Developing a Usable Career Path
Robert is the Director of Professional Development on the UPA Board, and the Chairman of both the Web and Social Network committees for the 2010 UPA conference. Outside of UPA, he's the Director of User Experience at Slingshot, a digital marketing agency in downtown Dallas.
If you're considering a career in user experience, or are already well on your way with a particular discipline, you already know there are plenty of paths to follow. The field today is evolving and diverging in so many different directions; it's hard not to try something new or cross-pollinate different practices.
For example, you could start with information architecture, but learn you have more of a leaning towards interaction design, and do work in both. Perhaps you're enamored with the world of usability at first, but discover a year or two down the road that you're a content strategist at heart. Personally, I started out as an IA, but ended up exploring business strategy and user experience.
What about your own career? How do you know if what you're doing today is going to prepare you for the challenges that come, or if you decide to switch gears and head in a new direction? The answers will depend on your situation, but there are a few common activities you can engage in to find them.
Most user experience professionals today network on some level, whether its passive networking via LinkedIn or e-mail, or directly through pre-event mixers or group socials. What's important though, is whom you decide to engage with, the context of your conversation, and the questions you ultimately end up asking.
One of the activities our UPA chapter did was a networking event called 'Table-4-Eight'. The idea was simple. Invite a guest known for their work in the field of usability for dinner at a restaurant of their choice, on a date and time of their choosing. Once selected, invitations are sent out to local UX mailing lists for a seat at the table (with a limit of 6). With guests such as Arnie Lund, Dennis Wixon and Tamara Adlin, we were never short of attendees.
But for networking purposes, networking events like these accomplished two key goals. We gathered professionals of similar interest together for contextual conversation, and gave access to leaders in the usability field for direct questions on a variety of topics. We also introduced professionals to each other, who would not have met otherwise in such a casual environment.
Something that produces similar results is mentoring, though it's harder to come by. Mentoring requires a commitment of time, focus and energy for both the 'expert' and the 'novice'. However, with the right combination and a bit of flexibility, you can create outstanding professional relationships that transcend jobs and career changes.
There are two major kinds of mentoring that can help build a usable career. The first is a traditional one-on-one transaction of information between a person of considerable knowledge in their field, and a mentor who's eager to learn more about their chosen profession.
The length of the engagement can vary. For example, a 'walk-a-mile' is a simple 1-2 hour session where a 'student' shadows or observers the 'expert' in their natural environment, asking questions and taking notes. A longer-term commitment (2-3 months) usually takes the form of an internship, where a particular discipline is learned and shared between both individuals.
The second major kind of mentoring is an informal one, usually seen in small groups. Typically, no proper definitions or boundaries are drawn between those more experienced or less experienced. The group learns from one another, using a project or other catalyst as a means of working together. At various stages, those with more experience or knowledge of a domain actively explain their rationale, while other team members learn from their point of view.
To find a mentor, you usually have to do some hunting. Universities have plenty of options, but those who can mentor are typically time-strapped and/or starved for resources. Companies are sometimes eager to hire high-potential interns, provided they find the right fit. eMentoring is an option, provided the challenges of time zones, language barriers and connectivity are accomplished.
As a UPA member, you have access to our own Mentorship program. We work with your local UPA chapter or other active UX group, posting requests for mentors or mentorships. To get started, check out the following URL: http://www.upassoc.org/usability_resources/pd/become_mentor.html
If you're having trouble finding an outlet for practicing your favorite usability technique or concept, why not offer to volunteer? Organizations like the Usability Professionals Association have been built on the generosity of volunteer work for over 17 years.
In fact, the number of UX organizations looking for like-minded help knows no bounds. Here are just a few of the national organizations that you can get involved with:
However, you have to be particular about what you volunteer for, and how much time you're willing to commit to any given endeavor. If you have a passion for contextual inquiry, and you offer to do web analytics, you probably won't be able to resolve that conflict with hard work alone. Plus, if the time you're taking to volunteer starts to conflict with your professional and personal life, you'll suffer the double-whammy of over-commitment and exhaustion, which saps anyone's resolve to continue on.
Mentoring, volunteering, and networking all are quality ways to build a usable career, and it doesn't take much to start. The fine folks here at the UPA can help you take those first steps. Just let us know when you're ready.
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