use cases and successes

Day to day as a UX manager
- Project planning for the UX team
- Defining success metrics and targets on a team level
- Meetings meetings meetings talking about everything from company roadmaps, resource issues, budgets
- One to one meetings with my team to review their work, career development, mentoring
- Recruitment

Day to day as a UX specialist
- Creating service concepts across channels (for me this included web and customer service). These were not novel services, but they needed to satisfy constraints and goals inique to the company and so a lot of work was spent up front understanding the scope.
- Writing lots of briefs defining the scope of the project.
- Defining user experience guidelines that are applicable across touchpoints (mainly web and mobile for me, always wanted to get into physical spaces)
- Lots of hands on wireframing as well but it was because it was a smaller company so I had to do both UX and UI.

I've stayed in particular jobs for about 1-2 years each and either moved to another department internally or a different company. Most of it was because I spotted a more interesting opportunity for myself and went for it. Speaking as a former manager, I would not sweat the age thing, particularly if you have previous business experience that could be quite an asset.
posted by like_neon at 3:15 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Where are you located? The day-to-day may also depend on that. In Boston, there is no shortage of UI / UX / Usability jobs. And mostly these are not "fair weather" jobs; many companies here (and I would expect in the SF Bay Area as well and likely NYC and Chicago) will have a strong dedication to in-house UI Design.

I've found to be a great source to get a sense of what the job market is like. Also, local societies, like UXPA, SIGCHI, IXDA, etc can be good for informational interviewing.

It sounds like it's too late for you, but during a degree program, I always recommend job shadowing and internships.

I'd been a UI Designer doing speech recognition for 12 years and my experience very much matches like_neon's. Now I'm a Product Manager and my life is more like Happy Dave's combined with hijinx.

I love this field and hope you do too.

What's your main degree in and what aspects of UI/UX is your concentration in?

As a hiring manager, that might make some difference in my perception of you and whether or not a Master's would be advisable.
posted by reddot at 6:28 AM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

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