How do I become senior? Musings on career progression for UXers

In 2015 I spent 9 months teaching people to become UXers as a General Assembly teacher in Melbourne. 

The majority of the students were between 24–32. The younger group had perhaps worked for 2–3 years and decided that they needed additional skills to become a UXer. The older group had been working 5–10 years and UX was to be a new career.

For both of these groups, they were aiming at the end of the course to be Junior to Mid-weight User Experience Designers.

But I also had a group who were in their late 30s — early 50s. This is not a group who want to go into a junior or mid-weight position. They have families and mortgages; they also have 20 plus years working. 

The problem was the industry still considered them to be junior or mid-weight because of their lack of demonstrable technical skills.

I think that is a mistake because this group have skills that are definitely senior — their business and people management skills.

So what actually makes someone senior? 

From a LinkedIn post by Matthew MacDonald, a senior UXer is someone with 5 + years doing UX. He has used this demarkation as the difference between salary bands. I disagree with this divider; even with 5 years experience in UX, if the person does not have people management and business skills they are not senior.

So what do I actually consider are the skills needed to be senior?

There are three aspects for seniority

  1. Technical competency
  2. People management skills
  3. Business skills

Technical competency

Using the T-shaped model discussed by Peter Boersma and further clarified in his extension with business skills to create ‘Shoulder IA’, my expectation is that a senior UXer can technically do any skills within the cross hatch of the T. They should also have found their technical specialism from one of the sub-disciplines of UX — Interaction design, Information architecture, Content strategy, User research and usability, Visual design, or UX Strategy.

Due to many new and improved methods being introduced into UX, I also expect that senior UXers are continuing to update their skills. For example an Information architect should be keeping up with new developments in SEO, web search, semantic web, machine learning, and information retrieval; and a Strategic UXer in customer journey mapping, using business model canvas, and disruption and innovation models.

People management skills

People management gets a bad wrap from many designers; “I just want to do the work, not manage people”.

This is reflected in my funniest interview experience. I was interviewing for a Senior UXer in London to lead the workstream for a large project. The role itself was a practitioner role, but with the responsibility of assigning work to a more junior member of staff. 

Our question to the interviewee was “You are the senior UXer on a project and have to assign work to a more junior member of the team. How would you assign the appropriate work to this person, and work with them to ensure it was completed satisfactorily?”

The interviewee looked at the interview panel in disgust, “No-one told me this is a management position — I don’t do management. It takes away from being a UXer.”

He stood up, gave the interview panel back our business cards and walked out.

This is an extreme case of not wanting to do people management. 

I consider that as you move to being a senior UXer, your role contains some people management — not necessarily being someone’s manager, but the ability to work, guide, mentor and constructively critique work from others.

For a senior UXer, I expect that they will be able to:

  • Discuss design — either one-on-one or via design critiques
  • Assign work to others within a group according to their specialisms or where they want to develop skills
  • Merge work from multiple practitioners into one cohesive deliverable 
  • Be able to work with others, or as Dan Brown writes, “Designing together”
  • Manage your own time

Business skills

Very few of UXers work in an environment where they do not balance design with the pull and push of business. Our role is to design products within the constraints of the business and their users.

There are two aspects to this

  1. Ensuring that we have the skills that allow us to navigate the design from inception to build to release — Politics
  2. Understanding the business we are working for to design the best product that meets the business goals — Business strategy

Politics

This is the hardest one to do — one I get hit over the head constantly, even after 20 years in the business.

From a senior UX perspective, the main skills to learn are:

  • Workshop faciliation —being sucessfully able to bring a group of people together, bring them through a workshop, and extract value from it
  • Project management — understanding how to manage a project, but not necessarily doing it
  • Presentation skills — being a senior UXer means being able to communicate your designs to all audiences, whether it is inside your organisation, clients, users or your peers
  • Stakeholder and opinion leader interviews — these interviews have a dual purpose; to extract information and to ‘hear’ the stakeholder bringing them into the fold of the project
  • Client management 
  • Managing up

The greatest of these skills are Client Management and Managing up. 

Client Management — the art and science of working with, leading and establishing trust with someone for whom you are doing work

Growing from being a worker bee to someone who leads, means you have to deal with people more; or in the majority of our cases — clients, be they internal or external.

As a mid-weight UXer you are probably not exposed to the client that much; there is a senior UXer, Project Manager or Account Manager who is the primary contact and your work is directed by that person.

Becoming a Senior UXer means you need to be ready to establish and lead that relationship. 

The major skills are:

  • Collaboration — being able to work with, not direct the client
  • Active listening — hearing and responding to the client, understanding the undertones of conversations
  • Negotation and persuasion — sometimes the client wants one thing that different to the needs of the users and you need to negotiate a sucessful outcome for both
  • Understanding business priorities and designing your application or site around the limitations of what can be done — this is where you may give up the purity of the design for soemthing that will work well enough in the time that it allocated

Managing up — learning that you need to manage your boss and their bosses as much as the people reporting to you, or the client.

Many times we forget in the depths of a project, that we need to keep the people above informed, so the project isn’t derailed by the politics above.

Unfortunately I have spent my professional life trying, failing, getting a little better, and failing a little less. My worst experiences were in organisations where I was matrix managed (how many bosses did I have at the BBC… 2,3,4 or 6?) and ones where I wasn’t just on the same wavelength as my boss.

My number one question I now ask my boss is, “What can I do to make you successful in this organisation?”

The skills are the same as managing a client, but are inward focused. 

And lastly Business strategy

As I discussed above, there will be a time where the puriy of the UX and the product will need to be moulded to the needs of the business.

A digital product will not last long in the market if it does not make money or provide value to the organisation. And as you become a Senior UX you need to be more aware of what that means: 

  1. The product features that are developed first — developing the Minimum Viable product
  2. Understanding how the product or service will make money (ROI) or be benefical to the company (reduce costs)

Your role is to understand application of business strategy to the UX work you are doing.

I see that many UXers in the early to mid stages of their careers 'miss' this aspects of working with the business. 

At Deeper T, we focus on developing these skills so people can become senior. If you are interested in learning more, please follow us @deeperTUX