Let’s Talk About Gatekeeping in UX

Debbie Levitt
Aug 24 · 15 min read

In late Aug 2020, I was tagged in this LinkedIn post (edited to be shorter than it originally was):

Let’s talk about #gatekeeping in #ux. I’ve also seen a lot of comments talking down to new designers coming from a #bootcamp or who do not have the “proper” education (Debbie Levitt, thoughts?).

I feel like there is some level of gatekeeping being done by more senior-level designers who look down upon those who are trying to enter the field. It is true that some people come to the field of UX thinking it is only #wireframing and #prototyping… But rather than shun them for their lack of knowledge, I think it is an opportunity to help them grow.

Gatekeeping: the activity of controlling and usually limiting general access to something. When I see this term used, it’s normally meant to imply that there is elitism, or there exists a group of people purposefully trying to keep another group from something. In the above quote, those looking to enter the UX profession are the victims, and “senior-level designers” are aggressors or perpetrators.

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Is the real problem here a gate or fortress? Or is something else going on?

Let’s unpack this, find the problems, and consider improvements.

UX Education Is Broken

I don’t blame the students. I say time and time again that I want everybody entering into CX/UX judged by their portfolio. I don’t care where you went to school or if you went to school. But I do care if you have skill. If you are proficient. If you qualify to do a job. Our work is mission critical. We must show up to these jobs ready and able to do the jobs. If you are trying to get a job you’re not ready to do, then I’m not totally surprised that you didn’t get the job.

Stop waiting for Google’s new UX certificate program. I saw the start of it, and it looks like bootcamp-level stuff. If they want to take you on and train you, that’s for Google to decide. They have the staff and budget to put people into apprenticeships. But that doesn’t mean these certificates are good, teach you what you need to know, or lead to on-the-job-training in an industry that offers very little on-the-job training. It doesn’t mean they will replace thorough education, so stop believing the clickbait that university programs will be meaningless because Google is willing to hire you after an online course they curated.

I don’t shun anybody for their lack of knowledge. I don’t want anybody blocked because of how they chose to study. But let me say this clearly:

I am for what you call gatekeeping, which I call having standards.

It is harder to get into plumbing school than UX school. It is harder to graduate from hairdressing school than UX school. Nearly nobody fails UX school. I’ve heard of people who stopped paying and stopped going but still got a certificate. I’ve seen many bootcamp programs and spoken to dozens of people. Your work is often either barely checked or it’s checked by recent grads who’ve never worked in UX. In what other industry would that be OK? Nobody learns plumbing from people who’ve never worked in plumbing.

Think about American Idol auditions. They purposefully let through people who are poor singers and have awful personalities thinking that conflict will make good television. It makes you think these annoying people who can’t sing might have a chance, but do they really? Trying to break into UX shouldn’t make you think that like American Idol, anybody should be able to sing on TV. There should be standards.

There are standards! The CX/UX industry has standards… you hear me fighting for those. But the schools that decided they could make quick bucks off everybody have no standards. Everybody gets in, everybody is told their work is great (so they will be happy with the school and recommend the school), and everybody gets their certificate. Instructors, mentors, and tutors are mostly cheerleaders telling you you’re great! You’ll get that job! You put your best guesses into a persona template, and your persona is great.

See episode 54, “Portfolio Do’s and Don’ts,” for the poor processes, work, guesses, and storytelling that I see most often in portfolios… the things that tell me you’re not ready yet to work in CX/UX.

That also means that a bootcamp isn’t a great way to determine if you’re good at UX or if it’s the right career for you. If unqualified instructors are teaching the wrong things the wrong ways (or even just some of that is happening), how can you tell if this is really for you? Many bootcamps aren’t even teaching what seniors and veterans would say are UX fundamentals like principles of cognitive psychology. This means that trying to use a bootcamp to measure if a career in UX is a match to you is like trying to work in the pee cup specimen collection lab to determine if surgery is a good career for you.

And then you apply for a job.

Since you applied to school, you’ve neither seen nor heard anything that told you our industry has standards. You had bootcamps telling you you were perfect, qualified, and oh yes a job guarantee if you fit into everything in this fine print. You never got told “no,” and very few in bootcamps were told their work was poor or could be better.

You also didn’t consider that seniors and higher can measure and gauge proficiency and skill. I can tell a persona made well from a persona made poorly. I can tell bad research from good. I can tell when your survey was flawed and when it was meaningful. Lots of us can tell work done well versus work done but not well.

People claim they want mentors who will be “more supportive,” but cheerleading is hurting too many people. I looked at a portfolio recently. I had a number of negative comments because the work was unfortunately quite poor. The person replied that everything I said was negative their bootcamp “praised” them for. Congrats, you had cheerleaders. It’s going to be a tough wake up from that to reality. No wonder people think “seniors” and I are the bad guys. Debbie’s not praising me! Where is the praise?

