Dear Designer,

How to continue growing in low/no UX maturity roles (or really just in general)?

This one is near and dear to my heart, because almost every job I’ve ever had falls into this category:

It seems that most entry level user experience designers(that get their first start) aren't going to work at a strong organization like Apple (or any mature design org) and get the support they need in order to go further in their career ie getting experience for a true end to end process, support from leadership, someone mitigating their work, helping that person hone their skills, educating this person to understand the business impact of their work, etc. Since a lot of most product organizations aren't at a high maturity level and the junior designers might be reporting to someone that has no experience or expertise in design, do you have any advice how someone can make sure they're learning the right things and progressing in their career so they can be a viable candidate in the near future(instead of just doing the job and going home)? A lot of online courses and content creators are shallow at best and don't go deeper into the nuances on what a UXD needs to know to be successful on the job(and their career as a whole). There's only so far you can go with a mentor on a platform like the ADP list before it feels like you're hitting a glass ceiling with relevant advice. Do you suggest someone reads more, go to conferences, get a career coach, constantly pay musical chairs with organizations until they finally find the right fit, etc? Would love to hear your thoughts and advice on this.

A lot going on here, so I’m going to break it down a little bit. If you only take one thing away from this article though, let it be this: your first design job shouldn’t be at a company where you’re the only designer if you can help it.

What is a “low maturity” space?

If we’re going to talk about how to thrive in one, we should start by defining it. “Design Maturity” is one of many terms that has been stretched in all sorts of interesting ways to aid in creating a ton of online content. So to make sure we’re talking about the same thing when I talk about “low maturity” spaces I’m talking about: A place where the majority’s understanding of what design does is based on assumptions, stereotypes, and 2nd/3rd hand knowledge. Some examples of this: teams where everybody thinks designers can only competently talk about aesthetics, teams where nobody anywhere in the decision making chain has ever worked with a designer or a design team before, teams where they are constantly telling you they don’t know anything about design right before they tell you why your design is wrong, teams where they think design can be done in a few hours because all that’s involved is drawing a picture, teams that think design is only concerned with how things look. You get the idea.

It’s also important to note that just because a company has a high design maturity space inside it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any low design maturity spaces. I’ve worked in many roles where my job has been to grow or build design in a part of the company that doesn’t understand or work as well with design as other parts of the company. Especially as companies get larger, it’s important to remember companies are not monolithic.

How can you be successful in these spaces?

An important part of growing is being able to do your job successfully, ya know, so you don’t get fired before you can grow. So before we talk about how you can keep growing, let’s talk about how you can succeed if you find yourself in a space like this.

Be a Learner

The most important thing you can do in any job, regardless of design maturity, is learn why they do things the way they do. I’ve never been asked to come into a low maturity space where everything was just a mess and nothing was working. Most of them are usually operating pretty smoothly, they just realized there was something they wanted to do that nobody knew how to do or felt confident doing, so they decided to bring in a designer or two. It’s important to learn quickly how things run and why, because most likely that’s how things will continue to run with you as part of the team.

Be a Teacher

This is the thing you probably hear all the time. As an industry we’re in our second decade (at least) of teaching software teams “the value of design” (seriously, just do a quick search and see how many blog posts or videos you can pull up by searching ‘the value of design.’) What I’m suggesting is not that, because frankly that’s not a fair thing to ask someone who is in the first five years of their career to do. You are not responsible for convincing some CEO or VP of Product or Director of Engineering why design is valuable, and anyway they’ve hired you so they clearly think there is some value in having a design on the team. What you can teach them is more about the work you’re actually doing, be able to explain what you’re doing and why patiently, and as many times as needed (it will be a lot, at least at first.) You can be a positive example they take with them into the future as they run into more designers along their career paths. This means you have to actually understand why you’re doing things, and that turns out to be a core growth area for a lot of designers new and old.

Be Creative

A major mistake a growing number of designers, at all levels, make is assuming that Design is a thing that is the same everywhere it’s practiced. That couldn’t be less true. Successful design programs are tailored to the larger product development teams they’re a part of. When you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and what your coworkers do to get their jobs done and why they do it that way, you can start to find ways to make design fit into the space without sacrificing much of either. When you do that maturity starts to go up.

Sure, great… but how do I continue growing?

All of the things I just talked about above are major growth areas for almost every designer I’ve ever had on one of my teams. But, I will tell you a little secret. Even in the highest design maturity environments your career growth is not guaranteed. There are a lot of teams who are very good at design and very bad a fostering and growing the people on those teams. And sadly companies are investing less in professional development for all their employees.

Back when I was just starting out I worked at agencies full of people who absolutely understood the value of design (it was what they sold) and how to do it, and I learned almost nothing about being a better designer, because they just used me to get a bunch of production work done. All of this is to say: to continue growing and improving your design practice it sorta doesn’t matter what the design maturity level is at your job, you’re going to have to be intentional about growing and unfortunately that means you’re probably going to have to do a bunch of work outside of work.

