Evaluating UX jobs at Agencies vs Startups vs Big Companies
Searching for your first UX job is a big deal. If it’s going to be something that consumes at least 8 hours of your day, every day, for the next X months years, you better know what you want, and what you’re going for.
In your job search, you’ll come across an extremely diverse set of companies looking for UX talent — but most of them can be classified into 3: agencies, startups and corporate companies.
DISCLAIMER: Before I start, let me just say that I will be making generalizations (albeit informed ones). Every job and every company is different, and that’ll be made known when you read job descriptions or talk to employees of each company.
What that said, in this article I’ll provide generalizations about each UX job type with these 6 criteria:
- Skill Specialization
- Variety of Projects
- Pay & Benefits
- Work-life balance.
Now I’ll break into each company type and explain why I provided those scores.
Working in UX at Agencies
A typical agency business model: land contracts with clients, then assign or hire the right talent to complete those contracts. Sometimes referred to as a mercenary model: you are a hired gun who’s assigned to get the job(s) done and make clients happy.
Skill Specialization: Low — Mid
Client needs dictate the skills required for each project. Most UX jobs at agencies require low skill specialization, meaning strong UX generalists with some specialities (“T-shaped”).
Mid: some agencies may hire highly specialized roles depending on the clients/industries served; for example, one that deals with clients in the editorial space (Los Angeles Times, Wired.com) will do well to hire a Content Strategist.
Variety of Projects: High
Probably the biggest strength of working at an agency, especially as a UXB, is the variety of projects you get to work on. This is great for getting experience in different industries and exposing yourself to a variety of UX design challenges, more so than you’d typically face in a one-product company or startup.
Remember to research the types of companies that an agency serves. Some agencies are very specialized. Example: If you have no interest whatsoever in the auto industry and your agency is known for working with the big car brands, don’t complain if you get tasked on a long-term car account.
Besides that, working in most agencies give you the luxury of knowing there’s an end. Biomedical accounts not your thing? Delivery to client is in 3 weeks. Love that consumer app you’ve been designing for? That’ll come to an end too.
Bureaucracy: Low — Mid
Note: I place big consultancies like Accenture in the category of corporate companies instead of agencies.
Many digital agencies enjoy flat hierarchies and low amounts of red tape, with a “whatever gets the job done” attitude. However, this needs to be balanced by good management and utilization of work; I’d rather have a little more bureaucracy than deal with many last-minute headaches that stem from improper planning.
A small but important point: it’ll affect your daily life if billable hours is not streamlined well. No one likes to finish a hard day’s work with manual entry of what you did and how many hours you spent on each task (ugh). This goes especially for contract/freelance positions.
Pay & Benefits: Mid
It’s a mix. Some agencies are willing to invest top dollars in their UX talent & pipeline, whereas others are still figuring out exactly what to do with UXers. It depends on each role too — if UXers are client facing and can wear the hat of project/product manager, then the salary should reflect that rise in responsibility.
Stability: Low — Mid
People come and go all the time at agencies. This is partly due the tendency of agencies to hire a lot of contract & freelance talent on an as-needed basis. This totally makes sense in a mercenary model.
If an agency loses a big client, then expect downsizing.
(Side note: according to some statistics, 40% of America’s workforce will be freelancers by 2020.)
Work-Life Balance: Low — Mid
Work-life balance depends on how well clients & projects are managed at an agency. If a client is unhappy and ask for last minute changes, expect late nights and rush jobs. Kudos to agencies that intelligently manage their clients & workflow and provide employees a decent work-life balance.
Working in UX at Startups
Note: this is specifically about small, early stage startups that don’t have lots of funding (read: most startups). Mature-stage startups like AirBnB and Dropbox fall in the same category as Corporate companies in this article.
Skill Specialization: Low
I’ve mentioned this before, but the size and speed at which startups need to operate require people who can wear many hats. UX Designers at startups are likely to be expected to do UX Design + Visual Design + Front-end code. Most startups don’t have the willingness (yet) to spend on someone who’s very specialized — they’re focused on shipping their product out there at a quick — if not desperate — cadence.
Variety of Projects: Low
Working on the startup often means working on one product — 90% of the time the startup is the product. The neat thing is that UX designers at startups are often involved in deciding product features and work on ideas from conception to (hopefully) completion. Also, product pivots and new product development can add variety to your work life.
