‘UX professional’ isn’t a real job?

Lots of fun was stirred up by this recent post, ‘UX professional’ isn’t a real job.  Which I think was sparked by this tweet:

https://twitter.com/ryancarson/status/22885968975

The post isn’t much longer than the tweet. And it’s popular. Which testifies mostly to two things:

  1. Some people are very sensitive about job titles.
  2. People in the UX/design/etc world might win the prize for most sensitive.

If ever you want a popular blog post – post about how “UX doesn’t exist” or “interaction designers are kitten kicking liars” and you’ll be well on your way. These are passionate, if perhaps touchy, people.

For decades now people who work in various aspects of UI/UX/IA/Usability/kitchen sink/Interaction design/graphic design related work have agonized, fought, debated, resisted, modified, abbreviated, and debated again the names they use for their work and the roles. It’s an old wound and this jabs at the stitches.

An easy way to spot people with identity issues, or professions that feel marginalized and vulnerable, is how much drama they make about what they call themselves and what other groups of people call them. More telling perhaps is how much in-fighting and factionalism there is among groups with largely the same ambitions, rhetoric, and in some cases, members. They’re good at human computer interaction, but human to human interaction seems lost on them.

In the end, they’re just words. People who are busy with clients don’t worry so much about words (and they also have fewer slashes in their job description).  If you provide great value to your clients, they’ll hire you no matter what you’re called. Provide little value to clients and you could call yourself God and still not get hired. Actually, calling yourself God (“I am the GOD of UX, hire me or I shall smite you”) is likely a very bad way to get a job, but that’s a story for another post.

Case in point: If someone were to say “Doctor is a bullshit job title“, few doctors would care. The fact that they think they’re doctors, and their patients pay them for doctoring, and everyone is happy with the result, proves that it’s not a bullshit title for the people actually involved.

In the case of the actual post (‘UX professional’ isn’t a real job), it does have some points. I agree that in the ideal world, there is just making: makers of things for people should know not only the technologies of making, but the skills of how to design things to be easy to use. All engineers and craftsmen and makers and managers who decide issues that effect customers should understand this stuff – but that’s in the ideal world, a place I’ve yet to find.

But there are simpler issues worth calling out:

  1. I don’t know anyone who calls themselves a UX professional.  Is that real a title on someones business card? I’ve never seen it. So on that I agree. Doesn’t t having a business, or a business card, make you a professional?
  2. We forget (only some) people are much better than others at everything. There are some developers who can do everything. These people don’t understand why specialists are needed – because mostly they don’t need them. Unfortunately most people in most fields are not good at everything. The average web developer, or writer, or anything, has many skill gaps, despite the fact that it is their profession. Their recognition of their limitations is good – for the client and the client’s customers.
  3. We tend to be myopic in our experience.  The client world, and the in-house world, are different things (the author does try to clarify this in the post). It’s easy to think all projects in the world are similiar to the ones you tend to do. It’s hard to imagine how a 500 person team functions if you mostly work on teams of 5. Without exposure to other kinds of work, or work for other kinds of clients, the notion of specialized roles or tasks is unimaginable, and for many people the unimaginable is lumped in with the stupid, dumb, unnecessary or wrong. A few minutes of thought reveals specialization is in all of our lives: doctors, restaurants, etc.  Nothing wrong with that.  Some buffets in the world have amazing food of all kinds, but more often, if you want the best at a specialized thing, you’re better off going to a specialist for it.
  4. Everyone thinks they’re great at something they suck at.It has happened dozens of times to me where someone tells me (e.g. talking)  how great they are at design, or making easy to use things, or basketball, or singing, and they when I witness them doing that thing (e.g. doing), I quickly realize they suck. Sometimes they’re just very confused, but other times they’ve simply never seen someone do better than what they do, even if what they do is damn mediocre. Reading the comments, I’m sure this is true for many on the thread. There’s a wide range of what it means to be good, or good enough, or having a clue at all. Talking about design pretends everyone has the same notion, but we don’t. The notion ‘good enough’ has, I suspect a very wide range.

