User experience is a field that constantly redefines itself. Over the course of my career, I’ve been called an information architect, an interaction designer, a web designer, a user experience designer, and finally a user experience architect. At one point, I remember thinking that I’d need to eventually change careers because I had yet to meet anyone over the age of forty doing what I did. Thankfully, that’s changed, but it can still be difficult to get a sense of how our field has evolved over the years. That’s why I was so interested in the recent Bay Area UXPA chapter meeting, at which a panel of UX veterans discussed the past, present, and future of UX (see Figure 1).
The panelists included Ian Swinson, senior director of user experience at Salesforce.com; Larry Tesler, whose career in engineering and UX has ranged from Apple to Amazon to Yahoo; Sara Ortloff Khoury, VP of user experience, insights, and analytics for Walmart Global eCommerce; and Fred Gilbert, director of design for Google’s social product area. Irene Au, VP of product and design at Udacity and former head of Google’s UX team, served as the moderator.
The discussion was wide-ranging; it covered the backgrounds and key qualities of the panelists, as well as the emerging characteristics of today’s UX designers. For most of the panelists, user experience (or even human-computer interaction) didn’t exist as a career choice when they entered the job market. As a result, they came from a variety of backgrounds, from film and engineering to mathematics and graphic design, and took a meandering path to where they are now.
Larry Tesler started out in the early 1960s doing participatory design to improve the software used to create card stunts for football halftime shows. Ian Swinson worked on CD-ROMS as the “digital guy” and learned graphic design on the job. Sara Ortloff Khoury came from a traditional design background, but when she switched to the digital space, she learned to use development tools to make her designs functional. And Fred Gilbert, who holds a degree in economics, turned his passion for drawing into a job as a graphic designer, which led to web design, which led to graduate school, which led to a job at Google.
Two common threads among the panelists were an inclination to take advantage of opportunities and the belief that they could make a UX career work. Swinson described himself as the guy who was always willing to say “yes” to ridiculous requests (see Figure 2). Once agreed, he’d figure out how to deliver. That’s not always the safest choice, and it takes courage and confidence to court failure that openly. But it seemed as if those traits were shared by all of the panelists; when asked to describe themselves in a word, they came up with “obstinate,” “fearless,” “grit,” and “fighter” (among others). So, saying “yes,” determination, and taking risks may be some of the key components to a successful career in UX.
Empathy was another common theme, along with the ability to communicate that empathy to stakeholders. Gilbert described empathy as a muscle that gets stronger with use, and as one of the key attributes he looks for in a new hire (see Figure 3). Tesler agreed and noted that when he worked on the Lisa at Apple back in the 1980s, the “experience” was created by engineers, not designers. He interviewed for empathy and a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes to find that “one in a thousand” engineer who could design for users.
Khoury and Swinson connected empathy to storytelling; they noted that an essential skill of a successful designer is the ability to convey their user empathy to stakeholders through narrative. Khoury pointed out that while designers deal in ideas, they have to be able to communicate them in order for their ideas to have value. “It’s half the battle,” she claimed. Swinson tells his team that they’re all in the business of selling their ideas. At Salesforce they rehearse before the first presentation because they want that first hearing to be memorable. As Gilbert put it, “The better you get at storytelling, the more influential you will be.”
Several of the panelists noted that while serendipity worked well in their careers, the user experience field has matured to a point where there’s value in planning your career and having a vision. Tesler suggested developing a five-year plan for where you want to be. If it’s concrete enough, you’ll find that your skills will evolve to a point where you can have that job or a close approximation of it. In a similar vein, Swinson recommended interviewing people you admire—your heroes—so that you can learn more about what they do day-to-day and emulate their strengths.
Finally, the panelists talked about the importance of developing a skill set. Khoury pointed out that in the early days of the web everyone was, by necessity, a generalist: you coded, you wrote copy, and you designed. A period of specialization followed, but now we’re moving to a point where adaptability and having a broad skill set is important again. As Gilbert noted, few of the designers on his team do just one thing. For example, he doesn’t look for a researcher who simply conducts analysis and reports findings. He looks for a researcher who can sketch and start a visual conversation with a designer on a solution that meets a user’s needs based on data from research.
I came away from this discussion inspired. It’s clear that this field will reward you if you take care of your skill set and remain adaptable and flexible. And that’s a far cry from fearing that I’ll be obsolete at forty.
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