I very literally stumbled into my first job out of grad school while walking around employer booths at a conference…I’d had a beer and it was the end of a long day of listening to speakers 🍺
At the time, it felt like a dream job – designing software for GIS professionals (I majored in Geography and Informatics).
For my next job, I wanted to move back home to Indianapolis, so I took the first real opportunity I could find, which turned out to be a great job as well.
Now I lead design at an agency…which is funny because I hated agencies when I was in-house, and I certainly never desired to start one. I only helped found one to be able to help more companies at a time.
In hindsight, I certainly benefited from being in good positions and never had to truly seek out new positions. But I did have criteria that — unbeknownst to me at the time — was helping me in my job search.
These days, I’m out of the rat race. I’m likely staying with my agency until the grave, but I often find myself helping other designers figure out how to find good opportunities. I’ve reflected a bit on my own experiences — and those of other happy designers — to figure out how designers can get better at finding great opportunities.
I’ve found the following to be key principles when finding jobs, influenced both by my own success, and as someone who has hired or advised on dozens of hires.
My hope is that this will help both junior and senior designers better approach their next job search.
But first, a few common myths:
“Startups and agencies have the most exciting work.”
The pace of both is unquestionable, but the actual work isn’t always the most exciting. You can get stuck doing superficial work or doing so many tasks, you’re never getting time to do great work. “Exciting” is a matter of perspective and it is not tied to fast-paced environments.
“Big corporations are boring and where careers go to die.”
Well, maybe this is true, but it’s also where great careers can be given life! Big corporations are home to successful people who can provide amazing mentorship. And later in your career, they can become places to put your decades of experience to good use. Personally, I can’t imagine going back but I also know that I wouldn’t mind applying all that I’ve learned to help make an impact at a large company.
“My ideal career path is to become a manager, then director.”
Thankfully I’m hearing this less from designers (except often I hear “strategist” in place of “manager”), but I think there’s a general misunderstanding of the available career paths for UX professionals (from designers to researchers).
Management is the track our parents and grandparents learned, so naturally we believe the same thing.
Before I get into some tactics for approaching your next job search, it’s useful to uncover some fairly unknown truths about design jobs. These may not be surprises to everyone, but certainly surprised me at some point in my career and I wish I’d known them earlier.
Most employers don’t know how to post roles
Here’s what often happens in hiring for UX:
- The company is using an in-house recruiter or an agency who doesn’t fully understand UX. This frustrates designers and causes them to think poorly of the company (but that’s an article for hiring managers). This is why it’s important to start a job searching process proactively because you ideally want to avoid this person. Nothing against UX recruiters, but they struggle in the field of UX, and you don’t want your chances hinging on someone who can’t fully translate how your talents will match their needs.
- The hiring manager wants volume so s/he casts a wide net with a generic posting that speaks to nobody, or everyone all at once. This makes it hard for designers to understand what the employer really wants.
- The hiring manager is new to UX him/herself. This is common in less mature tech markets or with non-tech companies who want to add this competency. This is unfortunate for those seeking a challenge because the role will probably be listed as something like “Web Designer” when what they actually want is a UX Designer who can help them create a better web presence.
Some of the best jobs never make it online
Ever wonder how great people always seem to find the best jobs? That’s because they know people, and get jobs before they ever make it online.
Great people working for great companies know that their connections and knowledge allow them to hire personally. And they know that the best roles are hard to quantify and distill into a clean job posting. Your goal (as you’ll read in a minute) is to increase your chances of finding these opportunities.
There isn’t one way to find good jobs
It’s not benefits, company size, location, industry, etc. It’s a combination of those. And everyone has different priorities which change over time.
Which brings us to…
What you love changes over time
Sometimes the reason you’re unhappy at a job might be less about the job and more about you. You may simply want something different than what you’re currently doing.
Now, if you still love your company but your desires change, then it’s worth looking for lateral moves internally first. Part of the reason I left my first job for my second is that I wanted more experience designing web apps (my first job was Windows XP-based software). That wasn’t an option, so I needed to find that elsewhere.
