Understanding design levels: Junior vs Mid-level vs Senior UX Designer

Understanding design levels: Junior vs Mid-level vs Senior UX Designer

UX students are frustrated to see that most UX jobs listed are for Mid Level or Senior UX Designers. And they often come with a required # of years of experience that a beginner doesn’t have yet. What gives?

This is a distraction for the UX career transitioner. The industry gives the impression that the “levels” of UX design are defined by salary and years of experience.

When it comes to seniority, the number of years required is less important than the quality of that experience.

That’s because “hard skills” like design tools and conducting usability testing are now expected standards of the field, even from junior designers.

By using this guide, you’ll learn the true differences between UX seniority levels, and get ideas on how to orient your experience to match—or exceed—job market expectations.

Throughout this guide, keep in mind that we are speaking to a wide range of individual skills. One may be a junior designer in title but act on a senior level, and vice versa.

Let’s dive in by examining real-world differences in how junior, mid and senior level UX designers solve problems.

From The designer conundrum: state of career tracks in our industry

What are the key differences between junior, mid-level, and senior UX designers?

We’ll focus design job leveling on three factors: skills, ownership, and collaboration.

Skills & impactOwnershipCollaboration
Junior UX Designer
Learning
Learning the core practice of UX design: wireframes, prototypes, surveys

Knows the basic workflow; assists with design operations of the team
Gets direction from seniors or managers. 

Owns designs for clearly defined, lower complexity projects
Requires more onboarding and clear directions

Gets and utilizes design feedback 

Limited scope of stakeholders to handle
Mid-level UX Designer
Practicing
Fluent in the UX process

Makes designs defensible with user research and other tools
Owns design for several features and mid-sized projects

Influences some product metrics (KPIs) 
Knows when to involve other stakeholders

Articulates design decisions

Anticipates feedback
Senior UX Designer and above
Leading
Mastery of UX process and toolkit

Designs holistic experiences with big picture strategy

Uses frameworks and hypothesis-based approach.
Tackles undefined, complex projects

Leads projects from beginning to end

Owns and influences key metrics
Drives alignment via design facilitation and presentation skills

Synthesizes multiple inputs and feedback from stakeholders into a cohesive approach

Mentor junior designers and onboards others onto projects
Each row isn’t exclusive…junior designers may be expected to lead projects

Regardless of your actual job level, this framework can help you evaluate where you are, and where you may want to direct your experience.

Let’s do a deeper dive into the framework. 

1. UX Skills

Basic UX design skills are important, but they’re just table stakes for the competitive field of product design.

A core way to gauge seniority is their level of strategy. As a UXer moves up the job ladder, there’s a transition from being production-oriented to strategy-oriented.

Producing designs
What should we make? How many wireframes and deliverables does this need? Is the UI good?

Strategizing designs
What’s the hypothesis? What’s our point of view? Do we need more research to understand the problem space?

ux-design-levels-seniority-junior-vs-senior-designer-strategy

The level of strategic thinking becomes evident in the quality of the questions that gets asked:

  • Junior levels focus on the what – what needs to be designed? What design artifacts and deliverables are needed?
  • Mid levels focus on the how – How are we approaching this problem?
  • Senior levels and above focus on the why – why are we doing this?

Tip: Look at the entire user experience from a bird’s eye view and how it compares from project to project – what are the long-term impacts of the improvement?

Senior levels are expected to seek holistic views of the problem, and look beyond surface requests to uncover additional constraints and potential roadblocks.

Read more about the difference in strategic thinking Design Avocados

2. Ownership

As designers move up in rank, they’re expected to own a larger scope of responsibility. This takes on the form of handling more projects at once, and/or handling projects of higher complexity.

These are some of the different expectations of ownership in seniority:

  • Junior designer: Owns smaller, simpler pieces of a project.
  • Mid level designer: Core contributor to projects, owns bigger pieces and user flows
  • Senior+ designers: Leads projects, involved from beginning to end, considered a subject matter expert.

