I became a user experience designer in 1999. Now, with so many years of experience, I consider myself a senior practitioner. I know many other designers with similar levels of experience. As a hiring manager, I see many resumes and meet a large number of designers in person. The overwhelming majority of them have less than five years’ experience. With business’s ever-increasing demand for user experience designers, the growing understanding and appreciation for the benefits of UX design, and the fact that the discipline is in its prime, why are there so few mid-level designers?
I define mid-level as someone with five to ten years of actual work experience. They are designers on the cusp of becoming managers or team leaders. They are designers who have explored several domains (commerce, social and financial services to name just three) and who have worked in a variety of environments. They are the designers you can bring on to a team and who can hit the ground running, asking mostly process and politics questions while delivering top-notch work. They are also, in most major cities, incredibly difficult to find.
The first cause for the dearth of mid-level UX designers was the dot-com bubble of the late 90s and early 00s. For most of us who got into the game before the bubble burst, there was enough momentum to help us get through the barrage of collapsing companies and shrinking tech budgets. Most of us persevered, but others were pushed out, never to return to UX again. As tech budgets began to increase again, those of us who were still around were rewarded with more reliable work. However, the crash dissuaded many people from even considering getting into the field. There was much speculation on the instability of the industry and whether it would ever get back to the robust levels of the late 90s; many folks decided to look elsewhere.
The result of this is a five to seven year period (roughly 2000–06) during which very few UX designers entered the market. This left the veteran practitioners working and increasing their seniority yet not mentoring the next group of designers.
The second cause was the lack of education. In the previous decade there were very few options for learning anything related to human factors in design, information architecture, or interaction design. The dot-com bubble didn’t help matters. As the economy came back in the mid to late 00s, schools opened up, and greater interest was sparked in the discipline. Over the past few years some tremendous programs—like the master’s in Human Factors in Information Design at Bentley University, near Boston—have popped around the country and in the rest of the world. These programs have begun to yield a fresh crop of UX designers. Most of them are getting work and learning the trade, but they still have less than five years’ experience.
Mid-level designers are needed. You can only have so many senior folks in the same organization. The dot-com bubble and weak support from academic institutions has left us with this experience gap. The good news is that in a few years, because of the increase in academic programs and in a market that’s more and more driven by delightful user experiences, the field should be populated with mid-level folks aplenty.