by dan turner

28 Sep 2015

Do We Really Need More UX Designers? Or Better UX Designers?

Of course this is a false dichotomy, in an ideal world. In an ideal world, we could have both, to the benefit of the field and possibly the world at large. But in practice, in the actual world, the first question creates a tension with the second and flips this result on its head; in our world of limited resources, our rush to create an influx of newly minted "UX" title holders by any means necessary might backfire, to the point where "UX" becomes a thing in name only.

Granted, it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about. It can sound elitist, or like we’re shutting the door behind us, or patronizing. But I bring this up because we may be on the verge of seeing things go really wrong.

We need to have an honest conversation about about UX education and how we can take on the responsibility of designing education systems towards the best outcomes. If we don’t, it’ll be done for us, and perhaps not in a way we’d like. And in fact, what’s happening now is that honest and heartfelt excitement for the field leaves the implementation to market forces, and market forces aren’t invested in, or delivering better UX designers, just more of them.

The Sitch

 How often do you get asked, "How can I get into UX?" For me, it’s at least weekly (probably my own fault, what with going to Meetups and all). The answer they’re looking for, when I press them, is a single or couple of courses they can take, and BAM, new, cool profession. It’s usually people who want to switch careers, from marketing and PR (a lot), graphic design, advertising (also a lot), and so on. I can’t say exactly what the vector is here, but it’s understandable that they’d be interested; all you awesome people make it look damn sexy. Whether these people have a grasp on what the field is, or think it’s just a lot of chunky glasses, casual wear, and whiteboards, is a question for another article (or for Laura Klein and Kate Rutter's excellent "Don't Be a UX Designer" episode of their What Is Wrong With UX podcast).

That’s the supply side. On the demand side, more and more companies are filling out a lot of teams with roles that feature "UX" in the job title, at least (I know more than one graduate degree holder working at large internet companies who are stuck restyling button corner radii for months). This may be buzzword compliance on their part, where the buzzword is "elegant" — seen in many a UX job listing — but it’s work. 

It’s not a surprising consequence, then, that programs, usually for-profit, have grown like topsy to meet this demand.

And the practical consequence is that UX hiring managers and recruiters are overwhelmed with dozens to hundreds of applications for every position with "UX" in the title. At one IxDASF talk, the speaker admitted she could only spend 15 seconds on each portfolio; if it didn't grab her visually, she discarded that person. In a field where much of the important work may not translate to gorgeous visuals, and where it's easy for schools to provide professional-looking templates to students (whether the content is effective or not)... well, you can see the problem.

I should say that these are all probably really, really nice people, who probably have laudable goals. But as Jon Kolko points out, there are wicked problems, and even tame problems often have unintended consequences. Teaching "you will be a UX professional in two months" usually means skipping exploration of the why, conditioning students to create what one UX director calls "fake work" (no time to go into the field, even to build personas), and little sense of what one doesn’t know.

Peter Norvig wrote (some time between 2001 and 2014, going by the copyright), about "Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years", with an obvious nod to "Teach Yourself $TOPIC in 24 Hours"; I have fond memories of Laura Lemay’s HTML book in that series. Go read it; I’ll be here.

A lot of what Norvig outlines translates well to UX. For instance, when he says, "Remember that there is a 'computer' in 'computer science'", think of it as remembering there’s a "user" in "user experience". Know what attracts the human eye, how human cognition and habits work, what the differences are between in-person and computer-mediated communication, how anonymity affects behavior.

Norvig also cites solid research that it takes people about 10 years to develop expertise. And this is 10 years of deliberative practice (as with a sport, you get better by training via specificity, intensity, rest, feedback). Again, this translates well to a UX practice and community at large.

Another consequence of this rapid minting of underpracticed UX designers is how it affects the field’s perception and role in industries, whether these industries are tech or shoe stores. Certain large companies have been lapping up 10-week graduates and placing them in "UX" positions, but I use quotation marks here because despite their job title, their tasks include slicing Photoshop layers, styling button corners at the request of product managers, and other production tasks. Now, production is great! That’s a good job, and needed! But that’s not UX, and this affects the field; how many times have you been interested in a posted UX position, or talked to a startup founder, or an HR manager at a large company, and found that their idea of UX is "make it look pretty"? As Irene Au writes, designers are responsible for shaping design team and company morale and mission, too.

The Problem

So these are the new blood who flood the job market. These are, by and large, the people who come up when we say "We need more UX designers." They’re armed with process speak, with portfolios built under the supervision of, or templates from, experienced designers, and with connections. Again, I’m sure they’re all nice and smart people, and it’s amazing what you can learn when you jump in and do — but is this what we want people to think constitutes UX? (Cue "Is That All There Is?") Will we see teams filled with designers who have been taught that design is a simple application of Process A then Process B and done, good design?

Maybe not. In the last year I’ve seen a lot of pushback from directors of UX, from hiring managers, even people who helped build curricula for such programs, against hiring short-term UX course graduates. On FounderDating, even one UX professional who contributed to one school’s curriculum design looked back on his works and despaired. But those are rumblings; the profitable schools are the flood.

The schools rely on the fact that barriers to entry in UX are relatively low (which is ok — many amazing professionals have arisen from what might be surprising backgrounds and experiences). There’s no certification in the field, though that’s often a bruited topic. Lives are generally not at stake (though sometimes they are; I show my students Mike Monteiro’s "How Designers Destroyed the World" talk). But the result is not just messy but perhaps detrimental to the field: anyone hiring for UX has hundreds of applicants, reducing initial screenings to 15 seconds per portfolio; the weak ties effect eventually partitions out opportunities only to those who’ve attended these (often costly) programs; the culture of UX becomes less one of human-centered but process-centered design.

And So

I don’t meant to discount, impugn, or slam anyone in particular. These can be good problems to have: demand for services, interest in the field (if maybe not always the mission; I could write a lot on the disjunct between what people think doing UX is and the reality). But we have to be aware that we keep an eye on the processes; even the best of people and the best of intentions can lead to unsustainable systems. Let’s ask people why they want to "get into UX"; let’s take more time in teaching and in hiring; let’s be vocal.

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