Lis Hubert (@lishubert) wrote this week about UX needing to grow up. It got me thinking (an unfortunate thing for those nearby). She wrote how UX designers want to be Jacks of all trades and how, unless they want to go into management, this is career limiting (see UX… It’s Time to Grow Up). Among many cogent points, she wrote:
…by us being jacks of all trades it can stump our own individual growth. How many of you out there know what your career path is? Ok you can do wireframes, interviews, task analysis, etc… but what next? UX management? But you don’t want to be a manager. What else besides management is next for a UXer? We can’t answer that question, because there are not career paths that have been established in our field.
Then I thought about Don Norman's (@jnd1er) essay on design education (see Why Design Education Must Change). This excellent post should be a launching pad for real change in the world of design education. Here is an example of what he had to say:
Today's designers are poorly trained to meet the today's demands: We need a new form of design education, one with more rigor, more science, and more attention to the social and behavioral sciences, to modern technology, and to business. But we cannot copy the existing courses from those disciplines: we need to establish new ones that are appropriate to the unique requirements of the applied requirements of design.
While Don wrote about education and industrial design and Lis was focused on UX (read: software/web design), it appears their philosophies collide. Can you be all things to all people all of the time while having a practical career? Is it possible to specialize without pigeon-holing yourself out of the market?
Personally, I come from a technical writing background. My specialty is content. You can say I'm an IA if you want, but many of my day-to-day activities also fall under business analyst, project management, requirements management, and conceptual design. I cannot choose what I prefer to work on as business necessity overrides my preferences daily.
When I realized I was a UX'er, it was a pretty interesting moment for me. I had been a user advocate my entire career. Technical writing morphed into web development which morphed into software design. Along the way I picked up on usability, typography, print, and a few other handy things. My collective experience, especially after consulting for a while, have really helped my career.
The key to being a good UX designer is self-awareness. Without coming across like a self-help guru (ew), I think the better you know yourself, the better you can find your place in the UX world. Real self-awareness is a personal journey. You must be deliberate and realistic with your self-evaluation. Even then, you need input from peers who know you well. You should also be willing to hear the good with the bad. However, the better you know yourself, the more you can find what works for you and plan your career accordingly.
Lose The Ego
Ego is the biggest obstacle I've witnessed during a project. Regardless of the various skills involved or the business goals, ego appears like a demon waiting to pounce on the vulnerable. People behave in ways to ensure they have made their mark, whether the motivation is knowledge, experience, financial rewards, recognition, pride, politics, or any combination of those. Ego has project teams working as a collection of individuals rather than as a collaborative collective.
Real design solves problems for the user. It's not there to pave your career's path. It's not there to ensure a spot in management. As soon as anyone loses sight of solving user problems (within the constraint of the business goals), that designer is setting the project up to fail. Losing the ego is an extension of self-awareness. In the UX world, only teams can pull off large projects from start to finish. Losing the ego is about knowing your fellow team members, respecting their skills, and solving problems for the benefit of the user.
Specialize But Don't Limit Yourself
Finally, you cannot not specialize. It's human nature to gravitate toward things we like. Why fight it? However, that shouldn't stop you from reading and learning how the UX Machina works. I'm no typographer, but I've developed a healthy respect for typography and its nuances. On small projects, I can do in a pinch. On large projects with national exposure, I know to bring in an expert.
Modern business culture dictates we all contribute however we can to get the project done. The last thing you want to do is draw a fence around yourself and tell your team you only use Robohelp (for example, but based on a true story). The technical communication community have done this to themselves and while they are scrambling to figure out who they are without big, thick printed manuals and operating-system-based compiled help files, the rest of the software world has moved on to use other resources for content. STC is a struggling organization because of how it defined itself for so long.
However, we all have our wheel-houses. Mine is content. Give me your poor and untidy content and I will give you something fantastic. I know I can do that. However, I am loyal to no specific software tool. I use what I like when I can, but I'm competent enough in just about every content creation tool. In addition, I can whip up a mean CSS, but I'm really just a PHP script-kiddie. I'm also a big-picture thinker and can solve system problems. I'm proud of those skills and they are what ground me in the reality of a project. But I try to learn as much as I can and I will stay up all night to do things I don't normally do (even if it's not stellar) when the situation calls for it.
While Lis and Don are coming from such different angles, they really hit on a topic that forces us to think deeply about ourselves, business culture, and a new frontier of design. It's really all about solving user-related problems and the most effective ways we can do that. I firmly believe UX is a big tent with plenty of room for designers of all flavors. We just need to look around a bit and find the best place to set up shop.
- Design View / Andy Rutledge – The UX Design Education Scam (andyrutledge.com)
- UX Project Documentation: Answering Why, What and How | UX Booth (uxbooth.com)
- Big ideas from Marty Cagan's "Inspired" that helped me feel more confident on how to proceed with my business (zacharyburt.com)
- 10 tips for UX Freelancing (disambiguity.com)