The Feast and Famine of the UX Design Profession
By Raymond Stone on May 10, 2019
This article is also on Medium.
Just six months ago no company hiring user experience designers saw me as a serious candidate. I had applied unsuccessfully for over two thousand open design jobs since getting laid off in June 2016 from the consultancy that gave me my first UX job. Then everything changed. In November 2018 I received an offer from a different consultancy to work on a two-month contract, and this offer did not come from any of the companies I applied to. I will later explain the importance of the latter fact. Suddenly, I went from begging every company in the San Francisco area hiring UX designers to just consider me to receiving a modest steady stream of both email and LinkedIn inquiries from recruiters throughout the duration of my contract.
Upon the conclusion of my contract the inquiries tapered off but did not entirely disappear. I leveraged some of the inquiries that previously came through my inboxes, including one from Facebook that led to three interviews before they said “no.” But soon I received an inquiry from a staffing agency looking to fill a UI/UX Designer position in San Jose, which led to another six-week contract. Due to the reputation of the company in which I'm under contract, the stream of inquiries went from a modest 2-3 per week to 2-3 per day, leading me to create a canned response thanking them for their interest but that I am not currently available. Even then, recruiters still insist on speaking to me regarding their UX roles. The previous two sentences combined with the sentence that opened this article inspired the title.
So what changed?
I would love to sit here and say I figured something out, simply worked harder, or simply followed one of the cliché pieces of job hunting advice sprayed all over the internet, but no.
The short answer: dumb luck.
The long answer: one can compare job hunting to dating. In fact, years ago I wrote a long article comparing the two before taking it down since the writing quality no longer meets my standards. But I bring that up to exemplify the numerous parallels one can make between job hunting and dating. The parallel that applies here has to do with the scarcity principle. To put it simply, companies perceive unavailable candidates currently under contract as more valuable than unemployed candidates the same way admirers often perceive people in relationships as more valuable potential partners than single people. Essentially, a current contract provides prospective employers with the validation they need to perceive you as employable. After all, what better way to prove hireability than by getting hired? The struggle for the aspiring professional to get her/his foot in the door comes as no surprise.
On a personal note, the expression of my past career journey hardships has led to criticism from all corners of my social network. While understandable, I of course disagree with almost all of it, especially those who insinuated that my attitude kept me out of work. But why do observers of one's struggle so often attack the struggling person's attitude? Attitude gives the observer an easy target for the following reasons: it puts the struggler on the defensive, the struggler cannot easily disprove the observer's accusations, and it provides the observer an easy way of pretending to help the struggler without doing the real hard work required to discover the root of struggler's problem. If this playbook sounds familiar to you then you know the next move: you express your disagreement with the observer's assessment and then the observer uses your disagreement as evidence of her/his original point, which essentially creates an unfalsifiable claim. This unfalsifiable claim gives you as the job hunter no proper way of expressing the raw emotions of the struggle because the expression gives fodder to those privileged individuals who falsely overrate the influence of attitude on outcome. But I digress.
Why does “feast or famine” so accurately describe the design profession, especially in UX? Why am I currently experiencing the feast when just six months ago I experienced the famine? I did not magically take a significant leap forward in skill and/or experience. Recall the “dumb luck” short answer I gave earlier. For me that dumb luck came in the form of a consultancy getting a good referral about me from one of my former co-workers, allowing me to waltz into the position without even applying (which I am forever thankful). Now imagine the helplessness of living each day as a desperate job hunter with the skills and maybe even the experience to tackle most open positions in your field but understanding that countless open positions get filled without you ever knowing they existed.
This exposes the root of two thousands failed job applications followed by success arriving in the form of a deus ex machina gift on one's doorstep. But since Hollywood generally frowns upon deus ex machina storytelling, you only hear success stories with dramatic inspirational slants. In reality, the design profession feels like an exclusive club. The club lets you in when they get ready, not when you get ready, especially in the risk-averse climate of the corporate world. My advice for aspiring UX designers: keep improving, put yourself out there, wait for your moment, and cease the opportunity if one falls on your doorstep.