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UX Careers: An Interview with Cory Lebson

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Gerry Gaffney:

My guest today has been a User Experience consultant for nearly twenty years. His company is Lebsontech, a small consulting firm based in Maryland in the US.

He consults, teaches, talks and blogs on UX subjects. He’s former president of UXPA – that’s the User Experience Professionals Association – and of the Washington chapter of UXPA.

He recently published a book, The UX Careers Handbook.

Cory Lebson, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Cory Lebson:

Thanks Gerry, it’s good to be here.

Gerry:

UX is a broad church. What’s the range of careers we’re talking about when we say “UX careers?”

Cory:

I would start by saying; “What’s the thing that pins it all together?” And it’s what ties the experience of someone using, in general what’s technology, although it could go beyond the screen. And what ties that experience the person has with the technology over the lifecycle of their usage of that (generally) technology.

So it’s really a whole host of careers. I’ve got a number of careers in my book, I’ve highlighted a range of fields. Some of them are more standard in what people might think about, such as interaction design or user research or perhaps information architecture. Others, some people may never even have heard of, like service design or content strategy. So really it’s a very wide umbrella.

Gerry:

And I guess the very amorphousness of it maybe points to a concern that some people might have that UX is in fact not just broad but poorly defined and and in need of a better definition.

Cory:

I guess if you ask different UX professionals what does UX mean you are apt to get different definitions. I would say that’s OK. The cover of the book is a cheesecake of all different stripes. And really, everyone’s a little different, every UX professional is a little different, every UX job has a different distribution of skills.

It’s not like a certain type of doctor or certain type of lawyer. But I would say we should embrace the difference here and just come to terms with the fact that it isn’t well defined, and it’s also very exciting because it’s not, and we have a lot of flexibility as UX professionals to take our careers in different ways whilst sticking to that core focus. And again, it’s the user and the (mostly) technology that they are using.

Gerry:

What sort of education is necessary for a person considering a UX career?

Cory:

Again, like a lot of things in UX, it’s very fuzzy. Some people actually get a degree in some kind of user experience or some kind of interaction design, some kind of visual design or what have you, or psychology to lead to user research.

There’s certainly paths that people could take. However, what we often find is that people come to UX from anywhere. There’s a story in the book from a lawyer, who was a lawyer and then transitioned to UX and now is high up in a design agency.

But really, anything can lead to UX as long as someone has the aptitude and the inclination to lean something new and kind of understand this general user framework that a lot of things come to.

And that said, what kind of degree? To at least have some sort of college or university degree, of some kind, is often important, it’s a given. But beyond that, sometimes having a graduate degree of some kind, is valuable. In some cases even a PhD is valuable, but those are more limited. It’s really kind of either that Bachelor, university/college level, or a graduate degree. That’s kind of where most UX jobs will fall.

Gerry:

And what about the person who’s studied, I don’t know, economics, at college or university and they have come across this UX field and realise this is something they could be passionate about, but they’re in the wrong job. How do they make that transition?

Cory:

Economics is interesting because it’s often a lot of data. Data is often what drives our knowledge of products. Our knowledge of products can have quantitative data which probably has a lot of similarities with economics, or qualitative data which may not.

But that’s OK, so doing survey research is certainly a valid part of UX and particularly user research, and maybe that might be their in.

So they transition by first focusing on their in, and certainly having that knowledge and the reading and perhaps some learning classes and so on. But that might be a transition point where they can get into it. And once they have that foot in the door, they can expand and try different aspects of UX. If they’re in that quantitative research maybe they want to try qualitative research which has a very big footprint in the user research space.

Gerry:

I feel like I gave you a very easy question there by choosing the first top-of-my-head thing, which was economics. I was trying to think while you were talking of something else I could think of that would be a harder transition but you’ve probably got them all worked out in advance, have you?

Cory:

[Laughs.] It’s fun, it’s kind of like the matching game, you know, what UX field does this match
?

