Careers in UX: How different organizations approach user experience design / by Gavin Lau

As the field of UX has grown, the number of places someone might end up plying their craft has proliferated. User-centered design (UCD) has made steady progress into industries from cutting-edge startups to tried-and-true retail giants. However, the ways organizations leverage UCD and UX practices varies widely.

When looking for a job in UX, the company, team, manager, and even sector, company size, and focus should all factor into finding the right place. The core skills for UX jobs are consistent across different kinds of organizations, but some might be a better fit for different work styles, personality types, or interests. 

I’m writing from the perspective of a UX researcher, but the following exploration certainly applies to other UX roles. I’ll be drawing on my experiences working at several different types of organizations, as well as numerous conversations with other UX professionals talking about their experiences. 

Let’s take a look at four different but common types of organizations that employ UX professionals, along with some pros and cons for working with each. 


The UX Consultancy

There’s a wide range of consultancies, all providing some combination of UX-related services and expertise. Some focus more on usability (e.g.,, others on more strategic projects (e.g., ReD Associates), and others focus on multiple types of UX (e.g. AnswerLab), providing both research and usability testing.

By nature, consultancies provide UX practitioners with opportunities to work on a variety of projects. On the flip side, a UX practitioner at a consultancy is less likely to see her project carried through to implementation. When a project deadline is reached, the consultancy will typically move on to other clients. 

Advantages to Consultancies

  • Consultants enjoy project diversity, working with different companies, often in different verticals.
  • The work often stays interesting, novel, and challenging given the wide range of projects and contexts.
  • UX professionals are pushed to hone important skills including communication, project management, and getting up to speed quickly.
  • It’s great to have a window into how many different client companies and organizations approach user experience and design.
  • There will likely always be a niche for specialized and strategic partners, so there’s some job security in an established consultancy.

Disadvantages to Consultancies

  • While a consultant might be juggling multiple engagements at the same time, each client assumes they are the number one priority, which can add stress.
  • Because consultancy work is nomadic and moves from project to project, it can be harder for UX practitioners to track the success of projects.
  • Depending on how the consultancy is organized, sometimes by the time a UX practitioner comes to a project, the sales team and/or client have already scoped the engagement, deliverables, and approach, which may or may not be the best way to tackle the project.


The Mature Tech Company

Until recently, it was primarily large, established tech companies that employed significant in-house UX teams (especially researchers). Over the past few years, these larger tech companies have continued to grow their UX functions and now, even midsize companies have sizeable UX teams. 

Many of these companies ran their UX teams as internal consultancies, but others have switched to a model where UX design and research are embedded on product teams. Because of this, the environment for UX and research at large company like Microsoft, Google, or Facebook can vary dramatically from team to team

Advantages to Tech Companies

  • Large tech companies have become very good at removing any friction from the job. Tech support, research support, compensation, and benefits all tend to be first-rate and taken seriously.
  • A large, established company has the benefit of being stable and unlikely to go belly-up.
  • UX practitioners have the opportunity to work on a product that millions (or even billions) of people use on a daily basis.
  • Established companies often have the resources and the will to fund large, ambitious projects.
  • Some larger companies have a strong focus on international markets, which can help UX practitioners gain experience working with other cultures. 
  • Having a large tech company name like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Apple on a resume can help to bolster authority as a job candidate in Silicon Valley.

Disadvantages to Tech Companies

  • While large organizations strive to be nimble, the sheer size can limit the ability of UX staff to have impact. Everything from legacy code, government regulations, brand characteristics, and implications on other products can often hamstring the ability of the UX team to implement changes. Similarly, the bureaucracy can be rigid.
  • Corporate reorganizations, product sunsetting, shifting metrics, moving teams, and other dynamics can sometimes make things feel a bit unsettled.
  • Some larger companies may have entrenched research approaches that haven’t kept pace with new approaches.


The Startup

These days, UX and product designers are often some of the earliest hires for startups. Innovative UX can be a selling point as startups try to raise funding rounds and a key differentiator. There are even companies with fewer than 50 employees that are hiring UX researchers and have design teams, many following the lead of the approach espoused by folks like Eric Ries in The Lean Startup. Some startups allow UX staff to tackle unique challenges in new and innovative ways, but the startup experience can also be an emotional rollercoaster. The highs can be higher and the lows can be lower than in an established organization as the company executes or pivots its strategy. 