I’m fond of simply calling myself a writer. There should be a verb in your job. Usability engineers are really analysts or consultants. Designers of all flavors are, surprise, designers. Information architects are planners. If they are expected to be leaders beyond their specialization, then add the word lead. And on it could go. one word, preferably a verb, and we’re done.  The pretense is fancier titles better convey the role, but I think that’s the real bullshit. Simpler titles, based on a verb, would be way more useful for clients or co-workers in figuring out what you can do for them.

However the competitive realities of the professional world incents all kinds of inflation and stupidity – every industry has its share of odd, weird, redundant and misleading job titles, and the tech world is not immune. But the wise realize job titles are not the problem. Instead it’s the skills and motivations of the people involved on your project, a challenge no amount of title-wrangling will ever solve.

39 Responses to “‘UX professional’ isn’t a real job?”

  1. Rich S

    Very interesting. No matter what title I’ve ever had (currently it’s Web/Interactive Developer) I’ve always had to be a little bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Of course that makes me a master of none.

    As much as I read about UX and get enthusiastic about UX, I will never be a UX professional (with a lowercase p…not talking about the title) simply because I don’t have enough time to be. I have to selectively choose what I want to specialize in, and if I can have a dedicated person working to make sure the user experience is awesome…well, that just means I sleep better at night.

    After all, a good janitor doesn’t have to be a “genius”, but he is an essential part of office life and fulfills a valuable need.

    Reply
    1. Mazatube101

      Your definition of UX sucks. But that’s because you think it has something to do with CSS, AJAX, XML and a bunch of other acronyms. In fact, UX also involves stuff that happens offline. The funny thing is, your original tweet is right on target. It was only when you decided to explain your position that you went off track.

      Your heart is in the right place. But think broader. That’s where UX lies – at the intersection of people and processes, online and off.

      Reply
  2. Jack Dempsey

    Great post Scott. This really spoke to me: “the competitive realities of the professional world incents all kinds of inflation and stupidity”

    I’d like to call myself a developer, when it comes down to it. I can code in a variety of languages, work with a variety of operating systems, do the database stuff, the JS stuff, the git/svn/cvs thing, the social thing, and on and on. But at the end of the day I like to develop things, and use whatever I need to do so.

    I had an epiphany a few years back. Rather than listing every language I’d ever written “hello world” in on my resume, like I had seen every other “professional” resume do, I started leaving off things I didn’t do very well, or, things I’d never want to do again (PHP).

    The end result was a much simpler list of a few technologies I am passionate about (Ruby, Rails, git), and a much better insight into what I can provide for someone. I’m happier for it, even if it’s a challenge at times to explain this to potential clients (“they have 8 years experience!” when the framework is only 5 years old, heh)

    Reply
  3. Scott Berkun

    Rich:

    Good point – makes sense.

    The whole idea of expertise is fascinating, as sometimes the jack of all trades is actually better at “skill X” than the expert who only does X.

    It’s not common, but it does happen, and it’s weird for everyone involved when it does. The expert is unlikely to admit it, and the jack-of-all-trades might not even see it themselves.

    Reply
    1. Ludovic Urbain

      I think being a jack of all trades gives you insight and understanding specialization can’t give you.

      That being said I prefer backend by far, even though I have yet to meet a frontend guy who does JS/HTML/CSS as well as I do.

      The thing is, there are two kinds of people, those who want to become better, and those who will never be awesome.

      Many people who want to become better are somewhat forced to become jacks of all trades because most people around them don’t care enough to make it awesome, and their contribution is more trouble than it’s worth.

      Sometimes I wonder though, how some people can brand themselves “expert in ” .

      You could be an expert in MySQL and never come close to 1% of what it takes to be a great DBA, yet some people still think it’s great and do it on their profile, and … get hired.

      BTW you can be even narrower: MapReduce expert or “I can install a software and write simple mapper and reducer functions. woop dee doo”.

      Whatever I guess…

      (also, I suck at design :) and your button font is somewhat unreadable. )

      Reply
  4. Scott Berkun

    Jack:

    The funny thing is as someone who has looked at many many resumes, seeing a dozen languages listed had exactly the effect you are worried about: I knew it was impossible they knew all those languages to the same degree of proficiency.

    At big companies, there’s lots of voodoo about how resumes are scanned, and key words to include, etc. so I chalked it up to that sometimes.

