How to Know When It’s Time to Quit Your UX Position
A few weeks ago, I was at dinner with a former colleague who asked, “How do you know when it’s time to leave your position?” This is a question I have asked myself throughout my career in UX and it is somewhat difficult to answer. On a few occasions, I have left a position and later regretted it. This happened earlier in my career and it was usually because I left a bad position for a worse position.
Since then, I grew as a designer and matured. In the process, I began to read the proverbial tea leaves and gain a better sense of when I had bottomed out in a position and when it was time to leave. There are generally 11 things I look at when making a decision to stay or leave an organization. And as each year ends, I conduct an analysis to determine if I am still getting what I need as a UX designer and whether I should stay or go.
One thing to keep in mind: You have to be very careful in making a decision like this. Organizations can change quickly and what left you unsatisfied one day, could very well right itself the next. Moreover, if there is a single item in the following list leaving you unsatisfied, I don’t know that I would necessarily leave a position on that basis. In short, if there are 2–3 (or more) items on the following list that are consistently making you unhappy as an employee, it’s usually a sign you should leave and find greener pastures.
A final point is to make sure you are cut out for the work. That is, are you truly happy with being a designer and working in a creative capacity? You have to ask yourself if you truly want to be a UX Designer. Because it isn’t always an easy profession. If this is the source of your angst, then the answer is clear. You need to find something else to do. A new position will eventually leave you in the same spot you are in now.
A lot of the items I list below could apply to any position — UX or beyond. But, I am focusing specifically on UX herein. Below is what I normally look for and what I use to measure my own satisfaction on an annual basis.
You dread going to work.
We have all had this type of a position — the one where you get that sinking feeling in your stomach on a Monday morning. I’ve had positions where I would sit in my car in the parking lot trying to talk myself out of just turning around, driving back home and never showing up again. In short, you simply can’t stand the work environment you are in.
In my experience, this usually revolves around personnel issues. There might be someone or some people you just don’t like working with. Sometimes, however, it is the work itself that drives you to the point of despair. I cover these items below.
When you dread going to work, it is usually because of one of the other issues I list below. However, you can have any or some of the following issues and still not necessarily dread going to work. But, if you have several of the issues below and they have driven you to the point you can’t stand your job any longer, then you have a problem.
This is something that will eventually affect your health. I have actually held positions that were so bad, they spawned routine anxiety attacks. So if you are in this type of position, you should try determine whether it is a phase or if it is longterm. You’ll only live this life once and it is better not to do it in misery unless you have no other option.
Poor dynamics with your boss.
They say employees don’t leave bad jobs. They leave bad bosses. There is some truth to this. Most of the positions I have left over the years had something to do with the person I directly reported to. Sometimes it was a minor complaint — not anything I would have left the job over. But, there are more than a handful of times where my reason for leaving was solely due to the person managing me and poor dynamics.
It’s important to have a good relationship with your direct superior — to feel needed and valued. A good supervisor can empower you. A bad one can make you feel like hammered shit. What you need to figure out in this scenario is whether you can make reparations or change the relationship. Having a bad week or month with your boss doesn’t mean you should leave. Humans do not always get along with one another or see eye to eye. It’s consistent behaviors you should focus on.
Here are some signs you are working under someone who will likely not enable you to do your best work:
- They belittle you or are otherwise cruel to you
- They don’t give you the time of day or any time with them
- They disagree with you on every point
- They give you no support
- They do not listen and are not willing to rethink their position on anything
- They don’t know anything about UX, but are empowered to make design decisions
- They have no interest in your career development
- They give you no autonomy (i.e. micromanagers)
- They give all of the meaningful work to anyone but you
No one is perfect and all supervisors will have their weak points just as you have your weak points. But, if you are perpetually contending with more than 2–3 of the above issues, move on because it is likely your boss isn’t going anywhere and they reached their position behaving as they currently do.
A bad culture fit.
Let’s face it. We have all probably worked a position where you just didn’t fit in. Maybe you don’t get invited to after-work drinks or to routine lunch outings. Maybe, no matter how long you are there, you just don’t feel like part of the team. You feel like an outsider.
Make sure you give this one some time. I have been in positions where it just took awhile to become part of the culture. Also, if you moved to take the position, you are not only in a new job, but also a new culture. I remember when I moved from Indianapolis to Chicago. Chicago is a big city and the people weren’t quite as open in Chicago. It seemed to take a little longer to develop friendships and camaraderie. Give it some time.
