A UX Career Framework: Driving Conversations Between Managers and Employees

As UX professionals we spend a great deal of time talking about design language, design tools, and technological developments and trends, but relatively little on planning and nurturing our careers. Maybe this gap is because there is not a good “language” to help us talk about career planning and aid in managing these discussions.

Over the past year, my colleagues and I have been working on a framework to help our employees define, design, monitor, and grow their careers. The primary goal of the framework is to establish a broad set of guidelines to assist managers as they support employees. It is useful for people who want to focus on one core skill, as well as those interested in more multi-disciplinary roles or (eventually) management.

The Evolution of Roles

In the early 1990s when I started my design career, many companies required designers to possess a wide variety of skills. At smaller agencies it was mandatory. At a design studio I co-founded in the ’90s it wasn’t unusual to spend a day split between sales, marketing, maintaining the network, invoicing and accounting, coding, and (of course) designing. Design itself was a broad range of skills: competitive research, concept design, information architecture, interface design, and visual design. People started to burn out trying to be specialists in too many disciplines. Eventually—and luckily—this changed and jobs became far more specialized. What used to be a phase within a project (for example, information architecture) became a full-time job. More recently, however, the trend has swung back toward multi-disciplinary employees with less specific titles (such as product designer) and more diverse, broader skill sets.

The Framework

The primary goal of the coaching framework is to facilitate career growth conversations between managers and employees and help them assess, plan, and track someone’s career. It’s meant to be easy to use, memorable, and flexible enough to accommodate any role in UX.

Visual graph of skills in the framework

Figure 1: Plotting skills on a graph showing where someone is under, at, or above expected levels for their job makes a complex assessment visually memorable.

The Dimensions

The framework is organized into three sections, each with a number of dimensions:

  • Project skills: design and research, including product design, visual design, interaction design, and the full spectrum of research activities
  • Personal skills: competencies that allow designers and researchers to become more well-rounded, including domain knowledge, technical prowess with their tools, communication skills for making their deliverables compelling, and leadership qualities
  • Team skills: more abstract skills that take every team to a higher level. If an employee has all the core and professional skills down pat, this is where you can challenge them with changes that can wildly elevate the impact of their role—or the impact of their entire team

As you move from left to right through the dimensions, the skills become increasingly more important for a leadership role.

Project skills

1. Design

This dimension covers many aspects of design, including product, interaction, visual, prototyping, tools, process, and research. In talking with an employee about their design interests, we seek to understand where they feel comfortable with their skills and where they’re motivated to develop their expertise. We accept there are many variations for a design career. Having an in-depth discussion about which aspects are more compelling helps the manager choose suitable projects and suggest training.

2. Research

This dimension covers many aspects of research, including communication, empathy, methodologies, product knowledge and roadmap, and domain expertise. The effectiveness of a researcher can be evaluated by assessing how well they know their area of expertise, use tools and methodologies for uncovering insights, plan their work to support and guide their team with a regular cadence of insights, empathize with their user, and whether they clearly communicate customer requirements in a compelling manner. Like design, this dimension provides opportunities for learning experiences and areas of growth.

Personal skills

1. Knowledge

This is an unquestionable requirement, whether you are working in-house or as a consultant; you need to know what you’re talking about. This involves knowing your customers, the product, the competitive landscape, the details of your company’s business plan and strategy, and organizational awareness of how your projects fit into the larger ecosystem of your company’s, or client’s, product suite. You don’t need to know everything when you start out, but it’s great to create a targeted approach to your educational roadmap earlier than later.

2. Technical

Since we design and deliver web-based software, it has long been our philosophy at Salesforce.com that our team members should be well versed in browser-based technologies. In the same way that racecar drivers are able to tinker with and tune an engine, we expect our UX employees (primarily designers and prototypers) to be able to fire up a code editor and sling some HTML, CSS, and Javascript. This dimension of the framework helps identify a growth path from simple HTML, to working with Javascript libraries, to writing Javascript from scratch, through advanced technologies like native iOS prototyping. For UX researchers, we track skills related to usability testing, data mining, data analysis, and many others.

3. Communication

Building products is a highly collaborative endeavor and effective communication is mandatory. For communication we start with simple things like the cadence and transparency of your interactions with teammates and manager and the clarity of your writing. Moving into more advanced skills, we expect well-crafted presentations delivered clearly and convincingly. We expect meetings to be run effectively with clear goals and well-documented action items. And finally, we eventually expect employees to be resourceful and leverage relationships throughout the company to build cross-disciplinary teams for solving increasingly more-challenging problems.

4. Leadership

We talk about leadership broadly. It’s not just about leading people and making sure your resources are allocated appropriately. In a design organization, leadership is also about knowing your product line intimately and functioning as a design architect. A large proportion of the job is providing design direction, and to be credible managers you need a solid design foundation and detailed product expertise.

Leaders are also expected to be mentors and sought out for their domain expertise. This expertise should include deep knowledge of processes and how to leverage various methodologies effectively.

