There has never been a better time to become a UX designer. Companies big and small are racing to invest in great UX — which means that hiring talented designers has become a top priority.
If you’re an aspiring UX designer, you’ll be curious to know where your new career path could take you. So what kinds of employment opportunities can you expect?
From budding startups to major corporations, there is a place for UX design in every company. Then, of course, there’s the potential to go freelance — or even to pursue the digital nomad lifestyle.
Before deciding where to dedicate your energy and talent, it’s important to weigh up your options. Let’s explore some of the possible routes you could take, and consider the pros and cons of each.
Option #1: Design Agency
Many UX designers choose to work in an agency, and this route can be especially appealing to newly qualified designers. Depending on the size of the agency, you might work in a team of UX generalists or be responsible for one specific area of UX, such as user research.
As a rule, the agency environment is extremely varied and fast-paced. You’ll be working for a range of different clients, sometimes simultaneously, and will get the opportunity to work on a variety of products.
Here are the main pros and cons of working in an agency.
Pros of agency work
One of the biggest plus points for agency work is that it’s varied. Rather than working on the same product day in, day out, you’ll have a conveyor belt of different clients and projects. You’ll tackle design challenges across a range of industries, and you’ll be in contact with all kinds of people. Not only is this brilliant for your portfolio: This variety also offers a constant flow of learning and discovery, which is crucial to your development as a UX designer — especially in the early stages of your career.
2. Mentorship and opportunities to learn
As a UX designer at an agency, you’ll likely be part of a design team — or even an entire department. Unlike working freelance, or in-house as the sole designer, the agency environment is great for experiencing a design thinking culture. You’ll gain exposure to the most important UX tools and processes, and you’ll always have someone to turn to for feedback, mentorship and best practices.
When you’re just starting out in UX, it’s important to learn as much as you can from your seniors, and an agency is the ideal place for this. You can learn more about the benefits of having a mentor here.
3. Consistent income and working hours
When it comes to figuring out your next career move, time and money play a critical role. With an agency job, you can count on a steady income and set working hours. This doesn’t mean you’ll never need to work overtime; agency life can be extremely fast-paced and deadline-driven, so you can expect to put in extra hours during busy periods. However, you’ll have much more stability and routine than you would as a freelancer.
Of course, agency life also comes with its downsides. Let’s take a look at these now.
Cons of agency work
1. Short-term projects
A constantly moving conveyor belt of clients and projects can be great for variety. However, the downside of this is a lack of long-term influence. Once a project has been delivered to a given client, that will be the last you see of it. For some designers, this makes the work seem unfulfilling, as it’s harder to track the success of the product and the impact of your contribution. While working at an agency, you probably won’t experience the same sense of ownership as you would if you were working on a single product.
2. Tricky clients
Another disadvantage of agency work is that you cannot choose your clients. Not only that: You ultimately have to adhere to the client’s wishes, even if it goes against your knowledge of what makes for a great user experience. As an in-house UX designer, you can take ownership of the product and argue for and against certain features. In an agency setting, the client has the final say, and this can be frustrating.
3. Communication can get complicated
Another source of frustration when working at an agency: Long lines of communication. This all depends on the size of the agency, but you won’t always be in direct contact with the client or product owner. Not having them in the office with you can make communication tricky, and without this proximity to the product, it can be hard to get a feel for the brand. Given the iterative nature of the UX process, you can expect plenty of back-and-forth, and in an agency setting, this may be even more drawn out than usual.
For more insight into what it’s like to work in an agency, read this day-in-the-life account of a UX designer.
Option #2: In-House For One Brand
UX designers are also sought after for in-house roles, which are very different to agency work. An in-house position could see you working in a small startup, a large corporation or something in-between.
One of the main differences between agency and in-house is that you’ll focus on one brand. This gives you the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of the product you’re designing, but doesn’t offer the same variety that an agency does.
Let’s consider the main pros and cons of an in-house UX design role.
Pros of working in-house
1. Proximity to the product
One of the most rewarding aspects of in-house work is that sense of ownership. You’ll be much closer to the product, allowing you to get to know it inside-out — and to really care about it. If something’s not working, you’ll iterate continuously until it’s fixed. You’ll see first-hand how your processes and ideas shape the product over time, and the impact this has on the company’s success. That’s incredibly satisfying.
This level of ownership also affords you more control over the product. Being in-house, you’re in a much better position to defend and advocate certain design decisions — something which can be tricky with external clients.
2. Direct collaboration across different teams
Working in-house, you’ll collaborate directly with all different teams — something that’s just not possible in an agency. Whether it’s meeting with the product owner to discuss the vision or handing off your designs to the development team, you’ll be in close contact with everyone involved in the product development process. This can streamline your work considerably, making communication more efficient and reducing the time it takes to get your designs approved. At the same time, you can learn from professionals across a range of different disciplines — you’re not just limited to the design team.
