The state of UX in Dublin (imho) — Part 1: The challenges

As I make plans to leave Dublin after more than eight-and-a-half years (even though the ‘where to’ and ‘when’ are still TBC) I’ve found myself — as you do — reflecting on my time here.

When I arrived in January 2008 I wasn’t a designer. I’d relocated from Melbourne to take up a pure copywriting role, and I vividly remember the feeling of panic when a senior manager told me he’d like to see me start doing more wireframes and using Visio — because at the time I had zero idea what wireframes OR Visio were.

Of course the fact that I’m writing this is a sign that a lot has changed! I got my first UX ‘break’ with iQ Content (now Each and Other) in 2009 — starting in sales/marketing before switching to the consulting side, and have since gone on to manage design teams at both Paddy Power and Mobile Travel Technologies.

Likewise, the design landscape here has changed and grown significantly over that time. I used to either personally know or could rattle off all the names of every UX designer in Dublin — and now a search for ‘UX’ or ‘user experience’ in either current or past job titles turns up more than 850 people within Ireland.

So I’ve decided to share some of the things I’ve encountered or observed over the last seven years — starting with the challenges.

UX Designer = Wireframe monkey

I don’t want to create (another) ruckus about definitions but we need to concede that — at least with people who don’t do what we do — we’ve lost the battle on terminology.

UX maturity is generally still low, and treated as a downstream, delivery-oriented, service function (as opposed to the strategic and valuable one we know it is!) meaning that to others:

  • User experience design: Wireframes
  • UI design: PSDs
  • Customer experience: Customer support
  • Service design: Who knows
  • Experience design: God help you if you even try and use this term

I expect that this might be contentious, so on your way to the comments please consider all the times you’ve designed something with zero customer insight or research — which has probably helped reinforce some of the above.

Before you go straight to designer insta-rage

The UX team of one (or rather the UX/UI/frontend/research team of one)

If you’re not just pumping out wireframes, chances are you might be at the other, yet equally unpleasant, extreme. I’ve been jobhunting for most of the past year, and have come across far too many job ads requesting your classic UX Unicorn:

  • Experience with wireframing tools such as Axure, Omnigraffle, Balsamiq
  • Proficiency in producing finished graphic designs using Photoshop, Sketch, Illustrator, etc.
  • Ability to write production-quality HTML/CSS/Javascript
  • Experience in planning and executing multiple forms of user research including depth interviews, focus groups, and usability testing
  • Proven examples of influencing senior management and driving organisational change — especially if you’re the first and only design hire

Now there might be 10x (vomit) or full-stack designers out there, but I’m yet to encounter one in the wild. What I suspect happens to companies posting jobs ads like this is that they end up twiddling their thumbs for a long time before either rewriting the role to be more specialist, or hiring someone who fulfils 50% or less of what they’re looking for — leaving those designers to frantically google “How do I do X?” when they’re inevitably thrown in the deep end. Which segues nicely into…

All experience is not good experience

I’ve been very, very lucky that in all the places I’ve worked I’ve been part of a design team with at least one person more experienced than me to bounce ideas off, get advice from, and most importantly critique my work and approach.

However for people on teams of one, or small teams with inexperienced designers, or even teams where you’re forced to work solo on projects and can’t access your colleagues’ knowledge (agencies I’m looking at you) — feedback on their work and progress comes mostly from at best, non-designers and at worst, UX seagulls.

Unfortunately the path of least resistance can often be incongruous with the one to best user experience. While I freely admit to having taken the easy road at times to get things over the line and/or reduce the need to use my screaming pillow — if ALL of your design experience occurs in an environment where speed trumps quality, or you’re rewarded for kowtowing to the varied, rapidly-changing, and often conflicting needs of stakeholders/clients — then your compass of ‘what good design looks like’ can end up skewed and your methodology borked.

