The real difference between junior and senior designers

Or how to fast-track to a senior level

Karina Daukaeva
Nov 21, 2019 · 9 min read
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What if I told you that years of experience don’t make a difference? Or that you will not be promoted based on the number of projects you launched? And that if you don’t change your mindset, you will always be treated as a junior, regardless of your title?

Transition from a junior-level designer is a mindset shift. With seniority comes respect, trust, and freedom. So, if you are a designer and you are feeling disrespected, micromanaged or constrained — then this article is for you. Read up.

Junior designers are not wanted.

There are not a lot of “junior UX designer” positions out there. Companies are looking for senior designers and it’s not because they don’t have mentorship capacity, or because they don’t have the resources to invest into growing talent. Quite the opposite — as retention issues become more and more prevalent, companies invest more than ever in their employees and their growth.

Junior designers aren’t wanted for one simple reason — while it’s easy to send somebody to a conference or cover their part-time tuition fees, we simply don’t have a way to grow employees' “soft” skills, like agility, growth mindset, ability to receive feedback, mental elasticity, to name a few. So, as a result, you get a designer who is junior in their mindset, not their skills.

Here I’m advocating for us to shift the way we look at seniority. It’s not about the years of experience or the brands on the resume. Seniority is about the mentality and this mentality is easy to spot. Here are some common threads I’ve noticed over the years that give away that junior mentality.

1. “Design isn’t the issue”

Imagine yourself in the following scenario. Your team just launched an experiment with a new redesigned page. You’re watching the metrics and it’s obvious that control is behaving better. Without increasing those metrics, you won’t be able to release the new version of the page. Without the new version you won’t be able to move on with the new design patterns, new products, new features, standardized design system… So what do you do?

Junior designers say something along these lines: “this new design is a lot better, so we should check if [insert some other potential reason] is the real culprit”, “users are probably getting used to this new design, and once they do, metrics will be ok”, “I know this design works because [company name] does something similar”.

In a nutshell, junior designers start defending their designs, they start justifying their original decisions, they start looking for other reasons for the failure.

First thing that senior designer is going to do is ask themselves what in the current design they should change to move the metrics. This senior designer is going to experiment further by reverting elements of this redesigned page to the control version. This senior designer is going to come up with a dozen of hypotheses as to why this brand new shining design isn’t working.

Do you see the difference? A senior designer doesn’t get attached to their work. This page they worked on for 2 months is finally live, they launched it, and they are just not surprised that it’s not performing as well. They are OK WITH IT. They are ok with it, because this particular design they put together is one of hundreds of potential solutions to a specific business problem. This takes me to my next point.

2. “I fight for the user”

Whoever came up with this phrase in the context of UX design must have done it a long time ago. Maybe back in 2010, when smartphones hadn’t taken over most of our lives just yet, we still had to educate business owners on importance of simplified and usable experiences. We’re almost a decade later and even my 9-year old niece knows about the importance of good user experience. We all do. So can we stop saying that we’re advocates for the users please — it’s a given in the world of design.

Design is a way to solve problems. The bigger the company the more expensive those problems will be. Senior designers understand that you don’t fight the business / product owners, you work with them. You help them figure out the problem they are trying to solve, help them get the answers to form hypotheses, help them slice their hypothesized solution into launcheable chunks so you can learn quickly if this idea is worth pursuing further. In this world of collaboration, there is no us vs them, there is just us — the team — working together to make business more successful. Some do it through business strategy and revenue models, some do it through interface design.

3. “I’m trying to prove that I’m right”

Besides managing product design team, I also run experimentation and research programs at Autotrader.ca, and have to deal with pretty much anybody who touches our multi-variant testing platform. This includes designers, product owners, developers, you name it. One of the early steps in launching the experiment is reviewing the test plan, which typically includes hypothesis, supporting data, the experiment itself, the metrics… In this step I typically have to do a bit of education on the whole empirical process… But one thing that I frequently notice is the mentality of a junior designer when they want to test something.

Junior designer wants to run an experiment to prove that their hypothesis is right. That they are right.

In contrast, senior designer experiments knowing that their hypothesis might be wrong. They approach testing in the interest of progress and moving forward, whether they’re right or wrong. A senior designer has multiple options in their head of what the next steps would be for each outcome. A senior designer doesn’t get upset at the negative results of the experiment, they say “This is interesting. We should try this other thing now”.

4. “I’m the designer, so I’m right”

The business I’m in is highly revenue-driven, so everything we do is data-based, researched, tested and launched in increments. We’ve got a TON of monthly sessions (I’m talking millions); because of the high usage, change in user experience can be highly impactful on the core metrics. Moreover, users frequently prefer uglier UI, less white space, crowded interfaces and higher contrasts. Senior designers understand that just because interface is uglier, it doesn’t mean it’s less functional; they know that functionality trumps aesthetics any day.

Junior designer tends to ignore data, blaming the users for being stupid or old, and thinking that their design choices are better because their job is to design, hence they know what’s best for the users.