Part of growing as a designer is also owning the outcome of a project, which are usually dictated by KPIs (key performance indicators), metrics such as user satisfaction score, revenue impact, and launching a project on or ahead of schedule.

Successful designers —like any other successful contributor—are those who can move project along and gets things done.

Tip: Volunteer to own projects that others are hesitant, or too busy to take on

That means ambitious designers will have an edge over others who think “That’s not my job” or “that’s above my pay grade.”

3. Collaboration

UX designers often work within a design team and collaborate with developers.

As one gains seniority and experience, the number of cooks in the kitchen grows. You get invited to more meetings, collaborate with other teams (hello marketing!) and manage a lot more Slack channels.

If you ever wonder it seems like 80% of a manager’s day is spent on meetings….#collaboration.

But the number of meetings you’re in is really only a proxy for one thing: how you deal with ambiguity.

Dealing with ambiguity means operating in a space where goals and constraints aren’t yet clearly defined. That might mean a project’s requirements are fully fleshed out yet, or a debate around which features should be built first.

  • Junior designer: Asks questions oriented around the design.
  • Mid level designer: Helps define the ideal user experience.
  • Senior+ designers: Integrates multiple viewpoints to create a cohesive solution. Uses frameworks to drive alignment.

Tip: Junior designers (in title) should take advantage of their perceived level and ask a lot of questions to clarify a project. This will often help others better define a project.

The ability to deal with ambiguity also means getting up to speed, and onboarded onto a project faster. Whereas junior designers are often left waiting for the next instruction, senior designers are carving their way through ambiguity by setting up meetings and using design principles to guide their approach.

Presenting and articulating design

Presentation skills are another HUGE aspect of seniority. As designers, it’s critical to be able to articulate design decisions and convey the thought process. Typically, a junior designer will present a completed design and ask for general feedback. Sometimes their presentation is filled with uncertain and sporadic ideas – “I think this works.”

Experienced designers communicate ideas cohesively and drive the conversation from beginning to end. This includes how they ask for specific feedback and focus on areas of greater importance to the goal of the design. 

Tip:  Practice communicating your ideas by getting your work in front of other users and designers. Ask for opportunities to test and present to your team when possible to gather comments and feedback. 

The reason why being able to convey one’s thought process and ideas is a demonstration of skill mastery is because it’s not a simple task. It requires practice, and a solid understanding of the why and how of solving the problem at hand. 


Other questions and considerations about design seniority

Does this apply to all design jobs and environments?

This article was geared towards the “tiers” of design levels, which are more biased towards traditional corporate environments with large enough budgets for a design team.

But yes, the job environment you’re in can affect your seniority and your ability to move between levels.

A junior UX designer may be the only designer at a startup, and expected to own a design scope for a senior designer working in a large corporation.

> Read How to Evaluate UX Jobs: Startup vs Agency vs Corporate

What about lead, principal, management and other seniority levels?

As aforementioned, the larger the corporation, the more tiers of seniority exist. It’s common for companies to have an “IC” (individual contributor) track that tops out at titles like Principle UX Designer, and managerial tracks like Product Design Manager.

> Read Two Common UX Design Paths

What about power imbalances?

The inherent power balances within a company, or even a team, can make it so that those at junior levels are more uncomfortable in asking questions and challenging requests. Basically, the types of behavior that are expected of senior designers.

Innovative cultures welcome this and will create pathways for internal mobility. Traditional, slower-moving companies will want people to “stay in their lane.” It’s real, and it’s worth confronting.


Thank you for reading! We hope this gives you a strong sense of the expectations between junior vs mid-level and senior UX designers.

If you’re at the start of your UX career, it doesn’t hurt to start embodying the next level you’d like to be promoted or hired for.

About the Author

oz

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Oz first started UX Beginner was a way to document his own journey to become a UX designer. Now the site helps thousands of professionals transition into the user experience field with UX career resources, articles and courses.

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