UX design: bubble or nah?
December 14, 2016 9:39 AM   Subscribe

A friend of mine who works in advertising told me I should look into a job in user experience design. It does sound super cool and aligns with a lot of my interests. But I have two questions: is this explosion in interest in UX just a silly trend which will have the bottom fall out of it soon? And if not, do I really need to take a 10-week full-time multi-thousand-dollar course to break into it?

That's it, really. Reading up on careers in UX, I thought 'wow, this sounds amazing,' but it could be a total pipe dream. I don't know if it's a career that's going to exist in 10 years, and I don't know if there is any way to get a job doing it without spending ten thousand dollars on courses.

(For context, I live in NYC (so there are many UX jobs but also, I assume, a lot of competition), and my background is in nonprofit grant management. I have some experience with graphic design and database management, which may be relevant.)
posted by showbiz_liz to Work & Money (19 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
A dear friend of mine has moved from alumni relations to UX without any obvious training that he's talking about. From what he posts, it's looking like he's redrawing college campus tours and then getting involved in web design later. I would look at your own experience in light of a job's likely roles rather than requirements, perhaps with an informational interview making note that you are considering a course.
posted by parmanparman at 10:06 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

But I have two questions: is this explosion in interest in UX just a silly trend which will have the bottom fall out of it soon?

No, but it may (will?) fall out of fashion and not be cool anymore, at some point. (This is starting to happen in my experience with usability, a component of good design – it's not cool, so people are starting to take focus off of it.) UX existed before UIs and aesthetic design in computing was the hot thing; it will exist afterwards. There is an eternal, endless debate in UX circles over what it “is”, and that won't end. If you enjoy working with people – that is, listening to them and interviewing and understanding them and advocating for them – that's a good start. If you enjoy research, also good!

I'd also argue that the skills a UXer needs are applicable well beyond digital interfaces/apps/et al. The stuff you learn is simply good to learn, I think.

And if not, do I really need to take a 10-week full-time multi-thousand-dollar course to break into it?


I don't know if it's a career that's going to exist in 10 years...

To be honest, it probably won't. It will evolve. Very few jobs in technology are the same over a decade. There will always be a need for designers, but the shape and nature of the work will almost certainly change.
posted by hijinx at 10:08 AM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

UX design is absolutely going to exist for many decades to come. It is not a new field, really, but the name has changed over the years. Human factors design, software/hardware design, etc jobs have all been around for ages.

My company's UX org is going to grow massively over the coming year and I am sure that is the case at all of our competitors as well.

That said, not everyone in UX design gets to work for a sexy company. You may have to start out at a very dinky agency or startup to get your foot in the door, so be okay with this.

I can't speak to the benefit of 10 week courses as I am everyone else I work with all came through full-time undergrad/graduate programs in UX. If you want to work for one of the big dogs (Google, MSFT, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, etc) you will likely need that degree.

source: I am a UX researcher and have been full-time in the industry for 15 years, and studied/worked part time in it for many years prior as a teen.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:08 AM on December 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

That's it, really. Reading up on careers in UX, I thought 'wow, this sounds amazing,' but it could be a total pipe dream. I don't know if it's a career that's going to exist in 10 years, and I don't know if there is any way to get a job doing it without spending ten thousand dollars on courses.

I bet its pretty hard to find people who actually have UX jobs who took bootcamp-like courses. AFAICT, there's basically three ways people end up in these jobs:
(1) People who got jobs in the product org of big tech companies as interns or straight out of school, and worked there way into it.
(2) People who did the traditional "designer" path (e.g. pirate Photoshop in high school, use it to design flyers for your friends' bands and stuff, get paid nothing to design a logo and a website for a health food store in your town, repeat this a few times, eventually run a small design consultancy or get a job as a designer, work up the designer skill tree from there) and then worked on design for products, generally web apps, and then got more and more into the UX/product design aspects and switched over.
(3) People who did the traditional "client engineering" path (e.g. start trying to cheat at NeoPets in middle school, pick up some info about javascript and html from 'view source' and forum posts, get paid nothing to build a pointless ios app for a real estate agency in your town, spend the summer with a friend trying to build an alternative to facebook, eventually get a job as either an iOS/Android engineer or a 'front end' engineer and work your way up the engineer skill tree from there).

There's basically two things hiring managers look at when they try to hire into these roles that I know of: portfolios, and resumes. Someone who says "I did UX at [BIG TECH CO]" will get interviews anywhere. However, being able to send over a great Dribbble or what have you will also work.