In the end, the organization may be too corporate for you. It might be too “hipster.” Maybe their UX process or maturity just isn’t where you want it to be. You’ll have to decide. But if you give it 3–6 months and still feel the same as you did on your first day, it might be time to simply say: “It’s not you, it’s me.” And then, move on.
The position keeps you up at night — not in a good way.
Many of us have suffered through sleepless nights worrying about a project or deadline or maybe even thinking through a design problem we are trying to solve. That’s fairly normal and most of the time, a good thing. But, if you are kept up at night because any of the other items mentioned in this article, it might not be such a good thing.
If your supervisor won’t listen to you, for example, and you stay up nights obsessing over the impending train wreck on one of your projects, that’s not healthy for you. If you wake up in the middle of the night worried your career is going nowhere or you’re dreading the next day, it might be time to do some analysis.
First, make sure the problem isn’t you and your perceptions or expectations of how whatever is bothering you should have occurred differently. Our perceptions are often misinterpretations of reality and our expectations are fabrications grounded in our own egos. You work with people who have different experiences and a different worldview than you. They will approach projects differently.
But, if the problem isn’t you and you have no control over it, you are in a bad situation. This is especially true if your career is hanging in the balance, you are suffering some form of abuse or any of the other items listed in this article are keeping you up at night. When you can’t get around the sleepless nights, it might be time to think about that next position.
The work is not challenging.
I’ve worked in several positions where someone — usually a business analyst — will routinely come to me explaining a new feature in the software where the user needs to be able to perform a function. I would ask questions, listen and then quickly deduce I was being asked to design a drop menu or some other simple control, the greatest challenge only being where to shoehorn it into the already packed screen.
Look, you are going to get these types of assignments no matter where you work. But, if this is the greatest challenge you face a good percentage of the time, the work will become boring. You need to be challenged with complex problems so you can grow as a designer.
Another way work becomes less challenging is when you simply aren’t able to push projects to the edge of UX capabilities and create a truly engaging and well-designed experience. If you find projects are continually scoped down to a point where you aren’t really creating anything awe-inspiring or even remotely interesting, you are just collecting a paycheck.
The question to ask yourself is: Are you excited about any of the projects you work on? I get excited about projects and sometimes love it when I hit a wall with a challenging project or design. It’s the type of thing that will keep me up at night or force me to turn off the podcasts on the way home so I can think about it. That’s challenging work. Maybe you don’t need to get as passionate as I do. But, you should be interested in your work. For lack of another buzzword, you should be engaged somewhat with what you are doing and not “sweeping the same dirt around on the floor” with projects.
Your career will not move forward in the position you hold.
There are several facets to this — the first of which is the point above concerning challenging work. If you aren’t growing and honing your skills, you are essentially running in place. I think most designers get to this point no matter where they work. You learn the domain, you learn everything about the company and their processes and you know the software you work on inside and out. That’s a good thing. But, it can put a designer in a spot where they aren’t really moving forward any longer or flexing their UX muscles.
Another facet of this involves promotion. I lead a team and tell each member of my team they should set their sights on the next rung of the ladder in the corporate or organizational structure. For a senior designer, I should be giving them just enough responsibility they can begin to learn my job — the lead. For junior designers, I try to challenge them so they’ll grow into a senior designer. Whether they grow into these positions on my team or move to another organization is inconsequential. UX is a small world and if they go to another organization, I may work with them again someday. I figure it is my job to ensure I help our profession by growing my team professionally.
Do note: Promotions do not always equate to “growth.” Some UX professionals are perfectly happy to keep designing and do not desire a lead position or promotion. For them, professional growth equates to learning other design skills or updating their knowledge.
If you can’t grow to the next position or if there is nowhere for you to go professionally, you may not be able to move forward. You’ll get to a point where, in order to move forward, you’ll have to find a new job. It might be new skills you need to pick up or it might be that next step up in position. Regardless, you don’t want to stay motionless forever.
The company is downsizing or not doing well.
This one is pretty obvious. If you are in an industry or niche that is tanking or you can see the writing on the wall, it’s time to think about other options. The first sign of this is often a radical and sweeping change in leadership along with market drops. Before that happens, you might see an effort by the company to track time or they may conduct a wide scale audit to assess efficiency. There will be most certainly be budget cuts. Did the free beer tap suddenly disappear? Did the free snacks in the break area become non-existent? There are a lot of signs to indicate a company is not doing well and I won’t go into them all here. But if a company is going to “cut the fat” and lean up, UX is one of the first places many of them will start. You can roll the dice and wait out the pink slip or update your resume and move on.
