Illustration by Tridib Das
What options do you have in your career path as a UX designer? Whether you’re just getting into UX design or you’ve been practicing for a few years, you might be wondering, “now what?”
Traditionally we’ve thought about “the career ladder.” However, this implies a continuous, upward climb, whereas the reality tends to be messier and less linear. The metaphor of the “jungle gym’ might be a better one – with opportunities to switch tracks, move laterally, and in some cases, completely start over!
In addition, there are important considerations that will inform your career choices at various stages. These include the work you enjoy, the type of lifestyle you would like to have, financial considerations, and your risk tolerance or need for stability. It’s also important to consider the context you want to work in – whether that’s a specific industry, a large corporation, a startup, or client services.
The days of the two pronged career path of “management track” and “technical track” for UX designers is over. While these are still common paths, as you will see, there are many other paths available to designers to pursue. We will start with these, and explore three more possibilities for UX design career paths.
The ‘management’ career path
The management career path is probably the one that is most familiar when we think about career progression. As you gain more experience as a UX designer, there are usually opportunities to lead projects and teams, and eventually become a formal manager. This usually means taking on people management responsibilities (e.g. hiring, performance evaluation, supporting career development), and often also means taking on leadership responsibilities such as budgets and timelines. Over time, continuing on the management path can potentially lead to executive roles and titles such as VP User Experience, or Chief Design Officer.
- Leadership of teams and projects
- Can be rewarding to support team member growth and career development
- Typically very well compensated at senior levels
- Opportunity to influence business decisions and strategy
- Limited (if any) hands on design work, often become further from the craft of design
- People leadership is a serious responsibility, that often means you are starting over learning a new set of skills
- Can be a high stress, high responsibility role depending on the organisation and team
How to get on this path: If the management path might be for you, it’s never too early to start developing your leadership skills. Find opportunities to mentor other designers (consider UX coffee hours or Hexagon UX), and start reading about people leadership (Julie Zhou’s book or blog is a great place to start).
The ‘individual contributor’ career path
The individual contributor career path is one where you continue to gain seniority in your role, without taking on people management responsibilities. (Also sometimes referred to as a ‘technical’, ‘subject matter expert’ or ‘craft’ track.) This is a popular path for designers who want to continue to deepen their craft, stay practice oriented, and continue to do design work in their day to day. Over time, this path leads to roles like ‘Staff UX Designer’ or Principal Designer’. These roles have a continued focus on being an expert UX designer, and sometimes include mentoring more junior designers, and elevating design practice as a whole across an organization.
- Stay close to the craft and continue to do hands on design work
- Opportunities to build deep expertise and become a leading practitioner
- Typically well-compensated at senior levels (depending on the organization)
- Contribute to thought leadership and elevating of design practice within the company and more broadly in the community
- Not all organizations are well set up to accommodate for this role
- Pressure to contribute at high levels of expertise and knowledge
- Sometimes not compensated at the same levels as the people leadership track (depending on the organization)
How to get on this path: The individual contributor path values deep commitment to craft, so continuing to develop your craft through projects, self directed learning, and conferences is a great step to take. In addition, starting to write, blog or speak about your work and thoughts on design can demonstrate your commitment to becoming an expert practitioner.
The ‘freelancer or solo consultant’ career path
Designers often come to the freelancer or solo consultant career path after building up experience and a network, or perhaps freelancing on the side of a full time job. Freelance UX work is often project based, and relies on having a strong network of clients and prospects. Solo UX consultants are similar to freelancers but often work on higher value or more strategic projects, with freelancers tending to be more executional. (Think wireframing and prototyping for freelancers, and UX strategy for consultants). The solo career path is suited to those who enjoy being their own boss and choosing their projects.
- High level of control over the type of work you take on
- Lots of variety and different project work
- Can mean a flexible schedule or the opportunity to shape how much you work
- High earning potential as you set your rates and decide how much to work
- Requires a lot of self discipline to create your own structure
- Means running your own business and taking on overhead on things like taxes, invoicing, finding new clients
- Can be financially unpredictable since you don’t have the security of a regular paycheck from an employer
How to get on this path: A low risk way to experiment with this path is to take on freelance projects on the side. That way you can try out working in this mode without giving up stability right away. (Ensure that there isn’t anything in your current contract that prevents you from doing this).
The ‘specializing or related field’ career path
Many designers choose to specialize in a certain area of UX, or move into a related field. The knowledge and skills that UX Designers have translate well to other roles, and over time many designers find a niche that they want to explore further. The possibilities here are almost endless, however some common examples include becoming a UX researcher, moving into product management, or perhaps transitioning into teaching or academia. Designers may find that they love the psychology and behavioural sides of design and go into UX research, or perhaps that they love mentoring and teaching designers and become full time design professors.
- Bringing UX skills and experience to another practice area
- Opportunities to explore areas of interest and craft your own path
- Development of a ‘T shaped’ design skill with a broad understanding of UX and a deep specialisation in a related area
- May mean not practicing design craft in your day to day
- Can mean a lateral or even ‘downward’ step as you learn new skills
- Depending on the field you choose, may have less earning potential or a different career structure/pathway
How to get on this path: Whichever direction you think you might want to take, find ways to try it out. For example, if you think you might want to specialize in UX research, read about what it takes to be a UX researcher, or volunteer to take notes on a research project at work. If you think you might want to teach, see if there are part time opportunities on UX bootcamp or online courses to be a teaching assistant (TA) or mentor.
The ‘entrepreneurial’ career path
The entrepreneurial career path can take many forms – broadly speaking this career path is starting a business. One common path is starting a design agency, and another founding a startup. This differs from the freelance or solo consultant path mainly in the scale of the business and size of the team. Designers are often attracted to this career path if they see better ways of doing things in client services, or have an idea for a digital product or piece of software that they want to bring to market. UX designers have helpful skills for starting a business, since they know how to create products that people love. In addition, being a successful entrepreneur requires many other skills such as operations, leadership skills, and marketing skills.
- Opportunity to build something from scratch, including a product or service, company culture, team
- Very high earning potential with a successful business or eventually being acquired
- Get to wear many hats and flex many skills including and beyond UX design
- Can be highly financially risky and unpredictable as it can take time to build revenue
- Tends to mean a lot of focus on building a business and less on craft and day to day design work
- Can be lonely and hard work with high levels of responsibility and accountability
How to get on this path: Similar to the freelance or solo consultant path, it’s a good idea to set yourself up for success by starting to prepare before you leave a more stable role. This could include saving up a ‘cushion’ or fund to ensure you have money in place to live on if it takes time to generate revenue. In addition, you can find ways to ‘test’ the market on the side, for example running a kickstarter campaign for your idea, or building a prototype of the software/service.
A career is a journey, not a destination
Over the lifetime of a career, the permutations are almost endless. It is estimated that most people will have three careers in their lifetime, and the five options outlined here are just a starting point. As cheesy as it might sound, a career is a journey rather than a destination. Enjoy the ride!