A Gift of Fire: Defining a Career in UX Design

“The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare”. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

In the novel, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf writes with some amazement that writing about literature was an academic vocation, something professional and taught. This is very meta-fictional, as Woolf herself became both a prolific creator and critic (indeed, one of the best; though she was barred from academia because she was a woman). Novels, of course, were being created, and criticism was being written in magazines, well before the idea that literary criticism was an academic profession that could be taught.

UX Design has had a similar genesis; prior to user-centered design, software was being developed, and processes existed to define requirements. That UX Design has become a profession, and one that is increasingly taught in higher education, has led to an infusion of jobs in UX design and a subsequent field of interest for designers.

This article is on current careers in UX design; it may seem strange, then, that we start with a brief history of UX design and it’s recent evolution. However, to understand modern job requirements (and why it may seem difficult at times to get a position in UX design), it is important to understand how the field that was once research- and writing-based has become technical and analytically based.

Indeed, modern UX Design is different from its historical antecedents. Guiseppe Getto and Fred Beecher, in their article, Toward a Model of UX Education, present two definitions of UX Design, one written in 2005, the other, 2010. In a span of 5 years, these definitions become broader. The 2005 definition is one that is arguing the case for involving users in the design process, and focuses on requirements gathering; the definition in 2010 also emphasizes user-centered design, but does so in the context of larger product and organizational contexts. As Getto and Beecher write, the act of advocating for user-centered design shifted to a UX design process, a life cycle that incorporates usability testing, information architecture, content strategy, user research, interaction design, and UI design.

 

The UX Design Lifecycle (adapted from UX Mastery)

This indicates the maturity of UX Design as a career field: a transition from the definitional to the emergence of specializations. These specializations and technical innovations are interwoven: technical innovations have been the root of the need for a variety of UX design skills, and the depth of knowledge UX provides has led to an increase in products more responsive to user needs.
This organizational focus has meant that UX design has been increasingly invested in business strategy: user-contentedness becomes a business strategy, and UX designers see business strategy as inputs into project goals and how success is measured.

Strategy seems synonymous with planning, and that is reflected in the lifecycle activities above. What can be seen from the lifecycle illustrated above is that many of the activities listed would seem to be documentation-heavy: we can envision artifacts created throughout this process. When the practice of UX Design was first being defined as a user-centered approach to developing software and products, the documentation and research focus was intensive. This implies a skill set that is rooted in the humanities and social sciences: writing, communication, sociology, and psychology allow for communicating observations of the social and the personal while interacting with technology.
This was reflective of the software development methodology being used (the waterfall method).

The Waterfall Method (from UX Mag)

In this model, while ideally the UX designer would be involved in all three phases (planning, design, and development), in reality the designer would have the most involvement in the design phase. In the design phase, the UX designer conducts research and creates documentation that would be passed on to programmers and developers, who would implement the design concepts.
This implies the centrality of collaboration to UX design: the design process of UX requires alignment with a software development process, and UX is really a part of a larger engineering and programming ecosystem. And, in general, software development and business processes have dictated the rules of the game.

That this larger ecosystem of software development had a fundamental shift was not surprising; a number of authors thinking about software development processes questioned the waterfall method, and convened in 2001 to conceive of a new approach: an agile methodology. Experimentation is a core mission of the Agile framework, which emphasizes working software, not detailed documentation; and a framework of hypothesis, test, and adapt, rather than a fixed plan. Additionally, the manifesto emphasizes face-to-face conversation, again placing less emphasis on documents as a mode of communicating design.

 

The Agile Software Methodology, from Capterra.com

Design is not a separate phase in Agile; it is a part of the development phase. The implications of this for UX are clear. If UX cannot fit within a model of creating working software quickly, its role in product development could be marginalized. Many designers recognized this, and began questioning the value of extensive UX documentation (which Jeff Gothelf argued, as part of his Lean UX model, results in the quality of UX work wrapped up in quality of documents rather than the final designed experience). As Jared Spool indicates, the agile model is really conducive to what UX designers have been advocating for:

"When we can experiment with our designs, trying out what we think will work, then making changes on the parts that don’t, we come to a result that we couldn’t initially imagine." -Jared Spool

As Jared Spool indicates, this means that the goal of UX design is shared understanding: UX design truly is infused throughout the product development process, with inputs into product creation that are real and tangible, not residing in paper.
 

The Agile Method (from UX Mag)

Within an agile framework, design is integrated within the sprint or iterations of development; this means the UX Designer will be guiding the development team as they code, ensuring user-centered interactions and experience are being realized. As Yona Gidalevitz smartly observes, development choices can impact user experience, so it’s logical that UX designers are a part of that process. This is when interactions are created, and interactions define a digital experience.
Increasingly, this also means that UX designers are responsible for creating early prototypes to illustrate concepts, in place of extensive documentation. Jared Spool notes this new imperative:
"Standing in front of a whiteboard, flapping your arms to communicate how you imagine your design will work, is more like interpretive dance than designing software. Unfortunately, it’s just about as effective." - Jared Spool
“Armed with the powers that come from JavaScript and jQuery”, Spool writes, “the UX professional can render an idea almost as quickly as they can draw the picture at the whiteboard.” 

Top skills in UX Design are reflective of this communicative/visual/technical/business strategy ecosystem. To see this, we used a tool called Labor Insight 

Top Skills in UX Design, Based on Frequency in Job Listings Over the Past 12 Months

Top Skills in UX Design, By Category

This interlacing of business strategy and technical achievement is an exciting evolution, but it also means that UX designers are no longer in the sole realm of technical communicators; UX designers are strategists and creators. This has had profound implications for the UX job market and the requirements of a UX design education.

