In Search of the Perfect Fit – Insights from the UX Job Title Survey

by Elena Pavlenko, Carina Kuhr, Jay Kaufmann - 12 Jan 2017

The results are in! -- One in three UX professionals aren’t happy with their job title. “I just wish my field was called something different”, they told us. Many of them avoid mentioning their title outside of a work context: “Service Designer? - Is that like designing call centers?”. But the confusion doesn’t stop there. Across the job market, it is hard to get an overview of which skills are expected from whom. Why is this so and what can be done?

Here at Zalando, we wanted to find out: Back in August 2016, we launched our UX Job Title Survey to collect stories and opinions from the community. Through forums in professional networks, social media and the UXswitch newsletter, we reached about 185 UX professionals mostly from the EU (61%) and US (28%) -- thank you all for your participation!

Here’s what we learned.

Architect, Engineer, Evangelist… Do these sound similar to you? Put ‘UX’ in front of them and you get a completely different job description. Throughout UX, the title variations are endless. In our survey, 178 people shared 69 different job titles (Fig. 1) that differ both in numbers and nature. The largest group by far is ‘UX Designer’ (24.7%). However, most job titles occurred less than five times (42.7%).

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A third of our respondents perceives their current title as unfitting (32.6%) but some of them can’t even pinpoint a better alternative (17.2%). If there are so many job titles to choose from, why wouldn’t there be a relevant second option? In order to investigate these insecurities, we asked our participants to:

  • Attribute typical skills from the field to certain job titles: “Which knowledge would you expect from the six following roles?”, Fig. 5
  • Rate the clarity of a number of job titles: “Can you predict the skill requirements for each of these job titles?”, Fig. 6

Mapping skills to job titles

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Judging from the hills and valleys in our second figure, the UX Researchers and Visual Designers stand out from the list (Fig. 2). It seems to be pretty clear what is expected from them -- with a visible peak where many people see their responsibilities in contrast to only a few votes for other skills. This could be explained by their names literally containing their operational fields, namely “research” and “visual”, which are not easily misunderstood and have a long tradition. Such distinct roles are profitable when in search of a fitting job or writing a job ad, because everyone would be on the same page.

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However, if you tried to guess the job titles from the other distributions, you would have a hard time. It gets trickier when several areas of expertise have to be combined. In our results, the UI Designer’s skillset appears to be very close to the Visual Designer (Fig. 3), but with more skills like wireframing and information architecture, and less regarding screen, logo, and icon design. The Interaction Designer overlaps to a very high degree with the Product Designer (Fig. 4), however includes other skills such as motion design.

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The Product Designer and UX Designer scarcely show distinctive features. Instead, they demonstrate a rather broad distribution over all skills, although more participants agreed on their choice when it came to UX Designer (Fig. 5). This role seems to be a good candidate for the so-called UX Unicorn many hiring managers are dreaming about -- the all-arounder who knows everything “from research, business, strategy through visual design, and front-end development.”. At this point, it should be considered that more than a quarter of the participants are themselves UX Designers (Fig. 1). Does their wide choice of skills and high confidence level mean they actually have magical powers? Probably not. It is more likely that their rating reflects the unrealistic expectations they encounter in their daily lives.

15 out of the 49 UX Designers in our survey wish they had another job title. This isn’t due to the role having a bad reputation: Amongst the non-UX Designers, 11 wouldn’t mind switching. What to one means vagueness and stress, is flexibility and space for others.

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When it comes to job ads, there might be some clearer tendencies about what is prefered. One-size-fits-all is mostly disappointing -- but who doesn’t enjoy a tailored job description, right? Still, being a UX Designer paradoxically leads to more security: On the one hand, forming the largest group amongst the job titles shows that there are many job ads aimed at them. On the other hand, the stretchable term allows the same professionals to apply to a large variety of other, more specialised descriptions just as well -- by simply referring to a subset of their skills. Maybe this gives us a clue to what a solution might look like.

A question of sustainability

What can we conclude for the future of UX job titles? From the comment section of our survey, it is apparent that there are some insecurities about their current state. “Titles in this industry are really a joke” -- Statements like this weren’t rare at all. Where are these “random”, “complicated” and “murky at best” titles coming from?

It’s possible that some of the titles use their unconventionality first and foremost to attract attention. They are aimed at expressing the company's creativity to stand out to the masses. Unfortunately, some businesses might also try to hop on the User Experience and Service Design trend and use some of these terms to benefit from the general openness towards the field. When UX becomes just another buzzword in marketing rather than containing any substance, job titles might suffer, creating further scepticism.

A participant also mentioned the aspect of inheriting the “intrinsic level of confusion” from other, older job titles, such as the UX Designer from the Web Designer. When fields grow in parallel and fast, there is not enough time to tie responsibilities to one title organically. Smaller businesses especially have to find compromises and ideally someone who knows everything (aka UX Unicorn), while bigger organizations can afford to pursue specialists.

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But it isn’t just the funny titles that get criticized. Key components of current UX job titles such as ‘UX’ (“most of the time, you can skip the ‘UX’ part”), ‘experience’ (“doesn’t mean anything and maybe never did”), and ‘designing’ (“you can only try to influence it”) have all been challenged in our comment section -- that’s how big the disagreement is. It won’t be possible to make everyone happy.

In our confidence rating, job titles adding “UX” to more traditional roles, such as User Experience Manager, UX Interaction Designer, UX Project Manager and UX Strategist, were amongst the least clear, although the position of Interaction Designer had ratings above average. When it comes to the traditional term ‘usability’, participant votes show that it’s a relic of the past, with Usability Expert having a rating only slightly above average, and Usability Engineer coming in third from the bottom.

Another idea addressed in the UX community surveyed is the shift from User Experience to Customer Experience (CX), Experience Design (XD), Product Design and Service Design. “I think we'll regret the term "user" in the future, but it's what people understand at the moment.” Looking at the clusters in job titles, those containing the word ‘architect’ might be making their comeback. When describing their job to people from outside the field, many professionals used it as an analogy to describe their role. Nevertheless, while Information Architect comes in at second on the confidence rating, the Experience Architect occupies last place. Nevertheless, new titles are also regarded with suspicion.

Summing up

Our results lead to the conclusion that the term ‘UX’ today might be mostly traditional and a sign of membership. It is less helpful in narrowing down job roles when distinctions have to be made in the job-seeking or job-advertising context. Both old and new titles are equally criticized and hard to generalize across different contexts, such as company size. While there is an apparent need for a sustainable and operational solution, some people in UX actively nourish the playful and creative naming.

From our participant’s job titles list, we noticed that there are many who have multiple job titles at once: e.g. UX Design Strategist and Concept Developer, UX Design Technologist, Digital Innovation and UX Design or Experience Strategist / Information Architect. This can be seen as a first step in narrowing down the responsibilities attached to certain positions by emphasizing the intersections of multiple titles. Nevertheless, a job title is only useful when its components are meaningful themselves -- judging from job titles such as UX Guru, this is less obvious than it seems.

We saw from our confidence rating that adding “UX” doesn’t make a job description necessarily clearer. It might be more helpful for recruiters to focus on developing profiles of so-called T-shaped people, with broad general knowledge, and one specialization that should be evident from the job title.

Curious about the people behind our data, their quotes and more results? Take a look at our detailed findings and share your own ideas and opinions with us at survey@zalando.de.

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