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Tech hotshots: The rise of the UX expert

By Howard Baldwin
January 18, 2013 06:00 AM ET

What's driving the demand for such skills? Many people in the industry 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 the iPhone," says Matt Miller, CTO of 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," and the same standards apply internally, he says.

Moreover, as mobile computing explodes, a company's client base becomes both broader and more demanding of a consumer-like product experience. As Masiero notes, 10 years ago his company's sole target 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

With design at the forefront of everyone's mind, UX experts are suddenly in high demand and short supply. One reason they're hard to find is that the position spans multiple disciplines: design, programming and human behavior. "When you find that person, let me know," jokes Masiero.

"We do a little bit of market research, a little bit of psychology. We're synthesizers, pulling bits and pieces of different methodologies together," says UX designer Whitney Quesenberry, who runs her own agency 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."

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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 seeing one company offering liquor in its vending machines, and one employer 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 masters' 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.



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