Or, your desires might be more fundamental. I know many designers who switch to product management, or vice-versa. Evolution is common, but being aware of it will help you understand what you should be looking for rather than focusing on what you think you should be doing.
People hire based on personal connections first
Glassdoor, LinkedIn, recruiters…employers would rather use connections first. I’ve been hiring for half a decade both for my own teams and for clients. You’d be amazed how expensive and time consuming this process is. No digital tool or curated network in the world can come close the effectiveness and efficiency of leveraging personal networks.
Salary is the least important factor to consider
If you’re reading this, you are likely well-educated and in one of the most high-growth, lucrative fields we’ve seen in all of human history. However, personal situations create different priorities. Salary can be extremely important for someone’s personal happiness. Instead, what I’m advocating is that salary alone is not a great indicator of how good a design job will be.
There are salaries that are too low — which indicate a lack of respect for design.
Or, there are salaries that are too high — which indicate you will be overworked (and likely traveling a lot).
Overall, salaries won’t help determine whether or not a job is any good; and that’s the whole point of this article.
I’ll start with a fundamental principle that should guide every UX professional’s career choices. Then, I’ll dive into a few tactics for achieving career happiness.
Don’t chase titles and salary, chase personal growth
The happiest and most successful designers will tell you they look for roles which will challenge them. After over a decade in the field, I fully believe in the adage, “Do what you love and the money will follow.”
I got anxious watching my peers pass me up in salary after graduating.
I watched nervously as peer after peer started making six figures while my salary had barely moved (starting my career during a recession didn’t help). But every time I got worried, I remembered how much I liked my current job and focused on what was left to learn.
When I was leaving that first job, I was preparing for every scenario when breaking the news to my manager. I remember asking my father, “What if they do something crazy like double my salary to keep me there?” And he replied, “Well, is money the reason you want to leave?” And I replied with “no” and listed a dozen reasons why I was leaving. He replied with:
“If you threaten to leave your job but stay for more money, then, well…you work for the money.”
That advice stuck with me and guided my decision at my next job.
But this time, I wasn’t happy, and I almost quit. But rather than demand a higher salary, I wrote down the five things I wanted to change about my job. My manager made every change and the next two years were fantastic.
I know looking back at that situation that I could have made salary demands, but I knew that wasn’t even a reason I wanted to leave. Instead, I got my top-5 problems fixed, and my salary was more than corrected a couple years later.
Salary is important, no doubt. And it’s something you need to negotiate and advocate for in the interview process. But over time, everyone gets paid what they deserve. And if you spend your career worried about salary and making career decisions based on it, then over time, you won’t deserve a high salary. Instead, focus on growth and positions that challenge you; money will follow.
Establish your personal value system
Finding great jobs starts with understanding what you want and creating criteria that will help you filter opportunities. This will become your system and guide your job search going forward. It will also help you stay focused on yourself rather than looking sideways at what makes other people happy.
If someone talks excitedly about the dozens of projects they’re on, don’t feel bad if you enjoy long, in-depth projects. If someone’s bragging about their salary, don’t feel pressure if salary isn’t in your top-5 priorities.
A great start to a system will leverage these qualities:
- Size: Large companies can provide more mentors, access to more functional areas, and offer a glimpse into how a successful company operates. Small companies give you more opportunities to do things outside your competency, and give you closer relationships to the market (through sales, marketing, and leadership). Decide what qualities resonate with you and use that to give you focus on what to search for.
- Benefits: Salary, family leave, insurance, time off, 401k matching, etc. At different points in your life, these will fluctuate in importance. Family leave and insurance didn’t matter to me in my mid-20’s. Today, they’re both vital. There’s absolutely nothing wrong using these types of things to guide your decision, because job happiness is partly tied to how well it handles the “outside stuff” so you can better enjoy your day job.
- Location: As much as I rail on people who blindly flee for the coasts, I get it (and I did it myself). What I want to dispel of here is the notion that those are the only good markets for UX. And furthermore, if you want to go to a big market, do it with eyes wide open. Again, there is not one best location. Different markets have different qualities, and provide different opportunities. For example, I believe my career has fared much better because I moved to Indianapolis, IN. However, I don’t know if I’d be on this trajectory had I not spent time learning in the Bay Area.