Now you hit the wall by colliding into people who have standards, and it’s confusing. Upsetting. Disorienting. You got a lot of cheering on in your program, and now here are these seniors who are actually looking critically at your work. Seniors and hiring managers can see how the typical bootcamp grad isn’t ready to do a junior job. You think someone must be lying to you, and it can’t be the school! These seniors must be the problem! They must be gatekeepers who don’t want new people to enter the field! Oh, we do want new people in the field, but we have standards. Not everybody will or should end up in a UX career.

And I’m sorry. I’m sorry you didn’t get real feedback. I’m sorry you got trophies and gold stars and certificates and “just do design thinking” and empty promises about jobs and money. I’m sorry! I am doing everything I can do fix and improve it. I’m not your enemy.

Bootcamps flooded the market with mostly unqualified people. Many bootcamps semi solved that by hiring the people less likely to get jobs as instructors, mentors, and tutors. Then they can show lots of people got jobs after graduating! But think for a moment that the person teaching or assistant teaching you is all too often someone who never worked in UX.

Why would you sign up to that school?

Who is keeping you from getting those jobs?

But UX seniors and veterans are gatekeepers and elitist? (covered in podcast episode 61, “Is UX Elitist?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUSNG8rf53) I’m sure that some suck or have been unkind and not helpful. Pin that on them individually. Unfollow, block, don’t comment on their stuff so they will sink to the bottom of the algorithm ocean. But if you imagine you are in some sort of bad position for being a “bootcamp grad” or a “junior,” then don’t unleash the same prejudice you think you’re receiving onto others by deciding “seniors” are the problem.

I am very picky about who I would hire. I have seen over 100 portfolios recently of nearly all juniors, mostly recent bootcamp grads. I’d say 4 people looked ready to do a junior job. The rest looked like they thought UX was sketching screens based on guesses and what you personally like. Or guessing at what customers want. Or “having empathy” by “thinking about customers” that they didn’t even research. Nearly all seemed to not understand best practices for mobile interaction design or accessibility.

This hurts people. This hurts work. This hurts the products our customers get. This hurts workplaces. This hurts culture. This hurts our profession.

Today’s juniors are our seniors in 5 years. We want to see great people with junior jobs working their way up over the coming years. But we also know that not everybody who went to a bootcamp or is interested in UX will or should work in UX. Not everybody who wants to be a medical researcher will become a medical researcher. Not everybody who wants to win American Idol will even get to compete on the show.

Why won’t jobs take on newbies and train them?

She’s not even done with the certificate. When she’s done, it’s unlikely that she will transform entire companies because she learned to make personas and customer journey maps. She’s learning Building Blocks but thinks she has extensive Science and Technique as well as Strategy (see the Phases of Proficiency model).

You can’t compare CX/UX to the military or industries who have had apprenticeship models for centuries if not millennia. The military has a selling point of: join with no experience and we will train you. That’s the main selling point. No experience needed. You will be trained. If you survive, you will end up job-ready and with some money. CX/UX isn’t the military… in many ways.

CX/UX has very few paid jobs that welcome people with no experience to give them intensive training. From what I hear, even many unpaid internships are leaving you to try some work yourself with very little mentoring and coaching. Yet despite this model mostly not existing as of the year 2020, so many people seem to expect that CX/UX jobs will train them. Where did everybody get the idea that UX junior jobs welcome people with no experience (and possibly even no knowledge, no skill, no talent, etc.) and they’ll be endlessly trained? And paid to learn?

Our work is mission critical. Employers need people who already learned and practiced, and can now show up and do the job. These are jobs. Even the military doesn’t have you doing the real job on day 1. You are learning before you have a real job on a nuclear submarine. You didn’t just show up on that submarine and learn as you went. You got training first, and if you looked like you knew what you were doing, you got a new position doing that thing.

I can’t think of any other job, especially in tech, where it’s OK to join with no education, knowledge, experience, talent, skill, etc. and you will get trained (and paid). I have no idea why people expect this from UX. What other junior job at our company hires people who can’t hit the ground running and get the work done? Junior developers show up to a job knowing how to code and being able to prove that.

If CX/UX ever wants to follow the military model, they can create apprenticeships where you mostly don’t get the money or real job you’re promised until you put in years at the company, like it or not. Ever notice how short people stay at jobs? That’s why most companies don’t want to train. Why should they invest time and money to train you when you might leave in 6 months? A year? 2 years?

Reframe.

Gatekeeping and shunning are, “Stay out because we are the elite and you’re garbage.” That’s not me. I’m not hearing that from any UX seniors, so I’m not even sure to whom the original LinkedIn post refers. Then again, I’ve blocked a lot of UX pseudo-leaders and jerks, including some people who were tagged in the original post. Maybe you should too and walk away from people who are not helpful. Cheerleading isn’t helpful. Critical feedback is helpful.

Instead of thinking of it as gatekeeping, instead of blaming UX seniors for why you don’t have a job, search for self awareness. Look for why am I not yet qualified for this job? What am I missing?

Or re-aim. If the gatekeeping is done by employers who create unreasonable unicorn jobs or only want seniors, employers, HR, recruiters, hiring managers, and the like, then they are the problem… not senior-level designers. Please stop aiming at us, especially if you’re expecting us to help and train you for free. :)

We need more, higher standards and we need them earlier.

