Tips from the Trenches: Career Advice for UX Designers and Beyond

My first job making a digital experience consisted of using a piece of software that was the precursor to the precursor of Dreamweaver (CyberStudio? Anyone??) and explaining to clients that putting text and graphics on the same page was harder than it looked… Since then I’ve been a front end developer, a designer, a dozen other jobs with transient titles, and now a product designer and strategist. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of people more talented and certainly smarter than I am, but I’ve kept my eyes open and feel like I’ve hit that grey-beard point in life where I can share some of these tidbits in the hopes they’re pearls for someone else. So here we go:

Don’t Chase Money, Chase Opportunities

I once left a good job that I liked where I worked on cool stuff for a different job that paid a LOT more, but didn’t sound as good. For that much money I figured I could suck it up and make the best of it. Six months of misery later, I was at a new job again making about what I had before while feeling a bit foolish. It’s easy to get seduced by cash — life is expensive. But trust me when I say that if you look for good opportunities to work on great projects with great people, you’ll end up happier and likely wealthier than if you just go straight for the money.

Facilitation over Leadership

The best leaders I’ve worked with sometimes didn’t seem like “leaders” at all, in that they didn’t come in with a plan and start delegating work to people. If you want to be a good leader, start with an objective in mind and then help guide your team to create the solution. By “guide” I don’t mean “subtly manipulate” them into spitting out the solution you had in mind all along, I mean inspire them, mediate between them and find ways to get the absolute best thinking you can from them. Doesn’t matter how smart you are, you’re probably not smarter than five of your co-workers put together. And while we’re on the subject…

You’re Only As Good As Your Team

Ever seen a manager who hired a bunch of dummies to make themselves look smart? Did they look smart? If you’re in a position to hire, try to find people who are great at the things you’re not so good at. Already done? Great, now start hiring people who are better than you at the things you do well. Your mission as a manager is to make yourself obsolete. Can you imagine a company worth working for that would fire the person who built an amazing team for them? Me neither. Not in a position to hire? Look for ways to support your teammates and make them shine. Offer to help where it makes sense and share in your team member’s successes. It’s not about glory, it’s about being part of a team that consistently produces amazing work. If you’re part of that team your talent will be recognized.

Feeling Like a Fake is Normal

I mean, they’ve even got a name for it. I’m not educated enough as to why this is a thing or how it works exactly, but I can tell you that if you look back at your career and you don’t feel at least a little ashamed of some of the work you did then you’re probably not looking hard enough. But when you think about how you did the work, do you feel the same way? Did you do your best? Did you learn from the things you did wrong? Was the next thing a bit better even if still makes you cringe? Well that’s pretty normal so… welcome?

Diversity is Critical

When you’re trying to make something that appeals to more than a few people, you’re going to need multiple viewpoints to succeed. Empathy is key but unless you’re an alien, your brain is pretty limited. Every person will bring their unique perspective based on things like gender, culture and even skill-set. A design team made up of only “designers” could potentially skew towards aesthetic considerations. Even if your audience is a fairly narrow segment, having additional viewpoints will only improve the final product.

Most Companies are Their Own Worst Enemies

And finally, you know who’s ripe for disruption in this world? Greedy people who put short-term gains ahead of customers. Examples are everywhere. I don’t argue that companies exist to make money, but from what I’ve seen every time they put their profits ahead of their customers, it ends up costing them money in the end. Make a good product that people actually want, charge them a fair price for it, succeed. Maybe that doesn’t maximize shareholder value, but I bet it makes a pretty good company with engaged employees and happy customers.

I’ve got a few more but we’re running a bit long here. I’d love to hear your best lessons learned though so hit me up @burtbrumme with any hard-won advice you’ve got.