What the UXR job market and the housing market have in common
Can they both sustain the heat?
It's a good time to be a UX researcher—in the same way that it’s a good time to be selling real estate.
Current demand is much higher than supply. And digital transformation trends, exacerbated by the pandemic, are largely to blame in both cases.
Legacy companies went from seeing their digital assets as single elements in a portfolio of revenue streams to critical components of their business models. More and more companies have, in effect, become tech companies.
That’s created an urgent need for our work, and more of it.
Our field’s exponential growth, accelerated
UX was on the ascent well before 2020.
Thirty years of text analysis ending in 2019 show steady growth in the usage of the phrase, “user experience.” And in 2017, Jakob Nielsen projected a growth factor of 100 in our field by 2050.
And there’s evidence that this pattern has only intensified in recent years.
Jason Buhle of AnswerLab recently estimated that the total pool of working UX researchers is growing by 25% year over year. He added, “If this pace were maintained, the field would double in size in just over 3 years.” (Emphasis added.)
Buhle’s data come from LinkedIn search results, and so inevitably include some noise. Still, the finding lines up with figures coming out of regulatory filings and press releases as UX-focused companies enter the public marketplace or become acquired.
For example, research agency BlinkUX was recently purchased by IT services provider Mphasis to the tune of $94M. Mphasis CEO Nitin Rakesh explained the move succinctly: “The Total Addressable Market for the upstream user research, strategy and design is growing 25-30% per annum (4-5x the overall IT Services market).” (Emphasis added.)
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Qualified UXR candidates come from a small pool
Unfortunately, there’s a limited number of skilled professionals who can deliver this work.
If you want to become a software engineer, you can get a degree in computer science, enroll in a reputable boot camp, or even have some luck by self-educating. There’s no widespread equivalent for would-be UX researchers.
Instead, we fall back upon the 13% of the population with advanced degrees. A majority of job descriptions that list a specific discipline point to human-computer interaction, human factors, or psychology. But—excepting the latter—these are typically graduate-level specializations with few bachelor’s-level programs.
Although 15% of job descriptions don’t specify a degree—and only 45% of those that do mention a master’s degree as a requirement or nice-to-have—practitioners are overwhelmingly well-educated. A 2021 ReOps survey of 242 respondents found that a master’s degree was the median level of education for senior-level researchers and higher. Using data from the 2022 State of User Research report issued annually by User Interviews, I found that nearly three-quarters of their 437 UX researcher respondents held graduate or post-graduate degrees.
On its face, it makes sense that graduate training would give candidates a foot in the door. Graduate programs are competitive in themselves, attracting diligent and intelligent applicants. And the research skills that grads receive often prove to be transferrable to business contexts.
But getting into the field by another path isn’t necessarily any easier.
Many of the sources I’ve cited rightly emphasize the practical importance of work experience and extracurricular professional development. Practitioners without advanced degrees will often have proven their competence by transitioning from a career in an adjacent field such as UX design or market research, or by completing an internship. But such internships are extremely competitive, often going to well-qualified undergrads who have lab experience or a relevant specialization (such as a UX degree).
Implications of a possible labor shortage
None of these sources of candidates is growing at the same pace as demand.
This problem isn’t unique to UX research. Other fields dominated by well-educated professionals, like law and medicine, are facing labor shortages for a complex variety of reasons, both similar and dissimilar.
In the medium and long term, our field will have to adjust to meet demand. But in the near term, I believe these dynamics will manifest in a number of ways:
Thinly-spread research teams will be the norm. Organizational demand will more often exceed the capacity of overstretched research teams, in part because…
Teams will have challenges finding and retaining talent. There will be fewer well-qualified candidates available at any given time. And those you have will be more likely to hop around, since…
Experienced practitioners will enjoy greater job security and higher salaries. By nature, they’ll always be a smaller subset of our linearly growing candidate pool.
Our field will continue to diversify. We’ll increasingly look for candidates outside of traditional domains like HCI and human factors. In the process, we’ll learn valuable lessons from other disciplines. But…
Other important fields may experience brain drain. This can already be seen in other domains like artificial intelligence and robotics, where many of the brightest minds have been sucked out of academia and into tech.
We’ll continue to see more research specializations. Aside from the burgeoning Research Ops movement, recent years have seen organizations hiring unique roles like UX Research Scientists and UX Research Coaches, but…
Specialization may come at the cost of greater income inequality, if teams begin to rely more upon lower-cost, less-skilled support roles.
Similar to the US housing market, UX research supply is struggling to keep up with demand.
Many more people want to buy real estate than there is available inventory, which is growing slowly. Likewise, our field is expanding at an exponential rate. But the pool of candidates isn’t, largely because a majority of researchers are found among the sliver of people with graduate degrees.
In the near term, this dynamic creates both opportunities and challenges, some of which I’ve speculated upon above:
A changing environment for researchers: shorter average tenures on overstretched teams
Changing hiring practices: more candidates from diverse fields, and more roles with limited scopes
But ultimately, something has to give, or this trend won’t remain sustainable.
Stay tuned to future installments in this series, where we’ll look at possible solutions.
Mental models of AI careen from one extreme to the other
In the minds of many laypeople, it seems like AI is either just about to put us all out of work… or it’s the buzzword behind a parade of disappointments.
Take DALL-E 2. The AI-powered system, unveiled earlier this month by the folks at OpenAI (also known for GPT-3), takes an open-ended text input from users and generates artwork based on the prompt.
And the results are impressive (with many more examples in the thread below).
That said, on closer inspection, these examples seem heavily curated.
DALL-E gets the broader strokes of an idea, but it often gets hazy on specifics. It can’t distinguish between a blue cube on a red one (or vice versa). When an illustration includes text or hands, it produces something unreal and dreamlike. And one wonders (since access is limited for now) how well it could make changes that would be simple for a human artist, like turning the subject’s head:
In many ways, these limitations are to be expected. And there’s legitimate ongoing debate in the AI community about how (or if) they can be overcome.
But outsiders—or, non-technical people who will in many cases be the user—lack a useful mental model for when and where tools like DALL-E will excel or struggle.
So you end up with people prematurely mourning the death of art. Conversely, users may be so burned by initial disappointments that they never use it—as in the case of nearly half of iPhone users abandoning Siri a decade after its release, despite significant improvements.
UX researchers: how are we helping to bridge this gap?
What I’m up to: a revolution in performance reviews
In case you missed them, two new articles this past month, plus an interview:
Achievements for your UX research career
The way we review UXR performance is broken. That's why I created an innovative, new approach: I'm calling them “achievements.” I’m sure you’ll agree they’re a quantum leap over OKRs. (Yes, this is April Fools.)
The 5 key elements of a solid UX research plan
A good UX research plan acts like your phone's maps app: it keeps you pointed in the right direction, and gets you back on track when you stray from the path. In this article, I talk about how to craft an effective one.
Feature in UserWeekly’s “Humans of User Research”
Jan Ahrend curates a fantastic selection of the latest and greatest UX research content each week in his UserWeekly newsletter. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you ought to fix that now. It was an honor to speak with him!
Tell me what you think
If you enjoyed this newsletter, consider sharing it with a friend. It’s the most powerful way you can support my work.
And I love your thoughts and feedback, positive or negative—just hit reply.
Here’s something I’m curious about: did you earn a graduate or undergraduate degree in a field directly relevant—in your opinion—to UX research? If so, from which institution, and would you recommend it? (I’m working on a resource for folks looking at schools…)
Until next time,