It might be that the most efficient way for you to produce a great Dribbble is to go through the bootcamp, but the goal should be the Dribbble, not the credential from the camp, in my opinion, because hiring managers are really going to pay a lot of attention to the Dribbble, and the bootcamp credential...it might actually work against you, depending on the person looking at the resume.

I don't know if it's a career that's going to exist in 10 years

The title "UX designer" will almost definitely not exist in ten years, or if it does, it will not be the job you want to apply to. There's something about interactive product design where there is a very high rate of meaning-loss and term generation in describing what people do. IIRC, people started saying "UX" basically because they felt that just making static depictions of how things would look meant that people were ignoring designing how things work. But there have been a ton of job titles in this area that have come and gone: information architect, etc.

That said, while I think the specific terms will change, people are not going to stop building software in ten years, and someone's going to have to sit there and figure out what to build. It's not going to be engineers. There will be a weird mix of skills involved: visual design, fluency with the idioms of the types of software being designed, requirements gathering, prioritization, communication, writing, typography, user research, and so on. People will have different strengths and different titles. Not every job will have the exact same portfolio of responsibilities, but figuring out all the details of what software to build is definitely still going to be a job.
posted by jeb at 10:25 AM on December 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

I just want to brainstorm a few other transferrable skills you may have. (The grant writers I've known have had diverse backgrounds, and I'm not sure which of these may apply to you.) As for the skills you mentioned, graphic design is a big plus; database management, not so much.

Meeting facilitation: Part of UX design is meeting with clients, users, and other stakeholders to explore ideas of what the product should do. We use many different methods and activities in these meetings, and a skilled facilitator is invaluable. But, a facilitator is also an accomplished designer as well — this is a plus, not a replacement for core design skills.

Written, verbal, and visual communication: Some people are great at generating ideas, others are great at explaining them — a good team needs both roles. Great communication skills can compensate for less-good design skills.

Qualitative and quantitative research. UX researchers learn about different types of users, evaluate prototypes, measure customer engagement and satisfaction, etc. If you have experience with surveys and interviews, this may be an easier position to break into. UX research is becoming its own job title, where the researcher doesn't necessarily need to be creating designs as well — but there are still plenty of jobs that expect a designer to do some light research on the side.
posted by Banknote of the year at 10:28 AM on December 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

The problem with focusing your career on a field like UX is that it's not static. The tenets are basic but the environment on which they rely is ever-shifting. Five years from now much of what is being taught in UX classes could easily be automated and incorporated in the newest WYSISYG web design applications. Remember when just building your own HTML site was rocket science? That was maybe 15 years ago, and things are moving faster today. UX skills are clearly worth your time and effort but I wouldn't encourage you to sink thousands of dollars into it. Instead, think of it as one small piece of your overall web design curriculum.
posted by Jamesonian at 10:30 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

1990s: Web Designer
2000s: Information Architect
2010s: UX/UI
2020s: ?

All essentially the same damn thing (non-programmer front-end work), but title inflation and the euphemistic treadmill means there's always confusion.

You can absolutely do this self-taught, but do educate yourself on the concepts laid out most informally in "Don't Make Me Think." This is not the be-all end-all, but you're going to read it eventually anyway.
posted by rhizome at 11:00 AM on December 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

My sibling has been in UX for, oh, over fifteen years now. While her responsibilities have been more or less the same (applied to bigger projects, etc., as she's grown experienced), she's had a different title in every single job. I couldn't tell you what her current one is. The way the job is conceptualized has changed, but she's stayed in the flow.
posted by praemunire at 11:07 AM on December 14, 2016

In many ways it's not such a hard field to get into as there's nothing that UX people like more than to talk about it, advise, have conferences etc. It's a very open world.

I think (assuming you're not a college age person) there's a lot to be said for diving straight in. I'd maybe think about starting by working with a non-profit, as that's something you already have some experience with and may have contacts within, and just start right at the beginning with it. How could I improve a user's experience of this ? Some work like this would give you experience and give you something to build a resumé :
"I looked at this, changed x and y, and increased donations by 250%" etc

Get some good books, read up, subscribe/read some good sites....this doesn't look like a bad place to start but there are literally thousands of lists and there's a lot to be said for going to a good bookshop and flipping through some. The majority of UX people I know don't have formal training in it.

If you can find a UX person willing to mentor you for a few weeks you can learn a lot, especially if you can do it at different places and see how styles vary. I would expect that in NYC there may well be some networks, clubs etc that might be able to help? There will absolutely be conferences and more than likely some free talks. Get someone to bring you along to them, they are good places to meet people and talk.

