Updated: Mar 11, 2022
Exclusion, nepotism and educationalism
(originally written 2017, updated 2022)
2022, and again I'm hearing many speak of a talent shortage? Actually, your HR department doesn't understand design or how to hire for diverse design talent. Most companies are run by gatekeepers who will exclude, exclude, exclude. Then you have recruiters who use technology to screen or look for keywords instead of actually meeting people, thereby eliminating great people as most of the software is designed with bias (not to mention the bias of the recruiters themselves). Or they hire recruiters without the necessary experience to make a proper decision on shortlisting. There is talent, but most are being excluded because they don't "fit into a specific box of what a designer should look like or be". And most importantly, society places too high a value on learned experience vs lived experience. A certificate or degree doesn't equate to experience, and yet you expect poor newbies to come in straight out of university with the skill of a 20 year career at the price of a junior mid. Then expect 20 year experience designers to forfeit a decent wage when they're missing a fancy university degree? Come on, it's 2022...wake up!
Where are we going to get UX Designers in South Africa? We have jobs but no people. How should we go about it? — Sebastian (nosweat.work) 2017
Sebastian asked this question in 2017, and suddenly 2022, people are asking this again. Everyone from companies to recruiters are asking:
So where are all the “unicorns”?
How did this problem come to be?
I could go into a long debate about politics and educational system in SA. But I hate politics. So let’s start here instead: Don Norman was a pioneer in UX, being the first to coin the term, “User Experience Professional/Architect” in 1995…(an electrical engineer and cognitive scientist) — yes, a beautiful combination of science & design. But a rare mixture without a doubt. In SA this term was not even familiar to us at that time. Well not to me anyways.
I think most of SA only heard about Don Norman when presented recently at UX South Africa 2020 . Most people, didn't know he was the author of "Design of everyday things." At least now we're all on the same page here, and on a path forward where UX is recognised as a legit job.
The source of the problem lies not so much in the lack of available talent…there is talent. There’s talent on different levels and industries. In reality, larger companies are like vultures to take them first and are more willing to pay. But with a larger company, there’s still not enough UX peeps to go around.
Startups are willing to take the risk in hiring someone with a desire to learn, someone who has “most” of the skills, but still not considered an “expert”…hired with the hope that they will use the opportunity to grow with the startup. But most jump ship when a higher bidder chases them. What happens then, both startups and enterprises are left in the lurch.
Those who are UX Experts with “20 years+” experience in the industry, are too "busy" with the amount of work they need to produce. Perhaps there’s no room for them to help another and take on more work. Or they just don’t see the value in doing so. Either that, or they live on another continent, speak a different language.
Or you get the inverse, where you get entitled graduates who don't understand the value of having a mentor. Ruining relationships along their path of self discovery within their learning journey.
Others, they'll give up trying to ask for help and instead start their own companies. Or choose the road of the remote worker.
For the rest, who feel they need a career change, and are starting in this field, you still have to gain the “experience” to understand people to enable better user experiences. (The irony)…The results? Experts who are too busy or don't care to pay it forward, with newbies left to fend for themselves or the worst case, indifference. Others just give up and opt for a path to forge on alone.
Design industry and it's flaws
Education. Yes, I admit, we have online access to quality education within this space, but limited time in which to pursue this. And the content, is in depth, you need to really go through it thoroughly to understand. It’s not something you can learn over night. Or as some institutions offer, 5 days. (5 days?!)-I wouldn’t trust that. But each to his own.
No matter the method you choose to build skill, you need to use the information, in order to remember it. There’s no one to ask, if you have questions, and no one to show you how they do it in order for you to compare methods. (When in doubt, Google is your friend) — but even Googling fails… And if you mail one of the “top” designers for guidance, seeking a mentor, you’re just ignored.
Memo to self: (When I grow up, I’m going to help as many new entry designers as possible) — I won’t be like “that” designer. --you know who you are...
Then there’s the lack of knowledge transfer from the “experts” to beginners. Knowing something is one thing, the ability to teach it is a totally different ball game. Not everyone explains in a manner which assists understanding.
Technically, we are all beginners in some areas of our work. Whether you’re hired to complete low-fi prototypes but want to learn information design or development, or a UX designer moving to UI Design & Animation, or Developer to Strategy, or a Product Designer moving to Service Design. UX is vast. Not to mention the industrial, sound and instructional designers ---industrial designers, completely different ball game from user experience design…and so much more. It all depends on the project/problem you need to solve.
And just like in formal education, the problem in the design industry is not so much the work which is taught, the learning material produced, but the way it is presented. The methods of teaching.
As humans, we learn best by doing ( through practice )- to create enduring knowledge. And we learn even better, by teaching another.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it.
Then we have the GATEKEEPERS
I don't know what it is about the design space, but it's even more cliquey than the art space --sigh.. the whole point of getting into design was to remove that kind of mentality... and yet, exclusion is the name of the game once again. --This is the main reason The Interaction Design Foundation Johannesburg Chapter was created. To ensure there will be no exclusion in this group.
More jobs for UX Designers, but not enough who are available? (supply & demand) Lack of knowledge transfer — Company NDA’s and lack of time for experts to share information across platforms. (time & external constraints)
Lack of industry experts- mentors (resources: people who actually care to mentor and students open to learning) All those in the UX field whether contracting or employed seem to be hindered in sharing expertise. Personally, I don’t know if it’s just a competitive thing or an insecurity issue, but I honestly don’t see why it should be this way. I don’t get it. Even with NDA’s there’s nothing stopping you from helping to clarify another’s questions or share advice. Perhaps, it’s just the way I was raised, but sharing knowledge has always made sense, instead of withholding it.
