Metric, Episode 68 — Fully transcribed | How do you get the experience you need — or want — to take that next step in your UX career? Our heroes’ existential crisis.
How do you get the experience you need — or want — to take that next step in your career? In this episode of Metric: the User Experience Podcast, Michael Schofield and Tim Broadwater try to define how they want to evolve their career — and how one goes about getting that experience if it’s not an obvious step-up from the current job.
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A note about this transcription: if you transcribe a conversation with your friend, you find that you all sound ridiculous. This transcript has been edited and “illuminated” with subject headings to make it a better piece of written content. Hope you enjoy! —your pal❤, Michael.
Tim This is Metric: the UX Podcast with Tim Broadwater — (ed., Michael Schofield cuts-in:) and Michael! — and we’re going to pickup right where we left off last time. I just think of it like a person sitting next to a fire with a big book, and they’re like, “let’s find that bookmark.”
Michael If we ever get a substantial amount of subscribers and we can do it right, we should convene periodically in person to do a fireside chat.
Tim It’d be more like a dumpster fireside chat.
Where we left off last episode: how a UXer gets experience to take that next step if their situation doesn’t currently offer it.
“D” for Design
— and we think it’s kind of tired.
“Design” is an insufficient descriptor for the jobs we want
I think what you were just talking about [before we started recording] is what you want to do in your job. What’s the role you want to fill. That’s where I said that I used to want to be called a “UX developer,” but I kind of want now to be a “UX product manager.”
Michael Well, as you know I like this definitional game. Like, I understand that it’s nit picking over how one defines — say — “user experience” and how one defines “service design.” I get it. I still think it’s fun and I think it’s useful.
I myself have been struggling conceptualizing product design and product management versus service design and whatever the corresponding role for service design is and, … — yeah, so this just devolves into silly titles.
Tim I hate the D word, which you just said four times. “Design.”
Tim Well, where I’m at in the greater Pittsburgh area, where we’re kind of close to D.C., the beltway, Columbus, Cleveland, Maryland …, the perception of UX here is design-based.
Most of the job descriptions when you look for a user experience person or a professional, they are in fact a UI designer with some UX kind of sprinkled on top. It’s like, “we’d like to have some user research, too, but we don’t expect to do that on the daily, for that to be the meat potatoes of the job.”
It’s not UX without research. — A Metric maxim.
So for years I liked “UX developer:” I am prototyping something, putting it in front of a user, getting testing and having that research — someone that’s actually building a product and bringing it to market.
“Design” to me just seems kind of like, “what’s the style guide we’re going to wrap around it,” or “what’s the coat of paint or font we’re using?”
Michael I don’t disagree. I think it’s along the same lines where I think the phrase “design thinking” is getting a little tired — [Tim:] yep — it’s bordering on meaningless, I suppose.
Down here in South Florida the landscape is the same. We have boot camps that are graduating UX / UI designers, which is how they’re coached to bill themselves on LinkedIn.
I’ve been privileged to go to some of their portfolio nights and help coach them, but it’s one of those things where you see really quite of a spectrum between the user experience research and then the user interface design and the aesthetic look and feel — definitely leaning more toward the latter.
Tim For years in every seminar I went to, and in every kind of certification class I went to, there’s a “UX designer” and there’s a “UX researcher” and never do the two meet.
But there’s actually a “UX developer” they’re not seeing at all.
What ideally is the next career step?
If you could write your job description and you could do anything that you want to do. How do you determine what that is?
I’m pretty sick at this point of doing web design. I’m pretty sick of CSS and I have no desire to do “design” anymore. I mean, I can focus on pixel perfect nudging, and colors, and style tiles, and fonts, and how we are gonna make this all looking pretty — I just don’t care anymore. My focus is much more on the content strategy meeting the requirements, and can the user use this interface, and how we find that out.
I think you’re very much like a unicorn — like I am, I would say — but there are definitely certain things under the umbrella of the unicorn of skills that I just don’t have any interest in doing.
Michael No, I’m with you. One of the reasons I jumped on the service design bandwagon — when in practice on the surface the differences between service design and user experience design are semantic — but one of the things that I think the semantic difference is valuable for is conceptualizing scope.
How to talk about Service Design and User Experience Design in the Same Sentence
Service design is the practice and the user experience is its metric.
Like you, I recognize right now that my marketable skill — how about this: my easier to market skill — is as a developer. I increasingly lose interest in what I would think we might call the implementation layer of a strategy. Like, I am not so much interested anymore in doing or implementing the feature whether that’s designing it or building it with the code or seeing it to fruition if it’s not a code based service, but I prefer to be at that more abstract level — higher.
