Fake UX Jobs and how to Spot Them (and avoid them)

In this article I’ll share some advice and tips on how you can spot and avoid fake UX jobs and proceed with confidence with your next move. But first I’d like to share a personal story.

Manager: “We aren’t going to involve users with this project or do any user research, lets just go with ‘gut feel’ and flesh it out”

My internal thoughts:

Cue the warning alarm. This was the third time in a week a manager used the term “gut feel” within the context of not doing any form of user research and alluding to using our own biases as the foundation for creating products and services we were working on. I had only been working at the company for 2 months, but I was already seeing red-flags on a daily basis. I was hoping I could change things and educate managers that were clearly speaking with confidence and authority on subject matter they didn’t understand (“I need you to UX this website, go ahead and have a think about it”), but the next several months proved to be frustrating, confusing, stressful and unbelievably disappointing. I was working a fake UX job.

Although I was disappointed that a company would hire for a role which there weren’t actually any resources to facilitate or basic managerial understanding of, I was more disappointed in myself for not catching the red-flags prior to joining the company, which in retrospect are glaringly obvious.

When I shared stories of this experience with people in my network, at industry events, or online I found out something very surprising… the situation I found myself in is not uncommon in this industry. I’ve spoken with many people who voiced frustrations that the “UX” job they are were working in or had previously worked in, didn’t actually involve users in their workflow and had no process of user centered evidence-based decision making. From message boards on the internet, chats on Slack groups, to folks I met during UX meetups and tech conferences, the feedback I’ve heard seems to point to many people working “UX” jobs that are actually anything but user-centered.

What is going on here?

I’m not sure why some companies are hiring for ‘UX Design’ or ‘User Experience Research’ or (the dreaded) ‘UX/UI’ roles when there aren’t any resources in place or basic organisational understanding of the field of human-centered research and design as a whole. Many have speculated that some firms don’t understand what UX actually means and just throw the term into a job description stew, or that some companies use “UX” as a marketing gimmick or buzzword in an attempt to appear more modern and sell clients a service which they don’t fully understand. This article isn’t about why companies are hiring for a role which they can’t properly facilitate, this is an article about how you can avoid these companies and save yourself from a disappointing and potentially frustrating work experience.

Using online resources, feedback from other people working in the field, and pulling from personal experience, I’ve compiled a list of factors you should be aware of when searching for that new role. My hope is that by using this info, you can move forward with confidence that the job you take is a legitimate UX role and avoid ones that are not.

Signs of a fake UX job

Job description that emphasises coding, visual design, or marketing over user research

A major red-flag is a job description that throws “UX” onto traditional roles such as visual design, marketing, or software development. At its core UX is a human study, any job description that makes little to no mention of understanding human behaviour, user research, or testing is a major red-flag. A job role that stresses the importance of ‘pixel perfect design’, the ability to create polished and slick looking UI, in-depth front end/back end development, or inbound marketing is most likely a not a role that is focused on user-centricity and one you should avoid.

Many have voiced concerns that ‘UX/UI’ roles are also a red-flag to watch out for. Although some roles do exist in which talented folks are competent in creating polished user interfaces as well as executing user research, this is usually an exception to the rule (if you feel I’m wrong feel free to disagree and leave feedback!). Finding a person who is competent in UI design as well as legitimate user research and project planning is often times seen as a hunt for a unicorn type talent. A lot has been written on how ‘UX isn’t just UI’ (andbythatImeanatonofarticles) so I’m not going to go down that path. Just be aware of job listings that stress the importance visual design often don’t include the importance of research design. If you decide to proceed, do so with caution.

No visible sign of user centered evidence-based decision making

When interviewing for a new role, a massive red-flag is a company’s inability to articulate research methodologies used which lead to evidence-based project direction grounded in user insights. Remember, when interviewing for a position you should be interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you. Ask to see or discuss case studies/artefacts on the organisation’s research process throughout a project lifecycle and what methods were used to validate or invalidate initial hypothesis. This is a great way of not only gauge the maturity stage of the firm but can also serve as a discussion piece to ask questions and probe on why certain research and design methodologies were used or not used (or why there was no research, yikes). Likewise, you may be asked what process and methodologies you might have used on projects the company has previously worked on.

If there is no signal of user-centered rationale behind projects and deliverables that the company is showcasing during your interview process, you might want to look elsewhere for employment.

