When I say the apocalypse - what I mean, of course, is the evolution of tech, the automation of many jobs, and the resulting unemployment.
Among the many reasons to start a career in UX, just one of them is that the work of a UX designer will be tricky to automate. There are many other good reasons to study UX. (Once you’ve read this interview you’ll be able to reel off at least six.)
In this interview with author of the UX Careers Handbook, Cory Lebson, you’ll learn how Cory ended up working in ‘what we know call UX’ over 20 years ago. He explains what’s changed since then, what the UX scene around the world looks like, and what the future holds. If you’re wondering whether now is a good time to become a UX designer, read on!
What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in UX since you started out?
I started in UX before it was called UX, around 1993. No one had ever heard of it. People would say, “what is it you do, again?” And they wouldn’t really get what it was.
There has been a big shift. Nowadays, UX is much more visible in developer spaces, in web development, certainly in consulting, in freelancing. It’s so present, and it’s also more mature. It’s no longer just about creating something that’s only usable - it has to be both attractive and usable.
It’s funny to think of the animated gifs of days past, e.g. someone saying ‘under construction’ with a jack hammer. Now you really see something on your screen that is meaningful, that matches user needs - it’s almost a competition to provide the best UX, which is wonderful.
For me I fell into this career not knowing what it would become. For people going into UX design today, it really is a mature, wonderful place to be.
So when you started out, UX design was still in its infancy. How did you hear about it? How did you know it existed?
I was in university as a Psychology Major in 1992 and I had to pick a research lab to work in. There was a professor doing some work on what we would today call the user experience of restaurant menus; how staff could enter the order etc. It was a new thing for me, and working on that was really interesting to me.
I was always interested in technology, so when I finished college I asked him if he knew anyone who could hire me, and he referred me to my first job. So, I started there and really one thing led to another. I watched something grow up around me in a way that I had never imagined back then. It was always interesting, but at the beginning we didn’t know that we were onto something big.
Do you think having a psychology degree is helpful?
Personally, I think so. Particularly in my role as a researcher, I’m doing today the same things that I learned back then, in terms of scientific method and how it applies to psychology.
Nowadays, I’m not necessarily looking at people to try and understand intrinsic motivations or brain and behaviour, but I’m still looking at people to understand how they interact with the technology.
So psychology is certainly not the only path into UX, but particularly for user research, it can be a very good path. In design, and lots of things really, it’s good to understand people, but UX practitioners from so many different backgrounds excel in UX design.
How would you explain UX design to someone who has no clue what it is?
If I’m in that situation, and I’m with people who have no idea what UX is, I will say something like “I do the psychology of technology. I make sure that people are happy with the products that companies are producing.”
And then they will often reply, “Oh do you code? Do you develop?” And I say, “No, I don’t do that,” then they say, “Well, do you design then?” And I respond that I don’t design, but I evaluate design. I tell people that it’s about understanding, not just the people, but also their use of technology. For me it’s really the synthesis of both - understanding people and helping to develop the technology.
What do you consider to be the future of UX?
It’s funny actually, a client of mine was doing a one-day workshop for their internal staff, and they asked that very question: What’s the future of UX? So I ended up doing a presentation on that topic.
First of all, we only know about the future of UX, as it relates to the technology that we already know about. Whether it’s artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, robotics, or even things like genetic modification. So the only way we can think about the future of UX is to think about the technology that exists or that we expect to be developed.
I think our skills will remain the same, or similar but they will just iterate, slowly. As new technologies come, UX practitioners will adapt. For example, artificial intelligence. In today’s world, UX designers tag information in websites, so it comes up when needed. In artificial intelligence, we flag millions of little bits of information that come up at the right time. So we’re still doing the same thing just on a different scale. We will still have the interface - it could be a virtual or screen-based interface, or a physical device interface - but still it’s a user interacting with something.
We apply the same skills, the same project processes, the same approaches, we just adapt as the technology changes.
So, we’ll still be talking about UX in 10 years time?
