You’re entering the UX field, or have been in it for a couple years. You’re probably asking yourself: “What’s next?”
With UX being such a broad field with a near infinite amount of things to learn, it can be hard to navigate to next point on your career path. This article aims to break down two common paths for you (and then some).
I remember very clearly in the first week in my first job at a management training program, HR and executives were very clear to inform us that there were 2 career tracks to progress in the company: being a subject matter expert (technical) or being a manager (managerial).
The Technical Track
The technical track is when an employee becomes a subject matter expert in particular domains. In UX, that might be someone who dives really deep into interaction design or becomes known for her design faciliation skills. She stays at the very forefront of the field and is on top of the newest tools & methodologies.
This is common in other technical jobs like software engineering. Some programmers are incredible at what they do and just want to keep making stuff. They don’t mind that their job title doesn’t change much. At most a “senior” or “team lead” title has been added to their responsibilities.
As time goes on, those on the technical track will accumulate experience and be presented with opportunities to lead projects and mentor junior staff. Even in technical capacities, opportunities to move into management are likely.
But as long as most of their time is spent in the realm of MAKING AND DOING, the employee is playing in the technical track. Depending on what role and industry the technical expert is in, they can simply keep going deeper in their field, make a career out of it, and get paid well.
The Manager Track
The managerial track is when an employee ends up managing more and more people. Most of their time is spent in the realm of GUIDING and COMMUNICATING, and less so MAKING AND DOING.
I used to glamorize the managerial track because I was more ego driven and thought job titles meant everything. Climbing the corporate ladder just seemed so natural. First be a UX Designer, then a Senior UX Designer, then a UX Manager, then UX Director…and maybe VP of User Experience?
Then I saw the real day-to-day jobs of managers, UX or otherwise. Design managers rarely design, especially in the enterprise. They’re in meetings most days. They’re managing schedules, approving vacation time, that new software you want to buy, or flying around the country selling UX to the rest of the organization.
There’s a whole slew of non-design BS that managers deal with. I’ve heard on more than one occasion from design managers “I wish I can just go back and design again.”
But I’ve also come to appreciate what good managers do. They shield their team from unnecessary bullshit. They mentor. They leverage their team to do hard things, and push their team members to do the best they can. They also have a better understanding of how different departments like business development, marketing and product design relate to and rely on each other.
In a sense, management is its own type of design. Good managers design the work environment such that the people they’re managing can get their work done.
The Hidden Third Track
Beyond the technical and managerial tracks, there’s an emerging career trajectory that I see some of my (admired) peers becoming. That is the Consulting Track.
Design and UX consultants are able to break free from normal corporate structures. They set their schedule, determine their own rate, and are usually brought in as an expert to solve specific problems.
Consider such a person Freelancer 2.0. They don’t just take design jobs to pay the bills, but instead they’ve established a brand such that has people come knocking on their doors to solve specific problems. Some example job titles of design consultants I’ve met:
- Lean UX consultant – helping big, slow corporations run a little faster
- Information Architecture guru – figuring out how to make a sense of big messes
- Startup design consultant – helping a startup build their MVP / establish their brand
- UX research consultant – helps companies identify core customer needs and behaviors
This hidden track sounds fabulous but it’s not easy, nor fits everyone’s styles. Usually consultants share the headache that freelancers share – managing clients, making sure they get paid, negotiation, creating pitch decks.
But they do enjoy having recognized expertise and getting paid really high rates (I’m talking $200/hr+ and well beyond). If you are someone who people keep coming to specific problems with – deeply experienced subject matter experts fit this well – do consider the consultant track. Then tell me how it is.
Just kidding, there are dozens more career tracks
Of course there exists many more career tracks, but I’ve covered the major / most interesting ones. Just to whet your appetite, here are other tracks that I see UX Designers take on…
- Entrepreneurs / startup founders
- Design instructors
- Product Management
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