    But I loved to see when people would say:

    Expert at: C, C#, Cobol
    Proficient at: PHP
    Basic knowledge of: Pascal, CSS

    Which tells me both what they actually know, but more importantly, they have some sense of relative expertise and realize that’s important for me, as the resume reader, to understand.

    Reply
  5. Nathanael Boehm

    Ryan’s post didn’t bother me much. I think it showed some ignorance of what we do (and no I don’t call myself a ‘UX Professional’) because I don’t know any developers who could do what I do. In fact Ryan omitted most of the activities I undertake in the course of my work from his list of what he believes UX Professionals do.

    What I call myself seems to change with every new role I take on. Currently it’s all just boiled down to being a ‘designer’. I let my demonstrated experience speak for itself in all its complexity of specialisations and domain knowledge … and it gets me jobs so that’s all that matters!

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Nathanael: Interesting. I suppose talking about how little titles matters makes the opposite point to some people, since it actually increases the amount of discussion about titles, even if they ‘don’t matter’.

      But thanks for the comment – most people I know don’t spend much time worrying about what other people call them (job-wise, that is :)

      Reply
  6. David Locke

    I’ve found that some graphics designers call themselves information designers, except that none of their work reflects any ability to do information design. Information design, as a term, came into being, because it was different from graphics design even while living under or inside graphics design. These graphics designers are making claims that confuse and commoditize information design.

    Many people who do not call themselves designers, design. Many people who do not call themselves writers, write. Likewise, UX or not. A programmer I worked for said of himself, “I deliver functionality.” He knew he didn’t do UX. That people with these skills are separated from the general population by a matter of degree makes those careers nightmares. You could look at their work and say, “Hey, I could have done that.” Sure, but do you understand how it came to be that way, or why, and would you do it in a maintainable way. Much more meat on those bones beyond the portfolio piece. It’s about critical frameworks. All expert populations have them.

    Doctors and EE programmers are separated from the rest of the world by a licensing process that requires thinking well away from the doing. Doctors don’t worry about it being a BS job, because they went through the selection and learning processes to become, to be a doctor. A profession is not about doing. It is, however, about being, living in a world with a defined perspective that separates that world from the rest of us.

    I’m sure the UX professional is different from me. Having worked in a profession that was different from my bosses, I know what a nightmare that can be. It’s not BS. It is, however, a culture, a set of cultural barriers that prevent understanding by those both outside and inside, the profession. This goes for all professions licensed or not.

    Reply
  7. Ralitza

    What I see as a problem is that because of the perpetual creation of titles, there’s sometimes confusion as to what a person actually does. I have had cases when folks in my line of work would stop and meditate on “User Interface Designer” as if it is some occult trade. It is simply exhausting.

    One thing I get reminded of though is that back at Uni we’d learn different development processes and often the core of the next would be the same as the previous, but someone somewhere decided to re-invent the wheel and call it a “Round Turning Device”.

    Reply
  8. Millard

    Do you hide nuggets like this in the middle of paragraphs on purpose? “…for many people the unimaginable is lumped in with the stupid, dumb, unnecessary or wrong.”

    Great post with several good nuggets. I think that part of the difficulty with defining the UX specialty is that there are so many ways to do part of it well and the whole still sucks. You can nail the interaction design, but there is no visual appeal (or vice versa). Or it would be a great UI if that’s actually how the people that need to use it work. My biggest beef is when the UX designer refuses to understand the platform and doesn’t want to get bogged down in the details of it as it might clutter their thinking. So they design a great Dojo/AJAX/Web 2.0 UI that there is no reasonable way to replicate in your Eclipse-based thick client application. That’s the sort of stuff that makes it hard to tack on the “professional”.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Millard: Not on purpose :) I’m glad to hear you found anything I wrote nuggetworthy at all.

      It’s frustrating to deal with limitations – it’s safer to say “this is how it should work in spite of your platform” and walk away, than it is to dig in and take responsibility for the whole thing. But I think that failing is true of everyone – programmers, managers and writers are all notorious for not wanting to get their hands dirty if they can avoid it.

      Reply
    2. Ludovic Urbain

      I wonder what that could be.

