Discover more from The ¼″ Hole
How the layoffs have impacted UX roles
And resources for those affected
2022 has been a wild year for the tech industry.
Giants, like Meta and Amazon, have seen their public stock values plummet by billions of dollars — and have chosen to cut costs by laying off thousands of employees. One tracker counts 836 companies, including Stripe, Lyft, and Cisco, that have had layoffs this year. November alone accounts for nearly a third of all laid-off employees.
Unfortunately, UX professionals have been among those recently laid off. And tensions are high for everyone working in the field. Some are now wondering: is UX more vulnerable to layoffs than tech workers in other disciplines?
Finding data on the layoffs
Companies do not typically share any individual or aggregated data on those affected by layoffs — but nevertheless, voluntary lists do exist.
You may have seen them on social media: crowdsourced outreach directories started and spread by former colleagues affected by layoffs. The idea is to make it easier for hiring managers and recruiters to find talented candidates. For example, this Google Sheet features the names and professional experience of over 1,000 former Twitter employees.
I selected 12 such publicly available directories for review, which had a combined total of 5,521 entries. Across these companies, a reported or estimated total of 21,127 employees were laid off, so a little over 1 in 4 affected workers have chosen to participate in these directories. After aggregating the data together, I grouped similar job functions using keyword searches.
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UX fared better than others, but was there disparate impact?
Software engineers were the single hardest hit function, representing 27% of all those laid off.
Next were product and program management roles (11%), followed by UX (8.7%) and human resources roles (7.1%). More UX designers (3.9%) were laid off than researchers (2.3%) and other UX functions (such as UX Writing or Operations, 2.4%).
Each company had unique functions that were collectively grouped together as “Other” (29.9%). Some examples included construction, customer care agents, and GIS specialists.
However, these data reflect only one part of the equation: those who were laid off, not those who remained with the company. If a company let go only a small percentage of a large team, and a large percentage of a small team, the absolute numbers of those laid off from each team would mislead us about the relative impact of the loss.
Engineers outnumber UX professionals, often dramatically. Nielsen Norman reports a typical ratio of engineers to designers is 10 to 1. Designers often outnumber researchers by 5 to 1.
We might then expect similar ratios in our data if layoffs were proportional across the three functions. Instead, we found that 1 designer for every 6 engineers was laid off, about 1.7 times more than expected. Worse, three times as many researchers were laid off than expected — about 3 for every 5 designers.
This suggests that UX, and research in particular, may have been disproportionately impacted as compared to engineering functions.
The potential vulnerabilities of UX
We expect markets to expand and recede in cycles. During lean years, some layoffs are inevitable. And companies have given various justifications for their decisions, such as failing to anticipate the reversal of pandemic-era trends, or big bets that haven’t yet paid out.
But why would UX be more susceptible? We can speculate.
The simplest explanation is that companies lacked a compelling business case to retain all their UX professionals on the payroll. In many instances, this need not imply individual underperformance, but could rather reflect organizational immaturity or a perception (rightly or wrongly) that smaller teams can have a similar impact. Either way, the onus is on us to continue to demonstrate the value of UX as a discipline.
Further, tech companies scale in a typical order of operations.
UX and product roles are often later hires at tech startups, while technical roles are present from Day 1. It may be the case that this pattern of growth happens in reverse during layoffs. A polished user experience becomes less important than keeping critical systems running.
Many UX professionals already work as contractors rather than full-time employees. And stretched teams can outsource some work to third party consultants. Companies may hope to lean more on these strategies in austere times.
These data may only reflect the priorities of tech companies. These outreach directories are all selected from companies in this one industry, but UX professionals work in a variety of other verticals. We can’t conclude that other industries make similar termination decisions without additional data.
It’s also possible that UX professionals were more inclined to participate.
Although participation levels appear to be high, engineers may be underrepresented in these voluntary outreach directories — for example, due to security or privacy concerns. Their absence would create an illusion of disparate impact in this analysis.
Summary and perspective
Is UX more vulnerable to layoffs than other functions? I reviewed public data from 5,521 recently laid off employees across 12 tech companies to find out.
In absolute numbers, software engineers were hardest hit, followed by product management. UX professionals were third overall.
However, more designers and researchers were laid off than expected from previously published ratios of UX professionals to engineers.
UX may be more vulnerable for a few reasons: (1) we haven’t compellingly shown our value to our respective organizations, (2) UX is less critical in leaner times, and/or (3) companies hope to more heavily leverage vendors and contractors for the work.
But selection bias might complicate the picture. All 12 companies were in the tech industry, and UX professionals working in other industries might face different conditions. It’s also possible that engineers are underrepresented in the data.
These data reflect a snapshot of the current moment. Short-term trends, by definition, can change quickly. It wasn’t long ago that one of our biggest challenges as a field was dealing with growing pains.
Professionals have been working in UX or adjacent fields for decades. Market fluctuations will continue to be a part of life. In the short term, that unfortunately means hardship and uncertainty for those affected. But in the long term, we may reasonably expect that the overall trajectory of our field, like that of the market as a whole, will be towards greater heights.
Special thanks to my colleague Nathanial Loh, who inspired this research in conversation.
Resources for those affected
If you’re among those who have experienced the recent layoffs firsthand, here are a few resources that I think might be helpful:
If you’re refreshing your resume and portfolio, you may be interested to read last month’s issue: What employers want from UXR candidates.
If you’re eager to follow financial trends in tech, or are looking to negotiate your next offer, I can’t recommend the Candor newsletter enough.
Although not UX-specific, some of the same folks behind the outreach directories used in this report have also crowdsourced a directory of companies currently hiring in tech.
The Washington Post posted a layoff survival guide.
And if you want to support a friend or former colleague, I suggest reading What not to say to someone laid off.
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Until next time,