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What User Experience Leaders Should Do To Create Local Opportunities

There’s a shortage of good user experience designers. It’s not going to go away anytime soon, but it’s something we can fix.

Organizations relocate people because “we couldn’t find a good fit” or “there was a skills gap” when at the same time designers are leaving because “there aren’t enough opportunities.”

Resourcing challenges make sense in places like Cleveland or North Carolina where local UX talent is in its early stages of development. Cities like Los Angeles and Vancouver, however, are losing a lot of local talent because there aren’t enough opportunities for designers to develop their careers.

UX leaders need to build the farm system in their respective cities and cultivate opportunities for designers to stay.

I’ve met more designers from Vancouver in Seattle and San Francisco than in Vancouver itself. Their common refrain: “There weren’t enough opportunities.”

UX leaders need to build the farm system in their respective cities and cultivate opportunities for designers to stay.

Cultivate local leadership

Look at who’s running your local events and ask the following questions:

  • Are they a great cheerleader for user experience, but aren’t highly skilled?
  • Are they running the group only to benefit their career and no one else’s?
  • Would you put them in front of C-Level executives to talk about the ROI of effective design?
  • Can they put together a five-year plan for growing membership and work with local businesses to create more opportunities?

If the answers to any of these is “no”, there’s a need for leadership change.

An example of the right kind of leadership is NELAUX (Northeast LA UX). Led by Jon Fox and Petra Wennberg Cesario, they have built relationships in Pasadena with Art Center College of Design, CalTech, Innovate Pasadena and Internships.com to participate in programs that will create more technology jobs.

The key: More technology jobs mean more User Experience Jobs.

“What we aim to do with NELAUX is bring the community together to focus the attention on the wealth of talented resources that are available in Northeast LA and are currently, miserably commuting across town in order to bring more tech-driven innovation to the area,” Fox says. “So far, the response has been extraordinary.”

Work with incubators

The best example I’ve seen lately is Paul Sherman’s efforts in Youngstown, Ohio. Paul, a past president of the Usability Professionals Association, is working with a business incubator. He advises startups on the block and tackling of User Experience.

His reason? He wanted better Chinese restaurants.

“We moved here three years ago because my older in-laws needed care and assistance from our generation. We’re just at that age, I guess. While Northeastern Ohio has some tech companies, there is definitely not the amount and depth of UX talent here that you’d see in Research Triangle, Austin, or even Cleveland,” said Sherman.

“It’s been interesting to bring the gospel of UX to entrepreneurs in this area, this time with a dozen more years of experience. Sometimes it’s frustrating running over the same ground I covered ten years ago with a new crowd.”

“It helps to have these entrepreneurs better understand what good UX looks and feels like from using their phones and tablets. We didn’t have that ten years ago.”

“It helps to have these entrepreneurs better understand what good UX looks and feels like from using their phones and tablets. We didn’t have that ten years ago.”
Paul Sherman

He figured if he could help encourage more startups to move into Youngstown, the number of restaurant choices would increase. Youngstown’s low cost of living and ideal location (Carnegie Mellon and Youngstown State University are among many colleges within easy driving distance) make the town a great place to develop talent effectively and cost-efficiently. That means User Experience opportunities.

We need to work with incubators that fund sustainable ideas.

Social gaming isn’t sustainable. Simple e-commerce sites aren’t sustainable. Enterprise applications and consumer products that solve real problems are, and those are the opportunities we should pursue.

Fight for more User Experience full-time positions

There’s nothing that hurts User Experience designers more than the six month contract.

Can effective products be developed at organizations where the financial commitment for developers and designers is different?

The contracts expire, corporate rules take hold, and designers can’t apply for full-time positions — not only in that group, but the whole company. If you have to take that contract short-term to pay rent, it hurts your long-term career prospects and your portfolio.

There are legions of designers with portfolios full of wireframes and nothing else. I’ve seen designers with ten years of experience and yet their portfolios shows less process than graduates straight out of school. In certain cities, like Los Angeles, it’s chronic. Agencies retrofit wireframes into concepts. It’s not unusual to see a firm advertise for a two-day engagement to show that they performed research.

As an industry, this is unsustainable.

Many organizations have legions of developers they hire on a full-time basis, yet don’t accord the same benefits to designers. This raises the question: can effective products be developed at organizations where the financial commitment for developers and designers is different?

We need to give designers a chance at the full design and development lifecycle. We should push for more full-time positions because it increases opportunities for designers to learn and grow.

Build better events

The biggest complaint I hear about local events? Too high level with content that isn’t actionable.

More presentations on Lean UX, Guerilla Research, and prototyping represent skills that many employers want, and what many designers want to hear about.

Designers would benefit from events that handle the nuts and bolts of doing user experience. More presentations on Lean UX, Guerilla Research, and prototyping represent skills that many employers want, and what many designers want to hear about.

Seattle’s UX Meetup Group events cover all ranges of the spectrum. Designers in the Pacific Northwest are very serious about doing great design, and it shows. Events like the portfolio review are much more valuable for most designers than going into the intricacies of elaborate taxonomies, a challenge they may see only a few times in their career.

The conclusion — we have to do more

It’s not enough to just hold events.

We have to be better leaders, better mentors, and reach out to local businesses to prove our value.

Doing so will benefit all of us short and long-term.