      I mean, eclipse is horrible, but Java is still a quite capable language right ?

      I would be thrilled to have a designer ask me to do something that’s even remotely challenging.

      I don’t think it’s their responsibility to make it realistic, although they should be involved in the discussion to make sure what’s implemented is a great compromise between what it should be and what’s within the budget.

      On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any excuse for using broken tools, and I believe the goal could be to make the client see what they’re missing by insisting on using bad technology (ie6, mysql, java, younameit).

      Reply
      1. Kshama Nagaraja

        I think this is very true. As a user research “professional” I must say that it shouldn’t be the UX professional’s (UI designer’s) highest priority to remain true to the technology. User needs should in fact be an important input in making the decision on which technology could be used.
        Just because someone one-step-above in hierarchy has made the decision to use eclipse/java/what-have-you does not mean they have kept the users’ best interests in mind.
        I think it is time that these decisions are made with the involvement of a UX/UI designer (a good one – one not biased by their expertise in said technology). Technical managers should ideally at least share their reasons for using a technology – which can be translated to defining a boundary for designers to work within.

        Reply
  9. Sean Crawford

    Scott, I liked the same nugget that Millard liked, and I even stopped to think of how to make it stand out, had you wanted to do so. Then I thought of how part of the culture shock of university should be instil an awareness that there are things beyond one’s immediate imagination, that one should be able to pause… and be scientifically open minded.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Sean/Millard:

      I suppose I’m (unintentionally) riffing on:

      There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

      – Hamlet, Shakespeare

      Reply
  10. Jennifer Fleming

    When people ask what I do, I always start with “Designer.” If I get the sense that they know the industry, then I’ll explain I’m a UI/UX/Interaction Designer, depending on what my mood ring says. If they are very confused by the Internet I’ll take the user-friendly approach and say Web Design, which always seems to send good feelings all around.

    Reply
  11. Samantha Bornemann

    Funny, I do and have used the term “UX professional,” merely because it seems like a good summary of what I do and why I do it. I’m a writer, I’m an IA, but at the end of the day I’m performing those roles with a bias toward creating the best experience for the end user that I can, given all the other inputs (client, business, ROI, brand, etc.).

    I totally see how it sounds generic and overused, but when you’re talking outside of the insular little UX world of IAs and writers and designers and developers and all the other titles that the cool kids know, rounding up to the point seems appropriate to me.

    But I haven’t been throwing it out there for all that long; maybe I’ll find it doesn’t work! ;)

    Reply
  12. Ellena

    User Experience Professional is a common job title at IBM. We work on large, globally dispersed teams that typically include many non-navite English speakers. This generic job title works very well. People understand that our focus is on end user/customer experiences, usability, and design.

    They type of deliverables I produce and the different activities I do varies with each project and team. So the generic title is well-suited.

    At IBM, job titles that have “engineer” or “architect” are highly technical roles for people with hard core computer science backgrounds, and “designer” is thought of as art and visual elements. I think “professional” is an appropriate label, especially at a large, international company.

    Reply
  13. Martin Kool

    Most visual/webdesigners I know on twitter have changed their bio in “UX Designer”. I call that jumping-the-bandwagon opportunism. It has nothing to do with the title itself, but it’s causing title inflation when most of them are “mere” visual-oriented-photoshop-picture-colorpainters.

    Gotta go, my janitorial sanitation engineer is ringing the doorbell.

    Reply
  14. Garry Sibbald

    Enjoyed the post Scott, but I think you will find that it was not so much the attack on the job title “‘UX Professional’ is a bullshit job title”, as “It’s just a way to over-charge naive clients” that really got the crowd going!

    Reply
  15. kemlaurin

    LOL!
    Last November I wrote a piece for Johnnyholland where I said: We are not rare anymore. I also wrote that the field was commoditized.

    “A working definition of commodity means “a good for which there is demand.” But these goods are produced without qualitative differentiation across a marketplace. I will take creative liberty to also add to the definition and include “service” as well. Today across the board, it seems, that “anyone can do usability” – harkening to Chef Gusteau’s motto from the movie, Ratatouille, that “anyone can cook.”