I like to — like you said — determine what is the right direction to go in. How can we prove that? How can we prove or demonstrate that what we are doing now works? How can we prove that it doesn’t?
And so that kind of macroscopic analysis is what really appeals to me. So definitionally I find a gravitate more toward “service designer,” because what I am — for lack of a better word — interested in “designing” is this larger holistic service regardless of the channel it appears on whether it’s a web thing or not. I don’t care.
Tim There’s a great article that’s on that here recently on UXPin: product manager and UX designer: what’s the difference?
I’m on my fourth software team as a UX person. One team was building a content management system and a learning management system. Another one was working on kind of a library with third party apps and integrations and building our own custom apps which are open source. One was eCommerce. Now, it’s different type of single page progressive web applications or things of that nature for various kinds of healthcare or government or whatever.
I guess what I’ve come to notice working on these specific software teams is as a UXer I sometimes catch myself thinking, what is this BA doing? This business analyst is writing all of these epics wrong, or they’re looking at a business process or system but they’re leaving out the human side.
A lot of times there’s a product manager and a product owner, and one is kind of focused specifically on interfacing more with the devs, what’s in the sprint, and what are we prioritizing feature-wise, where the other one’s more interfacing with the stakeholder or client.
I sometimes find myself thinking I’m literally doing the product manager’s job in my job. I’m ingesting the requirements, how would this live in the UI, and how can we test this, and then testing it with actual users, and [realizing] oh wait we need to completely change this because our perception of this and the epic tied to it is different.
So I just see myself going away from what I used to consider myself as a UX developer with research more into a UX product manager or UX business analyst. And so that’s kind of where I want to grow right now.
I’m trying to figure out how to fill out that gap which I don’t have that knowledge or experience with and recognizing that it’s not always the same.
How do you get the training or knowledge or skillset to get in the field that you kind of want.
What about you? It sounds like you’re wanting to maybe do UX product management, or get away from being a UX developer, or what are you ….
Michael I’ve been thinking a lot of about what organizational structure for systematic user experience and practice I like best. Let’s agree on the premise that good user experience is good business. A goal should be that we can embed this kind of a user centric ethic throughout the company. Let’s say that we get there where everybody generally agrees that we’re user first we really care about our feedback not just because like we care about our users as people but we understand to some level their holistic experience translates to the other success metrics that we care about. Given a semi idealistic world like that opens up I think new organizational challenges with … — you no longer require specific user experience people or specific user experience teams to champion and to prove and to demonstrate the value between UX and whatnot because that ethic is distributed among teams. What then is the next step?
Tim Nielsen Norman Group talks about this a lot. Hypothetically, once the user experience is disseminated amongst all of the people that are on the various teams. [The question is] is there a UXer anymore?
Michael Right. I think Nielsen Norman group has a great video on that too. So this comes around to your questions about what kind career am I trying to design for myself? I want to be concerned with the strategy, utility, design, usefulness of the service that connects all the products. I’m not a hundred percent what that looks like — .
Tim What do you think that’s called?
Michael I’m glad you asked because I’ve — .
Tim A director? Is that a director?
Michael A “director of service design.” That is the title that I’m pitching in this little Dropbox paper. For other reasons, I don’t think I’m gonna get there, but that’s sort of what has become my dream job where my goal isn’t to say, hey, does this product work and fulfill its reason for being. My goal and my job would be to essentially identify the evolving landscape of the jobs to be done and determine through user research and systems of design how well we are currently and how well we can in the future solve those problems. That’s my thinking.
Imagining experience design leadership. Is it necessary — or even useful — to have “experience” represented in the C-Suite?
Tim Is this like a CXO, a chief experience officer or is it more like a UX director?
Michael I called it a director of service design because — clearly I think too much about this — but I have another supposition that I think at a certain level it is no longer useful to the company to have like a certain super high management level of user experience unless the company is sufficiently big.
Tim Well you said it right there. Actually what I was going to say is like “I completely disagree with you,” but it’s based on the size of the company.
I’ve worked at giant companies that didn’t have someone at that high level and it’s sucked. But I’ve also worked at companies to where there was someone at that high level who was chartered as a chief experience officer and everything was segmented and the process was followed.
