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Resources: UPA 2006 Idea Markets

Making it to the Top: What does it take to become a successful Usability Professional?

Activator: Andrew Schall, UserWorks, Inc.

Almost all can agree that there is rarely a single path a usability professional must travel to achieve success, though whether a professional has actually achieved success often proves difficult to measure. Traditional yardsticks such as job titles and positions seem to offer little guidance, as titles tend to be ambiguous while positions tend to overlap and unclearly defined. Despite these obstacles, many in this diverse field have somehow progressed in their career paths to become successful and well-respected members of the usability professional community. How do you define success as a usability professional? What does it take to become successful in our field?

Thought Starter Questions

1. How would you characterize a successful usability professional?

  • Why are some usability professionals better known in the community than others? What makes them stand out?

2. How do you become a successful usability professional?

  • What kinds of professional experiences are needed?
  • Is it necessary to be published?
  • What sort of educational background is required? Is an advanced degree necessary?
  • How important are professional memberships & societies?
  • What role does social networking play, if any?
  • Should you generalize or specialize?

Executive Summary

It became clear to me early on in the session that success is a very personal concept that is defined a little differently for each person. As a relatively young profession, we are constantly reevaluating our positions, roles and responsibilities within our respective organizations. That being said, I think the general consensus was that we all want the validation and acknowledgement from our clients, co-workers and peers in the field that our hard work has paid off with more usable products.

To reach our goals for success, participants generally felt that professionalism and experience in the field can often outweigh the importance of an advanced degree. This is not to say that acquiring an advanced degree is unimportant, however the real life experiences one obtains from working directly with clients and on real projects can be invaluable for career advancement. Everyone agreed that being able to effectively (and convincingly) present ideas and results to clients and peers is a key skill to be learned in order to advance in our field.

Characteristics of a Successful Usability Professional (In order of importance)

  • First, it is not easy to measure success & it is hard to define
  • Respect & acknowledgement
    • Advise sought after
    • Asked to speak at frequent engagements
    • Respect from: Co-workers, Clients, Peers in the field
  • Your work makes a difference
    • Your products have noticeable increases in usability
    • High profile clients and projects
  • Influence
    • High-ranking position
    • Clients
    • Product Development
    • Being able to hand pick your projects
  • Loving what you do
  • Being an independent consultant
  • Being well-known

How to Become a Successful Usability Professional (In order of importance):

Professionalism & Conduct (Professionalism is VERY important)

  • Publishing work, being cited (more important for academic)
  • Being a good self promoter
  • Hard worker
  • Taking initiatives
  • Willing to learn
  • Listening to others
  • Presenting ideas clearly
    • Backing up with strong data
  • Good client & team relationships
    • Negotiation skills
    • Empathy with clients and developers
    • Understanding your client’s domain
    • Linking business and usability objectives

Experience (Experience IS important)

  • Project management
  • Observing other professionals “in action”
  • Volunteering in field to get experience
  • Design experience
  • High-profile projects
  • Project experience
    • Usability testing
    • User experience
    • Requirements gathering
    • Varied project experiences—well rounded
    • Generalize first, then specialize to distinguish yourself from others in field


  • Advanced degrees (not always necessary)
  • Desirable degrees
    • Cognitive psychology
    • Human Factors
    • HCI
  • GPA not important
  • PhD’s are mostly for academics
  • Certificate programs (useful, but only when program is known)
  • Attending professional conferences and seminars
  • Self education
    • Reading peer-recommended books
    • Listservs
    • Usability websites
  • Staying on top of newest trends and techniques in usability & user experience


While the definition of success may vary slightly from one practitioner to another, participants clearly indicated that professionalism, experience and education all play a major role in determining the level of success for a usability professional.

I would like to thank everyone who contributed to the success of my Idea Market session. I look forward to future discussions with you all on this topic as our field continues to mature and expand.

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