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As most of you probably know, job titles, roles, and responsibilities in the User Experience field are often ambiguous or suspect at best, and a total mess at worst. It doesn't help that most HR listings don't even include UX as a category, it almost always gets wedged somewhere under engineering.

To that end, as we define and develop our enterprise UX team we want to create sensible, intelligent career paths for both management and non-management trackx, allowing individual contributors the same leveling opportunities as management track people. Ideally this would also allow people to move back and forth between these tracks to let them determine where their strengths lie without committing forever to a single track. Also, terms like Sr., Lead, and Principal can get swapped and conflated, making for a very confusing "path."

IBM and some other companies have parallel tracks for managers and ICs, but I can't find examples anywhere. I've found various diagrams attempting to define a UX career path, but sometimes they contradict each other, many are too specific to one discipline or another, and almost none address the 2-track idea:

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I think the closest I've found so far is this one, which addresses the issue of different proficiencies in different tracks, but even this does not address really parallel tracks:

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What is your experience with this? Do you know of any other models you can share? Do you work somewhere that has this solved? Please share your insights into this!

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    Looking forward to the feedback on this. I've thought the same thing and often wondered what a principal was in the hierarchy, a partner, etc. I myself came from a visual/interaction design background and moved into UX so I went from Interaction Designer, Senior Interaction Designer, UX Manager, and now UX Director. So many different variations on what expectations are for these. – Charles Sep 12 '16 at 19:23
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    Agreed - plus here we have Leads, Principals, Principal Leads (!), UX Engineers, Sr. I and Sr. II, etc. etc. It's a mess... and as a result of all of this ambiguity and difference between companies and HR departments, I've been a "Sr. Designer" or "Sr. UX Designer" for about 12 years now (with a brief dip into Art Director), and haven't been able to progress. I sure like the simplicity of where you are! – Mattynabib Sep 12 '16 at 19:54
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    It guess will depend on the organisation you work for and how well established Design is as a discipline within that organisation. So depending on where you are in the evolution of UX within your organisation (from newbie "what is UX" to "UX is embedded in our corporate DNA and drives everything we do") – SteveD Oct 6 '16 at 13:30
  • Yes, this definitely ties in with UX maturity models... the Norman Nielsen group did a great two-part article on stages of UX maturity: nngroup.com/articles/usability-maturity-stages-1-4 – Mattynabib Oct 7 '16 at 15:17
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    I'd say that this issue really affects any 'consultancy' type of organisation, so we could learn from other fields. As you point out you can either progress as a subject specialist or you can get involved in more 'management' of time and resources and consequently become less involved in the coalface of 'doing'. – PhillipW Oct 9 '16 at 17:30
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I will attempt an answer.

My Background: 7+ years working as UX team of one, lead UX or team lead/manager type role for all sizes of companies.

I know at some large tech companies with established UX practices and org charts i.e. Amazon, etc you're classified as either IC (individual contributor) track or M (managerial) track. If you want to change tracks , they encourage that as well.

I believe it depends on how large your employer is and how defined the design team is within said employer.

Examples

  1. Director of UX at 10 person startup does tasks a UX designer, sr uxd and even a jr uxd will do because company so small.
  2. Sr uxd at a 5k-30k person corporation does tasks a UX manager and UX designer will do because they're expected to "own" the project as lead designer and manage up and down with their direct boss, higher ups, jr designers even developers and PMs.

Usually the manager will not do individual uxd roles because not enough bandwidth but I have seen some director/manager types pick and choose projects to be uxd on to "get their feet dirty" again.

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For the record, while we have not come close to fully fleshing out a solution yet, we have made some progress and are angling towards a solution. We did an audit of our existing titles and roles and found that we had 9 discrete titles for 17 people (stripping out finer distinctions such as Sr. Level II and such, which we also have):

  • Sr. UX Manager (1)
  • UX Manager (4)
  • UX Strategist (2)
  • Principal UX Designer (1)
  • Sr. UX Designer (4)
  • UX Designer (1)
  • Sr. Visual Designer (2)
  • Visual Designer (1)
  • Usability Engineer (1)

This is just for UX-specific roles, and does not include the 18 technical writers with 6 discrete titles between them.

First of all, some questions for the community:

  • How do you define Principal, and how does it differ from Senior? How does it differ from Lead? Is it always a higher level than Senior in your experience? Is it senior to or equivalent to Lead?
  • What does the term "Usability Engineer" imply to you? Does it make sense as a title?
  • Is there an individual contributor role higher than Principal before you get to Director or VP?
  • How would you combine Principal with a management role? Is that where Principal Lead comes in?

Now as I go through all of this, I'm seeing what appear to be - in our ideal world - about three discrete possible titles: UX Designer, UX Researcher, Visual Designer. These could all lead, eventually, to what I think would be a higher-level title of UX Strategist, and any or all of these could be modified into a lead or management role. Eventually anyone who makes UX Strategist and excels there could possible become an Assistant Director, Director, and ultimately VP.

Does this seem like a good progression? Lots of nuance to work out, of course, but it's a first pass - I look forward to the input from the community!

  • Principal is higher because they're almost manager level (M); They're no longer an individual contributor (IC). IC > Principal > M > Director Usability Engineer is a UI Developer in my experience. – Danger14 Jan 8 '17 at 2:13
  • Interesting - I've usually though of Lead as that kind of role, angling one towards a management track, whereas Principal I think of as a higher-level IC role. – Mattynabib Jan 9 '17 at 14:30
  • you're correct. I looked again at my company org charts. Principal is IC. ic > lead > manager > director > sr director > global director > VP etc – Danger14 Feb 18 '17 at 4:31

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