The Technical Imperative

As we have seen above, an agile methodology focuses on development, and an associated focus on the social expressed through the technical. This has had expression in numerous writings on the topic: should UX designers know how to code?
Although there are philosophical debates surrounding this question, do requirements for UX design jobs indicate coding and programming skills are required?
To start this research, the database Labor Insights, a database that lists millions of job descriptions across the US over numerous years, was used to search for jobs in UX design. To be certain the majority of UX design jobs were captured, there was an attempt to define the job titles that are specifically UX design.

UX Job Titles Searched For; Terms Included: UX and User Experience
These titles are specifically UX in nature; purposefully excluded were titles involving UI design, which are by nature technical as they focus on a technical end result (an interface). UI design positions would naturally include coding as a requirement. Additionally, the terms UX and user research were included..this would allow for jobs like UX analyst and User Experience Specialist.
 

Top Locations for UX-specific Job Titles (of 40,233 jobs), Over the Previous 12 Months

Not surprisingly, California is the top state for jobs in the UX Design field; followed by New York.

Top Regions for UX-specific Job Titles (of 40,233 jobs), Over the Previous 12 Months

Regionally, the New York-New Jersey-Pennsyvania area has the most UX Design job titles.
Of these positions nationally, almost half required skills associated with JQuery/Javascript, Web Design or Web Development.

Over the most-recent 12-month Period, 43% of UX Job Listings Required Knowledge of Javascript, JQuery, or Web Design and Web Development Skills.​

Looking at Top States for UX Design Jobs, the Number of UX Design Jobs Requiring Coding and Programming Replicates National Percentages, Around 43% of the Job Market for Each State (New Jersey is slightly higher, at 46% of the job market)

An important question is, to what end?

Looking at job descriptions that require Javascript and JQuery knowledge, its clear that this knowledge is necessary to aid collaboration with a multi-disciplinary team, which would contain developers. An example, job responsibilities from one of these job listings:
Mentors other Interaction Design team members to educate them on design standards, processes, and tools. Collaborates closely with end-users, business unit stakeholders, business analysts, information architects, interface designers, developers, and project managers to ensure that designs account for the needs of all business areas.

The definition of UX designer as mentor is an interesting and revealing one: this seems to be an educational function within the team. The last requirement for collaboration is verbose, and somewhat humorous; for it seems this UX designer will be collaborating with everyone! With this wide variety of collaborations, it would seem an understanding of how these diverse business processes work together to create a product is a distinct asset.

The job description mentions the requirement of design documentation and user research, more traditional UX Design skill sets. However, the Knowledge/Skills section seems to be a potpourri of technical skills:
Knowledge of CSS, HTML, JavaScript, XHTML, MXML, Flex; experience in Agile development environment, mobile app, and responsive design; advanced proficiency in graphics and prototyping tools such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash

These skills interweave prototyping with a requirement of knowledge of modern development processes (Agile, which, as indicated above, implies the team expects minimal documentation and early coding and development) and coding and scripting languages. It also mentions responsive design and mobile app, but its unclear if this is a design or development context. This pattern continues through this segment of jobs, from:

Familiar with all facets of interactive design and development, including JavaScript frameworks, unobtrusive JavaScript techniques/progressive enhancement, and multi-browser compatibility
To:
Solid understanding of systems/software engineering practices, UX best practices, usability principles, and data analysis, reduction and presentation
These are two parallels: the first seem to be asking for a candidate who is part developer, part UX Designer; the other seems to be asking for someone with simple familiarity.

Still Room for Traditional UX Design Skills in a Changing Job Market

However, despite the rising need for a blended skillset that includes more knowledge of software development, the majority of jobs in UX do not require these skills, but rather focus on a more traditional set of UX skills.

The Number of UX Job Listings That Did Not Require Javascript, JQuery and Web Design/Development in States with the largest numbers of Total UX Job Postings - These Jobs Still Represent About 57% of all UX jobs in Each State (54% in NJ)

Conclusions

It is clear the the job market in UX is changing as the field evolves and interfaces more with software development processes and roles. What does this mean for job seekers? With nearly half of jobs posted online requiring a mix of traditional UX skills, such as user research and documentation, combined with more technical skills, including web development, programming, and others, it is important for students to recognize that more jobs in the future may require this interdisciplinary skillset. Whether you choose to pursue the more technical aspects of UX Design that are emerging in the marketplace, or prefer to seek out a more traditional UX role, the UXD program in the Master's of Business and Science degree can give you access to a wide range of courses that can help you to customize your career path in the industry. 

Methods

To do the analysis of on-line job postings, we used a tool called Labor Insight from Burning Glass. It allows you to mine data from on-line job postings so you can see trends in the job market, such as job titles and skills in high demand and where jobs are concentrated, among other things. Because many jobs are posted several times in different places online, the system uses several methods to eliminate as many duplicate postings as possible (See here for more information:http://burning-glass.com(link is external)). To get to the interesting information, Labor Insight breaks up all the pieces of the job description into fields that can be analyzed.

This analysis included on-line UX job postings using keywords, as specified above. We examined 40, 233 jobs posted from October 1, 2015- September 30, 2016. 

While this analysis can show you important trends in the job market, there are limitations. Not all jobs are advertised on-line and not all of those on-line are captured by Burning Glass. The unstructured nature of job ads can make it difficult for the system to identify individual pieces of information effectively in some cases. So, there may be some irrelevant jobs caught in the net and some relevant jobs may get left out. Overall, however, I hope that this analysis of “real-time” jobs data gives you a basic understanding of what is in demand in your area of interest.