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UX of America

Explore the UX job market

March 5, 2018

By Kelly Niles

Looking for a new UX job can be both stressful and exciting. From confusing job descriptions—are they really looking for UX?—to knowing your worth based on skill and experience. While there’s no shortage of great career advice articles on the web, the experience can be considerably different depending on where you’re searching for job.

We analyzed data from CareerBuilder, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and our proprietary data to illustrate the state of the U.S. user experience job market. While the numbers paint a picture, we went to the authorities—our UX recruiters—to color in the lines. We spoke to recruiters in (Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Memphis, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.) about the job market and outlook for UX skills. Whether you live in one of those cities or have considered moving, their insight can help you advance. 

The best place in the U.S. for UX

With great demand, higher than average salaries and a thriving technology industry that understands the importance of design in their products, Washington emerges as the best place in the U.S. for UX designers. Diane Han, a digital recruiter in Seattle, says the city offers a lot of diverse UX design opportunities. “UX means something different at each company. It might mean UX in ecommerce or UX for consumer products or gaming. You can really explore what you’re passionate about.”

Han says most companies look for a hybrid UX skill set, i.e., specializing in one area but being conversant in multiple complementary areas. “The standard of design is high. What flies in some other parts of the country might not here.” Yet, your merits (not years) can take you further and faster here. “If you can produce great design, they don’t care about years of experience. And as a less experienced professional, you can make double what you would in other markets.”

Washington is the best state for UX jobs

How to be a UX standout in the state of Washington:

  • Add depth to your portfolio. Managers are looking for depth in visual design—not just before and after screenshots. They want to know color schemes, did you do A/B testing, why this logo, why that color, what was the process from end to end?
  • Organize your thoughts and be mindful of timelines. Know what you want and what you’re looking for. Things move very quickly—you may have offers on the table one day but that might not be the case the next. Hiring managers and candidates are both talking to a lot of people.
  • Tailor your portfolio to the company you want to work for. Microsoft is looking for something different than Amazon, which wants something different than Starbucks. Where do you want to be? Create a portfolio that is well-rounded but also catches the attention of companies where you want to work.

Search UX jobs across the U.S.

Fiercely competitive UX job markets

Like Washington, states such as Georgia and California are cultivating large job markets that have a lot of demand for UX talent. Shepard Stafford, a digital recruiter in Atlanta, says the city is a hotbed of opportunity with start-ups, agencies and enterprises. A great cost of living is driving people—and companies—here; many California- and New York-based companies are building satellite operations in Atlanta.

In the six years she’s been recruiting on digital skill sets in Los Angeles, Digital Account Manager Marguerite Corcoran has seen a steady increase in demand for UX, as well as a shift in the source of demand from agencies to media companies to enterprises bringing these skill sets in house. UX is focused on creating a project that leaves the user floored, which aligns well with the entertainment industry. “They’re always looking to provide something bigger, better, flashier and that ‘Whoa! I’ve never seen that before’ kind of experience.”

The maturity of UX is also driving talent to these areas. Stafford says, “On a maturity scale of 1 to 10, a lot of companies are between a 6 and a 9. Former front-line managers have risen in the ranks to upper-level management. Having leaders with a UX background is a big deal.”

San Francisco is kind of where it all begins, says Digital Recruiter Corrina Montejano. Designers want to work on newer, bigger technologies and ideas—like AI, machine learning and VR—which drives competition for jobs. People are hungry; they don’t dive in halfway—they want to go all the way.

A map of the states with the most UX jobs in the U.S.

How to be a UX standout in fiercely competitive job markets

  • Show (and tell) your entire process in your portfolio, i.e., how you went from information architecture to interaction to design. Stafford says, “Two years ago you could get away just showing a final project; you can’t do that anymore.” Use OmniGraffle (wire framing app) and InVision (prototyping app) and be able to articulate the effects of UX decisions. “People think creatives are up in the cloud, but they understand why their design decisions impact the business,” says Stafford.
  • Be upfront about your specific contributions.  Major campaigns in the entertainment industry have been touched by many hands. Make sure you break down what you actually did in that campaign. Corcocan says, “UX is a sweet spot of design, technology and science. Be very clear on what you did work on and show the process on how you got there.”
  • Have some tenure in your resume. Hiring managers like to see you’ve been at a job long enough (> 1.5 years) to truly dive in and understand their brand and challenges, as well as see a project all the way through.
  • Show variety. Designing for different types of customers and brands shows versatility and will catch hiring managers’ eyes. They want people who can adapt to an agency setting or a Fortune 100 bank. If you’re just starting out and don’t have that breadth of experience yet, Corcoran recommends adding spec work (and mark it as such) to your portfolio to show your capabilities.

Hot UX job markets

Locations where UX is in such high demand means more options and opportunities for job applicants. Sarah Jenkins, a digital account manager in Washington, D.C., says a lot of companies in the area are currently undergoing digital transformations, making UX skill sets in high demand. “It’s just a good time to be on the market for a UX opportunity.” Hayley Backman, a Baltimore digital recruiter, says it’s not uncommon for UX professionals to have multiple job opportunities and offers on the table. With less competition, UX professionals can choose the opportunity that’s the best fit for them and aligns to their career goals.