Team skills

1. Culture

Ask yourself why you’re happy at your current job (and I hope you are), and something related to culture is likely near, or at, the top of the list. Many companies and teams take culture for granted and rely on the overwhelming goodwill of a few employees to bolster the spirits of many colleagues. In today’s competitive market, it is imperative companies look inward at their culture to figure out what is working and what is holding them back from greater success. In short, culture is not to be taken lightly; it needs to be a focused effort.

We start with something really simple. Attitude. Are you optimistic, collaborative, and supportive? Do you work within a larger group and help them pull together as a team? Tied to this we expect employees to be solution-focused. It’s really easy to identify what can’t be done, so we’re always impressed by, and encouraging, our people when they instantly switch gears and look for solutions—and do so collaboratively.

Finally, we expect employees to reach across boundaries to build relationships beyond their immediate teams. This can incorporate other internal teams, external contacts through customer outreach programs, and even through relationships with nonprofits in support of our Foundation.

2. Innovation

This is one of those words that can have an initial capital or a lower-case first letter. And that’s cool. Innovation comes in all forms. To stay competitive, companies need innovation any way they can find it. This can run the gamut from better email templates to entirely new business opportunities. We encourage employees to explore new ideas in all their areas of influence and exposure. On the technical side, we expect employees to be in touch with the latest tools, frameworks, and technologies. For research it means focusing on methodologies and techniques. Behaviorally we expect employees to carve out time to free themselves from the constraints of their near-term deliverables to think fearlessly about the future.

How to Use The Framework

Having a simple framework on hand means being able to kick off a valuable discussion quickly and easily. In a 1-on-1 meeting with an employee, I’ll start out by drawing eight vertical lines, the scale, and each of the eight labels (see Figure 1). Then I’ll ask the employee to give themselves a score (from 1 to 5) for each dimension. The goal isn’t to assess performance, but to target areas where an employee is seeking to improve their skills, deepen their motivation, and provide more value to the team and company. Changing the conversation to de-emphasize the sensitive nature of a performance review is an important consideration for how to conduct these meetings. Once we put the discussion in the context of an employee’s long term goals and their career, it becomes less emotional and easier to talk about areas of development, training opportunities, new challenges, and potential projects.

Once we’ve targeted an area, or multiple areas, of development, we dig in more deeply to explore which specific aspects of the dimension need work. For example, if the employee has targeted the technical dimension and set a goal of creating higher fidelity, more convincing prototypes, then we’ll explore some short term goals like videos on Lynda.com or an intensive class at a local school. Another valuable approach is to look at coworkers with skill sets they would like to emulate. A short interview with one of those colleagues can provide invaluable insights into the best next steps.

Career Goals

Planning a career can be scary and decisions can feel like they come with the weight of destiny. Being open, patient, and creative with your employees (or manager) will serve you well in the long run. I’m frequently reminding people about the similarities between designing a product and designing a career. When working on a product we strive to become as informed as possible to leverage insights for driving our strategy. Careers are products. If a product team takes a number of iterations to get it right, why expect something different from your career? Your career is a project that requires revisiting, reassessing, and redesigning at least once a year.

Careers are important and you owe it to yourself to put together a long term plan. The user experience landscape will continue to evolve so the more thought you put into your current goals and aspirations the more prepared you’ll be to respond and make sure your career goes as planned. And by that, of course, I mean upward and awesome.

If you found this interesting or helpful, I’d love to hear from you. What would you add to the framework? What would you remove? Do you see using this framework with your team?

What’s Motivating
 Your Career Decisions?

For the UXPA 2014 conference in London, July 21-24, the Career Development track will explore and expand upon topics currently trending in our community: developing your own skills, deciding on and managing a career path in different settings, and how we train future generations.

No matter where you are in your career, you won’t want to miss these presentations:

  • Architecting your UX Career: Interview and Presentation Techniques to Help Land Your Dream Job – An informative discussion on how to approach the unique challenges of searching for a UX job.
  • Positive Design Impact: A workshop investigating how personal skills, cultures, teamwork, and collaboration contribute to delivering better, more impactful design.
  • The In-Demand Characteristics of a User Experience Researcher: A poster outlining a portrait of a “desirable” UX researcher. Great for new and aspiring practitioners!
  • Practitioners by Day, Lecturers by Night: Teaching UX to Current and Future Generations: A panel discussion on the role of academia in shaping the future of the UX and new practitioners.

Want more?

  • Read Keith Instone’s favorite articles and presentations about UX career development at http://instone.org/uxpa2014-uxcareerdev.
  • Check out the tagboard https://tagboard.com/UXCareerDev that tracks social media posts and shares what’s what (and who’s who) in UX career development. Use #UXCareerDev to share any resources you find useful.
  • Visit User Experience magazine online at uxpamagazine.org and click on the “careers” tag for recent articles.

—Alberta Soranzo, Career Development track manager (@albertarebla)

With thanks to the curation team:
Keith Instone (@keithinstone), Mike Atherton
(@mikeatherton), Joe Sokohl(@mojoguzzi),
and the reviewers.

Swinson, I. (2014). A UX Career Framework: Driving Conversations Between Managers and Employees. User Experience Magazine, 14(2).
Retrieved from http://www.uxpamagazine.org/a-ux-career-framework/

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