But don’t join a startup unless you believe in its mission and the problem it’s trying to solve, or else spending every day doing UX work on a product you feel nothing for will suck your soul.
On the other hand, projects in larger companies that might be relegated to graphic & marketing designers may be placed on you, for better or worse. Doing UX work for a startup means not only making the core app work well, but also includes the website & marketing materials — that’s all part of the user experience.
There’s no time or room at most small startups to have layers of bureaucracy — if there is, avoid at all costs. You’d be developing core feature sets alongside executives (if not the CEO) and making big design decisions pretty autonomously.
Pay & Benefits: Low — Mid
Small startups won’t necessarily make it rain on you, but the upside for early-stage businesses is the amount of equity and recognition you may receive for contributing to a successful product. That’s why it’s critical to believe in the startup you’re working for.
Must be hard for those who leave their startup — and the equity — only to have the startup IPO 7 months later. Then again, you don’t want to stick around just for an IPO that’ll never happen.
The hard statistic is that most startups fail. That makes startups score lowest on job stability compared to agencies and bigger corporations.
Again, it’s all about mission and purpose. If you feel like you have a shot at changing the world with a startup that has 50% chance of failing, it may still be worth it compared to working at a big, stable company that you feel no affinity for.
Work-Life Balance: Low — Mid
I get the general feeling talking to those working in startups that work is life. Your life will revolve around product launches and revisions. You may literally own the entire UX of a product and that added responsibility translates to time & energy at the office.
This isn’t necessarily bad. Often times the closest bonds can be built working in a small team trying to change the world, and perhaps you won’t mind burning the midnight oil weeks on end until launch day with who you consider amazing, talented and fun people.
Just don’t date your cute coworker, ’cause there’s only 10 of you in the company.
Working in UX at (Big) Corporations
This is specifically speaking to large, mature companies with a UX practice and recognize the value of user experience. Some examples include Yahoo, Microsoft, IBM and Salesforce.
There are many large corporations that are just getting wind that user experience is important and have only a staff of 2 — we’re not talking about these type of companies here, though you may very well end up interviewing with one.
Skill Specialization: High
Bigger companies = bigger budgets = bigger teams = more specialization. If you’re an expert in one area or really just want to own one part of the design process (e.g. visual design), then big companies are probably looking for specialists like you. With bigger budgets also means working alongside some of the top specialists in the field of user experience, from user researchers to information architects to usability analysts.
Variety of Projects: Low
UX professionals at big corporations are likely to own one major product and focus on that for the majority of their time there. For example, my friends who works at Sony owns major parts of the experience for Playstation Now, but is unlikely to be tasked on anything outside of that (albeit big) product.
Emails. Meetings. Multiple levels of management and communication. It’s tough to run a big company without experiencing increased levels of bureaucracy. A fellow UX designer working at a big company commented, “The wireframing/design part is actually easy…I spend the majority of my time trying to get other people to do stuff / move the project forward.”
I personally was shocked (in a good way) when I first started working at my agency by this: on some mornings, I opened up my Outlook and saw 0 new emails. If this happened at my last corporate job, that meant my internet connection was down.
Pay & Benefits: High
Let’s put it this way — big companies are more prone to provide 401ks (and even match them), give out annual / semi-annual bonuses, and might even shut down for a week and a half during holidays in addition to vacation time. There are also nice perks like getting education reimbursements, and all of healthcare costs should be covered.
On the flip side, starting salaries might be higher, but annual salary increases might be less than expected. Same goes for salary jumps; because of set budget levels, big companies will really have to justify paying one person much higher (or lower) than others with the same job title.
Large corporations — especially public ones listed on the stock market — are likely to stay around for a while and invest heavily in their workforce. It can be much to fire someone at a big company (increased sensitivity to HR and legal issues) than at smaller companies.
Work-Life Balance: High
Not at all saying that people who work at big companies are not stressed, but relative to agencies with client demands and startups forced to be scrappy, big companies experience more predictable, cyclical periods of work. They also typically stick to a 9–6 work schedule.
There are exceptions to each and every one of the above points… Do me a favor and click on this survey below to share your experience.
If you’ve ever worked in UX at an agency, startup or big corporation, fill out how each of the criteria ranks in your experience (e.g. pay & benefits high at a startup? low bureaucracy at a corporation?)
If you’re feeling generous, you may return to the survey and fill out responses for each agency, startup, and corporate experience you’ve had.