Definitely, although the titles that we use are liable to change. Although Don Norman has been credited with coining “user experience” as a job title in the ‘90s, even 10 years ago, it still wasn’t commonly used. You could talk about usability, you could talk about interaction design, but you couldn’t talk about UX, at least not as a bucket career term.
It might not be called UX in 10 years but the skills are still going to be there, the need is still going to be there and the maturity of the companies, and more companies are going to want UX or whatever it becomes. So, I think we can have a lot of confidence that UX skills will always be sought after.
It’s a competition now. Before it was just getting a product out the door and a minimal viable product meant the functionality was there but it was not really usable. Now the minimum is effectively required to be usable. It’s got to be usable or the product will crash and burn straight away.
And companies realize this - it’s taken them a long time to realize this, and the ones that don’t, don’t survive very long as a company. This means that the ecosystem of companies that survive are those that ‘get’ UX and are hiring UXers.
Once they understand, once they frame it that way, once they understand the kind of people they need to hire, they will, and this is increasing over time. It’s becoming so much more salient, more visible in all different industries.
What is the job market like for UX designers at the moment?
I would say it’s great and it’s going to get better. If we look again in our big cities, there is generally more work than there is people to do it. I think the gap might close slightly, but it’s not going to reverse.
When they talk about automation stealing jobs - there’ll be robotics, there’ll be automation, there’ll be artificial intelligence, and it will take away jobs because a system can do it. But that won’t happen in UX - at least not in any of our lifetimes. It can’t, because it’s very complicated to program the understanding of a user.
If you’re fearful of automation taking over, UX is a good career to get into. I feel confident that, certainly for a considerable period of time, we’ll have the work.
What salary can you expect as a UX designer?
Salaries in UX design are tremendously varied across the board, they vary by country, they vary by region within a country, they vary by the type of company. It’s so inconsistent. There are a number of salary surveys out there, for example UXPA does regular salary surveys. That said, it’s a small sample from every country. For the US it’s a bigger sample size, the UK is often bigger, Germany is often bigger, but sometimes you’ll have maybe information from only a handful of people in one country, a handful in another country, so you can’t really generalize.
But you know there’s certain types of UX jobs that may pay better than other types of UX jobs, and also within country. So, it’s one of the hardest questions out there.
Do you recommend joining a professional organization of UX designers?
Absolutely! There is so much to gain from getting involved in local UX-oriented organizations. In my case, I became very involved in the Washington DC chapter of UXPA as well as some other local meetups and found great value from UX learning and networking. I’d highly encourage UX professionals to get involved in whatever organizations and meetups are active in their local communities.
There is also a lot to gain from attendance at national and international organizations. I’ve really enjoyed my involvement with UXPA International. It’s a wonderful feeling to be in different cities and countries and be surrounded by UX professionals who all do similar kinds of work.
So, finally, what made you write the ‘UX Careers Handbook’?
An acquisitions editor at my current publisher found me at a conference and asked me to send him a proposal for the book. I sent him the proposal and we agreed that I would start writing it as soon as I finished up my term as president of UXPA International and had more time available.
When I posted on social media that I was writing the book, I got well over a hundred offers to help! I then matched people’s backgrounds and interests against what I needed. The many side-stories and career pathways from others help gives the book its multi-faceted perspective.
Now then, at the beginning of this interview, I promised that by now you’d be able to reel off six good reasons to follow a career in UX. After listening to Cory speak, the main ones that stand out for me are:
- Salaries are high due to the low supply and high demand in many places
- UX positions are opening up across diverse sectors - you’re not limited to tech
- Skills from many different backgrounds can be applied to UX design
- Being a UX designer means being part of a thriving, curious, global community
- There are many different routes into UX (start with our free 7-day UX design short course!)
- And finally, it will be loooong while before machines can do UX design for us!
Even if you’re working full-time you can do a flexible, online course like the Certified UX Designer program. You’ll practise UX alongside a professional UX designer, satisfy your curiosity around human behaviour, build an impressive portfolio, and get help finding your first job.