How to Get Promoted in UX

Have awesome design skills? Check. Does your product team adore you? Check. But you’re still not getting promoted. Womp womp. What’s going on? In the UX team at HomeDepot.com, we had to answer this question for our designers. What follows is our tale of demystifying the corporate design team promotion path.

In our group, we start each year with a team SWOT. If you haven’t been around corporate or somehow missed HBO’s Silicon Valley, this is an exercise where we take a stack of index cards and everyone writes down what they feel are the team’s strengths, weakness, opportunities, etc. With it all out on the table, the team goes work affinity mapping the cards to reveal patterns and we discuss them together. We do this to set team and manager goals for the year so we’re constantly improving and everyone participates in the team’s direction. Note: do not confuse SWOT’ing with SWAT’ing. Big difference. Real big.

A strong call out this year was dissatisfaction with the career path in our UX team. Over the last 2 years, our team had doubled in size to 30 and added a new UX job level (we have 3 levels of seniority). With all this growth, designers wanted to know how to get promoted. Designers at one level compared themselves to a designer at another level and felt like they were doing the same work and should be leveled up. We’ve all been there. Truthfully, there were times where some designers weren’t working up to the level where they were.

Talking it over with the team, the UX managers identified the following things we needed to do better:

  • Spell out the skills and expertise expected at each job level
  • Make clear the kind of work and example projects expected at each job level
  • Be more consistent as a management team in how we talked to designers about levels and expectations.
  • Help designers level up

We decided to develop a chart of UX skills to illustrate the range of skills we felt were important for a designer at our company and the mastery of those skills expected at each level. Why a chart? We like pictures.

Simplicity was important. This was going to be something we used in discussions about performance and goal setting so we wanted the smallest set we needed. An exhaustive inventory of all design tasks would have been complicated, arguable, and in the end, unusable.

Our approach was also simple. The first thing we did was have each of the five UX managers brain-dump the skills they felt the team needed. Next, we pulled our lists together and consolidated the obvious. After that, we and each picked our top 10 from the combined list. This gave us solid agreement on the top 8.

Rather than a chore, this was great to do as a UX management team. It drew out our natural alignment and showed where we needed to align. We also discovered some things about ourselves. For example, we had never discussed it but we all expected that designers can and do run basic usability studies. We were split on whether we expected designers to know how to use analytics tools or if that changed as you moved up the ladder (we’re an ecommerce design team after all). In the end, we left it off the chart. We also felt it was important to know front end code, responsive design, and Agile, but those were base expectations and not something that should differentiate our levels.

The skills we put on the chart were ones we felt offered a range of mastery that differentiated the levels.

Another discovery was that the core design skills (visual design, interaction design, etc.) constituted less than half the overall skill set. The UX managers spent the most time discussing the professional and soft skills designers needed. Soft skill are something designers tended to underestimate, forget, or just plain ignore. It’s also what the UX managers felt separated the designers into levels the most.

Soft skill are something designers tended to underestimate, forget, or just plain ignore. It’s also what the UX managers felt separated the designers into levels the most.

For example, the 2 charts below show the difference between a Designer I and a Designer III for us. The first chart shows a great Designer I. This designer has Chuck Norris visual design skills, is great working in sprints, and can handle anything you throw at them. This designer also has a narrow skill set and limited impact beyond the sprint stories.

In contrast, here is a chart for a Designer III. They have a broad skill set and clear strength in big picture thinking. Most of the difference between the levels is captured on the professional /soft skills side rather than the hard skills side. We expect a Designer III can recognize a business need and take the initiative, lead cross-functional teams on multi-stage design efforts, and put out fires without drama. Without. Drama. They don’t have to be the best visual or interaction designers in the team nor would that be enough to be hired at this level.

While a skills chart like this is a useful visual aid, a weakness is that it is a wee bit abstract. It’s easier to understand real world examples then simply copy them. To that end, we also gave example activities and projects that characterized each job level and reinforced the skills chart.

Here are a few of the activities and projects as listed for a Designer II:

  • Understands company’s challenges and partners with product managers to think how to solve them
  • Drives common efforts across feature teams. For example, works with product managers, developers, and designers to establish cross-platform strategy to standardize display of store and product inventory information across all of HomeDepot.com and mobile apps (requires understanding all the backend systems and feature teams)
  • Redesign of a whole area that involves assessment of user problems, company goals, technical capability, and organizing cross-team involvement (for example, tablet app redesign)
  • Creates and tracks UX Debt List in feature team and works with partners to resolve
  • Facilitates team design reviews
If you want a promotion, you need a track record of success working at the next level.

If you want a promotion, you need a track record of success working at the next level. With the skill chart and example projects in place, the UX managers have a common way to talk to designers about their skills, work, and what the next level looks like. We’re using this in our HR development discussions and to set stretch goals for designers by grabbing projects and activities from the level above them as a challenge. Some designers need to broaden their UX skills. Some need to increase their scope of impact by tackling a larger organizational project.

While our skill chart isn’t a perfect system, it’s proving valuable to us. We found common definitions the managers agreed on and could use. It’s transparent. It outlines the range of skills needed in our team and how expectation changes with level. It also provides targets for the designers wanting to work at the next level. If you search around the web, you can find similar lists of UX skills for inspiration. For us, it was extremely valuable for the managers to create together and tailor to our specific company and needs.

If you’re a designer, how does this help you think about your skills? If you’re a manager, what would you put on your team’s skills chart?

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