Whether you just started a career in UX, or have been working in a UX job, you might be wondering: “What does a UX career path look like?”
When I started my first job as a business analyst, the executive team informed me that there were 2 primary career tracks in the company:
- Technical Track: become a subject matter expert
- Managerial Track: become a manager
As I transitioned into UX, I saw how these two tracks apply across industries. Let’s see how they play out in the field of UX Design.
The Technical UX Track
The technical track is for UX designers who want to develop expertise in particular domains.
In UX, that might be someone who dives deep into interaction design, user research, or design facilitation 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.
Relevant Job Titles
- Principal UX Designer
- Senior Interaction Designer
- UX SME (subject matter expert)
Those on the technical UX path spend most of their time on making and doing. This requires the UX designer to be very hands-on, pushing the edge of their craft.
As time goes on, those on the technical track accumulate experience and get opportunities to lead projects and mentor junior staff.
It’s usually at this point when a designer is presented with another UX career opportunity…
The UX Management 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 planning, strategy and communication, and less so making and doing.
I used to glamorize the managerial track because climbing the corporate ladder seemed to be the default option.
First become 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 day-to-day jobs of actual managers.
Design managers rarely design, especially in the enterprise. They’re in meetings most days. They’re managing schedules, approving vacation time, presenting to executives, 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 management is its own type of design. Good managers design the work environment so that their team can deliver results. They…
- Plan ahead and build out a strategy for their team
- Formulate design processes
- Form working relationships between other departments
Good managers shield their team from the non-design bullshit. They mentor. They leverage their team to do hard things, and push their team members to do the best they can.
Relevant UX Manager Job Titles
- Design Ops Manager
- UX Manager / Director / VP
- Chief Experience Officer (CXO)
Comparing the technical vs managerial UX tracks:
Here’s a comparison between two career tracks that can help you decide for yourself:
|Technical Track||Manager Track|
|Decent to high pay||Highest pay potential|
|Deep-work focused||Work is distraction-oriented|
|Manages own work, optional to |
mentor junior staff
|Manages people, processes, hiring |
I polled the UXB Facebook Group about which UX track people who’d prefer:
Most respondents said they’d rather be a subject matter expert than a manager.
My hypothesis: when switching into UX, most people are thinking about the craft, not necessarily about managing other people. It’s only after time spent in the craft of UX when designers have a better idea of whether they’d rather be a manager or not.
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 rates, 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 high rates (I’m talking $100/hr and well beyond).
If you are someone who people keep coming to specific problems with – deeply experienced subject matter experts fit this well, the consultant track may be worth considering.
Just kidding, there are dozens more career tracks
Many more career tracks, but I’ve covered the major / most interesting ones relevant to a career in UX design. Just to whet your appetite, here are other tracks that I see UX Designers take on…
- Entrepreneurs / startup founders
- Design instructors
- Product Management
What career track is most appealing to you? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.