Advantages to Startups

  • Even a small UX team can have a huge impact on a nimble organization. There is always a lot of work to be done and every iteration and insight can potentially change the course of the company.
  • There are often opportunities to tackle projects that would go to more senior folks at larger organizations.
  • Junior staff have access to senior leadership due to the size and (often) flat organizational structure.
  • Whereas roles at larger companies tend to be more specialized, employees may wear a lot of hats at a startup. It’s often at smaller companies where we see combined designer-researcher roles.
  • UX tends to be highly collaborative and is not “owned” by any one person, meaning it is not uncommon to have engineers or product managers involved in the design process.
  • If a UX practitioner gets in at the right time with a high growth startup, there can be many benefits to their career:
    • It can be easier to demonstrate the impact of their work.
    • Being an early team member at successful startup can be a great calling card for their career.
  • Startups can help foster unanticipated career changes, as well. One of the most talented researchers I know (now a senior researcher at a big tech company) fell into UX research when her boss at a startup put a how-to book on her desk and told her that she was now going to do research– a role that wasn’t even on her radar previously.

Disadvantages to Startups

  • UX staff will have to be scrappy because of budget and time pressures. Sometimes this forces them to innovate and come up with creative solutions that deliver deeper insights; other times it can feel like a compromise.
  • The lack of funding can make it difficult to execute large strategic projects.
  • While growth can be exciting, sometimes organizations bring in more senior talent, rather than promoting from within.
  • There’s a lot less stability at startups and employees risk going through companies folding or downsizing.
  • At some startups, UX staff might spend almost all their time working on a very narrow range of products, which can feel repetitive.Typically the base pay and benefits at startups tends to be lower, with the offset being that the equity might (might!) be worth far more someday.
  • Startups don’t always know what they need, so they might hire for the wrong roles, e.g. an Information Architect when they need a UI specialist or a survey researcher when they really need a qualitative researcher.
  • The dreaded “pivot” and other changes in direction can result in good work ending up on the scrap heap.


Beyond Tech

Non-tech companies have begun to embrace user-centered design, both for their digital properties and even for their non-digital products and experiences. From apparel to old guard financial services, from big box retailers to furniture companies, lots of companies that most wouldn’t consider “tech” have embraced UX and design thinking. As others have argued, in this day and age, “[almost] every company, is a tech company.” 

Some companies are just enhancing their current R&D process with innovations in UCD approaches, whereas others are organizing teams focusing on UX, customer experience (CX), or service design to improve their products and experiences. Of course, the devil is always in the details so an applicant for a UX position needs to be extra vigilant assessing these kinds of opportunities. 

Advantages Beyond Tech

  • Working on a different set of experiences that transcend the digital world (e.g., medical devices, how people access government services, the unboxing experience of product) can offer tremendous challenges and opportunities for growth.
  • Developing a focus working in these types of environments can help UX professionals be competitive against more generalist UX practitioners—someone with focused experience in, say, health-related technologies might have a leg-up if Google or Startup XYZ is looking to expand, pivot, or develop new products in the health industry.
  • While there are certainly examples of this in the previous categories, it’s often these non-tech companies where UX practitioners find the opportunities to work on big, fundamental challenges that immediately affect more people, leading to a different kind of impact, e.g. online banking logins, train station ticket system interfaces, etc.

Disadvantages Beyond Tech

  • For companies that are not as tech-focused, it can be a bigger challenge to demonstrate the value of UX, and so it can be harder to get resources for projects. As UX becomes a bigger and bigger part of non-tech culture, this will probably change.
  • While you will likely encounter some degree of stakeholder education or resistance to UX and research in most settings, this can be more pronounced working in other verticals where UX and UCD is not as much of an established culture.


Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Wherever a UX career may lead, it’s important to consider how the organization approaches user experience and if it sets its UX staff up for success. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Can UX halt a product release?
  • Are design and research true partners, or are they relegated to pushing pixels and usability testing, without opportunities for strategic input?
  • What level of breadth vs. depth do I want?
  • What level of responsibility do I want?
  • What level of flexibility is important to me?
  • What challenges and problems excite me?
  • Do I want to work on a variety of projects? Or focus on one product?
  • What are the limits to the kind of impact the UX team can have?

The UX scene is changing so fast that it’s possible this article will be out of date in just a few years. I’m excited to see the career paths that UX folks craft as we champion user-centered design. It’s entirely possible to have a long, gratifying career at only one type of organization, but I certainly feel I’ve been challenged to get out of my comfort zone and grow by working in a wide range of contexts. As someone who has done applied research for a wide range of organizations (academic, non-profit, consultancy, startup, and a tech giant), I feel I have benefited immensely from the diversity of my experiences. Each pushed me to hone my tool kit in different ways.