It was the end of 1994 and fresh out of college, I was hired for my first UX role as a research consultant. I proudly started out in the workforce as a “human factors engineer.” In today’s parlance, I was neither doing human factors nor anything related to engineering, but the evolution of UX terminology is a story for another day.
What’s important to this discussion, is that I wasn’t a junior anything—I was just a no-prefix practitioner. There were other roles in the company I was working for that were specifically earmarked as senior, however.
So why was that? I’ve always figured that for a consulting agency, referring to a senior-level practitioner and a no-prefix practitioner probably sounded better to a client as we bid on projects – and there’s probably still some truth in that.
I’d like to take this discussion one step further, however, by saying that both practitioners and employers should be aware that these “junior” and “senior” categorizations are fuzzy at best. They don’t always tell the full story of your experience when it comes to expertise and years of experience. Knowing which roles are right for you will help you navigate the job market and pave your own career pathway.
People like categorizing others into buckets. This is certainly true for job background and experience, where there is some value to this categorization in the employment sphere. Does a job candidate have enough experience or not? Does this person have a UX brand or not? Is this person a UX leader or a leader in any way?
When all these experience-based considerations get rolled up into the title of a job description, they are often simply classified as “junior” or “mid-level” or “senior” or perhaps “director” or “principal” or (occasionally) “intern”.
UX roles are fuzzy to begin with. And while these titles may be a good place to start, it’s also important to remember that along a number of axes, these titles may always remain fuzzy.
Back before my freelancing days when I was responsible for hiring, I recall candidates who had limited experience yet came across so polished that I couldn’t help but imagine them in a senior-level role. On the other hand, some candidates had years of experience but couldn’t fully explain their background or their understanding of UX. Then when I looked them up online, I found little more than self-created and not particularly impressive social media profiles.
I’ve seen job descriptions that demand 10+ years for a senior-level practitioner, and I’ve seen job descriptions that ascribe only a minimum of 3 years of relevant experience to such a role (with “relevant” being a way to add even more fuzz).
Years of experience could be considered a rough—if not the roughest—way to classify a job description. I’d encourage employers to approach this classification with caution, or at least with an allowance for *very* wide ranges of experience.
While years of experience may be a bit fuzzy, it’s certainly fair for job descriptions to ask for certain kinds of experiences. A senior-level hire should already have decent experience—if not expertise—in whatever UX areas are most core to the job. On the other hand, a junior-level hire should have enough basic knowledge to get started, but experience can be limited and expertise is not necessary.
Always remember that as long as you have a good UX base knowledge and demonstrate fit in some functional areas of UX, other areas can be learned. So good employers should prioritize a desire to learn over exact match skillsets.
As a word of caution to employers looking for a UX unicorn —those with the ability to do everything, be it design, research, coding, information architecture, strategy, etc.— These hires are fine for a junior role which lets them sample a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But positions classified as “senior-level” will likely require solid experience and an area of expertise.
Wanting this solid experience and expertise everywhere is not fair to the designated hiring manager (good luck to them!) and not fair to you if you’re a senior-level hire who needs to be everywhere with less opportunity to build expert skills – a topic which I delve deeper into in The UX Careers Handbook.
While senior-level positions may be equated with leadership, just what does leadership mean anyway? It could mean that you’re a manager of people—responsible for hiring, employee reviews and overall management of other individuals. Or it could mean that you’re a leader of UX projects and managing UX workflow of others within a particular project. Or perhaps you’re a senior-level practitioner on a project with one or two others—and if it’s a consulting project, perhaps you’re the person who interacts most with the client.
But leadership isn’t only at work, and UX leadership value can be found in thought-leadership (writing, speaking, and posting on social media about UX) as well as UX voluntary leadership, such as running a meetup. While these examples may not represent exact matches of leadership experience with most job descriptions, they can feed into a big bucket definition of leadership seniority.
Finally, with respect to leadership, leadership has to start somewhere, so being a senior-level hire may also mean that you are at least ready for workplace leadership of some kind. As a junior-level hire, on the other hand, you certainly have no need or employer expectation of any kind of leadership, at least for the short term.
It’s okay to use classifying terms like junior, or senior, or mid-level as a general description, but beware that these can be interpreted by potential candidates along a wide range of expectations.
So keep your funnel wide! Remember that UX-ers are often hard to find, so don’t eliminate good candidates by implying hard and fast rules. And when you do talk with or meet these candidates, even if you’ve set specific criteria, be ready to bend the rules when you see alternative backgrounds that you may not have anticipated.
Look beyond the UX work experience – A passion for UX that extends beyond the workplace is a good indicator of someone who will be passionate about the UX work that they do for you. A desire to continually learn and grow even beyond the job is a good sign that as a new hire they’ll have a passion for learning things that you need them to learn.
Look beyond the classification – If you’re truly just starting out, a junior-level job is probably a good place to start. But if you’ve been in the field a few years, focus on the job description more than the junior/senior/something else marker in the job title.
Be ready to challenge – If you truly believe that your background and experience are a good fit for a position but you don’t quite qualify in some area, such as years of experience, remember that it’s okay to make the case for why you really are someone they want. Just remember that you’ll need to provide solid evidence for your case.
Build up your UX brand now – When an employer looks you up, if you truly end up being liminal to UX seniority, remember that your UX brand—what an employer will find when you are Googled—could be the thing that offers you credibility and the opportunity to take on a position that you really want.
There are no hard and fast definitions for junior, senior, director, principal or anything else. And let’s leave it that way. Loose ideas of what should make a good fit are fine for some general guidance, but both employers and potential hires should do what they can to keep their options open and see what UX adventures may await them!
Cory is author of The UX Careers Handbook (CRC Press, 2016), and a LinkedIn Learning instructor for three courses: Planning a Career in User Experience, Freelancing and Consulting in User Experience and Strategies for Successful UX Freelancers. He has been a user experience consultant for over 20 years and is the Principal and Owner of Lebsontech LLC. Lebsontech is focused on user research and evaluation, user experience strategy, UX training, and mentoring. Cory also speaks frequently on topics related to UX career development, user experience, user research, information architecture, and accessibility. He has been featured on the radio and in addition to his recent book, has published a number of articles in a variety of professional publications. Cory has an MBA in marketing and technology management, as well as an MA in sociology and a BS in psychology. Cory is a past president of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) International and is also a past president of the UXPA DC Chapter. You can also follow him on Twitter @corylebson.