Gerry:

Can one become a UX consultant in really short period of time? I know there’s a lot of discussion about 6-week courses and 2-week courses and 1-day courses and so on. What’s the value of those, do you think?

Cory:

Well, it’s very important to have a framework. That’s just critical, to understand the UX framework. What does it really mean to be user-friendly? That knowledge, that framework, can be gained, certainly at a base level, a number of ways. Taking a course, taking an intensive course or, you know, one day a week over a long time while they do their day job is certainly a way to learn. As is reading. And everyone has different ways of learning. If someone wants to read a lot, that provides a base. I someone wants to listen to podcasts, that provides a base, too, or blogs, find out what the latest trends are in UX through the blogs.

But ultimately it’s more than just the knowledge, it’s also doing. You learn in UX by doing, it’s a very hands-on profession no matter what aspect of UX someone is doing. So ultimately the learning itself is complemented by actually doing work. That work can be within a classroom, but it can also be in the form of an internship. Just recently, someone approached me and said, “You know what, I’m doing something that’s tangential to UX, I want to do more user research, can I shadow you on a usability study?” So I said, “You know what, I’ve got one coming up in about 4 weeks.” I had not yet talked to the client – and if the client’s listening, it’s coming! – but I’ll talk to the client and say, “Hey, do you mind if this person shadows, this person will sign your NDAs and so on, it’s not going to cost you any money or time, but just helps someone learn.

Wherever someone is, if there is any UX work around, talking to somebody like that and saying, “Hey can I shadow you and add a little value by adding my skills and experiences to what you do?” And that is a great way to learn.

Gerry:

You just reminded me, I spoke to someone whom I hadn’t seen for a few years and she now runs a very large team of UX people but she started off by doing some volunteer survey analysis work for a small company that I did some work in.

I’m always a little bit wary, mind you, of particularly unpaid internships, which I think are quite popular in the US – is that right?

Cory:

Yes and no. Often the unpaid internships, at least my understanding is the unpaid internships are often tied to a course, where they actually get a grade or some sort of course credit for it. Or… this person approached me and said, “Hey can I just shadow you?”

In terms of what’s advertised here in the US, it’s often… when there is an internship it often is a paid internship, although a low-paid, often well-paid, but that at least says, “OK, we are paying you something and you’re learning along the way and you’re helping us.”

Gerry:

I guess on a tangential topic, I know you do a lot of volunteering. You were president of the UXPA at a particularly difficult time when there was a lot of financial pressure, and there was a need for a new membership model and so on, and I remember observing how much time and effort you had to put into that role.

Do you see volunteering as part of your career path or is it something that’s different or more fundamental, or how do you envisage it? And how should people considering UX careers envisage it?

Cory:

I absolutely, absolutely believe it’s important to volunteer your time professionally. If you were to Google “UX adventure,” I’m proud to say I’ve got I think the top three, last I checked, the top three hits for that term, because no-one else uses it, or at least not as I do. But basically I believe that voluteerism within UX first of all makes work more exciting. It doesn’t matter if you had a bad day on the job, if you experience different things that are not your day job then you get to explore, get to have adventures in the volunteer work that you do. Whether it’s volunteering at a meetup, whether it’s volunteering in other ways. And often, my own rule of thumb is that if it’s something that I do for pay, I generally will not do it as a volunteer activity. So if someone says; ‘Hey, we need your help, can you do some user research on our website” – for me, that’s not where I want to spend my time. That’s why with UXPA a lot of that was helping the organisation in ways that weren’t connected to my paid responsibilities.

So however volunteering fits for someone, there’s certainly ways to do that. And that said, flipping it around a little, if somebody already volunteers in a way that’s not user experience related, they volunteer for a charitable organisation, they volunteer in a soup kitchen and help provide people food, maybe that soup kitchen as a website and then they can volunteer for their volunteer work – “You know what, I want to practice my skills, and I want to help improve the soup kitchen’s website, to help people that are going to that website.” So it all ties together, volunteering and professional employment are or can be very intertwined.

