Developing Your UX Career in the Midst of a Recession

iPhone showing article from New York Times on Coronavirus

It’s hard to point to a time in modern history as tumultuous as the present. The human toll from COVID-19 is real and deep. So are the economic effects that have rippled through every industry. As a result, many UX professionals are being laid off— a situation that would be hard to foresee only a few months ago.

Millennials, like myself, are experiencing the second “once in a lifetime” economic event in our relatively short adult lives. I was just a year out of college when I was laid off during the 2008 financial crash. When a layoff happens, it can feel completely disorienting and discouraging. For most of us, a big part of our identities and our future is caught up in our work. Losing a job can feel like having the rug pulled out from under you.

What I learned from surviving the last recession and the subsequent career ups and downs is that, by its nature, uncertainty has possibilities hidden within it. At the risk of sounding trite, career setbacks can also be a rich source of personal insights that help us recalibrate towards a more fulfilling trajectory.

Be Reflective, not Reactive

In the shock of a layoff or economic upheaval, your mind can easily gravitate towards worst case scenarios. What if I’m not able to find another job? What if I find one and don’t enjoy it? What if I have to move back in with my parents? These thoughts can be terrifying and cause us to panic (especially the prospect of living with your parents again). In addition to being distressing, this type of thinking can put you in a reactive mindset that may lead to making some rash decisions.

One of the best pieces of professional advice I ever received was that good career choices are those in which you are running towards something, not running away from something. That is to say, we will do our best work when we take on an opportunity we believe in — one that’s personally exciting and meaningful. This is especially true for user experience designers because identifying novel solutions and insights requires a great deal of intrinsic motivation.

Path through a forest

A few years ago, following this advice helped me avoid a potential career misstep. At that time, I was working for a company that was going through rocky times. Senior executives I respected were quitting and our client base seemed to be drying up. This situation motivated me to apply to a well-regarded tech company in the area. They ended up offering me the job with a generous compensation package. After my initial excitement wore off and I discussed the work I might be doing with some friends, I realized I just wasn’t excited about the role. I certainly didn’t feel I could sustain a passion for it in the long term. As it turned out, after declining the position, I found out this firm too had some pretty serious dysfunctions that would have made my job trying and ultimately insecure.

Discovering what it is you want to run towards means stepping back and reflecting on where it is you ultimately want to be. A spell of unemployment, as jarring and tense as it feels, can be an ideal time to do this. In these career interludes, we break the momentum created by continuously responding to the demands of our job — demands that take a lot of energy, regardless of how inspiring they are. Additionally, our decisions are freed from other influences that are particular to your company, such as the specific initiatives that are supported and the expectations of someone in your role. For example, maybe you were on track to becoming a senior designer but have always found interviewing users fascinating and would like to do that more. If you’ve recently been laid off, now is your opportunity to step back and reflect on where you ultimately want to be by considering the type of activities and challenges that really fulfill you.

Look for Learning Potential

In contrast to only a few months ago, you might not be able to scroll through a job board to find your dream company hiring for that ideal role. Instead, by developing a clearer sense of what you want, you can better see how the opportunities in front of you can help you get there. For most of us, our careers are a patchwork or a tapestry. The average person in tech works for a company about three years before moving on. These varied experiences expose us to different design challenges and help us acquire a richer reservoir of skills that will help us face a rapidly changing future. Try to look at your next role as one of the pieces you’re adding to your tapestry. Think about your next role as one course contributing to a broader curriculum. The lessons you’ll learn could be technical, like designing for a new space or organizational, for example, how to improve a set of design processes.

When I look back at my career, I’m surprised that one of the roles I learned the most from was a short contract position at a medical product design consultancy. The firm’s environment and culture were definitely no frills, but its founders had developed a rigorously scientific research practice. As I’ve transitioned to other companies that adopted Lean methods, I’ve found having this theoretical background is invaluable in keeping our design decisions honest and ensuring we were collecting solid data.

There may not be one perfect role for you out there right now. The titles, companies, and even types of products you had set your sights on may not be available at this time. But, by framing opportunities in terms of their potential for learning, you may find that many good prospects are available.

Sensing New Opportunities

Big economic and societal changes, like the ones we’re going through now, often lead to tangible shifts in what people need and value. These big changes create space for new companies, products, and even methodologies to sprout up.

When I got started in design in 2008, this is exactly what was happening. Large companies weren’t necessarily hiring as much, yet the iPhone had just been invented and was requiring all of us as an industry to think about how to design for mobile devices. These new design constraints enabled dozens of new thought leaders to propose more relevant approaches to meeting users’ needs. It also enabled countless new designers, who were fluent in these approaches, to quickly take on more senior roles as they were now the new “experts.”

Though there may not be radically new technology arriving this year, society itself is changing… maybe faster than it has in a long time. People are demanding contactless services, many brick and mortar holdouts are finally moving online, and businesses are beginning to truly care about accessibility and inclusivity.

All of this change means that we designers have plenty of new problems to solve in industries ranging from telehealth, ed tech, virtual collaboration, and many more. Because this pandemic is affecting everyone, these technologies will need to be accessible to audiences far beyond your typical early adopters. Think back to your prior projects to glean lessons that you can apply to these new challenges. Consider crafting your perspective and sharing it with the world. Publish a blog post or look for new startups in these spaces and reach out to them to see if they need help. If you find an unfulfilled need, consider studying it further and collaborating with others to launch your own product. We, UX professionals, have a broad and effective toolkit— it’s these times of upheaval that call for us to get creative about how we use it.

There’s no doubt that getting laid off is disheartening. Being let go from a job in the midst of an economic crisis can be even more daunting. Your first move should be to give yourself a break, take time to breathe, and realize you’re in good company. Slow down and reflect on where you’re going and open your eyes to the opportunities that are in front of you. They may be different from what you thought but they’re definitely worth a second look.

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