3. Exposure to business
In an agency, you can find yourself in a bit of a creative bubble. As an in-house designer, on the other hand, you’ll see the inner workings of a business and the role that UX plays. You’ll gain first-hand insight into all areas of the company, and master the art of aligning both user and business goals — an extremely valuable skill in today’s market.
Cons of working in-house
1. Lack of variety
If you relish the excitement of working with lots of different clients on a variety of projects, you may quickly tire of an in-house role. While there might be the possibility to work on different products under the same brand, you’ll always be operating within the same niche. If you’re someone who gets bored easily, an in-house role might not be for you.
2. You may have to fight for a UX culture
Just because a company hires a UX designer doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a design-first organisation. Indeed, while more and more companies are realising that UX is crucial, they don’t always understand why. As an in-house designer, you may face the challenge of getting other teams to understand — and embrace — what you do. If that design-thinking, user-centric culture doesn’t exist already, you’ll need to work hard to establish it.
3. Less guidance
This depends largely on the size and setup of the company, but finding a design mentor in-house might prove tricky. At an agency, you’re surrounded by people who live and breathe design; in an in-house position, not so much. If you’re the sole UX designer, or part of a very small team, you’ll need to be more autonomous. This means teaching yourself and learning on the job. This can be a positive thing, but if you’re new to the field and need a bit of guidance, it’s something to bear in mind.
Option #3: Freelance
As of 2017, 36% of the US workforce were freelance — a figure that’s expected to rise to 50% in the next decade. Millennials, especially, are drawn to this lifestyle, and it’s certainly not uncommon for UX designers to go freelance.
Given the autonomous nature of freelancing, you might consider this route a bit later in your career, once you’ve gained some in-house experience. If you are thinking about flying solo, here are some pros and cons to keep in mind.
Pros of being a freelance UX designer
1. Choose your clients
A freelance career is synonymous with freedom. Freedom to plan your day as you wish, and freedom to choose your own clients. You are your own boss, so you can decide exactly who to work with and which projects to take on. If you want a varied portfolio without being tied to an agency, freelancing presents the ideal solution.
2. Become a digital nomad
One of the most appealing aspects of a freelance career is that it’s location-independent. If you dream of becoming a digital nomad, you can work as a remote UX designer and travel while you earn. Even if you don’t plan on travelling the globe, going freelance is one way to avoid the daily commute and pesky office politics.
3. Higher earning potential
Another pro of working freelance is that you’ll pocket all the profit, so you could make more money in the long run. However, this pro comes with a warning: Getting your freelance career off the ground is hard, and it may be a while before you secure a regular income. If you can make it work, though, you stand to earn more than you would per project as an in-house employee.
A freelance UX design career is the ultimate key to flexibility and autonomy — but it’s by no means perfect. Let’s take a look at the downsides of becoming your own boss.
Cons of being a freelance UX designer
1. No guidance
As a freelancer, you are very much a lone island. In the early stages of your UX career, this could see you missing out on a huge learning opportunity. Without any colleagues, you’ll have no one to guide you, mentor you, or show you the ropes — at least not in the immediate vicinity. If you plan on going solo so early on, be prepared to actively seek mentorship in other places.
2. Unpredictable income
Freelancing is flexible but unpredictable. One month you could have more clients than you can handle; the next you might be twiddling your thumbs. Especially in the early days, your income will be irregular — a reality that can prove extremely stressful. It’s important to be prepared to ride the financial waves and, if possible, have a backup plan in place.
3. Lack of routine
Freelancing isn’t for everybody. Some people need routine in order to thrive, and this is something you just won’t get from a freelance career. Without a fixed schedule, you may end up losing track of your hours and working more than intended. Many freelancers also struggle to draw the line between work and personal life, making it difficult to maintain a healthy balance.
Which is right for me?
The route you choose to take all depends on your priorities. If you’re a newly qualified UX designer, it’s important to consider which environment will offer you the most opportunities to learn and grow.
If you’re someone who relishes variety and a highly creative environment, you might be drawn to an agency setting. If you like the idea of taking ownership and having a long-term impact on one brand or product, an in-house role may be more up your street. If flexibility and autonomy are your number one priorities, you’ll feel more at home as a freelancer.
It ultimately depends what stage you’re at in your career, and where you hope to be in the future. If you do have your heart set on a UX design role, make sure you can answer these 11 UX design interview questions.
About the author:
Emily Stevens. Originally from England, Emily moved to Berlin after studying French and German at university. When she’s not writing for CareerFoundry, she can be found travelling, hula-hooping or reading a good book.
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