Gerry:

I’ve certainly found that volunteering allows you to do things that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to do and throws challenges at you that you might not have to face otherwise.

I remember, and you already spoke about reading and listening to podcasts, reading blogs and so on, but years ago, it reminded me when I worked in electronics a boss said to me that he wished he’d been a construction engineer because the field didn’t change so quickly and there wasn’t as much to keep up with. Do you think working in UX requires a commitment to lifetime learning?

Cory:

Absolutely. Because one thing that’s awesome about technology is it’s always improving, it’s always changing, it’s always getting better, and somebody in UX needs to keep up with that, because your job depends on it. In my case I have a bunch of tech blogs that are not UX blogs specifically – I’ve got that too – but I’ve got a bunch of tech blogs that I read, I try to read for half an hour a day or maybe in an evening, if I can. I don’t always have the time. But it keeps me up on what are the latest technology trends, what tech is in the news now, where are things going, what is the future going to be like.

For me I find it very critical. Well, one, I just enjoy it, I enjoy the technology news, but I also find that it helps me on the job to know, oh, you know what, this is coming soon, this is new, this is here, this was here last year and it’s not here this year like everyone expected. But that really helps the job, that really helps to know where your career, where they big picture may be headed.

Gerry:

Do you think it’s necessary to read books on UX topics?

Cory:

Well, for me personally, I’m a visual learning. I find that I can learn much more from a book than I can from the same words in audio. So, yes, for me. I just ordered an accessibility book that came out that intrigued me because they’d approached that a little bit differently, and for me that’s very educational, very informative. For me writing a book was kind of saying well, this is something that I value and therefore I’m going to contribute with a book.

But that’s not true with everyone. Certainly having books as references is useful, there’s things that aren’t just available on the web and that’s just the way it is, that’s fine. But that said, as a source of learning, not just as reference, for some people maybe books aren’t the best way. Maybe reading it is not the best way to retain it. Maybe it is audio, maybe it is linda.com or other online courses. It just depends on how someone learns.

Gerry:

I’m sure, Cory, you’d be very familiar with people approaching you and saying something like; “I’m really interested in UX but all the companies that I talk to want at least two years’ experience.” How can the get around this Catch-22?

Cory:

It’s hard. I mean, that’s one of the hardest things… It’s actually doubly hard. The companies say; “I want this level of experience.” I’ve seen sometimes two, sometimes I’ve seen five or 10. Meanwhile, particularly in bigger cities that have tech communities, they’re saying; “I can’t find the people I want, these UX jobs, there’s too few UX’ers or experienced UX’ers for the jobs I want.”

So some of it is perhaps making that case that they come in and they say; “You know what, yeah I only have one year experience, or I’m fresh out of school but, you know what, I’m really good, here’s why: Here’s the experience I’ve had previously, here’s my understanding, I understand this framework.”

One of my very first jobs out of college was a teaching job. This was 20 years ago, and I founds something on Usenet at the time saying we’re looking for trainers for this new thing called the world-wide web. And I called them up and they said; “How old are you? I said I just graduated, I’m 21.” “Oops, sorry, you don’t have enough experience.” So I called them back and I said; “Look, you really need to give me an interview, I can do this.” They said; “OK, come in,” and I got the job.

So, what I’d say is, it’s OK to be pushy, it’s OK to say say; “OK, you think I don’t have enough experience. Let me justify it to you. If it doesn’t work, fine, I’ll walk away. But at least just hear me out.” And I would encourage everybody, anybody to do that. But that said, even if you’re not comfortable doing that or you that opportunity doesn’t exist, gaining experience in other ways, perhaps like the person who said to me; “Can I shadow you? Can I log sessions while you do a usability study?” Kind of find creative ways to do it ad-hoc. To go back to that charitable organisation and say; “Hey, I’m already working for you, can I help improve your user experience in these ways and then will you validate that I’ve in fact done these things to a new employer so I can then use that as part of my story, part of the story that I tell as I’m looking for my first full job or my first full UX job or fulltime UX job.”

