Beware of Requests for User Experience Unicorns

My passion for the past two decades has been user experience, or UX. UX work is all about the connection between users/customers and the overall experience that those people have with the products that the company produces (and often even the company itself).

Since writing The UX Careers Handbook last year, I’ve heard from a number of UX job seekers who have shared their stories with me. This has given me the opportunity to hear common threads in UX job-seeker comments, some positive and some, well, not so positive. Among the not so positive, there is a general theme: “There’s this great company that I want to work for, but when I look at their job posting it seems like they want me to do it all, as well as have many years of experience doing so!”

Employer: Why Can’t I Just Find Someone Who Can Do It All?

Simultaneously, over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with both employers and agency recruiters as they hoped to hire for some UX positions. From them, a typical theme I’ve heard is “The company only has enough budget to hire one UX person. It’s important that this UX person do [insert all UX skillsets here.]”  And if they’ve tried to hire this unicorn, then I hear “Why can’t I find any good UX professionals? Where are they?”

There is no such thing as a “UX” job. That is, UX is not a singular job type. In fact, user experience should be thought of as an umbrella of skillsets. At the biggest-bucket level, those skillsets can be roughly categorized into three areas: design, research, and strategy.

There are then a whole host of job titles (I break out 14 in the book) that are matrixed into the above three buckets to form the UX umbrella. Each of these titles has various synonyms, but the top UX job-types include things like: interaction design, user research, information architecture, content strategy, content writing/information design, UX strategy, and visual design.

Searching for “UX” talent (without additional qualifiers) introduces so much fuzz into the job search process that unless you’re seeking an intern or general UX newbie — who doesn’t have experience but is willing to try a little bit of this and a little bit of that to learn — you’re likely going to end up disappointed in who you find.

What to Do if You Want a UX Professional

Whether you’re an in-house hiring manager or an agency-side recruiter, understand the framework that forms this umbrella that we call UX. Do your best to learn some of the jargon and understand some of the nuances of these careers.

Talk with the manager who wants the new hire, find out what skills — specific skills — they are looking for, and pick one — yes one — of the UX job types as your job posting title. For example, you could seek to hire an “interaction designer” who is not necessarily an artistic kind of person but has expertise in understanding who the primary user groups are, and then can create the structure of the screens, interactions, and flows that will make sense to those primary user groups.

Next, figure out what ancillary skills from other aspects of UX are needed. Maybe these ancillary skills don’t need to come with quite the same level of expertise. But consider that the fewer ancillary UX skills you’re looking for, the more expertise you can expect. For example, if the only other skillset that is needed revolves around user research, then your interaction designer also having reasonably solid user research skills (for example, experience with usability testing) is a fair expectation. But if you not only want solid user research skills but also visual design (e.g., associated artistic skills), the level of expertise in both areas is likely to be much lower.

When you construct your job description, make sure you first include skills from the primary UX job type that matches your core need, and then at least slightly deemphasize anything that is not part of that core need.

If You Need Someone to Do It All

If you need someone to do it all with a good level of expertise, you have only two options: create your own or hire more than one person.

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Create your own: Still figure out what your core needs are and put that in the job description, but then extend your description to seek out someone who may not have other UX skills that you want but who is an enthusiastic learner and interested in learning about other areas.

Hire more than one person: Start with one position in whatever areas are most urgent and see who you get. If you want interaction design + user research + information architecture + visual design and you can find someone who solidly has some of these skills, even though not others, hire them on the spot! And then start seeking out the yin to their yang to build out the remaining skills that the team needs.

Everything about UX is exciting: exciting to practitioners and exciting to those who can find those practitioners. If you’re not hiring UX folks yet, by all means still consider finding a way to get involved with those in UX roles. And don’t take shortcuts: shortcuts in building out your UX knowledge or shortcuts in properly framing those UX roles. Establish yourself as someone who can authentically understand what UX is about and who UX practitioners really are. Then enjoy the experience of finding some truly wonderful people!