After six (6) months of inactivity, I decided to relaunch this UX/life blog, Hey Design Thinker. Today I reflect on my professional journey, the choices I have made, and the critical juncture I'm facing as I hit the fifth year of my user experience practice – whether I'm meant to be a tactical designer or a strategy-focused UX specialist.
Two weeks ago, I got a thanks-but-no-thanks message from a startup company here in Toronto. It was for a Product Design position; for a product that I've used and have appreciated its usability rather well.
I knew someone looked at my portfolio. My analytics registered 3 minutes of activity and all the important pages (e.g. About, Portfolio, Speaking, and Contact) were indeed visited.
Come Monday afternoon, the email arrived; and it felt like a merciful letdown to an otherwise tough day.
Two weeks later, the city hosted its first major User Experience Research (UXR) conference in a very long while. Until that day, most UX research talks happened through design conferences (such as FITC Toronto, Spotlight UX, Web Unleashed, etc.) with the real bigwigs popping up every once in a while (e.g. Interaction 2013, CHI 2014, and UXPA Toronto 2017).
The UXR Conference was special because it was priced with the community in mind. For a low, low price of <$200, you get a power-packed day of talks and panels as well as breakout sessions and lightning workshops the following day.
If that wasn't conference-pricing affordable, I don't know what is. ;-)
But there was something more special about the conference than its stellar programming. I felt that I've finally found my people, that community of practice that believes that good design is a result of targeted explorations. People who are passionate about the problem space as much as they appreciate the designing that comes along with it.
It felt like the lines were being drawn between problem space and solution space, between design thinking and design doing, and between ugly sketches and high-fidelity prototypes. The absence of high-fidelity deliverables during the conference was particularly refreshing and reflected the practice I wished to have.
It was like seeing my career history before me, assuring me that my choices weren't really that crazy, and that a career in analytical and creative thinking is possible.
That's when I decided to call myself a User Experience Specialist.
I've always had this title at the back of my pocket. My portfolio and business cards have that as a title and I've introduced myself as such among peers.
But I never felt confident using that title.
For one, the Nielsen Norman Group uses this to describe their elite team of consultants. These are individuals who have significant experience under their belts and have tons of letters running after their name.
The other, and arguably more serious reason than the first one, is the title's marketability. Considering that most UX jobs are heavily skewed towards visual presentation, is it really profitable to call yourself a UX specialist? It doesn't have that direct connection like UX "design" and forces you to explain what a UX specialist is. Pair that with the slew of new titles such as "Product Designer" or "Product Strategist" and you have a hot mess before your eyes – and we're just talking about the title here.
But what seems promising about UX specialist is that you're making a deliberate choice to focus on something other than (visual) design.
This isn't to say that visual design isn't important; but that you're being honest about where your skills and strengths lie.
I value high-fidelity prototyping as much as the next Product Designer (and can cook up a beautiful interactive prototype too, by the way). But I also think that the best product experiences are born from careful thought. And knowing my love for all things analytical (than creative alone), owning this title seems a better fit than just saying, "I am a UX designer".
(Because again, whether we like it or not, UX design is heavily skewed towards visual experiences. And the job ads – and hiring managers – show just that).
They say that "words matter" and I completely agree.
The words that you use to describe yourself reflect your understanding about yourself and where you think you're going.
There are risks involved with using such a fuzzy title (like, really, what IS a UX specialist?!?). But I also don't want to be in a job that expects me to turn in Sketch files 80% of the time.
At the end of the day, owning "User Experience Specialist" is an exercise in authenticity. I love and appreciate the work that UX and Product designers do having been one myself.
But I'm now at a point where I want to focus on more targeted discussions of value and strategy. Of getting teams to rally behind a product vision and doing my part to both inform and align it.
This means less of UX tactics such as wireframes and visual design, and more strategy such as alignment workshops, design facilitation, and strategy formulation while doing (as Sam Ladner puts it) "God's work" of researching and figuring out your users.
I know this is a lot to ask (echo the voices screaming, "You're not good enough!", "You don't have what it takes!", "Who do you think you are?", and "You're nothing more than a Dunning-Kruger case study!"). But if what's at stake is my alignment with my own true self (and value), then I'm prepared to take this journey.
Yes, this means rejection from visually-focused design teams. But it also means working with those who believe in the long game and prepared to do the hard work of understanding individuals inside and outside their companies in pursuit of something bigger (whether it is a new product or a new culture).
Let me end with an 8-point definition of what a UX consultant is:
UX consultants help better understand customers
UX consultants audit websites
UX consultants prototype and test better experiences
A UX consultant will establish your strategy
UX consultants help implement change
UX consultants educate and inspire colleagues
UX consultants create design systems
A UX consultant will help incrementally improve the experience– Paul Boag, "8 Ways a UX Consultant Can Help Your Business"
The author may have labelled this as a UX consultant's job description (see, I told you we're all over the place when it comes to job titles!). But these points describe exactly what I want to do either in a company or as myself – a position focused on change and alignment, using research to inform both strategy and design.
If this is what you're looking to have as a company or organization, let's talk.
I look forward to hearing from you.