UX specialists are hot commodities

As the digital world shrinks down to a screen the size of your hand, demand for user experience designers explodes.

Roberto Masiero remembers vividly the moment in 2011 when it became clear to him that designing a mobile application was considerably different than designing a desktop application.

As head of the innovation labs for ADP, the $10 billion payroll services company, he managed the engineering team tasked with creating ADP Mobile, a version of the company's human capital management application tailored to mobile devices.

"We started out with a list of 100 features that we thought were awesome," Masiero remembers, but his team's enthusiasm ran smack into the collective disdain of user experience designers brought in from an outside firm. The consultants deemed feature after feature irrelevant for mobile users, arguing that so many options would confuse people.

By the time the designers were done, they had whittled away 80% of the features. "Their message was simple: Less is more," says Masiero. In a mobile application, it's better to neatly provide the 20 most important pieces of information than it is to force users to navigate through 100 features that they might never use. "You have to drop completeness in the name of usefulness," he says.

What's more, Masiero, like a lot of other IT leaders, realized that in this age of mobility and user-driven technology, IT shops that don't have a user experience expert onboard need to get serious about begging, borrowing or stealing to find one -- and that's an increasingly difficult proposition.

Developers with user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) expertise are hot these days, according to Shane Bernstein, managing director of QConnects, a Culver City, Calif.-based digital recruitment firm. And this is a fairly recent development, he says. From 2010 to 2011, QConnects saw a 25% increase in the number of requests for UX designers; from 2011 to 2012, the increase was 70%.

Salaries are going up as well. Recruiters cite starting salaries ranging from $70,000 to $110,000, with the upper end hitting $150,000 and sometimes more. The Creative Group, a division of staffing firm Robert Half Technology that specializes in design, marketing and interactive talent, began tracking UX designers separately in its annual salary survey in 2011. Salaries for those professionals went up 6.2% in 2012, and the firm expects another 4.8% increase in 2013.

Users Expect Perfection

In design parlance, the user interface is what the user sees and the user experience is how the application behaves. Both recruiters and practitioners stress that the latter is as important as the former. Therefore, designers need to concentrate not only on how an app looks, but on the whole "wireframe" of the application, and where requests are going into the back end of the system.

What's driving the demand for such skills? Many people lay the credit -- or perhaps blame -- on Apple, with its near-fetishistic attention to how design, hardware and interface intersect. "Now people expect everything they interface with to have the ease of use of an iPhone," says Matt Miller, CTO at Irvine, Calif.-based technical recruiting firm CyberCoders.

"Apple forces everybody to match their aesthetic," agrees Masiero. "The image of your brand is at stake in your mobile application now. Companies that have great design, whether they're a restaurant chain or a car manufacturer, have a more valuable brand," he says.

Moreover, as mobile computing explodes, a company's entire customer base will demand a consumer-like experience with its products. As Masiero notes, 10 years ago ADP's sole audience was the human resources department. That's no longer true.

"With mobile devices becoming ubiquitous, we have to serve 30 million users, from somebody on a construction site to an airline pilot to a hotel manager. And you have to create a design so that the experience is accessible to everyone, while still providing them with a sense of uniqueness," he says.

High Tech, High Touch

UX specialists are hard to find in part because the position requires expertise in multiple disciplines: design, programming and human behavior. "We do a little bit of market research, a little bit of psychology," says Whitney Quesenberry, who runs a UX design firm in High Bridge, N.J., and has done work for Novartis, Siemens, Dow Jones and Eli Lilly, among other companies. "UX is like programming -- there's not just one job involved."

Donna Farrugia, The Creative Group's executive director, insists that the more cross-disciplined UX designers are, the better. They ideally should have good design and layout chops as well as technology skills that include HTML and JavaScript expertise. "The ideal is this hybrid person who's both right-brained and left-brained, high tech and high touch," says Farrugia.

That pretty closely describes Michael Beasley, a designer at Internet marketing agency Pure Visibility in Ann Arbor, Mich. He got a bachelor's degree in both English and music from the University of Michigan and then stayed to get a master's degree in human-computer interaction from Michigan's School of Information in 2005.

"That's where I got my approach to interface design," Beasley says. "The multidisciplinary approach taught me design, human cognition and usability principles and methods. I also got a good understanding of how organizations work and information flows. That made me a pretty well-rounded person."

Meaningful Work

Why UX Designers Love Their Jobs

The job description is amorphous and challenging -- to understand a given app's interface requirements, user experience context and back-end machinations. But the pay is mighty attractive -- between $70,000 and $110,000 to start, recruiters say -- and the perks associated with a UX (user experience) position sound like the halcyon days of the Internet boom: stock options, signing bonuses, flexible work hours.

One recruiter reported that an employer offered liquor in its vending machines, and another offered designers unlimited time off (in return for results, of course).

And UX designers themselves say there are other, intangible benefits to the position. "Money only takes you so far," says Michael Beasley, a designer for Internet marketing agency Pure Visibility in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The work has to be interesting, not the same things over and over again. I like having fresh problems to tackle and the feeling that I'm making a difference for our clients."

Whitney Quesenberry, a UX designer who runs her own agency in High Bridge, N.J., says, "The real perk is meaningful work. Why would anybody want to work on something where you spend the first six months writing about requirements and the next six arguing about them?"

Quesenberry's advice for becoming a highly prized designer with both technical depth and design breadth? Check out one of the multiple master's programs, such as the one at the University of Michigan, aimed at people already in the workforce, or talk your way onto one of the hybrid design teams that are becoming more prevalent within IT departments and learn all you can.

- Howard Baldwin

That kind of background sits well with IT managers like Masiero, for whom good design goes deeper than rounded corners on icons. "I want you to be a wizard of understanding the mental model of the user and translating that into the behavior of the application. You have to always think about making the user comfortable, about not creating any friction between what the user expects to happen and what the application expects from the user."

"Designers who understand human interaction are one step ahead of everyone else," says Farrugia. "They are rare and precious commodities."

Look for Homegrown UX Talent

With so much riding on the success of mobile apps these days, most companies feel they have to find UX talent in-house instead of waiting for colleges and vocational schools to churn out more graduates with the ideal mix of design and coding sensibilities.

Many are forming multidisciplinary teams because they know it's unlikely they'll find one perfect UX expert. "A designer might not be able to program, but they should be able to have a reasonable conversation with a programmer so they understand the impact of a design decision," says Quesenberry.

Beasley concurs. "A really creative designer may help [the organization] make big leaps to a whole new level of quality. But the quantitative side is just as important," he says. "Designers would do well to get more comfortable with the technical side, to build up those skills and knowledge."

Baldwin is a frequent Computerworld contributor.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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