What’s in a name? The changing role of job titles in the digital age

I recently sat down to revamp my portfolio and got myself thinking… What am I now?!

One of the biggest frustrations I have with being a designer is the general confusion that ensues when we use our job title to describe what we do. “I’m a UX Designer”, or “I’m a Design and Innovation Consultant” are usually met with a degree of confusion, followed by a conversation about what that actually means. Speaking to professionals in other fields with ambiguous job titles, I hear the same frustrations.

Digital is changing the business landscape at a phenomenal rate. We need to constantly develop new skills to address the challenges this change presents, while understanding how the shifting world around us impacts our roles. Our titles often don’t keep pace, which leads to a greater diversity of skills amongst practitioners and even what that role now requires in order to remain relevant.

The confusion when trying to communicate this diversity seems to come from previous expectations of a title (assuming there are any), or expectations around a particular word in the title. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on the title of UX Designer, a role that has been around since the 80’s. It is suitably ambiguous and has gained popularity in recent years.

For example: “I’m not particularly sure what UX means, but I know that designers are creative and they deal primarily with aesthetics”. While that sentence is partially true, those in the know understand that there is a lot more to it than that. To complicate matters further, a UX Designer from company A might talk to a UX Designer from company B and discover that they both perform very different roles and have very different ideas on what “good UX” actually means.

I think part of the problem here is attributable to what feels like a UX gold rush: Digital designers and developers appending UX to their job titles without fully understanding the role in order to receive a bump in pay. I refer to this as a problem because businesses hear organisations like Forrester state: “86% of companies will differentiate on UX in 2015”, so they think “we need to hire UX designers!” and UX itself becomes a buzzword. This presents a phenomenal opportunity for designers, and a pivotal moment for design in business as a whole.

What follows is a conversation focused at a visual and interaction level. While this is important, there is no emphasis on how design can better serve the business as a whole. It also re-enforces the concept that design is solely about aesthetics, which in turn creates another problem: The perception that design is something we can bolt on at the end. There is no room for an adequate research process if design is an afterthought. This leads to a product or service strategy that falls short of understanding customer behaviours. It also means there are few or no iterations of a solution before it is released into the wild. The end game is bleak: The business fails to promptly recognise any shortcomings in its offering, doesn't change it’s trajectory and is overtaken or disrupted by someone else who did. Furthermore; the perception held by the business that design provided little or no value has a wider detrimental effect.

On a personal level, you feel under-utilized and ignored. You’re stuck in a situation where justification for personal development or a pay rise is increasingly difficult. I’m struggling to think of a scenario where any of these factors leads to a sustainably happy and productive work life / environment.

Traditionally a job title has been used as shorthand to describe a particular skill set. If the requirements from that skill set are constantly in flux, it puts considerable pressure on businesses to understand it. The only people who have the capacity to stay abreast of it are the people in the role themselves, and it’s down to us to bring everyone else along for the ride.

A single job title will have different meanings within each organisation you work in. The role of that title in the digital age is to open the door for you as an individual. Once that door is open, the conversation should shift to how your skills and methods can align with achieving the business’ goals and on a personal level; how the business can align itself with achieving yours.