Gerry:

You write, Cory, about personal branding. It sounds suspiciously like marketing-speak. What do you mean by it, and how does one manage it?

Cory:

Personal branding is just critical. Really what it comes down to is everybody, UX’er or non-UX’er, needs to have a consistent story. The book talks about, there’s two aspects to the story. One of them is, when someone finds you, you the UX job-seeker, on the web, Googles you or looks you up on LinkedIn or though other social media, they need to kind of find this internal validity, that they’re finding the same person. This is you, this is how consistently come across. But the other, kind of the more external thing that they need to find is that you actually fit into a UX mould enough.

So back to personal branding. Your personal branding needs to be this consistent story that you tell and that matches, that makes sense. If you say; “Yeah you know I do a little this and I love doing this kind of work and that kind of work,” and the work doesn’t combine and congeal in a way that tells your story, as your brand, then you’re not going to get a job.

So, personal branding, what does someone do for personal branding? Well, first of all there’s things that are totally in everyone’s control. Establish social media accounts, tell that consistent story through your social media accounts. If someone’s willing to speak at an event or volunteer at an event then that starts to show up in search engines, too, that you were there. And again that creates a story, that creates this brand, and the brand is you, the job-seeker.

It’s not that hard and it actually becomes a lot of fun once someone works to, and successfully does improve and create that consistent brand experience form themselves.

Gerry:

On a related topic, networking something that I think can be difficult. It’s time-consuming and particularly for people who are not naturally outgoing can be quite daunting. Do you have any tips?

Cory:

So, first of all, I’ve heard, I’ve even blogged about, I’ve heard a lot of UX’ers say; “I’m an introvert, therefore I can’t network. I just can’t.” In fact, it doesn’t matter whether someone’s an introvert or an extrovert. The point is, you’ve got to meet new people, you’ve got to push yourself to meet new people. ANd everyone’s shy. If someone goes into a room and you don’t know anybody there and everyone seems to know each other, it can be a scary experience. Knowing it’s a scary experience, but doing it anyway, it’s just critical. Meeting people, and those connections that someone makes is very, very important, ultimately to job success. Those connections can be virtual, they can be in-person and certainly there should be in-person aspects, there could be virtual aspects that become in-person, when you agree to meet someone for coffee which, by the way is a great thing to do. And ultimately what I believe is at some point you just start feeling like this serendipity. Wow, you know, so-and-so just offered me this great new job, so-and-so at work just pulled me into this great new project. But it’s not serendipity, ultimately, it’s those connections, this intricate web of connections that someone makes that really makes their career.

Gerry:

To change tack a little, someone will write an article to the effect that if you can’t code, you’re not a UX’er. And for example the UK’s Government Digital Service says that all their designers need to be able to prototype in code – meaning HTML and CSS I think. What do you think of this?

Cory:

So, well, it’s not true. But let’s break that down a little bit. First of all, there’s different kinds of user experience. If someone is an interaction designer, that is they’re actual designing, largely let’s say they’re designing and mocking-up web pages, understanding HTML and CSS is certainly very important, because being able to mock up an interaction in some way, not necessarily a final site but at least kind of the interaction is a valuable skill.

On the other hand, if someone’s a user researcher, they are also very solidly a UX’er, but they’re not designing the interaction on the web page. In that case, understanding in a basic level what HTML and CSS mean, being able to thus do research and provide recommendations based on true capabilities of a system, that’s certainly important, but by no means do they need to actually be coders, even in a very wide sense in that way. And I also… I just had a meeting last week when someone said; “Yeah, there’s definitely a convergence where coders are becoming UX’ers and that’s just the way it is.” I heard that and I was thinking, well, no, it’s not necessarily true. There absolutely, maybe there’s an awareness that if you’re going to code it’s important to have the user experience input as something too. But it’s a different skill set.

