Why UX Designers Will Survive the Apocalypse (and Other Hypotheses)

Cory Lebson

When I say the apocalypse – what I mean, of course, is the evolution of tech, the automation of many jobs, and the resulting unemployment.

Among the many reasons to start a career in UX, just one of them is that the work of a UX designer will be tricky to automate. There are many other good reasons to study UX. (Once you’ve read this interview you’ll be able to reel off at least six.)

In this interview with author of the UX Careers Handbook, Cory Lebson, you’ll learn how Cory ended up working in ‘what we know call UX’ over 20 years ago. He explains what’s changed since then, what the UX scene around the world looks like, and what the future holds. If you’re wondering whether now is a good time to become a UX designer, read on!

What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in UX since you started out?

So, I started in UX before it was called UX, around 1993. No one had ever heard of it. It was a nothing. People would say, “what is it you do, again?” And they wouldn’t really get what it was.

There has been a big shift. Nowadays, UX is much more visible in developer spaces, in web development, certainly in consulting, in freelancing. It’s so present, and it’s also more mature. It’s no longer just about creating something that’s usable – it has to be attractive and usable.

It’s funny to think of the animated gifs of days past, e.g. someone saying ‘under construction’ with a jack hammer. Now you really see something on your screen that is meaningful, that matches user needs – it’s almost a competition to provide the best UX, which is wonderful.

For me I fell into this career not knowing what it would become. For people going into UX design today, it really is a mature, wonderful place to be.

People from above

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So when you started out, UX design was still in its infancy. How did you hear about it? How did you know it existed?

So, I was in university, I was a Psychology Major in 1992 and I had to pick a research lab to work in. There was a professor doing some work on what we would today call the user experience of restaurant menus; how staff could enter the order etc. And it was a new thing, and working on that was really interesting to me.

I was always interested in technology, so when I finished college I asked him if he knew anyone who could hire me, and he knew this guy. So, I started there and really one thing led to another. I watched something grow up around me in a way that I had never imagined back then. It was always interesting, but at the beginning we didn’t know that we were onto something big.

Do you think having a psychology degree is helpful?

Personally, I think so. Particularly in my role as a researcher, I’m doing today the same things that I learnt back then, in terms of scientific method and how it applies to psychology.

Nowadays, I’m not necessarily looking at people to try and understand intrinsic motivations or brain and behaviour, but I’m still looking at people to understand how they interact with the technology.

So psychology is certainly not the only path into UX, but particularly for user research, it can be a very good path. In design, and lots of things really, it’s good just to understand people, but people from so many different backgrounds excel in UX design.

How would you explain UX design to someone who has no clue what it is?

So if I’m in that situation, and I’m with people who have no idea what UX is, I would say something like “I do the psychology of technology. I make sure that people are happy with the products that companies are producing.”

And then they will often say, “Oh do you code? Do you develop?” And I say, “No, I don’t do that,” then they say, “Well, do you design then?” And I say I don’t do that either, but I evaluate design. I tell people that it’s about understanding, not just the people, but also their use of technology. For me it’s really the synthesis of both – understanding people and helping to develop the technology.

Man hiding behind tablet

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What do you consider to be the future of UX?

It’s funny actually, a client of mine was doing a one-day workshop for their internal staff, and they asked that very question: What’s the future of UX? So I ended up doing a one hour presentation on that topic. Basically, what I talked about, is this:

First of all, we only know about the future of UX, as it relates to the technology that we already know about. Whether it’s artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, robotics, or even things like genetic modification. There are lots of ideas people have about things that will exist in the future, based on what has already been discussed. So the only way we can think about the future of UX is to think about the technology that exists or that we expect to be developed.

Because there is stuff that isn’t here yet, we don’t know about it so we can’t talk about it. So basically, I think our skills will remain the same, or similar but they will just iterate, slowly. As new technologies come, people will adapt. For example, artificial intelligence. In today’s world, UX designers tag information in websites, so it comes up when needed. In artificial intelligence, we flag millions of little bits of info that come up at the right time. So we’re still doing the same thing just on a different scale. We will still have the interface – it could be a virtual or screen-based interface, or a physical device interface – but still it’s a user interacting with something.

So we apply the same skills, the same project processes, the same approaches, we just adapt as the technology changes.

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So, we’ll still be talking about UX in 10 years time?

Definitely, although the titles that we use are liable to change. The term UX wasn’t even common 10 years ago. I think Don Norman had already mentioned UX but otherwise no one had heard about it. You could talk about usability, you could talk about interaction design, but you couldn’t talk about UX at that point, at least not as a bucket term.

And you know, there’ll be a new word. It might not be called UX in 10 years but the skills are still going to be there, the need is still going to be there and the maturity of the companies, and more companies are going to want UX or whatever it becomes. So, I think we can have a lot of confidence that UX skills will always be sought after.

It’s a competition now. Before it was just getting a product out the door, you know. A minimal viable product meant not-usable. It was just there. Now the minimum is usable. It’s got to be usable or that’s it. The product will crash and burn straight away.

And companies realize this – it’s taken them a long time to realize this, and the ones that don’t, I would say they don’t survive very long as a company. This means that the ecosystem of companies that survive are those that get UX and are hiring UXers.

Once they understand, once they frame it that way, once they understand the kind of people they need to hire, they will, and this is increasing over time. It’s becoming so much more salient, more visible in all different industries.