It IS an enjoyable field of work - though there are plenty of lucrative but ultimately rather boring ecommerce jobs around, there's also many genuinely interesting areas to get into.
posted by tardigrade at 11:08 AM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

is this explosion in interest in UX just a silly trend which will have the bottom fall out of it soon?

Some of it is a bit silly, to be honest - but that could be said about the intersection of tech and marketing of services (not all of which are in any way important) which many of us can (still) make a decent living in.

Instead of a course I would advise using your graphic design attitudes/project-based thinking as a start point, studying like crazy online (so many blogs etc), getting to grips with the apps the pros use (Sketch, InVision I think) and if at all possible, find some friend of a friend who can mentor you even if just a tiny bit, or meet you for a coffee to tell you how they got into the industry. Most jobs are freelance gigs and you will be expected to show up with your own laptop and apps ready to go, so you need to be ready for that if that's a new way of work for you (gig economy but better paid basically).
posted by Coda Tronca at 11:13 AM on December 14, 2016

I work in UX for a digital agency in the UK. My particular agency has UX as part of a broader role, so I do more of a product owner/project manager job, shepherding web builds and apps from the first client meeting through to training them to use their new website. On the way through that process I might do everything from writing the technical scope to producing interactive mockups to running user testing. I also do a lot of content management in various systems, email set up and sending, all kinds of things really.

We hire people from all kinds of backgrounds. I myself have an English lit degree, spent five years working in comms jobs and realised I liked the web side the best and applied to what was basically a content management/digital dogsbody role at the time, but which has evolved into what I described above. Other people in the team have academic qualifications, but it is in no way essential.

As several have noted above, the portfolio is the first thing I look at, closely followed by attention to detail - when you're doing UX work you might be creating dozens of interlinked page mockups, or writing a 5,000 word technical scope. Making sure these are done to a high quality makes a huge difference, especially in an agency setting where there is never enough time.

Most big cities have regular UX meetups - check on meetup.com for NYC and I'm sure you'll find one where you can go along and meet some people working in this kind of role. It's a very big tent and you will meet people doing all kinds of variations, from pure UX research and testing through to multi-faceted project-manager-y type roles like mine.

It's a really interesting (and often really satisfying) job to do. In the best of cases, you can reduce the friction of tools and services thousands or even millions of people use every day. In the worst, you can be trying to convince clients (or colleagues in an in-house role) that whatever they read in the Big Book of Web Design 1994 is really not the done thing anymore. You say no a lot, and spend a lot of time saying 'I don't recommend...'.

But I still really enjoy it. If any of the above sounds interesting, you might too. And it's not a job that's ossified to the point where barriers to entry are high, consistent or universal.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:41 AM on December 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

Graphic designer friend of mine went into UX via one of those expensive courses and last thing I heard he was having a way tougher time of it than he foresaw. What if you could couple it with a bit more knowledge of code? That's what I would do...
posted by johngoren at 11:43 AM on December 14, 2016

The troublesome thing about the UX area is that so many people head straight for it, regardless of talent, like the disproportionate number of rock fans that want to play lead guitar over other rock instruments but it's murder trying to find a drummer.

A friend who works for a famous tech company as an engineer got sent to MIT to help man the recruiting stand : he said that even at MIT almost everyone who walked up wanted to work on UX design, not the other aspects of making software.
posted by w0mbat at 11:46 AM on December 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

From my perspective, UX as a buzz discipline is a natural outcome of the need to simplify what would be considered "traditional" web design. No more flash, sophisticated web-based typography, wide adoption of pattern-based design libraries, browser-native video playback, increasing broadband availability, the parallel market for mobile apps, and especially the rise of additional sizes and interaction modes for websites in phones, tablets, etc, means that the role of the Web Designer has changed. We're now more frequently tasked with developing design libraries and elements/modules to work within unified page layouts.

The "designs" of web pages are not often that ornate anymore, but the level of sophistication in terms of interacting with those pages has become much more important. That's UX. How do you use colors of buttons to communicate? What's the different impact of a modal vs an alert vs a banner vs a drawer, etc? Why do we need a loading graphic, and should it be a bar or a spinning clock? What's a good metric for A/B testing? How do you *do* A/B testing?

So UX isn't going anywhere, and as other posters have noted, has always been some part of the web design or software design process, but it's come to the fore in the last few years in a new way. It will shift into something else someday, because software/web/app design and development follows trends just like anything else, but the skills will remain broadly applicable.