So while can combine skill sets, for sure, it’s not going to be everybody is combining skill sets because they understand UX is important, they know all the aspects and all the intricacies of user experience.

Gerry:

In fact in a sidebar in book you quote Susan Farrell and Jakob Nielsen talking about UX candidates and what skills they should have and they mention having a “technical vocabulary” and “an understanding of how systems work,” which I think is a rephrasing really of what you were just saying.

Cory:

Yeah, yeah. Sure.

Gerry:

Cory, can we talk a little about portfolios and resumes? Somebody was telling me the other day that they interviewed several people who clearly had useful experiences but when they looked at their portfolios they didn’t have content in the portfolio to demonstrate this. What do you think are the most important elements of portfolios and resumes?

Cory:

Really, when we think back to that branding conversation we just had, it’s the story that’s important. And that’s just as true with the portfolio, with the resume. It’s got to tell the story. When I see a portfolio, and I also spend some of my time now helping who hire UX’ers and even looking at portfolios. And when I see a portfolio that is stuff, and that’s all it is, just stuff, and they say here’s the stuff that I’m involved in, there’s no story behind it. What really matters is those callouts, those annotations. “I did this to the stuff. I made this stuff into something that was great for the users in this way.” And ultimately, those callouts, the story that someone tells around their portfolio items is going to be one of the most valuable things in getting them a job.

But that said, they have to have the portfolio items to begin with. And sometimes that’s really hard because there may be confidentiality agreements, they may not be able to publicly, to make something publicly available. Ultimately what I recommend is kind of a triage system. If they can make something publicly available, they have permission to contractually, by all means just stick it out there along with the annotations. That’s wonderful. If they can’t but it’s OK if they put it behind a password-protected space and do it by invite only, then by all means do it that way. If they have to wipe out some confidential stuff to do it, then do it that way. If they need to tell the story of what they did and say; “Look, I’m really sorry, it’s confidential, I can’t show you the items,” that’s just what they have to work with. And let’s go back to our charity organisation, they do it for free for some volunteer organisation and they say; “Hey, I’m doing this for free, can I please put it in my portfolio?” So those missing items could perhaps be supplemented.

But there’s no perfect answer, there’s no one right answer, but ultimately it’s what is going to pull together to tell that solid story?

Gerry:

These days, is a portfolio becoming more and more, I guess the same thing as a resume?

Cory:

It’s not the same thing. Certainly they’re both very important. The resume is really kind of the big picture stories that says, here’s who I am, here’s my framework of who I am and here’s the skills that I have, and here’s where I’ve been, and here’s what I’ve learned or where I’ve learned.

The portfolio says OK, let me demonstrate these skills for you, let me show you what I’ve done and how I’ve done it and how it came out, and why it was a success. One is kind of the table of contents if you will of the story. The other is an illustration, is the chapter, is the detailed chapter on one particular aspect or multiple aspects of that resume.

Gerry:

Is it better to be an external consultant or an employee?

Cory:

Well, everybody’s different. People will gravitate often to one or the other. By all definitions I’ve spent my own career largely as a consultant. For a big chunk of that career, most of the time, I was employed at consulting organisations. Eventually I went off on my own and I became a freelance, independent consultant. On the other hand I’ve talked to people who say; “You know what, I don’t like the fragmentation of the job, I don’t like not having a chance to have to go deeply, to be an in-house employee of a company.” So there are so many branches to that tree. There’s the in-house employee, there’s the consultant who’s an employee but doesn’t work in-house, but works for others. There’s the consultant who works internally and helps a large company on internal projects. There’s a contractor who may not work for a company but may work full-time for the company anyway, although certainly in some ways and particularly in some countries there’s issues with that arrangement sometimes. But nonetheless there’s a lot of different branches and ultimately it’s a combination of what’s available at a given time and what someone naturally gravitates to.

