Hiring, growth and the long-term cycle of user-centred design skills

Hiring, growth and the long-term cycle of user-centred design skills

About once a day I receive an email from a contact, usually the head of UX at a larger company or the founder of a design agency, and it goes a little like this:

“Hi, it’s X. I’m struggling to hire someone who can ‘…insert various user-centred design skills here…’ Do you know anyone who can start in the next 2 weeks?”

I try to help where I can and am glad when I can make good matches. It is especially gratifying when it allows those early in their careers to grow into new roles.

However, it speaks of a mounting skills problem at the intersection of user-centred design and technology. There are simply too few well qualified candidates. This is restraining the growth of design agencies specialising in this area and encouraging a short-term contracting approach within larger companies.

Setting aside the obvious and immediate operational headaches this causes, there is a more serious long-term outlook to consider. A lack of skilled practitioners leads to one of two outcomes:

  1. Either the quality of work falls as true talent is spread too thinly within teams.
  2. Or user-centred design as a whole becomes less widespread because there aren’t enough people to put it into practice.

This runs the risk of damaging user experience as a wider community of practice.

Managing the MEX initiative has given me the opportunity to see this issue from all angles, from students looking for their first jobs to agency CEOs trying to balance growth, wage bills and quality of client deliverables.

When you stand back from the problem, it becomes apparent all the actors on this stage ultimately share the same goals, but have fallen out of sync by giving in to temporary demands at the expense of long-term success.

There are a few things we can do as an industry to put it right:

  1. Dialogue with academia. The lecturers and university careers advisors I speak with are eager for greater engagement with industry to ensure they are equipping students with commercially valuable skills. However, it should be a two way street: there is much that industry professionals could learn from the experimental work going on within universities and by engaging in work experience programmes, skills sharing and mentoring students.
  2. Professional development. If even half the amount of money being spent on recruitment fees for temporary ‘UI contractors’ was re-directed to meaningful, ongoing training programmes for staff, there would be much less need to bring in hired guns for 3 month, ‘lipstick on a pig’ engagements which do little to improve overall user experience.
  3. Community engagement. Skills bloom in a culture which encourages sharing of best practice, allows time for experimental work outside of client projects and rewards those which want to evolve their own roles by collaborating across traditional departmental and industry silos.

Let’s ensure we are building strong foundations for the future of user-centred design by using today’s buoyant demand for these skills to fund the education and development programmes which will sustain growth.

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