I recently spoke with a junior UX designer, Ben, who’s struggled with shifting his career to UX design.
Ben’s had two jobs as a junior UX designer. At both jobs, he was the first UX designer the organization had ever hired. Ben told me about the politics at his first UX job:
The company didn’t apply much UX work to their process. They didn’t do usability testing. I thought maybe they just didn’t know what usability testing was. I thought I just had to explain it. But that wasn’t the case. The CTO received a bonus for how much software he shipped every quarter. He wanted to get his five things out the door every few months. If I delayed him, even to ship better products, it hurt his bonus.
At his most recent UX job, Ben encountered more political challenges:
The company hired me without really understanding what UX design was. The team saw the appeal of design but didn’t know why they needed it. Once I started the job, I realized my boss saw design as a visual black box—something goes in, and out comes nice stuff. The only designs I got sign-off for were beautiful, visual designs. I wanted to create things that were useful to the customer, but I couldn’t because the team didn’t see value in it.
I commend Ben for the hard work he did at both jobs. He broke into the UX field and held two jobs with “UX” in the title. (Transitioning into the UX field is difficult to do.) Ben also managed to ship some UX work to both organizations’ customers, despite the politics he faced.
However, after working two UX jobs, Ben didn’t get as much UX experience as he could have. He had limited opportunities to practice the craft of UX design at either organization.
Like Ben, Wendy started her first UX job about a year and a half ago. Unlike Ben, Wendy’s kept the same job, and she’s getting the UX experience she needs and wants. Wendy recently told me, “I’ve learned so much in this role during the first year alone. My UX knowledge has come such a long way.”
Wendy joined an organization with an established UX team. Her team includes four senior designers, two mid-level designers, and Wendy, a junior designer. She learns from these designers every day.
Wendy accompanies the senior designers on her team for working sessions. During these sessions, Wendy listens, watches, contributes, and learns. She absorbs the knowledge of her senior team members.
Wendy documents the decisions the team makes. She creates prototypes, sketches, and other artifacts. Senior designers give Wendy feedback on the artifacts she creates. Wendy uses that feedback to iterate through designs.
Like Ben’s organization, Wendy’s organization has plenty of politics. The difference is, the senior designers on Wendy’s team address the politics so she doesn’t have to.
Senior designers usually have experience with moving UX work through an organization. They often know how to involve managers, executives, and other stakeholders in the design process so the team can ship more UX work to customers.
Wendy gets to focus her energy on practicing the craft of UX design, instead of trying to navigate politics and practice the craft of UX design.
The Benefits of Joining an Established UX Team
Ben and Wendy are both learning about UX design on the job. Wendy is learning a lot more, at a much faster rate. Working on a large, established UX team helps her gain experience on a regular basis.
If you’re looking for your first UX job, I highly recommend joining an organization with an established UX team. Here’s why:
Organizations With Established UX Teams Have a UX Process
If an organization has a dedicated team of UX designers, even if it’s a small team, the organization is invested in UX at some level. It’s usually easier to accomplish UX work at an organization if UX is already part of the organization’s process.
Guy Ligertwood wrote an article about his career transition to UX. In the article, Guy mentions working at a company with no UX process:
Many businesses don’t follow a UX process. They don’t see it as important. Working for companies with no process will make life tough. I did this for a UX contract when I started, and it was no fun.
Guy goes on to say, “Work for a business with a UX process—you’ll learn so much more.” I agree.
Senior Designers Can Mentor You
Years ago, when I was a junior designer, I joined an agency with a team of eight UX designers. Five of them were senior designers.
At that job, I regularly asked the senior designers for input on my work. Their feedback was invaluable. I learned what was effective and what wasn’t. I learned when to use certain UX tools and when not to use them. I soaked up the senior team members’ knowledge like a sponge.
I worked with that UX team for nearly three years. In that timespan, I built a foundation of skills in UX design. Then, I moved onto my next job as a senior UX designer.
Senior Designers Can Address Politics
Wendy could practice the craft of UX design because the senior members of her team addressed the politics around her job. Ben couldn’t practice UX design because organizational politics got in the way.
To be clear, politics exist in almost every organization. Most UX designers struggle with organizational politics, even if they are senior designers, and even if they have experience with navigating these politics.
If you’re a junior UX team of one, you’ll have to learn to address politics, and you’ll have to learn the craft of UX design at the same time. It’s harder to gain valuable UX experience if you’re in that situation.
It’s Okay to be a Junior UX Team of One
What if the only job offer you get is for a junior UX team of one?
You’ll probably see many UX job openings at organizations don’t have a UX team, yet. This is because more organizations now recognize the benefits of UX design. They’re hiring UX designers for the first time.
It’s okay to accept a position at one of these organizations, especially if it’s the only job offer you have. If you’re dedicated to changing your career to UX design, I recommend you take the job offer. Some UX experience is usually better than no UX experience.
Make Your First UX Job a Great Job
When I spoke with Wendy recently, she told me about her career transition to UX design:
I did a ton of research about the UX field before changing my career. I learned I did not want to be UX team of one. Learning from seasoned people is what I really wanted.
Wendy got what she wanted, and she’s doing great.
The best job you can get as a UX designer is a job where you can learn UX and grow your career. If you’re looking for your first UX job, look for a job with an established UX team and a UX process. Make sure the UX team includes one or more experienced, senior UX designers. You’ll learn more with an established UX team than you’ll learn as a junior UX team of one.
There’s an extra danger of being a junior UX team of 1 – if you don’t do a good enough job, you’ll set that company back for any UXer after you, as people may conflate an inexperienced UXer’s mistakes with UX not having much worth for the company.
Jessica Ivins says
Vicky, great point. If a junior UX team of one goes into an organization, tries to practice UX, and doesn’t succeed, people in that organization may see UX as something that’s not necessary or helpful.
I’ve been a UX team of one for the past four years. It was my first job out of college, and I was the first UX person my company ever hired. It has been an enormous struggle and I wholeheartedly agree with everything in this article.
Now I’m preparing my portfolio as I look forward to finding a new job in the next year or so, relocating to a city with more UX jobs (there are literally 0 other UX jobs in my city). I’m *definitely* looking for a role that’s part of a team with people more senior than me, but now that I have four years’ experience I’m not sure whether I should look for a junior or senior position.
There is a lot of UX work that I haven’t been able to do in my current role so there are pretty big gaps in my experience. At the same time, I’ve gained a lot of experience with management (I supervise a front-end developer and a graphic designer) although I don’t really want to do this in my next role… at least not right away. I’ve also made great strides for UX within the organization, although I still hear some of my colleagues reference what I do as “beautifying the UI”. 🙁
All this to say, sometimes you can’t avoid putting yourself into a junior UX team of one role. But know it’s going to be a lot of hard work, you’ll be making lots of uncertain guesses about process and UX practices, and you’re going to be dealing with lots of politics as this blog describes.
Jessica Ivins says
Thank you for your comment! I commend you for taking on a UX team of one role out of college. That is no small feat!
I suggest looking for a role that will help you grow the skills you need/want to grow. Growing your UX skills and filling in any gaps is much more important than finding a senior title.
When I transitioned from front-end dev to UX, I went from a mid-level developer to a junior UX designer. The “downgrade” in title was worth it. I got to learn UX skills from the ground up.
Kudos on making strides. As cliche as it sounds, organizational change is hard.
Thank you again for sharing your story. Best of luck to you as you look for your next role!