UX specialists are hot commodities

As the digital world shrinks down to a screen the size of your hand, demand for user experience designers explodes.

Roberto Masiero remembers vividly the moment in 2011 when it became clear to him that designing a mobile application was considerably different than designing a desktop application.

As head of the innovation labs for ADP, the $10 billion payroll services company, he managed the engineering team tasked with creating ADP Mobile, a version of the company's human capital management application tailored to mobile devices.

"We started out with a list of 100 features that we thought were awesome," Masiero remembers, but his team's enthusiasm ran smack into the collective disdain of user experience designers brought in from an outside firm. The consultants deemed feature after feature irrelevant for mobile users, arguing that so many options would confuse people.

By the time the designers were done, they had whittled away 80% of the features. "Their message was simple: Less is more," says Masiero. In a mobile application, it's better to neatly provide the 20 most important pieces of information than it is to force users to navigate through 100 features that they might never use. "You have to drop completeness in the name of usefulness," he says.

What's more, Masiero, like a lot of other IT leaders, realized that in this age of mobility and user-driven technology, IT shops that don't have a user experience expert onboard need to get serious about begging, borrowing or stealing to find one -- and that's an increasingly difficult proposition.

Developers with user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) expertise are hot these days, according to Shane Bernstein, managing director of QConnects, a Culver City, Calif.-based digital recruitment firm. And this is a fairly recent development, he says. From 2010 to 2011, QConnects saw a 25% increase in the number of requests for UX designers; from 2011 to 2012, the increase was 70%.

Salaries are going up as well. Recruiters cite starting salaries ranging from $70,000 to $110,000, with the upper end hitting $150,000 and sometimes more. The Creative Group, a division of staffing firm Robert Half Technology that specializes in design, marketing and interactive talent, began tracking UX designers separately in its annual salary survey in 2011. Salaries for those professionals went up 6.2% in 2012, and the firm expects another 4.8% increase in 2013.

Users Expect Perfection

In design parlance, the user interface is what the user sees and the user experience is how the application behaves. Both recruiters and practitioners stress that the latter is as important as the former. Therefore, designers need to concentrate not only on how an app looks, but on the whole "wireframe" of the application, and where requests are going into the back end of the system.

What's driving the demand for such skills? Many people 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 an iPhone," says Matt Miller, CTO at 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," he says.

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