LinkedIn recently published a list of 50 Top Companies in the US and along with that list an inventory of the skills that hiring managers are looking for. As I reviewed the list of skills that were most in demand from the top companies, however, I was struck by how “techie” the list was.

In fact, this list could seemingly make a convincing argument that skills like web programming, Java development, cloud computing and software engineering are where it’s at, and if someone wants to work with and at companies that build tech products, it’s the programming skills and management of those with programming skills that matter most.

I work in tech and with people who do tech – I work with them all the time – at many companies.

I don’t know how to code – at least not at a production level. But there is lots of work for me and for the many others who are in my field and have related skills.

I work in the amazing field of user experience, also known as UX. What is UX? It’s tech, but it’s the user side – the user perspective – on that tech.

Tech vs. UX

User experience is a whole career – in fact a set of careers under a big umbrella – all centered at the junction of where technology meets people. As LinkedIn’s inventory of skills points out, there is A LOT of hiring going on to make sure that there are people who understand the technologies being used and can properly leverage those technologies to build products. While there may be less people focused on the people who use those technologies, they are just as important, and in fact, many of those companies in the top 50 list are well known for respecting the value of a good user experience.

These companies know that they need UX professionals to bridge the gap and the skills – connecting the tech to the business needs to the actual users who will be using their products.

If you want to work in tech and do user experience, what critical skills do you need? The most critical requirement to be a user experience professional may not typically be considered a “skill” at all – rather it’s about having the right perspective.

Understand people

A UX professional needs to understand people – in general – and specifically the user groups that the company is designing for (and “we design for EVERYONE” should never be the default answer!) A UX professional needs to not only understand human behavior but needs to care about those people. There should be passion for the success of these users – a desire to reduce their frustrations and enhance their experiences.

Value research

A UX professional needs to know that corporate assumptions about people who will be using the product can and should be challenged. That the best way to validate or invalidate those assumptions is with research – be it with research efforts like user interviews or focus groups or card sorts or ethnographic studies or cognitive walkthroughs or with perhaps the most well-known of research efforts – usability testing.

A UX professional needs to be able to challenge that user acceptance testing does not mean usability testing, and a focus group should never be used to assess product usability. If that UX professional is a user researcher (like me!) then he or she will be doing the research, but even if this person isn’t a researcher specifically, there still needs to be a solid understanding of the value of the research process and the integration of findings into the product.

Value user-centered design

UX professionals are often designers – not designers that care only about artistic merits that make the stakeholders happy and not simply designs that are designed to meet established business requirements, but designs that satisfy and are centered around users.

An interaction designer will design the interaction that users have with the system by considering research findings and what they mean for understanding users.

A visual designer will design the look and feel for that artistic merit but only in a way that values the way users are going to perceive and understand the design.

Design is also words

UX design is not just visual design and interaction design. In fact, it is also the design of words. Words are powerful, and words can lead users in the right direction or down a totally incorrect path. The words we use in our tech as well as associated illustrations are often not part of the code at all, but this critical UX skillset involves creating and editing and reducing words to the very critical prose that makes sense to users – be it a set of bullets or a short phrase or simply the label for a button or a form. A web writer may make sure that the content is solidly user-centered, while a content strategist may create rules and structure for the words used across the organization.

Design is also structure and organization

While the content strategist is focused on structure and rules around those words, the information architect makes sure that a web resource or an app is organized in a way that makes sense to users. For example, assuring that web navigation and search are intuitive to users who may be using it for the first time, with information organized properly within and between pages and screens. Sometimes though, there is a dynamic nature to how information is chunked and categorized, and then it’s the behind the scenes taxonomies and metadata and tagging structure that need to make sense to those users.

Development is not UX…

Development is not inherently UX – and this is true of front-end development too. Just because someone has technology skills that can be used to code an interface that a user interacts with does not mean that they are practicing user experience.

But conversely, user experience is by no means a closed profession or a closed set of skills. In fact, many UX professionals take pride in how open user experience can be. The UX lens and all the associated skills can be achieved from a myriad of starting points from so many different academic degrees and so many different prior learning pathways.

While anyone who wants to and is willing to take on the perspective of a user experience practitioner can do so, it involves learning a discipline – an umbrella – and at least a subset of skills within the umbrella. It involves a commitment to put the user first and foremost in your mind and always have them in your thoughts.

…But you can be a developer and do UX

If you’re already a developer and want to do UX, you certainly can. But be aware that it can be rather difficult to be an expert developer and then take such a big step back that what you’ve developed – your creation – no longer matters. You will now need to wear that hat of critiquing expert user experience practitioner who is willing to scrap, critically evaluate and change for the sake of the user without any ego, pride or development stake in the game. So, while you can be a developer and do UX as long as you have that background and learning and skills, you most likely need to bifurcate your projects such that you are not attempting both simultaneously.

Learn more about UX careers

Being a UX professional is a wonderful thing – so exciting to go beyond the technology, beyond the code – and arrive at the doorstep of the user.

Certainly, there are lots of coding jobs out there – more than UX – but I’d also challenge that there are more people who are available to do those coding jobs than those available to do the UX work – so I’d guess that at a minimum there is parity, and the balance between workers and work is maintained.

Do you want to learn more about UX careers? Watch my course on Planning a Career in User Experience and check out my recently published book: The UX Careers Handbook.


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