When we teach user experience courses, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “how do I get a user experience career?” Obviously, getting some training is a good start in any field. But there’s much more to it. And although some advice can be gained from the myriad of existing careers books, the UX field is sufficiently unusual that general-purpose books can’t tell you all you need to know.
So how do we find out what it takes to have a strong career in the user experience field — or even learn UX and get a UX job in the first place? By turning to our love of empirical data and finding out from people who actually work in the field.
963 user experience professionals completed our survey. Additional respondents helped us improve the questionnaire through several rounds of pilot testing, and we also collected responses with a paper survey from 47 of our conference participants and 5 of our beta testers. In total, our advice is based on 1,015 UX people's collective experience.
Our respondents were divided almost equally between people in the beginning of their career (6 or fewer years in a UX-related job) and more experienced staff (7+ years as a UX pro). This mix gives us a good view into the full range of careers.
70% of respondents live in the United States, the U.K., Canada, or Australia. It is true that these countries are some of the world’s most advanced in terms of UX maturity and therefore have disproportionally many UX jobs. We would always expect them to be well-represented in any project to assess UX careers. Even so, the proportion of our respondents from these four countries is high and represents a bias caused by the fact that our survey instrument was in English.
People Like It
Before you read further, let’s get to the bottom line. Is it even worth considering a UX career? Yes, according to the people who have one. Respondents rated their career satisfaction as 5.4 on a 1–7 scale. Sure, all is not perfect in UX land, but this is still pretty good. Also, the satisfaction responses are heavily skewed toward the happy end, with 17% giving the perfect score of 7 and only 1% giving the terrible score of 1.
Satisfaction with pay and benefits was slightly lower at 5.2. People always want more money. But even here, many more respondents were satisfied than dissatisfied.
Interestingly, the main causes of dissatisfaction all indicate that the respondents do like the field of user experience in itself, but just aren’t getting enough of it:
- They want to get more education and training so they can feel more confident in their skills and roles.
- They like UX a lot and want to do more usability activities or steer their job responsibilities more firmly into UX.
- Their current position or company doesn’t support them or UX enough, so they probably need a new job.
The strongest finding from this research is that there is no single defining characteristic of user experience careers. For each of the main points we considered, our respondents provided an immense diversity of answers.
One partial exception to this conclusion is the type of product people work on. 94% of respondents have worked on websites and web apps, so this one platform is something most people have in common and which you should expect to know if you want a UX job.
But even platforms have extreme diversity. 67% of respondents had worked on mobile apps, 60% on enterprise applications, and 54% on traditional desktop software. So there are four different platforms that are common enough that more than half of user experience professionals work on them. But wait, there’s more: respondents had worked on 78 different categories of products, from medical devices to home theaters and power grid systems. All of these products need usability and all of these fields employ at least some user experience professionals.
Clearly, these percentages sum to much more than 100%. The reason is that most user experience professionals have worked on more than one platform in their career. The average respondent had worked on 5 platforms. So there’s not just diversity between people, there’s also diversity within each individual’s projects during a career. UX is not a field where you learn one thing and keep doing that all your life. As one of our respondents said, “I grew up in the country. I had to learn how to do anything I was presented with. Because of this, learning the tools and trade of UX has been a fun and exciting journey. I have picked up most of my knowledge from sitting down and doing, making mistakes.”
We asked people about their job roles. The most common were user research, interaction design, and information architecture (IA). While these roles are not exactly surprising, it was striking to note that 43% of respondents performed all three of these main UX roles, indicating a high level of diversity of work activity even on a day-to-day basis. (Often a single person is the only UX specialist on a team and has to do everything.)
On a more detailed level, when we asked about specific activities such as making wireframes, gathering requirements, or running usability studies, it was also striking how diverse UX professionals’ jobs are. Fully 75% of respondents said that they perform at least 16 different UX activities.
UX professionals work in virtually every industry. The largest sector among our respondents was IT with 23% of respondents, followed by finance (11%), health care (6%), education (6%), and advertising/marketing (6%).
Best Background for UX Jobs
When asked what characterizes good user experience professionals, one of our respondents said, “If you are a ‘lifelong learner’, in other words, if you are paying attention, you will be able to take previous experiences and apply lessons learned from them to your new situation. That is more important to me than specific skills you might learn in school.”
While most knowledge workers probably benefit from being lifelong learners, the point that this is more important than a specific education is rare and one of the defining characteristics of the user experience field.
Even though continual on-the-job learning is the most important, 90% of respondents had obtained a university degree. There’s no single degree to define the field: design, psychology, and communication were the most common major areas, sharply pursued by English and computer science. All of these fields make some sense as a partial educational background for UX professionals, but together those five disciplines accounted for only 45% of bachelor’s degrees. The majority of UX professionals hold degrees from an immense range of other disciplines, from history to chemistry, most of which don’t have a direct bearing on UX work.