No other UX talent within the company* (this one is not always a red-flag, but might be a good chance of an uphill battle in terms of educating and getting “buy-in”)

One of the many reasons I love working at NHS Digital is that we work in an agile nature which puts an emphasis on multidisciplinary cross collaboration, working openly, sharing knowledge, and ruthless prioritisation of user needs in order to deliver the best possible services. The User Research community we have at NHS Digital and the wider Gov.UK community is full of extraordinarily talented people from different backgrounds, all bringing something different to the table. We support one another and share different perspectives and methodologies to apply to our work in order to deliver the citizen friendly services. Joining an organisation with an established team, plentiful resources, and wider culture focused on user centricity opens you to new learning experiences, enables you to do great work alongside experienced professionals, and contributes to keeping user needs and research evidence the focal point of projects that you and your team are working on.

User research is a focal point for every service which is created across Gov.UK 

With that said, being a UX Team of One can be incredibly rewarding as well, if the company culture embraces the importance of product validation through user research. On the other hand, working as a sole UX person at a company can be very tiresome, stressful, and frustrating if you are having to constantly defend the importance of your work, educating fellow workers, and possibly work with a lack of resources while still being expected to do your job and deliver value to the organisation and users. Perhaps even worse, if you join a company as the only UX employee, your direct superiors may not have a proper grasp of what a user experience role actually entails. This may lead to a frustrating work experience and leave you constantly fatigued (it certainly did for me).

A poster at NHS Digital reminding everyone that user research is a team sport. Everyone should get involved. 

This is especially important for junior folks. If you work at a firm that has no legitimate UX talent to learn from and work with, you won’t have the opportunity to sharpen your skills and may have to work hard to unlearn things you’ve pick up in such a work environment if and when you move on to a legitimate, mature UX work culture.

Jessica Ivins wrote an amazing article very much worth your time on why you should join an established UX team in the early stages of your career. Early in your career you should be seeking to join a team which has resources in place, a culture of user centricity, and senior practitioners which you can gain mentorship from.

High employee churn

This is a red-flag for alomst any sector of work so I’ll keep this point brief. When carrying out due diligence on a perspective company, keep an eye out on the tenure of certain talent. Go on LinkedIn and see if people are only staying a handful of months or squeaking out a year and moving on. If so, this might be a signal that something is off with the work environment at a company you are looking into.

I’ve found people are usually happy to share their work experiences and help out others. Something you can do to minimise risk when in the process of looking for a new role, is to research the company on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and even send a message or have a phone chat with former employees in order to get some unfiltered and candid feedback on what the company culture is like. Lots of companies pay lip service to the importance of user experience but aren’t willing to actually spend the time and money necessary to do proper user research and product validation. Talking to former employees will give you the info you need.

Great companies are able to hire and retain great talent. Terrible companies suffer from high employee turnover and disgruntles (ex)employees.

Culture that focuses on output rather than outcome

The last thing you want is to be spending your days sitting behind a desk for 7 hours a day pushing pixels or writing soul crushing documents that are not actually led by any form of user insights. Focusing on output rather than outcome is a losing game and one that great companies don’t play. A company that focuses on quick output rather than spending time gaining user insight and making meaningful solutions is one you don’t want to work for. Bad managers see time spent doing user research as an impediment to quick output. Great managers understand spending time with users leads to better work.

Realities for some

Having employment optionality is a luxury that most folks starting out or trying to execute a career pivot won’t have. For people fresh out of university or generally trying to get on the career ladder into UX, taking what you can get is sometimes a reality in order to work towards better opportunities and levelling up.

With that said, it can be helpful going into a new role with realistic expectation and an understanding that you may have to gently educate colleagues and perhaps even have to quietly accept the realities that the work setting you’re entering into may be of a low UX maturity level and under resourced. Maybe the firm your joining won’t have the time and money for things such as regular research lab visits, quality user recruitment, legitimate ethnographic research, or running a proper discovery. In order to get a feel for the maturity level of a work environment during your first few weeks in a new role, do some investigation and take inventory of research artefacts of previous projects (if there are any), explore the depth of insights and methodologies used, chat with colleagues on the challenges of past projects and how user insights were gained. Having a firm grasp of the work culture and potential gaps in workflow process will give you a better idea of the road ahead. In any case perhaps you’ll have an opportunity to evangelise and experiment with leaner approaches for gaining user insight if you find yourself in a work environment which is a bit under resourced. Or perhaps you might be met with scrutiny and dismissal of doing any research at all. Maybe spending time doing research will be viewed as an impediment to quick deliver all together. Which brings us to the next topic…

Recovering from a fake UX job

I’ve spoken with many people who have recovered from a fake UX job, some of them very senior and some of them fairly junior. One of the consistent threads of their experience is honesty and proactively protecting themselves while employed in a less than stellar work environment.

From my experience mid-weight and senior UX people have a fairly straight forward recovery process which involves reaching out to their network/recruiters, being honest with the short comings of their current work environment, and quietly moving on.

Junior folks have a bit more of a difficult time.