Digital Account Manager Arin Olson says, “Right now the Milwaukee market is so hopped up, hiring managers are willing to look at people who might not meet exact requirements.” That means considering candidates with less experience, who may have an understanding of UX principles but haven’t been sole UX designer on a project. There is opportunity to onboard and groom them into a UX role even if they have more of a visual/UI background. Olson says, “Everyone wants a unicorn who does everything; it’s helping clients realize that might not be possible. Not everyone’s going to come in a senior UX designer right away.”

To an extent, a hot job market can help candidates when they’re negotiating job offers. For example, solid design is critical to the success of a consumer-facing product. When a project is highly public, there is more wiggle room for negotiation compared to a less visible project (e.g., an internal system that isn’t bringing in outside revenue). Many companies in DC are also open to remote work because the traffic is so bad, which widens the talent market to Maryland and Virginia.

A map of the states with the most UX jobs in the U.S.

How to be a UX standout in hot job markets

  • Don’t ignore soft skills. UX designers work with many different parts of the business, stakeholders and development teams, and as part of design teams. “I’ve seen people nixed who are too territorial over designs. In a fast-paced environment, that won’t fly,” says Jenkins. 
  • Be a generalist. Everyone wants someone who can do everything and has a broader sense of involvement. Candidates should educate themselves on what UX generalist looks like. Play on your strengths but be honest and work on areas where you have to room grow.
  • Get cleared. Jenkins says, “Having security clearance in the UX field is definitely not the norm. People with top security clearance, or any clearance really, are streamlined into government positions and compensated well.”
  • And if you’re struggling…it’s probably your portfolio. “I’d say 90 percent of candidates are ruled out based on portfolio,” says Jenkins. It can be very subjective per client. One hiring manager might look for really sharp wireframes and information architecture. Another will hone in on color—why you chose that color and the outcome. Ask your recruiter for advice on how to update and position your portfolio to attract the jobs you want. 

A map showing the highest-paying states for UX jobs

Small markets where you can make an impact

Places where UX demand is just starting to pick up may be an advantageous way to find more career opportunities. Symone Daniels, a digital recruiter out of Memphis, says that she used to only recruit on a handful of UX openings per quarter, which often required a nationwide search. “The UX professionals in Memphis are already in full-time positions, or they move to larger markets like DC, California or Seattle. The local UX pros are working to combat that, though, by putting together user groups and building awareness of UX community to keep those resources here.”

However, cities like Memphis and Oklahoma City are beginning to see UX take off in their markets. “Things happen on the coasts—and it takes a couple years to get to the Midwest,” says Oklahoma City Digital Account Manager Alexandra Miller. “Organizations are still trying to figure out what UX means to them and getting past the assumption that graphic design, interaction design and visual design are all the same–when they’re not.” But as companies increase focus on the customer and customer journey, Miller projects a growth in UX jobs over the next three to five years.

In Denver, Digital Recruiter TJ Hager is seeing an increase in candidates who've recently gotten their master’s degree or completed boot camp programs saturating the market with entry-level talent. Middle- to senior-level talent is in demand and a challenge to find. With less competition than the larger markets, you have greater opportunity to make a bigger impact, no matter what your position or tenure is.

Hager says, “Senior-level talent have the ability to make an impact with some of these companies that are really starting to get ROI in UX. They can help build out a team and strategy. And once junior-level candidates get a foot in the door, there’s a lot of opportunity take on added responsibility and move up the ranks quickly.”

Plus, these cities more than make up for the scale of their UX opportunity with personality and community. I asked Hager what’s great about working in his area and his response was perfect: “I mean, have you been to Denver?” He has a point—Colorado has a reputation for active life styles and strong work/life balance..

“Memphis has its own energy and culture different from other cities in Tennessee—it’s an eclectic city, it has a little bit of soul,” she says, adding, “There’s really good food here, so you wouldn’t starve.”

As a transplant herself, Miller says Oklahoma City residents demonstrate a true sense of companionship. “They care about their fellow people. It’s a very pleasant community to live and breathe day in and day out. Plus, the cost of living in smaller cities is considerably lower to the rest of the U.S. You’ll get a fair market value for UX role, and you won’t be spending it all on rent.”

How to make an impact in smaller UX job markets:  

  • Make sure you have a portfolio, and that it has enough work examples and is easily accessible online or on a Dribble account. Candidates with portfolios tend to be a bit stronger than those just working off a resume. Oklahoma City is seeing increasingly high demand for support on mobile development projects, so show or gain cross-platform experience.
  • Know the impact of your design or team had on the business. For example, did it increase sales sign-ups? Hager says, “Not enough people can talk about what happens ‘after the design,’ and it’s a huge opportunity to highlight in an interview.”
  • Find a way to continue to grow your skill set and network outside an 8 to 5 job—by taking classes, picking up side work and continuing to expand your skill set. “The consultants that are the most successful are those who do a lot of networking,” Hager says. In large and small cities, UX meet-up groups are thriving.
  • Be creative in your search. People assume the jobs don’t exist in cities like Oklahoma City or Memphis, but they do… if you know how to look. Many down-market companies are less knowledgeable about UX titles, which can impact job titles and descriptions. You may be searching for the wrong title. Working with a recruiter who has insight into local companies can make all the difference.

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