Gerry:

One of the things I liked about the book is you have all these little vignettes or stories from practitioners about what they did or how they got into the field, you had Jen and a whole bunch of other people. How did you choose those people? Were they people who interested you or what?

Cory:

When I originally posted about the book I got over 100 responses. Some came in email some on LinkedIn, saying; “I’d love to help. Can I help you?” And I went through the reposes, I looked at everybody’s LinkedIn profile. Some of them I knew personally and I… basically matched them up with topics I was looking for. That said, I was still left with a couple of topics that I really wanted that I just didn’t have, and then I just approached people who I knew from my own network and said; “Hey, you know what, I’m missing this one topic, you seem like a good match, would you be willing?” Some people said; “It sounds wonderful, I just don’t have the time,” but then other people were very willing to do that and I really appreciated all their help. Which means that with all the different contributors I think it gave the book a variety of different lenses beyond just my own which I think for me was very meaningful to have that.

Gerry:

Why didn’t you invite me, Cory?

Cory:

[Laughs.] So… How to you answer that? Actually one thing you will notice in the book is that the stories are people who generally have the least similarity to my own career because that story was already told, so it was all the different stories.

Gerry:

Well fielded! You’re a diplomat at heart. [Laughter.]

A large part of the book is dedicated to “career glimpses” and you enumerate a huge range of potential careers, and you’ve already mentioned, you’ve got content management, visual design, information architecture, user research and so on. And I guess it re-emphasises our opening point about UX being a broad field.

But it also made me think about the effects of new technology on UX careers. For example, one could envisage AIs becoming adept at creating user interfaces. Do you think there are particular UX careers that are more or less susceptible to being supplanted by machine intelligence?

Cory:

It’s interesting you mention AI, I actually just read an article, fairly recently in UX magazine about AI in user research and that article closed as I wonder if the AI will actually do the research one day. But the reality, I think what’s interesting is, with User Experience, it’s so fuzzy in a lot of ways. It’s not necessarily rule-based, because we always see the rules, and then we break the rules because it hurts the users in some way. Without having that rule base, something like artificial intelligence, it’s a lot harder to actually automate a lot of this. You don’t, while it might be wonderful to say; “Oh, let me just run a quick test and find out where my website’s not usable,” it’s actually going to be a lot harder to do that and to automate it and in some ways UX is less risky than perhaps careers that can be more automated. Meanwhile, though, conversely with the new technologies that are coming it gives us great new opportunities to for different kinds of UX. With Pokemon Go, for example, all of a sudden this thing that we’d never even… not that we’d never considered before but certainly the idea of augmented reality really wasn’t in the popular mindset. Overnight it was. And there’s going to be other things, there’s already starting to be other things that feature different kinds of augmented reality.

So you know what, we’re going to have to adapt our methods, our design methods, our research methods. And not significant changes but adaptions. But that’s fine, that’s exciting. Whether it’s augmented reality or virtual reality or different aspects of artificial intelligence or what have you, or even just screen size. You know, we go from websites, desktop, mobile, wearables, internet of things… There’s so many different kinds of, or places where UX can add value as long as we continue to adapt our methods and of course back to our learning conversation, stay on top of it and what’s happening.

Gerry:

Yeah, I guess we need to be both enthusiastic and undaunted.

Cory:

Yes. You can’t be afraid of the future when you’re in UX.

Gerry:

Cory’s excellent book is called The UX Careers Handbook and I recommend it for anyone who’s looking for a UX career, looking to develop or further their UX career or looking to transition from one section or one part of UX to another, it’s just very enjoyable. For the month of September, I believe there’s 20% off the book at CRCPess.com, so if you hurry over there if you hear this podcast in time, there may be a discount available there.

Cory Lebson, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Cory:

Thank you, Gerry. It was great to be here with you.

Gerry GaffneyUX Careers: An Interview with Cory Lebson

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