In the early stages of your career chances are you’re not very established and are still beefing up portfolio artefacts, professional experience and network connections. Perhaps your employer has a poor reputation in the local business community that is hindering you from making the jump to a better work environment, or maybe the projects you have worked on lack user research depth and are not good enough to showcase to potential employers. Whatever the case may be, here are some tips that could potentially accelerate your transition to a better place.

Continue learning & upskilling

Although you may not have learning and growth opportunities at your current place of work, that doesn’t mean you can’t expose yourself to new knowledge. There are an abundance of amazing books, articles, online talks and MooCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that are available for free or affordably. I’ve written before about some high quality online courses hosted online on platforms such as Coursera, EdX, and Udacity. These can serve as a learning accelerant and the credential yielded from some of these courses can serve as a good CV boost. Also, some of these courses (UCSD on Cousera & University of Michigan on EdX) have a capstone project which can work as a legitimate portfolio piece to showcase to employers.

With that said, nothing can replace legitimate applied experience with a great team.

Trying to learn user research or UX Design from a classroom environment and out of books alone is sort of like trying to become a martial arts expert by watching Bruce Lee movies and playing Mortal Kombat. I’m a firm believer people need applied experience with a great team to level up.

Attend meetups, talks, and networking events

Being visible in the in the UX community, making new connections, and learning from talks can be a great way to build your network and find out about new opportunities. Weak ties can often lead to an introduction to someone of interest, a job tip, finding out about a new company, and more. You can also join online user experience networks such as MixedMethodsCandlesReddit UX subreddit, and UX stack exchange.

An ineloquent way of putting it: Doing stuff often leads to other stuff. Stay hungry and keep moving in the direction you want and keep a positive attitude.

Opportunities don’t happenyou create them.” ~Chris Grosser

Embrace being mobile

This might not be an option for all. But one of the best piece of advice I’ve received was move to where industry is in your sector. Perhaps the area you live in an area with limited options, in that case do your research and find a place you would enjoy living that has more opportunities for high quality employment and network support.

Be honest about shortcomings

In my opinion being dishonest and playing up projects that delivered no value to users and were not based on any form of user insight is a bad strategy and one that good employers will see through. Instead be honest about shortcomings and upheavals you’ve experienced on project. Talk through what you may have done differently if give the proper resources and setting. Discuss context and identify what went wrong on a project but do so respectfully and don’t speak ill of anyone. Portfolios are supposed to demonstrate your approach. If the idea was good and the execution was bad but you can speak intelligently about what you learned from it and how you respond to failure, then it could be a good idea to have it on hand as a portfolio artefact to talk though.

Let go of the past

One of the the things you need to be prepared to do when recovering from a fake UX job, is let go of past negative experience and be intentional about unlearning things you’ve picked up in a workplace of low research and design maturity. Bringing bad habits and a lack of research depth into mature UX environment can lead to bad things. It can be difficult moving on from a work environment where people legitimately thought they are ‘doing UX’ when in reality the process might resemble something like playing with post-its, doodling on a white boards, looking at UI trends on the internet, and at best carrying out the rare 5 person guerrilla usability test. Low UX maturity work environments mimic what larger more successful firms are doing. High maturity level work environments have people in leadership positions coaching teams, facilitating legitimate user research cycles, and prioritising user generated evidence above bias.

Final Thoughts

We are in a strange time at the moment, a bit like the wild west. UX as a field has grown in popularity and has become recognised as a legitimate good business practice, however with this growth has came zero oversight or regulation. Any company can hang a shingle then proceed to market and sell “UX” as a service even when they don’t really have the capacity to deliver on what they are selling.

Unfortunately this type of inappropriate use of a legitimate profession as a marketing gimmick to make some quick cash will continue unless UX as a field adopts some form of regulation to hold employers accountable (which doesn’t seem likely anytime soon). The best approach to protect yourself from the pretenders is carrying out proper due diligence.

With this in mind, if you ever find yourself in an environment where you are not able to do your best work as a result of absence of resources, negative work culture, or managers who view user research as an impediment to quick output…find a new place to work. Don’t try and fix things. Don’t try and educate. Just leave.

It is the responsibility of your employer to:

  • Have resources in place for the role you’ve been hired for
  • Ensure there is at least a basic managerial understanding of the intricacies of human-centered research and design
  • Provide a safe, constructive and honest work environment where people can voice concerns and frustrations without fear of being reprimanded

As an employee, regardless of seniority, you shouldn’t be put in a position where you need to plead for resources and educate people who are supposed to be managing you. A bad work environment can have a negative impact on you health both mental and physical. At the end of the day life is too short to work in a bad work environment. Spending some time upfront carrying out proper due diligence during an interview process with a new place of work can be a game changer in terms of helping you avoid a bad situation. I hope that these tips assist you in moving forward with confidence in your next role.

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