How to Find Your Path Beyond UX Designer

This post originally appeared on UXMas 2013. A big thank-you to UX Mastery for the opportunity, editing and letting me republish here.


If you were to ask a UXer how they landed in the UX field, you’re unlikely to hear the same story twice. There are many roads to user experience — visual design, library sciences, copywriting or development to name a few.

With UX Designer roles being just as varied as our backgrounds, what is the way forward for a UXer? What is the career path after UX Designer? How do you advance your UX career?

The path forward in UX is like the path to UX—everyones is different. Let’s look at some of the ways to help you find yours.

Explore your T-Shape

“No matter where you go, there you are.” — Buckaroo Banzai

To help understand where to go, you firstly need to know from where you are starting. Identifying your T-shape is your first step in the journey. “T-shaped” refers to a breadth of skills across disciplines along with areas of deep expertise—a “T”. Nick Finck’s presentation, UX Career Progression: Finding a Niche and Building a Brand is a good place to start.

Are you having difficulty with self-reflection or with being objective about your own skill-set? Ask co-workers, clients and colleagues, “What is my super power”? The answers may surprise you. They may also be outside the typical definition of UX skill-sets. It could be that your niche is in animation, service design or translating design thinking into other fields.

After evaluating your skills, decide whether it is the skill-set you want to have, or whether it’s something you want to get better at. Team up with others to build out the T in your UX career. If you find the desire to continue digging deeper, you may be naturally growing toward being a Subject Matter Expert (SME) and specializing even further.

Branch Out

“Not all those who wander are lost.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Do you have a perspective? Start sharing it—blog, tweet, e-mail or drop into a meet-up and join the conversation. If you think it’s a better idea to standardize credit card readers, or have an opinion on how SEO and UX can go hand in hand, put it out there.

Write to find your voice. Just like sketching hundreds of thumbnails gets the design ideas going, writing can help you to find your own personal pearls of wisdom. By engaging the UX community, you continue the dialog of learning and sharing knowledge in a dynamic industry.

If others value what you say or share, keep giving back. By contributing you will get back much more in the form of connections and opportunities to further your UX career. If you find yourself enjoying the platform, take the next step toward becoming a speaker, presenter or event organizer.

Find your Replacement

“The best way out is always through.” — Robert Frost

Make the next hire on the team your replacement. Immediately, you will advance your UX career path by learning, growing and getting out of the way. It’s scary, counter-intuitive and thrilling all at the same time.

This is not a personal exit strategy, but an exercise in scaling yourself. For most Lead or Senior UXers, it will allow you to shift your focus from inward to outward. Instead of being absorbed by internal process and self-learning tactical skills, you will be able to engage more strategically with stakeholders. Design will become more about steering the overall conversation and not pushing the pixels.

The thought of hiring your replacement will help answer whether you want to take the next step toward becoming a UX Manager. Taking managerial care of a team is like being a parent. The experience will teach you when to put their needs ahead of yours and when you need to role model by example.

Step Up To Mentor

“There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.” — Morpheus

The best way to learn is to teach. Help yourself and the UX career path of the next generation by mentoring. It doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement, but it does have to be an honest perspective. Real world insights are invaluable to the uninitiated.

Introducing a new mind to the world of UX will force (or reinforce) you to explain UX to non-UXers. A skill set worth its weight in gold if you hope work more closely with General Managers, Vice-Presidents and other business decision owners.

Mentoring will help you answer whether you want to take the next step toward Director. In a mentor relationship, you are leading and directing efforts of those looking to you for guidance on a project. Even if you haven’t done anything like it before, directing is learning to trust your team as you chart the next unknown client, platform or technology.

Start From Nothing

“Unless we change our direction, we will wind up where we are headed.” — Confucius

Do you have an idea for a product or service? Better yet, do you NOT have an idea for one? Put your T-shaped skills to the ultimate test by finding a need, providing value and solving a customer’s problem. In other words, build a business. This could be on the side, as a stealth project or an opportunity as an Intrapreneur.

Be on the hook for key performance metrics like traffic, conversions and funnel analysis. See what its really like from the other side of the Lean UX approach. Learn to employ all the tactics you wish your clients or business leaders in your organization would. (Personal favorite: Stop Doing List). Take yourself out of the UX role—uninstall your wireframing app, Photoshop and other weapons of choice.

Developing a product will allow you the opportunity to walk in the shoes of a Product Manager. Beyond having empathy for users, you will understand the owner. You will see how hard it is to get “simple” things done and develop an appreciation for other functions, roles and responsibilities. As Patrick Neeman of Usability Counts says: “Be your own Product Manager.” You’ll be better for it.

Further Along The Way

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” — Steve Jobs

Ultimately, you alone are responsible for growing your UX career. If you are looking for inspiration to get started, download our gift for the UXmas season — a one-page checklist of this article.

Only you can take the next steps on your UX path. Hopefully you’re a little further on your way after reading this.

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