    Link: http://johnnyholland.org/2009/11/09/is-ux-becoming-a-commodity/

    The above statement “anyone can do it” received some flack and criticism from some over sensitive peers, with some misreadings. Your article here is rather interesting and thought provoking. It spoke to me.

    I think one of the issues is that there are quite a number of folks out there who have parled themselves into Ux roles – often rolling with the flow and punches and taking away from what could be more scientific in nature as an area of study.

    Indeed we are overly sensitive because I think many of us lack the credentials to support our training and value. It is field ever redefining to remain relevant. I think on one other key point I agree with you is that of titling. I personally have stopped having cards printed because over the last ten (10) years in 2 companies I have had a total of 8 titles. Apart from the waste of paper its really not that important to me. I am content to just being called a “User Experience Creator” – Writer works just fine for me as well as text is not relegated onlt to words. I also write stories in all its forms.

    Great piece! Keep the provacation coming.

    Reply
  16. Jessie Mac

    I’m not great at most things but I’ll do it until I can pay someone who is an expert to do it for me.

    I call myself a writer but that’s easier than trying to explain all the things I do that I’m not sufficient at yet. It stops the conversation efficiently enough.

    Reply
  17. Mark Pawson

    Years ago at what was to become a very very successful startup the owner finally gave in and said ok we can get business cards. His adage was always if you need to give someone a card to remember you then you did a shitty job selling the product. So us developers, support and one owner had to come up with titles for ourselves. We had a rule “make it funny cause cause we take our software seriously not ourselves” so we were Dr. Help, Bug Bighter, Le Grand Fromage, Software Brewmeister etc and yes we gave these out with no shame to CEO’s of major oil companies at Trade shows after demoing our software or after company training sessions. One of our open houses I distinctly remember a few people running from station to station collecting our cards like they were going to become rare baseball cards overnight. I miss those days. I wouldn’t know what to call myself if I had to put UX on my card today. I do QA, BA, Support, UX, Team Leadership
    UC Crash Dummy maybe?

    Reply
  18. Mysoft101

    The UX professionals I run with aren’t likely to have noticed Carson’s comment. It is plainly web-centric, and we are too busy defining hardware behavior, out-of-box experiences, helping our tech support reps refine their data collection, and doing in-car/in-home/in-lab tests of physical devices and the software that runs on them to pay such a narrowband comment much notice.

    Sure, some of us know some HTML. Whoo.

    Reply
  19. Tv Serials

    On something as small as ThinkVit, Amigo or Dropsend then yes, the des/dev formula works perfectly. I’ve been all sides of this, I am the designer/developer, I have worked with startups and have been a UX on multi-million pound ecom platforms. This statement was just another example of “someone” desperately seeking attention, again.

    Quit getting so hung up on irrelevant semantics and focus on putting something out there that makes the world a better place.

    Reply
  20. Sapna Tv

    If ever you want a popular blog post – post about how “UX doesn’t exist” or “interaction designers are kitten kicking liars” and you’ll be well on your way. These are passionate, if perhaps sensitive, people.

    Reply
  21. SerialsUp

    A web site or app should be the product of a Web Designer and a Web Developer (who occasionally are the same person, as demonstrated by Shaun Inman). Anyone else who is added into this equation is a waste of money and time

    Reply
  22. Watch Indian Serials

    The funny thing is as someone who has looked at many many resumes, seeing a dozen languages listed had exactly the effect you are worried about: I knew it was impossible they knew all those languages to the same degree of proficiency.

    Reply
  23. All Hit serials

    I’m fond of simply calling myself a writer. There should be a verb in your job. Usability engineers are really analysts or consultants. Designers of all flavors are, surprise, designers. Information architects are planners. If they are expected to be leaders beyond their specialization, then add the word lead.

    Reply
  24. Daily Talk Shows

    I had an epiphany a few years back. Rather than listing every language I’d ever written “hello world” in on my resume, and i like ur post very much.

    Reply
  25. Adrian Chan

    Absolutely UX is a profession, though to use the term “professional” on a biz card borders on the ridiculous.

    And when it comes to the matter of UX practitioners and titles, indeed, UXers are among the worst. Could it be our affinity for taxonomies and schemas? ;-)

    Reply

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