- Culture: This is about the type of culture. People often talk about having “great culture” but that doesn’t really make sense. Culture exists whether we like it or not, and culture can’t inherently be “great.” Culture is what it is. What’s important is how it fits with your values.
- Industry: My first job was a dream because it intersected between my talents (UX design) and my passion (geography). For others, you might be passionate about health care or robotics. And then for the rest of you, industry might not matter so much as simply getting new and interesting design challenges (that’s where I am today).
Identify business models that interest you
All UX jobs are not the same.
Professionals will get frustrated when a gap exists between what they think should be doing and what the business thinks they should be doing. For example, if you’re a designer working for eCommerce, it’s likely many design decisions will have to have metrics tied to them.
On the other hand, if you are working for a design agency, you won’t [always] get to advise a client on business strategy. These are mismatches in business model.
Here’s a basic framework I use to help designers classify businesses and how they might affect your role:
- E-Commerce and Web (ex: shopping sites or social networking): Your work will be metrics and usability-driven. Work will often be iterative with a focus on information architecture and user observations. Pro: Demonstrable impact on business value. Con: Design will be second fiddle to marketing. The best design doesn’t always win.
- Digital Product (ex: B2B SaaS, consumer apps): Here, the digital product is sold through one-time fees or subscription. Your work will be tied directly to the product’s success, but it won’t be as easy to measure (too many factors to consider in market success). Pro: More strategic opportunity. Con: UX roles can get silo’d from other roles as teams grow in size.
- Physical Product (ex: appliances, smart products): In these companies, money is made by selling physical products. Pro: Get to work with cutting edge technology and other types of designers. Con: UX will be subservient to industrial designers and hardware engineers.
- Service (ex: insurance company, service/utility providers): In these companies, money is made through providing stellar service. Digital or physical products may be a part of that, but ultimately the company makes its money based on a service, and may often give digital products away for free (I don’t pay extra to use my health insurance portal). Pro: Research and customer interaction is highly valued. Con: Design isn’t the primary revenue driver, and strategic decisions will come from other departments.
Search for jobs regularly
Change what it means to “job search.” In short, your job search should not start when you’re ready to leave. By that time, you have drastically reduced the available options and will make decisions that will compromise your criteria. Instead, stay ahead and Always Be Looking.
I apply this to hiring as well — I have my next hires in mind months (or years) before the need arises. This doesn’t mean I hire any faster. For jobs, you should always be looking at what’s out there so you have your next move ready. This doesn’t mean you’re leaving any faster, it just means you’re ready.
Use LinkedIn and Crunchbase to scout opportunities
This wouldn’t be a very helpful article if I just told you to search on Glassdoor or Indeed. Those are great tools when you haven’t done pre-planning :)
Instead, now that you have your own criteria defined, and have narrowed your focus on a particular business model, you can start scouting. Use tools that help you find great companies, and to find great people.
- Crunchbase: This gives you a lot of filters to search for companies by (based on criteria covered above). If you like startups, or like a city, then start looking for companies here.
- LinkedIn: Start finding contacts. As I mentioned earlier, recruiters often aren’t great in a fairly young and oft-changing field like UX. By using LinkedIn, you can start finding the practitioners or leaders in companies you admire and reaching out to them directly. You may still work through HR if/when a job comes available, but you’ll be much better off if the ultimate hiring manager knows who you are.
Using these tools won’t give your dream job but they will…
- …help you find great companies that fit your criteria. You can then follow companies to better understand what they do and be ready when an opportunity arises.
2. …help introduce you to people way before they need a hire. Remember earlier when I mentioned how much easier and cheaper it is to hire through personal networks? That’s the goal here. Increase the number of personal networks you become a part of, and you’ll increase the number great jobs that come your way.
Keep your portfolio updated
I have already written extensively on creating good portfolios. I highly recommend reading that if this is a gap for you. But in an Always Be Looking world, you need to be ready. I have passed great opportunities to designers many times and I’ll often hear, “Give me a few weeks to get my portfolio updated.” That dream job might be gone by then.