Regarding the course your friend mentioned, there will be pluses and minuses to it, and while you'll learn a lot you may not internalize much of it, at least to start. Do you think you can immerse yourself in complicated concepts, vocabularies, and practices in 10-12 weeks, especially if your primary instructors may not be experienced with teaching and your classmates aren't all that well vetted in terms of how they fit into the program? Are you already somewhat aware of what the process of designing and developing a website or software app entails? Are you willing to work on implementing your classmates' dumb ideas in group projects? Are you prepared to continue to expose yourself to new learning and trends in your adopted field? Are you going to be able to not stress that much about paying for it, while you're doing it?

I think it's more like law school in some ways than it is college - you'll start to get the basics and some of the most important concepts but by the end of the course will probably still be bad at your brand new job, but that doesn't mean you won't be hirable.

Like other design-based or creative jobs, the way to get hired isn't necessarily to take this course or read that book, it's to have a portfolio that demonstrates that you have a good grasp of how to do what you're supposed to do. Taking a course or reading a book will help with that, and courses like the one you mention are often specifically geared towards project-based work, so you'll have something to show for it. But the portfolio needs to be good. The course doesn't guarantee that your portfolio will be good, just that it will exist. If you have friends who can help you build a portfolio or the wherewithal to brute force it somehow, that can work, but it will be harder and probably take longer.
posted by lousywiththespirit at 2:16 PM on December 14, 2016

UX has been around in a variety of names for quite a while. I lead a team of 30 ux professionals for a major financial institution, coming into this role after 12 years at a well-known digital agency, and 6 years prior at a couple of other companies.

I recently hired someone who picked up her skills at General Assembly, then spent a year at a startup. So - yes, the training is a good shortcut, but you will still need a portfolio of a bit of work to show you can go beyond theory.
posted by nandaro at 6:38 PM on December 14, 2016

Ugh. The term "UX" is a pet peeve of mine. It's an umbrella term that describes an industry that has like a dozen different actual roles/skillsets, yet people love to use it as if it were a meaningful job description.

Like what kind of UX designer do you want to be? An interaction designer? Information architect? User researcher? Front end engineer? Content strategist? Product designer? Visual designer??

UX as a term has come into fashion lately, but the discipline underneath it has existed for more than a hundred years.

Be specific about what you want to do, and be specific about what you want to learn.

Like, a decade and a half ago the hot shit to be was "web designer", and you qualified by knowing how to put together HTML and make graphics. You know how no one is a web designer anymore? There's nothing wrong with focusing on mastering tools (like HTML or Photoshop back then, CSS and Sketch today) if you understand that you're choosing to be a craftsman--in an age where tools change very quickly.

The other path is to train in design thinking, which is tool agnostic (you'll still need to learn them, and continually) and highly adaptable. Like others have said, I don't think we'll be doing "UX design" in 20 years but we'll still need designers.

If you choose to do bootcamp style training, I'd inquire into their job placement rate and dig into the specifics of the nature of those jobs. I personally don't have a very high opinion of most crash course graduates, but just as with coding bootcamps I have seen people with raw talent get a good start. Some of the best designers I've worked with got their degrees in completely unrelated fields, and I have no problem hiring someone talented who didn't do a traditional BA/MA program... but honestly a 10 week program is by definition for people who want a shortcut career change. My eyes get squinty.

(I have been a designer for 16 years and currently run the design organization at a technology startup.)
posted by danny the boy at 11:48 PM on December 14, 2016

I'm a Graphic Designer that has split my time between UI and brand for the last ten years. I have a degree in Graphic Design but no specialist training in UI/UX. The majority of my knowledge has come from learning on the job, being surrounded by developers and a good dose of common sense. However, the last UX specialist we hired came straight off a General Assembly course.

UX is not a new area, it's just a buzzword right now in the age of mobile devices. As has been said already, people end up in UX a number of different ways. It's a very open industry and there is a lot of work out there currently. It may not be that way in 10 years sure and it definitely won't be called that (or at least your expectations of the role will be completely different). But if you are adaptive and continue to develop yourself (and you're good at it) then you'll be fine.
posted by stackhaus23 at 6:24 PM on December 15, 2016

When interviewing for ux design candidates we tend to look for people with HCI and psychology degrees if they don't already have ux or other design experience, not those silly overpriced boot camps. You're better off starting at the bottom, like internship level stuff and expressing interest in ux, and climbing up.
posted by raw sugar at 11:32 PM on December 15, 2016

Er I realized I didn't answer your actual question. Ux design is really buzzy now but as many have noted in this thread the need will never disappear, it'll just evolve and become a different job title.
posted by raw sugar at 11:32 PM on December 15, 2016

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