So a UI team was different than UX team. The UX team was basically a research team and introduced some mockups, but they would always be low fidelity — no-style mockups. Now you do get into some places where there is obviously your UXer who likes design and they’re maybe stepping on designs’ toes, or there’s a UXer who likes dev and they try to build their prototypes in code and that steps on those toes. So it kind of sucks for those people when you have everything segmented out and compartmentalized. So that’s a problem. But if you think of it as arranged around products though, and having a CX person, and your product team has like at least some design and dev, some research and business knowledge, content strategy on the team, it doesn’t matter who does it but that those bases are covered and you have representation at the C-Suite level. That’s fantastic.
Michael It’s a matter of scale. There are companies of scale that fulfill multiple services. So you could see a whole bunch of like these, um, “directors of service blah” positions. You have a bunch of services under which are even more products. And I think when you have one or more of those service layers it makes a lot more sense to consolidate some sort of VP or CXO role above that.
Tim Smaller than that being a matrix totally works. I’m just assuming this I do not know this knowledge in anyway whatsoever but if I think of like Adobe Creative Cloud I’m assuming that each product — Photoshop, Illustrator, Audition, Premiere — has a PM and a PO and they probably have a lead dev and they probably have an architecture person and they probably have a business analyst and everything.
Above all of the Creative Cloud’s product managers there is a director of product management probably and there’s a director of development and a director of architecture and engineering. Just like you say it kind of depends on your structure like how many products do you have, and how many services do you have, and how many layers there are.
How do you get experience enough to take that next career step when it’s not a substantial part of your current work?
I guess in my heart of hearts I imagine myself as just like a UX Care Bear. I just want to do good in the world. I just want to help people that help the world.
I work in tandem a lot in my current job with product management. So we partner very closely. We do a lot of the same jobs that kind of overlaps each other. But then there are definite differences when it comes to wireframe or making final-cut decisions based on business interests and deadlines and things. I would never be able to actually get product manager experience at my current job.
One of the things I briefly mentioned at the end of last episode is if you want UX experience — or you want design experience, or developer experience — one of the best ways to do that is teach yourself by volunteering.
There’s Guide Star which is the nonprofit search engine. You can look at nonprofits around you who would totally need help. They would need help with design, or user experience research, or marketing research, or more product management, or development. And so I’ve been itching that scratch by doing that, and that’s actually been very fulfilling.
Michael Do you do you ever feel like you run on a bandwidth though because that’s the site and that’s it this is kind of like two jobs or like a job and half.
Tim I have 20 balls in the air all the time and I enjoy that. But that works for me. I think my schedule would drive most people crazy.
Passion certainly helps
Michael Years ago when I was hunting around for UX podcasts, there was a 12 episode long podcast that I stumbled across where I think it was an undergraduate user experience or human computer interaction student and he was interviewing Luke Wroblewski, who fascinates me ….
Tim The UXer for Google, yeah.
Michae Now, yeah. Well before that it was like Polar, which I love that little app. And I think he was at Yahoo as well.
Anyway, this student was interviewing Luke Wroblewski and he’s like, “How do you get so good at all this stuff? How do you think of all of this? Where do you get this experience?”
And Luke’s like (wildly paraphrasing here), “you have to do it for your job and then you have to do it for fun after your job. And then when you wake up in the middle of night and can’t sleep, that’s what you read for fun.” And it was this ethic that to get great, you have to sort of like live and breathe this, and you have to hustle beyond the 9 to 5.
Tim I would agree. I don’t think you have to sleep upside down and drink blood or do anything like crazy like that.
Michael UX unicorn, UX vampire morelike.
Tim I’m just jazzed about the field enough to where I can juggle those different balls and they all just happen to be really related to my career.
Michael I totally think that’s it. Like you if you love the work your job becomes your hobby. You know that can be dangerous in terms of work life balance.
Tim It’s not sustainable forever. Like I’m almost 42 and I’m just like I can’t do this as much as I did in my thirties.
Michael Yeah. I think the ultimate question is like if you don’t have the bandwidth, let’s say you have the full family and you have all these whatevers, how then do you pivot into a different role?
Tim With very limited bandwidth, I would say that that’s where you kind of need to know … — you need to be strategic about your time and be honest with yourself and focus where you have to. Don’t bullshit yourself.
You may figure out like I have three hours a week I can spare, that is it. Well then, what is the thing that you want to focus on the most? Is getting a certification important for you? Or is it like you want to start blogging about your experiences, because maybe you’re your goal is to get your writing out there and do more speaking.