The most common educational level was a master’s degree: 52% had at least one master's degree (some had two, which seems like overkill). Only 6% of respondents were PhDs. Most of the remaining respondents with university diplomas held bachelor's degrees and 1% had associate’s degrees.
UX pros with master’s degrees follow the same pattern as their colleagues with undergraduate degrees: that is, no pattern. A broad diversity of topics was just as characteristic at this level. One difference is that the most popular master’s degree discipline was HCI (human–computer interaction), which is highly specialized as preparation for a UX career. Fully 11% of respondents with master’s degrees were HCI graduates. This was the only discipline with a two-digit percentage. Other directly-relevant master’s degrees included 5% with degrees in information design, 4% human factors graduates, 3% in each of digital design and technical communication, and 1% for each of interaction design and information architecture. Other top disciplines at the master’s level were MBA, psychology, and library and information science, which are also all related to UX work, even if they’re not directly targeted at such jobs.
It’s clearly eminently possible to have a UX career without a degree in the field, and it’s definitely not necessary to have a graduate degree. Still, if you want to get a graduate degree, it would make sense to aim for a specialization that targets user experience, because the percentage of relevant degrees is much higher at this level among your peers in the field.
Digging deeper than the title on the diploma, we asked people which of the subjects that they studied had actually turned out to be useful. Continuing the diversity theme, there were lots of different things that UX pros claim to find useful. The top scores in order of usefulness were web design, writing, programming, psychology, design, and research methods. Any list where programming and psychology are next to each other is clearly indicative of an interdisciplinary field.
As one respondent said, “the top items for success are to be technically aware, business focused, and an expert in design and usability.” That’s a tall order, but this broad range of skills is nevertheless what’s needed for a successful UX career, and it should guide your choice of courses: no matter what specific degree you might pursue, make sure to study a broad diversity of topics. Even user researchers who will never write production code benefit from knowing something about programming. A good writing course is essential for all UX staff, considering the importance of communicating with other team members.
We also asked people what courses they wished they had taken. The top scores were HCI, psychology, and statistics. If you’re still in school, make sure to take courses in these topics so that you won’t have any regrets later.
Ultimately there’s no single-best recommended background for entering the UX field. If you’re interested, give it a go. One respondent even said, “Everything I needed to know in UX design I learned by playing Dungeons and Dragons. You get to learn how to be someone else, if you’re the Dungeon Master (DM) you … try to design encounters that you want your players to go through (work flows, conversion flows).”
No matter your educational background, you can get into user experience, as the previous section shows. How to get started? The top recommendation from our respondents was to pursue a mixture of theory and practice. Respondents recommended reading (books, blogs, articles) and taking courses. But they also advised newcomers to practice design, get an internship, and find a mentor.
Diversity strikes again. No single thing to do, but a range.
Along the same lines, it is best to get a first job where you will be doing a lot of different things rather than a narrowly-defined job. (Assuming you have a choice of jobs, of course.) Our respondents also strongly recommend starting out in a company where usability has some amount of recognition, budget, and management support. Later, when you’re stronger, you can survive better in a place with some adversity, but don’t start in such a company. Look for companies that have workable processes and UX roles in place, so you can be effective from the get-go.
If you already have a job, remember that your past background is no barrier to UX success, because user experience professionals come from every possible background. You can gradually change your job description from whatever it says now to being a UX specialist. Simply roll up your proverbial sleeves and get started:
- Run a small user test of your current project with a handful of participants.
- Redesign a particularly horrendous screen where you can’t help but gain a strong ROI from higher conversion rates.
- Do a mini-IA project to structure a small corner of your site in a more useful manner than the arbitrary way stuff was thrown together in the past.
Doing such small projects will gain you the experience needed to tackle bigger projects and will also demonstrate to management that the company will benefit from redefining your job to focus more on user experience.
There’s no single job title to aim for: our respondents had 210 different job titles. The most popular title was “user experience designer,” but only 6% of respondents had this title. (A further 3% were “senior user experience designers.”)
It can be hard to get started in a new field, but it’s worth doing. To conclude, let’s hear what three of our survey respondents had to say about their careers in user experience:
- “It’s super fun, and even if you are working on something trivial — like a pizza-ordering app — you are making people’s lives easier.”
- “I feel lucky every day that this is where I ended up. I’ve always been both creative and analytical and I get to practice both.”
- “I love my job and I get paid a lot of money.”
Nielsen Norman Group currently has several job openings for User Experience Specialists. Application deadline: April 15, 2015.
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