So what part of your practice do you want to grow? It turns out like pretty much every other profession, there are a lot of things you could focus on.

Growing Core Skills

How many different ideas can you come up with in 5 mins? How long does it take you to sketch out an idea on on a whileboard or a napkin that another person understands clearly? How accurately can you map all the decisions and actions that make up a given task? How solid is your information/visual hierarchy when you do a more detailed wireframe or mock-up? These are just some of the core skills of being a digital product designer and the only two ways you can improve them are: practice and getting advice/a new perspective from someone who is better than you are at it to help focus that practice.

This is the stuff everyone assumes you will just get better at when you have a job and are working regularly, and to some extent you will, even if you’re the only one at the company who knows what any of those questions I just asked mean. The reality is that you are not guaranteed to improve in this area just because you’re working as a professional designer. A lot of projects are structured and scheduled in such a way that you won’t have time to try lots of ideas. A lot of teams are so overly focused on tools that they don’t sketch anything, they just jump into Figma right away, so you’ll never sketch anything (i’ve seen this at multiple companies with fairly large design teams.) Real projects are always trying to be finished as quickly as possible, and that leads to cutting corners where it makes sense and not getting to practice skills that are essential for your continued growth. This is true for high and low design maturity teams. In my experience it’s sometimes easier to practice these things in lower maturity teams because they have less process in place so you can carve out some time in a project to do some of this stuff.

Finding time to intentionally practice these kinds of skills is the main way you can continue growing your core skills. A mentor can help you with evaluations and identifying areas of weakness (See the section about mentors below first though), but really most of the work here is just sitting down and putting in the time. Notice how none of this has to do with tools…

Growing Tool Skills

You will always be working on this, new tools come up all the time and different teams will require you to work with different tools. Knowing specific tools is important but you shouldn’t become too dependent on any one tool to do your job. You never know when that tool will go away or you’ll be in a place where you have to use something else. Tool skills are the easiest skills to learn and grow. You will also always get the most practice with these skills in your job, because the industry as a whole is overly focused on tools right now. They’re also the thing that the internet does best, you can find videos and blog posts for how to use just about any feature of any tool. If your core skills are solid, you’ll actually find a lot of value in knowing a lot of different tools, and you’ll also have a much easier time learning new tools. Fun fact: basic coding is tool skills :p

Growing Social Skills

Every new designer I’ve talked to in the last 15 years has underestimated how much of their job is social. At the most junior levels at least half of your job as a designer is convincing people that the work you did is a good solution. It only grows from there. Seriously my job is like 85% social skills work at this point. This is an area where you will get a lot of practice at work, no matter the design maturity of the team. This is an area where a mentor can help you better diagnose what happened in various interactions you’ve had and help you think through the things you need to focus on.(Again, check out the section below about mentors too.) Coaches with a focus on these skills are also available, if you can afford their rates. That “Seat at the Table” everyone is always talking about? Once you get it, these skills are pretty much the only ones you use at work.

Growing Business Skills

Why should the company go with your plan? Why is it worth it to spend another three weeks refining the design? How impactful was your work? What is the next big thing going to be? These are all business skills: aka being able to explain why the things you’re proposing/doing are good for making the business more money (I know this is a very oversimplified summary, don’t at me, experienced designers.) Growth in this area is all about learning about all the non-design things about the company and market you’re working in (and eventually applying domain specific knowledge across domains to help come up with new ideas.) Going to conferences is a great way to build these skills, and by “going to conferences” I don’t mean going to Design and UX conferences, I mean going to conferences for the domain your business is in. Reading trade publications (blogs, newsletters). Take some classes. Having a non designer-mentor who knows the business you want to work in is also important for developing these skills.

Lets talk about mentors

We are in the middle of a trend that I can only describe as: Mentors as a Service. It’s never been easier to find someone who is very ready to add you to their list of mentees that they talk about endlessly in their LinkedIn posts, YouTube Videos, and on their resumes. I still haven’t figured out what the business model for this is, tbh. And no, not all of the people on these platforms are like that. But a lot of them are. So lets take a second to discuss mentors in general:

  • A mentor should be someone who has a higher level of mastery at a specific skill or set of skills than you do currently, not just someone who has been working in a job you want for a couple years longer than you
  • You absolutely can have more than one mentor
  • The mentor mentee relationship isn’t always like the relationship between teacher and student, but it should be focused on the things the mentor knows better than you do
  • Someone can fill the role of a mentor for you without you even having a formal “Will you be my mentor?” discussion. The people I’ve learned the most from in my career have never formally been a mentor

The best mentor relationships are focused on something specific. If you’re finding another designer to mentor you, know what it is you want them to help you with and make sure they’re actually good at it. Having a mentor who is a designer is great, and valuable, but having a mentor who can help you learn about the business you’re working in is truly a game changer. Try to find both if you can. And do your due diligence on them before you start taking their advice!

That was kinda a long one huh? Keep those questions coming!

Until next time 🤙