There is nothing wrong with our industry having standards. People upset about them call them gatekeeping. People happy about them call them standards.

When I look at some of the people who want to get into UX, I can tell they’re not going to make it. You can tell from auditions who is not going to win American Idol this year. When I wanted to go into medical research in 1991, I had a mentor who could tell I wasn’t going to make it. I am SO grateful for the conversations he and I had. He SAVED me from going into the wrong career for me. I didn’t feel like he was gatekeeping. He saw something and he was right.

I see things. I’m usually right.

I’m secretly running a project right now with some apprentices. No, you can’t apply to it yet as it’s an experiment. I selected those people by personality, communication style, and having some foundational UX knowledge. I didn’t look at anybody’s previous work, and I didn’t care how they learned what they knew. I see things, and I’m usually right. So far, they are doing fantastic work.

You could say I kept a gate because I kept some people out and I brought some people in. But that’s life. That’s work. That’s just having standards. It’s not gatekeeping. If you were picky about who you dated, nobody should complain that you are a gatekeeper because you have standards.

Want to stand out and be more likely to get that job? Show real skill, real proficiency. That’s what most seniors, veterans, and hiring managers are looking for. Show that you have learned enough to get the job done. Or you can wait to find the apprenticeship that will train you. Your choice.

Please stop fighting the very people you expect to nurture, support, and train you.

While I’m being bitched out for not cheering people on more, I’m being asked at least weekly to mentor someone for free. I should give up my time to help this person. Some find my online calendar and just book unpaid time with a note saying they need coaching or career help or they want me to teach them personas. ?!?!?!?!

I can’t give my time endlessly to lots of people, so I created the Delta CX YouTube Channel. I go live usually 3 or more times a week. Tuesday is Office Hours/Ask Me Anything, where I take live questions for an hour. If you’re tired of clickbait articles, bootcamp promises, and viral videos on how you can get a UX job with no skill or qualifications, it’s time for you to come hang out with the Delta CX Low Ego Action Heroes (what I call our community). I also offer one free portfolio review per person (click that to sign up for your portfolio review), provided that you watched my video on portfolios and fixed the most common mistakes before you ask me to review it.

Quick tip: bitching me out shows me all of the personality qualities that make you unlikely to have longevity in a UX career. Our jobs are mostly filled with conflict, disagreement, and disrespect. If you can’t handle you and I having different opinions on bootcamps, and if you can’t find resilience and not take it personally, holy cats, UX is going to be a hard road for you.

I recently had a guy asking me questions in LinkedIn comments for hours and hours. I answered him as fast as I could each time, but the questions kept coming, and there were other things to do that day. By the time I got home to my computer to see if I had missed any of his questions, he was posting this fantastic gem just before blocking me:

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A newbie looking for work decided I was the enemy, publicly on LinkedIn. And then blocked me.

In a previous comment, he told me I was rude and self-absorbed. I absolutely support you posting things like this to LinkedIn because I think it’s best for you to show, early and often, who you really are to as many people as possible. This poor guy was so sure I would help him all day long, but I didn’t answer him fast enough. I didn’t wish him well enough. I neglected him. I didn’t help him. Oh Debbie, debbie, debbie. You don’t even deserve a capital letter for your name.

Picking fights with me, Darren, Nick, “all seniors,” anybody who didn’t serve you up a job with free training, or anybody who didn’t rush to answer all of your questions and shower you with compliments might highlight that you might have a high ego, a sense of entitlement, a need to be right, a victim mentality, poor resilience, a lack of curiosity, and monster confirmation bias where you can’t function without hearing all the praise the bootcamp gave you.

I don’t need praise. I’m not waiting for thanks or appreciation. I don’t take these things personally even when they are meant personally. People can bitch me out if they want! But UX is a very small world and you’ll be memorable in a bad way. After reading that comment, do you want to hire that guy? He is looking for a job. Maybe he thinks seniors are gatekeeping him from jobs.

I help every person who asks for help.

Thanks.

Delta CX

Actionable, thoughtful articles on CX, UX, what’s wrong, and how to improve our work and industry.

Debbie Levitt

Written by

Delta CX author | Customer Experience Strategist, Architect, Speaker, Trainer. “The Mary Poppins of CX & UX.” Learn more at DeltaCX.com and Pty.pe.

Delta CX

Delta CX

Delta CX is a model bringing CX & UX together in task and in name with the key goal of improving the products, services, & experiences that we offer our users & customers. Learn why quality should be our #1 priority, and how to rededicate to true customer centricity. DeltaCX.com

Debbie Levitt

Written by

Delta CX author | Customer Experience Strategist, Architect, Speaker, Trainer. “The Mary Poppins of CX & UX.” Learn more at DeltaCX.com and Pty.pe.

Delta CX

Delta CX

Delta CX is a model bringing CX & UX together in task and in name with the key goal of improving the products, services, & experiences that we offer our users & customers. Learn why quality should be our #1 priority, and how to rededicate to true customer centricity. DeltaCX.com

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