I was asked to just say a few words about user-experience-oriented career paths at a really great new event called UX Hustle in Atlanta — and thought I’d share them here as well (or, at least, a loose approximation of my actual comments).
We’re All Peculiar In Our Own Way
First, everyone’s path is different. Especially in this field, which is really a mishmash of various fields and domains.
My own path didn’t start in a design program or technology background — I came out of the humanities, academically. But I had an obsession with the Internet and how to make places in cyberspace. Turned out there wasn’t a market for what I’d studied to be (humanities academic & writer), so my Internet preoccupation turned into a career.
There really were few established roles and skill sets as the Web blew up in the mid 90s, so being hired as a technical writer and later as an ‘Internet copywriter’ was how I got in the door. But I immediately started pushing the boundaries of those roles, because I was impatient with thinking about the medium of the Internet as if it were digital print. As a result, I discovered the Information Architecture community, got involved, and ended up moving into a strategy and architecture focus, very early in my career (although I was already in my early 30s).
The UX Universe is evolving quickly, and opening new paths
On one hand it’s true that getting started from left field back in the mid 90s is very different from trying to get started or grow your career in these fields today — it can seem as if all the roles and skills are all figured out, and there’s not much room to cut your own path.
However, I suspect that’s a misapprehension of our moment. I honestly believe we’re in there midst of a transformative, rapidly-evolving time, just as much as we were back in the late 90s.
Even though “UX” as a “thing” has been around for quite a while now, it’s still very new, and it’s shape-shifting rapidly to meet the ever-changing needs of the marketplace.
I think in 10 years we’ll look back on this period much as we now look back to the early days of the Web (and the explosion of interactive complexity and social platforms of “Web 2.0”).
While it’s never going away and will continue to grow, the weight toward “designing for screens” is going to feel a lot like “designing for print and broadcast” feels today. Why? Because the technology is changing the locus of emphasis to designing for whole environments, ecosystems, and bodies in physical space. Our entire human environment is changing to become the digitally enabled “interface” to everything in our lives.
The roles, skills, tools, and methods for doing that work are still very new and not widely taught and understood — much like creating websites was back in the 90s.
Go deep on understanding Humans
So, what I recommend to folks growing their careers in UX-related fields is: go deep on understanding humans. Their behaviors, brains, bodies, families, cultures, organizations. Go deep on understanding how they interact with their environments in general, not just phones/tablets/computers. We’re well past that now. In fact, the only way to really advance “screen design” these days is to reposition it as a subset of the full human environment, which has become exponentially more complex basically overnight.
Technologies and gadgets will come and go, but human bodies & brains change very slowly. And the human being is the most complex system in any ecosystem you’re ever going to design. What you learn about humans as creatures in an ecology of cities, neighborhoods, markets, and the rest will be applicable no matter what happens with the rapid change of technology.
Don’t be afraid to try cutting new paths
We’re still pioneers. There’s lots of room for innovation and creating new paths, roles, skills, and seeing problems to solve that are invisible to conventional wisdom.
So don’t assume the handful of “UX” roles that exist today is the be-all and end-all — always be looking at at least two layers of context beyond what you’re working on. Always be looking beyond the way everyone talks about the problem, to see if there’s a new way to frame it that goes beyond the mental model of the majority.
Because, yes, there’s still lots of room to invent your career.
Your job is your job; your community is your career
Last thing I’ll mention is this: your job is your job. But your career is this community and communities like it.
People don’t believe it when I say it, but I’m a huge introvert, and I’m still learning how to deal with my social anxiety, even at this point in my life! It takes a lot of effort and energy for me to reach out and connect with my community. But almost every time I’ve put myself out there, it’s meant everything to my career.
And I’ve seen others in the community grow and have so much more opportunity because they’ve joined up with others to make new things outside of the walls of their job.
There’s so much opportunity, and so many surprises ahead of us all. Fear not. Meet people. Try stuff. You probably have no idea what shape your work will have in a decade. Embrace that ambiguity. It’s scary. It’s exhilarating. It’s your future.