Essentially designers with years of experience can end up lacking the basics, which segues nicely into…

A collection of pain points about recruitment

1. Job titles are meaningless

I’ve seen ‘Senior/Lead’ used for everything from people barely out of college with no mentoring experience, to people with 10+ years experience who are managing a team of designers. People who have flailed in interviews for junior/mid positions go on to appear on LinkedIn weeks later with Senior, Lead, Manager or ‘Head of’ in their job title. It is TERRIFYING.

When you interview people — make sure you ask what that fancy title means in the context of that role, but also be prepared that it might just be this and they won’t tell you:

2. CVs are meaningless

Whoever made the unofficial rule about CVs being 1 or 2 pages max — please get into the sea. This format means almost all CVs blend into each other with a combo of company title, job title, dates, then a sentence (if you’re lucky) with something like “Was responsible for wireframes, interaction design blah blah” leaving me with questions about level of responsibility, scale of product, complexity of problems/projects, interaction with other departments/disciplines, and what results their work achieved.

Also — if you do a find/replace of ‘UI’ with ‘UX/UI’ we WILL know.

3. Portfolios are (kind of) meaningless

I’ve seen no correlation between good UX portfolio and good UX practitioner. None.

I can’t say it better than the excellent Matthew Ovington, who kindly proofread this article for me:

“You can be a great designer and have no portfolio. The whole “portfolio required” thing is a bad joke. It actually devalues non-visual design skills like facilitation or research.”

For what it’s worth, the less terrible ones I’ve seen have a higher ratio of text to pretty pictures.

4. Conclusion: Prepare to spend time… lots of time

So, if none of the following are reliable indicators of competency:

  • Years experience
  • CV
  • Job titles/promotions
  • Portfolios

This means it’s near impossible to sort out the great from the good from the mediocre from the pretenders from the inexperienced on paper alone, meaning you’ll have no option but to talk to a wide range of candidates to find out what the real story is — which takes time.

This means lots of frustrating phone screens with people who turn out to be spoofers, or interviews with people who somehow get through the phone screen and then turn out to be spoofers. Thankfully it’ll be somewhat mitigated by the rare delight of finding someone with a terrible CV who turns out to be excellent hire — but after a couple of years of doing this I’m still no better at judging which way it’s going to go.

Want something specific? You’ll need your passport…

When I finished up at iQ Content in mid-2013 I was housebound courtesy of a fractured ankle, which gave me a bit of time to think about what I wanted to do next.

I didn’t realise it then but I was totally burnt out, which was the probably the result of being asked to do all of the following with little notice, support, or guidance — as is often the case in agency-land:

Slide from a talk I gave at CSForum13

One thing I was particularly burnt out on was wireframing, the result of doing 100+ page specs (good old waterfall!) which not only had to capture every edge case for the client’s internal QA team who were testing on IE7, but also the ‘signed off’ interface copy — just thinking about manually making those copy changes across all those pages still makes my eye twitch a little.

So I didn’t want to do wireframes, and I also wanted to get away from doing ALL THE THINGS and back to doing just content — but more the process and guidelines side as opposed to production. Want to know how many open roles in Dublin at the time matched that description?

One.

Of course that one job was for a Content Strategist at Paddy Power (their first and probably last!) and things worked out for me — but even now the combination of just one or two criteria in the Dublin UX job market can leave you with very few, if any, options. For example:

  • Wanting to specialise (Content Strategist, User Researcher, Service Designer, etc.) or focus on a specific part of the process (strategy, governance, training)
  • Wanting to work as part of an in-house team (say more than 5–10 people) that has opportunities for career advancement — either on a technical track or people management
  • Wanting to work somewhere that does research
  • Wanting to pursue a particular industry (e.g. games, healthcare)

If you started out as a generalist and want to get more ‘I’ in your ‘T’ then you’ll need to find places which fit a couple of criteria:

  • Scale: A specialist needs to have enough work to do AND for that work to be financially justifiable — this isn’t something most early-stage startups and small businesses can afford.
  • UX maturity: Even if you have scale, it can be hard to make a business case to fill resource gaps which are not understood or valued by stakeholders — a good example is product copywriting, which is often covered by everyone from product managers to business analysts. Likewise a company may have lots of designers but no research function.

