How to build a career in UX: Q&A with Cory Lebson

June 14, 2017

Kickstart your UX job search with Cory Lebson’s user experience career advice

User experience consultant Cory Lebson recently brought out his first book, The UX Careers Handbook. Full of real world advice garnered from Cory’s 20 years in user experience research, the Handbook is firmly focused on practical tips to help you establish, and grow, a UX career.

Justinmind was lucky enough to catch up with Cory and get the skinny on building a career in user experience – from lifelong learning opportunities to user experience networking best practices and how to create the perfect UX resume.

Cory, you’ve just brought out The UX Careers Handbook. What’s the book about?

When I started writing the book and even now, pretty much every commercially published book on UX was about some aspect of UX methods. But UX careers was something that intrigued me for some time and was something that I was frequently writing and speaking about. So when my publisher asked me if I’d like to write a book on the topic, I quickly agreed!

Essentially there are four parts to the book:

  • Part one is about understanding what you have to learn and how to brand yourself as a user experience professional.
  • Part two is about getting a job and what kind of job you want
  • Part three is for recruiters and employers, but also people in user experience trying to understand the perspective that they should expect from recruiters
  • Part four is focused on skillsets and many different career pathways, including more common ones like interaction design, user research and information architecture, as well as less well known pathways like service design and user experience strategy

The book then led to doing a learning course on the same topic, and I have two more topics coming out on, both of which expand on the book chapter about being a UX freelancer.

Looking for more UX courses?

So is the book aimed mainly at freelancers or at anyone looking to start a career in UX?

When I’ve given talks about the book in various cities, mostly the attendees are those who are relatively new to UX, either transitioning from a different career or just graduating and ready to being their new UX career. But really, there’s something for everybody – certainly anyone starting a UX career as well as freelancers – plus those who are in UX and want to continue to improve their careers.

The other group that I frequently see at book events is recruiters who want to better understand what they’re hiring for. Employers may tell them something based on the employer’s understanding of what they need, but that might differ from what the recruiter finds when they’re searching for job candidates.

On the one hand, the book is my framework for user experience careers, but on one hand, I’m really just articulating a framework that already exists in the marketplace.

Do people need to study UX to work into it?

Anything goes in user experience! You have some people, particularly those starting out now, who’ve found it helpful to get a degree related to user experience, interaction design, human factors or perhaps visual design. While having that kind of academic background is certainly a good thing, those getting into the field years ago would not have had the same plethora of options that exist today.

And that said, plenty of people even today still come from other non-UX-centric academic programs. You really can have a degree in just about anything and then gain independent UX learning from books, blogs, lectures, and online training among other things. There is much learning that can happen after an academic degree that employers are open to hiring those who come from different backgrounds as long as they now have UX knowledge.

“You really can have a degree in just about anything and then gain independent UX learning from books, blogs, lectures, and online training”

Do you think that openness among employers is due to the fact that UX is such a young discipline?

I would say that it’s not so young a discipline. In fact, I started in the field in 1993 doing user research. It’s just the current UX packaging that is new, but the disciplines themselves have existed in one form or another for a long time.

I think part of the reason employers have to be open to different backgrounds is the supply and demand ratio. There’s more demand from employers than there is supply of people to do the user experience work. There is also so much value placed on user experience now that employers need to be open and they should be open. Different backgrounds bring great value to a career that’s focused on understanding different kinds of user groups.

How can employers find the best UX talent out there, especially when many managers don’t have experience of hiring UX teams?

First of all, I think they need to understand that there’s not just one career called UX. There are so many different fields and skillsets; employers need to figure out what they actually need. They need to ask themselves what they want done.

If they are only hiring one person, it’s best to look for someone who has the most critical key skillset the employer is looking for, and perhaps 1-3 secondary skillsets. When employers say that they want it all, that’s a mistake. It’s hard to find people who are expert in everything. Those “unicorns” are hard to come by if they can be found at all.

Also there’s a piece in the book contributed by Baruch Sachs who wrote a piece about why employers should look for an octopus not a unicorn. An octopus can be very flexible, can learn and can adapt to different situations. Baruch’s story teaches us to hire a flexible and adaptable employee who has the most critically needed skills and then help them to grow and learn in other helpful areas. It’s thus up to an employer to create the UXer they need!

That means employers don’t need unicorns or specialists, they need octopi, right?

Employers might need unicorns, but good luck to those employers in finding them. So yes, it’s the octopi that would likely serve them better. And a commitment to hiring new staff members with compatible but discrete skillsets could help as well.

There is a need for super-expert specialists too, particularly at larger companies that have a number of UX staff. Having these specialists on staff to do specific UX work is great – and having people who are flexible enough to learn new things when needed is important here as well.

You have a section on UX networking in your book. Is UX networking really different from any other kind of networking? Give us some tidbits of advice!

I remember speaking about user experience to a project management organization a couple of years back and real estate agent showed up. I asked her afterwards if she was interested in user experience, and she said “no, not at all, but everybody needs real estate.” So she just went to all the events she could, hoping that somebody there would want to buy real estate. It seemed so strange to me! It is a very haphazard strategy and not going to be that targeted market she’s looking for.

If you’re a user experience professional you need to show up at user experience events, you need to be visible on social media using the UX hashtag, you need to interact with UXers because those are the people that can help your career and help you grow.

I said that exact thing at a talk a few years back. Someone at the talk tweeted my comment and someone else who was not at the talk responded “oh that’s so rude, you’re ignoring people who are not connected with UX. You should be talking to everybody.” As an individual I want to meet everybody! The more diverse the backgrounds, the more interesting the conversations often are. However, that’s different from saying that, as a UX professional, I want to meet fellow user experience professionals. Professional networking means a focus on those people who can help you professionally in your user experience career!

“If you’re a user experience professional you need to show up at user experience events, you need to be visible on social media using the UX hashtag, you need to interact with UXers because those are the people that can help your career and help you grow”

What skills and tools will be essential for UXers in the next few years? And how will UX as a discipline evolve in the near future?

Near-term future UX work is likely going to involve the same skills that exist now, just with iterations. At UXPA 2015 Amy Buckner Chowdhry and Kerry Bodine gave an interesting talk about wearables, and they discussed doing usability testing of wearable watches. They had to introduce pillows into usability studies because people’s arms got tired. That’s a minor evolution in an existing method.

That said, technology itself is always changing. If we have a future UX focus on AR, VR or AI, what we’re going to see appropriate adaptations in our UX methods in a way that can deal with whatever technology becomes most salient.

I think Artificial Intelligence probably is going to have a big impact on UX. With AI we’ve got conversational design and research, and interactions that by definition can’t be scripted in the same way as traditional interaction design. It all depends on how the technology evolves.

If we have a world where you can virtually interact with people in a way that feels real, that could involve a lot of complexity that we can’t even imagine now.

Ultimately we’re just going to have to wait and see how technology evolves before we can figure out the evolution that it will have on user experience methods.

Tell us one thing that might surprise us about a career in UX.

One thing that’s amazing about a career in user experience goes beyond the user experience work itself. It’s exciting to go to a meetup with other user experience people because UX is a community, and a global community at that. All over the world you can meet other user experience professionals, talk about what you do and find that they practice UX in a very similar way. UX is an amazing place to be and a great community to be part of!

Cassandra Naji
Cassandra is Marketing Lead at Justinmind