One thing to keep in mind concerning this point: If you work in a large organization, a department or specific project can become a target. For example, you might work on a special project — perhaps a mobile division or a different arm of the company that generates less revenue. It’s conceivable a company might cut the fat by eliminating or reducing that effort and thus affecting your position within the organization.
You don’t agree with the company direction, politics or ethics.
What this really comes down to is: Do you believe in what you are doing? Are the company values in line with your personal philosophy and your own values? There are the obvious situations where you might be designing for a tobacco company and someone in your family died of lung cancer. But, most of the issues we might have are not so clearcut as this.
I think it would be rare for someone to work for a company where they wholeheartedly agree with everything the organization does. I work in healthcare where companies profit from the misfortune of the sick. These same companies also help those people and must turn a profit in order to sustain themselves and help those people. It’s a murky area in terms of ethics.
Ethics and politics aside, it’s possible you simply don’t agree with the direction of the projects you work on. For example, an organization may decide to increase revenue through advertising and enlist you to design multiple pop-up advertisements on every page with a specific request for you to ensure the cancel function is difficult for a user to find. Your organization might decide to move in a direction opposite of what user research shows.
If you get to point where you consistently do not believe in what you are doing any longer, you’ll eventually need to move or become apathetic about your work. I can think of nothing worse than enduring my own apathy for 40–50 hours per week.
You’re not making an impact.
You get to decide how you make an impact or what impact you wish to make. At the end of the day, UX professionals make users’ lives easier in some respect. That is an impact in the most simplistic form. You design something that improves someone’s life in some way. You don’t necessarily have to save the world or save baby seals. But, what we do as UX professionals often enables larger impacts. If you work in healthcare, as I do, there is a clear path to follow concerning the impact of UX.
When the day is done and the meetings have ceased, what did you accomplish? How is the world — even the smallest part of it — slightly better off as a result of your efforts? For many of us, these questions are important because they establish meaning in our lives and justify that enormous fraction of our lives spent toiling away to pay the bills and put food in our mouths.
When there is nothing tangible you produce each day with no impact made, some of us begin to feel a sense purposelessness in our lives. If your designing pop-ups and drop menus, not only is this not challenging, but it also doesn’t engender a sense of meaning in what we do. And, the impact of our work comes in question. If you don’t feel you are making the right impact or any impact, you might spend some time in reflection determining what it is you want — what impact you wish to make. Seek that out in your next position.
There is no “U” in your UX.
Though UX is becoming more prevalent in organizations today, there are still many places where user research and UX research is an afterthought or not even a thought at all. If you work in a place (like I have) where user research is scant, are you really designing for the user? Are you really a user experience designer if your team never has contact with a user? Are your designs UX designs if the first time a user sees them is when the product is released?
Many companies espouse the agile process and releasing a product as quickly as possible. They’ll cut corners on UX, research and even cut scope to make their release date. (Ironically they rarely cut corners on legal issues, federal regulations around an industry or the marketing aspect of what they are producing.)
If you work with a company who is just building their UX team, you’ll have to have patience and spend time advocating for research (along with UX and design-thinking). But, if you can make no headway in this respect, you will be left designing in the dark. You might just as well put on a blindfold and randomly design your screens because what you will be doing will not be user experience design and merely interface design without user input. I have worked many of these positions and left them. The work usually ceases to be challenging and I always came to the conclusion that what I was designing had no impact on the user experience.
You need a raise.
I’m going to level with you on this one. Your largest raise will likely not come from the company you already work for. The largest raises in your career usually result from finding a new position and negotiating the starting salary for that position. There are exceptions. But, I have found those exceptions to be rare.
If you are unhappy with your salary, I would never advocate just going out and finding a new position. You always want to explore all of your options within your current position. The worse your boss can say is, “no” when you ask for a raise. Spend some time asking about how promotions are structured and how raises are managed. If you have an organization that spends any amount of effort on employee retention, they’ll have addressed raises as a first line of defense in keeping employees. Find out where you stand with the company and how raises work before jumping ship.
Keep in mind: Money is important. You have to be able to pay the bills and feed your family. If you are being paid below the industry average for your geographic location and position, it is definitely something to be concerned about. But, if you are just asking for an extra few bucks because you want to buy some crap you really don’t need anyway, I’d hold off on that job search. And unless your pay is extremely below average or an amount you can barely afford to live on, I would never advocate leaving a position solely based on salary.