Unfortunately it’s still very early days for UX in Dublin and there‘s not a lot of variety in roles yet. Until we start to catch up to places like London or the US — expect the steady brain drain of experienced designers moving abroad to continue.

The hamster wheel of dissatisfaction

So, to summarise:

  • Lots of people still don’t understand what we do
  • Companies are mostly looking for unicorns
  • Some designers end up working in environments where they don’t know what’s right (or wrong)
  • Recruitment is a time sink and lottery — which means you could end up working with or reporting to spoofers, or getting looked over
  • Career progression may mean leaving your company, or even the country

Not to start a state-the-obvious competition, but this adds up to a lot of very unhappy UX practitioners.

In some ways working in UX is centered around negativity: you spend a lot of time talking about ALL THE THINGS which are broken, submitting bugs, trying to plead your case for fixes to usability issues which end up getting deprioritised in favour of new features. Heck it’s hard to celebrate even when something you worked on is released, because all you can see are the battles you lost and what could have been.

Despite this, I believe that all this frustration is a kind of optimism and idealism in disguise — a driving belief that things, experiences, software could be better. It’s not often I quote from my church-going days, but I remember a sermon where the preacher was talking about how a certain level of dissatisfaction is necessary to drive change — you don’t bother to fix stuff you’re happy with.

However, putting people who want to have an impact into an environment where their effectiveness to do so is curtailed by things (like the list above) which are both outside of their control AND have no resolution in sight is a recipe for instant demotivation.

The big challenge then is twofold:

  • For practitioners: To know when to stick things out
  • For companies: To retain talent long enough so that they can help move the needle on UX maturity

If the rise of shorter tenures (1–2 years) continues, I foresee a weird vicious circle whereby UX practitioners will just end up bouncing from one frustrating company to another — let me explain:

  1. Company has low UX maturity
  2. Company hires people to ‘do the UX’
  3. Said people make small changes (if any) but ultimately become dissatisfied — change is hard!
  4. Said people start to pay attention to the influx of recruiters hitting them up on LinkedIn and find a ‘better’ job
  5. During the lead time it takes to replace said person/s (6+ months lead time for senior/management level roles) any changes made can stall, or worse, regress — UX maturity does not always travel upwards
  6. Go back to 1.

Companies need a consistent UX vision and strategy over a sustained period of time to create lasting change. It was only when I was leaving Paddy Power that some of the things we’d been striving for (participation in roadmap planning and business cases) came to pass, but that was almost 6 years after the UX function was established.

Starting in a place with zero UX maturity requires a LOT of energy, and the seasoned designers I know who have the ability to take on this kind of task quite frankly don’t want to.

Companies who already get it are going to have a serious advantage in both attracting and retaining talent. However until that list becomes more than just Intercom, what can people who have to go into an environment with a low appreciation of UX do? And what can companies who genuinely care about user experience but aren’t there yet do to convince people to come on board?

These are all things I’ll be covering in Part 2 — stay tuned!

For more reading:

The Future of UX: Killing the Wireframe Machine — Lis Hubert

The User Experience Team of One — Leah Buley

8 Reasons to Turn Down that Startup Job — Mike Monteiro

IDEO CEO Tim Brown: T-Shaped Stars: The Backbone of IDEO’s Collaborative Culture — Chief Executive

Empowering Generation UX — Seamus Byrne

Why is there a higher percentage of dissatisfied UX designers than other designers? — Quora


Thy rules of content marketing decree that I should add a CTA here. I mean yes I’m unemployed and looking for a job but I’ve got some pretty specific criteria (will be back home in Melbourne from August, and a 100% hands-off role for starters.) I’m in the process of collating my job wishes into an article, but in the meantime I’m totally available for coffees, chats, or brain-picking via @coryannj or cory[at]coryannj[dot]com.

A huge thank you to Matthew Ovington and janeruffino for providing a much-needed critical eye and invaluable feedback at draft stage.

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