What is the job market like for UX designers at the moment?

I would say it’s great and it’s going to get better. If we look again in our big cities, there is generally more work than there is people to do it. I think the gap might close slightly, but it’s not going to reverse.

When they talk about automation stealing jobs – there’ll be robotics, there’ll be automation, there’ll be artificial intelligence, and it will take away jobs because a system can do it. But that won’t happen in UX – at least not in any of our lifetimes. It can’t, because it’s very complicated to program the understanding of a user.

If you’re fearful of automation taking over, UX is a good career to get into. I feel confident that, let’s say for the next 50 years, certainly for a considerable period of time, we’ll have the work.

fire and burning sneakers

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What salary can you expect as a UX designer?

Salaries in UX design are tremendously varied across the board, I mean it varies by country, it varies by region within a country, it varies by the type of company. It’s so inconsistent. What I would say is that there are a number of salary surveys out there, for example UXPA have done salary surveys. That said, it’s a small sample from every country. For the US it’s bigger, I think the UK is bigger, and I think Germany is bigger, but sometimes you’ll have maybe information from 3 people in one country, 3 people in another country, so you can’t really generalize.

So there are salary surveys out there, but even within UX, you’ve got different professions, so interaction design and user research might have a greater salary than something that’s more content-based. Don’t quote me on that, I don’t know that for sure.

But you know there’s certain types of jobs that may be better than other types of job, and also within country. So, it’s one of the hardest questions out there.

Would you recommend specializing? Are some specializations more lucrative than others?

In terms of supply-demand ratio – now I can’t say with certainty so don’t quote me on this – but, interaction design has less people for more work. But if we consider user research, there is less work out there, but even less people who are really dedicated to user research. So the demand is generally higher than the supply for these.

If you take content writing for example however, yes everybody needs content, but there’s also a lot of people that do it. So you know, it could be considered an aspect of UX (it depends on whether they’re just writing whatever they want), but when there is a closer gap between amount of work and the number of people doing it, salaries aren’t as high.

Do you recommend joining a professional organization of UX designers?

Personally, I say get involved in UXPA because it’s a great organization (I would say that!) I started in the Washington DC area, running the UXPA as kind of a local meet up and I got interested in helping people with their careers. Then when I did UXPA International, it was like, “Wow, look at this.” I started to see patterns across the globe, but also there were still some discrepancies.

But joining an organization is just about understanding your local community and becoming part of it. It’s critical to your career to really become part of your local UX design community.

But also, with UXPA International or any other large organization or conference, they are good places to meet people from other cities, countries, or regions. You have these conversations like, “You’re doing the same thing! You live thousands of miles away and you’re doing the same things I am!” There’s a good feeling about that. You realize this is one career, one big community (yes, technically, there are multiple communities) but as a collective group we span the globe, we really do.

In different countries, in different cities, and different companies, different organizations are salient. In Germany for example, the German chapter is wonderful – it’s big, there’s lots of people – in the UK also, it’s a big chapter, lots of people.

But in the United States it’s interesting – in other places there are country chapters, but in the US we have city chapters. So New York is very strong, DC is pretty strong, in Dallas they’re pretty strong. In other places they exist but they’re smaller and there’s other organizations too like IXDA, or just local meetups, local get togethers.

So, really wherever you’re based, particularly around any city, there’s some organization out there, so get involved.

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So, finally, what made you write the ‚UX Careers Handbook‘?

It was suggested to me, actually! I was talking at a conference, and someone asked me to write a proposal for the book. So I did. At that point, it wasn’t exactly what they wanted so I decided to let it chill for a while.

Then, I mentioned it to a colleague who mentioned it to my current publisher. They came up to me (again at a conference!) and said, “Oh we heard you were thinking of writing this book, would you write it for us?” This conversation was right before I was finishing up my final year at UXPA, so I told them I would have to finish that first, and they agreed.

When I posted on social media that I was writing it, lot’s of people wanted to help. That’s why there are a lot stories from contributors – people wanted to talk about careers in UX – it was a topic.

I think the book was something that publishers were a little scared about publishing because careers can change so quickly. But, when I wrote the book, I tried to cover all the stuff that doesn’t change so much. Then on the website I have a place for new content, so I can update it when things do change. But, the book should hopefully be pretty stable for a few years.

Conclusion

Now then, at the beginning of this interview, I promised that by now you’d be able to reel off six good reasons to follow a career in UX. After listening to Cory speak, the main ones that stand out for me are:

  • Salaries are high due to the low supply and high demand in many places
  • UX positions are opening up across diverse sectors – you’re not limited to tech
  • Skills from many different backgrounds can be applied to UX design
  • Being a UX designer means being part of a thriving, curious, global community
  • There are many different routes into UX (start with our free 7-day UX design short course!)
  • And finally, it will be loooong while before machines can do UX design for us!

If you want to learn more about careers in UX, you can visit The UX Careers Handbook website or connect with Cory on LinkedIn.

Even if you’re working full-time you can do a flexible, online course like the Certified UX Designer program. You’ll practise UX alongside a professional UX designer, satisfy your curiosity around human behaviour, build an impressive portfolio, and get help finding your first job.

 

Author: Florence Collins
Published on January 30, 2017
Original Blogpost: http://blog.careerfoundry.com/ux-design/why-ux-designers-will-survive-the-apocalypse-and-other-hypotheses

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