5. “I’m the shit”

I’ve met a lot of really talented and recognized designers in the last decade. Some of them were creative directors, senior designers, agency owners, you name it. And if there is one thing that sets apart amateurs from professionals it’s their level of humility.

Designers that are humble tend to be a lot more secure about themselves and their work. The more secure they’re about their work, the less attached they get to their work. The less attached they are, the easier it is to give them feedback. That makes it easy to work with them. To collaborate with them. To move forward as a team, even if their proposed design ideas weren’t implemented.

6. “Feedback? I’m scared”

People ask me for feedback all the time. It’s the nature of my job as a director to provide feedback to my team. I also teach design and have a large network of aspiring designers who ask for feedback on their projects, portfolio, etc. I take this request seriously — in my mind, if somebody asks for feedback, they want to improve and are looking for someone to spot all the blind spots, stuff to improve, shit that’s just not working for the intended purpose.

But when it comes to dealing with junior designers, I’m always surprised at their emotional response. I usually ask them what exactly they need feedback on and tell them it’d take few days. Then, the inevitable comes. “Please take it easy on me!” or “FYI, this is just a draft” or “Sounds like you are going to give me some serious feedback!”.

So here is the plain reality: junior designers are afraid of performance-based feedback. They live in this judgement / emotion-based world of feedback. They‘re looking for a pat on the shoulder, “good boy!” type of feedback. For validation that their insecurities are not actually real.

Looking for a design job?

Do you recognize yourself in any of the above? If yes, then you’ve got some work to do. Personal growth is the most valuable trait in this industry at the moment, so your ability to honestly assess yourself, call it out, and work on it will come in handy throughout your career more than once.

Step two — expose yourself to projects that will push you. Challenge yourself to come up with multiple ideas. Look at each concept through the perspective of “what might go wrong”, not “this is my best design yet” lens.

Step three — learn how to listen. Do people take you seriously? Do product owners like working with you? If somebody is talking behind your back, would they call you “sensitive”? Do you find yourself defending your design choices? If the answer to any of these questions is yes — buddy, you’ve got some work to do.

Hiring? Screen for mentality

So my big advice to companies and fellow lead designers / managers / hiring partners — screen for mindset, soft skills, growth. Stop looking at the years of experience and their dribbble animations. I’ve met a few extraordinary designers with the right mindset, and quite a few of them were fresh out of design schools. Sure, these grads might have never launched a multi-million dollar product or worked on a feature for millions of users. They might not have had the experience of growing a design team or managing design systems for all the remote designers. But what they do have is the proper approach to their craft, the right mindset and ability to adapt. I’d hire one of those people in a heartbeat.

Some questions that you should be asking at an interview:

  • Have you ever made wrong design decisions?
  • Tell me about a conflict with a product owner and how you resolved it
  • What do you do when data doesn’t support your hypothesis
  • Why did you leave the previous company? (the way the person talks about their previous company can really show you how they’re going to talk about yours. No job is perfect, but it was a job and it gave you valuable experience, so it deserves the respect, no matter what happened at the end)
  • How do they talk about themselves and their work? Do they brag about who they worked with? The clients they had? Or do they talk about the nature of the projects and the complexity they were able to navigate?
  • Ask them to do a simple design task and give them constructive feedback. Watch how they respond (anything beyond “thank you, I appreciate it” should raise a flag).

Promoting to a senior title?

We, as a design industry, lack standards when it comes to titles. I’ll be first to admit that I benefited from this myself — I became a director at some point in my career at a tiny startup when I didn’t have the years or the experience to be called that. But that only happened after I proved myself — I worked 80–100 hours a week to get shit done, constantly listened to feedback from both stakeholders and the users, and truly dedicated myself to the product. But, most importantly, I had the growth mindset, the drive to take on multiple roles, and the humility to admit that I didn’t know something. That’s how I grew professionally in the last 10 years to where I am now. So when I look at promoting somebody to a senior role, I look for these specific traits.

My goal with this post is to start a conversation about what we, the design industry, value in people and to answer the bigger question of what UX design is really all about.

Feedback / comments / thoughts / concerns are always appreciated. Please don’t be shy — leave a comment and let’s keep this conversation going!

Karina Daukaeva

Design. Data. Culture.

Thanks to Lia Fadeeva

Karina Daukaeva

Written by

UX / UI / Product / E-commerce / MVT Testing / Culture transformation / Coaching. Currently UX Director at autoTrader.ca. Co-founder of Hyperminds.io.

Karina Daukaeva

My name is Karina Daukaeva, I specialize and write about three areas: design, data, culture. The common denominator is transformation; under my guidance businesses become user-centric, design teams transform to be data-driven, and the teams I lead evolve their underlying culture.

Karina Daukaeva

Written by

UX / UI / Product / E-commerce / MVT Testing / Culture transformation / Coaching. Currently UX Director at autoTrader.ca. Co-founder of Hyperminds.io.

Karina Daukaeva

My name is Karina Daukaeva, I specialize and write about three areas: design, data, culture. The common denominator is transformation; under my guidance businesses become user-centric, design teams transform to be data-driven, and the teams I lead evolve their underlying culture.

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