My answer to you I guess in regards to any person who would ask that is like be honest with yourself and be strategic about your time and make sure that pays off in some way that’s going to benefit your portfolio, your resume, or something of that nature.
Choose employers — if you can — who encourage you to step outside your job description.
Michael There’s an aspect to this that implies a certain amount of privilege of choice, but being choosy about your employer as much as you can, and consistently looking for like the right job when you know you’re not in it.
Like, [at my current position], they encourage me to feel my way. They let me draft my own job description and I got to put “user experience” and make user experience part of that. When before, I didn’t, I was just “developer.” So, I was able to kind of get into a position where I get to have the hardcore strategic experience and vision-making experience that I need while also doing this developer role that my resumé largely markets me as.
So that my next career, like my next step wherever it is, I now have something to stand on and I can pivot. So if you’re able find those companies and be choosy when you’re on the job hunt to find a place that allows for that sort of flexibility and encourages that kind of experimentation, that goes a long way because you know you get to kill two birds with one stone and you don’t have to do the side hustle to kind of build out this experience.
Tim I know we always get into this but I think that’s actually like a whole conversation unto itself. The interviewing process. What are the red flags? Like oh shit this is definitely not going to be good or I don’t want to be at this place because of X Y and Z.
Michael We have to talk about this next week. This is a great topic.
Tim Starting out you’re just like I just want the experience. But then you just open the can of worms. There’s a lot of places that have horrible UX practices, you’re the one UXer on a team or it’s like it’s not really UX you’re just doing UI or they wanted a UX / UI developer all in one and there’s no way. And so yeah that’s a talk unto itself. I don’t know if that’s just like red flags or if that’s just like the questions that ask in an interview to kind of get the knowledge you want. I don’t know.
Michael Shopping for that user experience job is as tricky when user experience is defined differently by every single job description that’s out there as well. And like you don’t know what to look for and you can’t anticipate if you’re coming out of one of these bootcamp certification programs first without having prior experience. You don’t know that well UX at job A is wildly different from UX at job B, and how do you know what kind of job you want?
I think there’s also like that skill set about having the wherewithal to remember that as you are interviewing and they’re making value judgments about you, you are also interviewing them for the right fit.
Granted this is all privilege, right? When you need the job or whatever you tend to do what you gotta do. So, I was fortunate to be able to take a little bit of a pay cut to essentially enter a much more ideal field. It was the cost of the pivot, but also you know it has returned many fold. I’m in a much better headspace, I’m professionally fulfilled.
Accept you won’t find the perfect job, but also that job isn’t a life sentence.
Tim The other thing is it’s like a lot of people I don’t believe the whole American Dream bullshit, which is if you can just find out what it is you love to do and just do that and kind of write money on it, just like it’s like the whole Hope Floats thing.
It’s like you kill your dream because — let’s say — I like this as a quick metaphor: I like carving wood. It’s the one thing I love to do. I do it all day long. It makes me happy. It brings me joy. Well you know you can sell that and start doing it and then it becomes a job and then it becomes something that’s a task that you have to do and you don’t enjoy it anymore. And then the thing that you love, you turn into the thing you hate.
So if you’ve not seen the movie Hope Floats, that’s literally the whole premise.
Michael Featuring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr.?
Tim Yes exactly!
Michael I’m not sure why, I’m well acquainted with the Sandra Bullock movies.
Tim The thing that’s the point in that movie that Sandra Bullock experiences, and a lot of thirsty UXers who are trying to get jobs are trying to get that experience. There is this thing where they have to be, like, well what can you stand to do? No job is perfect. So what can you stand to do, and can you at least stand to do this while you build your skills knowing that’s a stepping stone to go somewhere else? You can interview and have like all these red flags and you’ll never find the perfect job, but can you stand to do this to get into e-commerce? Can you stand to do this to get to be a senior?
Michael You imply this vision that I think people need to embrace early in their career. You know I wish I had. This notion that seems obvious but you don’t really think about it when you’re hunting for jobs is like when you’re hunting for a job, ask whether this helps you get to that job after that. Like this notion that we’re long term career bound to a single employer is no longer true, especially in our industry. Does this job fulfill your professional needs in your goals and your lively needs for the next two years? Does it help you take the next step? Does it help you take a step closer to what you want to be doing?
Tim Well let’s talk about this next time!
Michael You can follow us on Twitter @metricpodcast and at metricpodcast.com. Tim is @uxbear. I am @schoeyfield if you can suss out how that’s spelled.
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Tim Oh my god, that’s so bad.
Michael And cut.