If people were more open to learning from each other in order to help accelerate their learning, there would be a larger pool of industry relevant talent. A larger, diverse pool of expertise. And there'd be less badly designed products and services around us if this was true.
As much as I've experienced rejection when reaching out to various potential mentors over the years, I have also been lucky to always work with people who have been open to sharing knowledge... not always, but in most cases I have been lucky.
People think they have to be perfect experts in every aspect of their work from day 1, as well as industry experts in whichever company you’re working in eg. insurance, finance, medical etc. Ok firstly, you can’t start off as an expert, (yes, you need to know your industry) but things continue to change across industries…and working in a silo with blinkers, definitely won’t get you there. I highly doubt that you can truly call yourself “that” expert unless you’ve been in a particular industry over a decade or more and worked on numerous diverse projects in numerous roles within that spectrum.
Let me tell you a little secret: No one is an expert- there is always something more to learn — I don’t care who you are or how long you’ve been doing this, you do not know everything. Don’t fool yourself, we can all learn from reading and from each other through shared experiences.
OR if you became that particular industry expert by staying in that same company for 10 years, while building your skills in all areas of design and business. AND, most importantly, continued to educate yourself within your specific “Scientific Design” discipline. Bear in mind, that UX for Startups is very different from UX for established enterprises. Namely, one is fast and one is slow. The UCD process remains the same, but the type of enterprise/corporate environment will slow everything down. Research, Strategy, Communication Design, Interaction Design, Human Computer Interaction are still skillsets you'll need to cover, but how it's executed/ the method and the timeframe within each industry will differ.
The greater the number of decision makers, the higher the politics & the added unnecessary meetings.
Agencies want to drop costs to hire younger, but expect their young hires to be experts?! Or they increase the price, and try cut corners by trying to find a 6-in-1 person. Who most likely doesn’t exist yet. Either way — It’s illogical & unethical. Purely unprofessional. Stop trying to recruit Unicorns ( they exist, but in different combinations)
Design as a discipline (accuracy of job specs)
Tell me you’re an expert in everything above…?! ..yeah right. Clients need to reevaluate the job specs they’re putting out there. Clients would have better luck finding the right fit by, specifying e.g. Stronger in research or highly qualified in IxD. Or more experienced in Qualitative Research… Or experience in Product Design for mobile app vs experience in Service Design. You can’t be perfect in everything including an expert in psychology and behaviour and, and..and…the list goes on…and while you’re at it, a little rocket science and astrophysics just for good measure. ;) …you know the deal.
We may not be experts in all these disciplines — but we can take principles from these various fields in order to make better design decisions. Everyone who reads these silly job specs lately, will notice they need to be 6 people in 1.. I wonder about what kind of quality of work will be produced if that’s the case, or what kind of pressure will be on them to deliver across the board? (that’s when you ignore that job spec, because that company has no idea what they’re looking for actually). No doubt , depending on the complexity of the problem, the size of egos and the size of the team, there are ways to work around this using the right tools. But if you don’t have the principles as a foundation, you can’t leverage technology effectively.
What are design principles? -- join us for one of our events to learn more ;)
Lack of Companies people actually want to work for
Companies need to “live” their values Maybe the reason some companies can’t find the right people, is because the right people don’t want to work for them. Nobody likes a hypocrite…if you preach diversity, then live it! If you believe in changing the world, show me! No one wants to work just to get paid. We all want work with purpose. And now post-pandemic, more people are getting used to the remote lifestyle, designers are learning that they don't have to continue working for companies who don't care. You always have a choice to leave.
The pandemic has opened people's eyes to see what matters in their lives. Peoples' tolerance for dealing with useless projects which don't make people's lives better has changed. Which explains the great resignation. Companies who don't change to fit into employee needs will lose the talent they have currently.
Companies can’t keep following past habits which were perhaps relevant a decade ago. It’s 2017!--(when I wrote this). Nope, it's 2022-- and things are finally changing!.. and if companies aren’t future focused, keeping up with current technology, and more invested in the people who make their company a reality then those companies will become redundant. Or will continue to have low employee retention.
But until the day that companies care more about people (like really, really care about people, “ from employees to customer..to humanity as a whole”) …care more about what truly matters, about solving problems worth solving, instead of caring only about profit…well then things would be very different …(I’m not naïve in thinking profit isn’t the important, I only mean it shouldn’t be the only measurement of success). Employee experience is just as important as customer experience (whoever your user might be). Until that day however, people need to take responsibility for their own education. To create purpose for yourself.
No company truly cares about your education. They will train you in areas they feel are relevant to benefit the company. They want to decide on your behalf, what’s relevant for YOU to learn. Despite the fact, that they lack the foresight to see best areas of growth in your field. They don’t understand your industry, and they don’t understand you. Invest in yourself, EDUCATE yourself…make your own way.
That’s the only silver lining I see from this, you'll never get bored, and you'll always learn new things. You are never fully an expert.. maybe you can be experts based on this current year, so perhaps for 2017/ 2022… but, by this time next year, it means nothing if you don’t keep growing along with technology, design, business, the world around you as a whole. Tech evolves and changes the world around us…the tools we use, the things we pay attention to and celebrate shapes us as a society, the type of services created, results in further changes in our work, our landscape, our process, the environment, on a micro and macro level, the cultures/communities which spring from this, everything changes.
Be instead the catalyst of changing the landscape around you, instead of letting trends dictate your direction. Change…It’s so beautiful!
What opportunities are there?
On a lighter note, for those who care to evolve and learn from various disciplines…feel free to join : Interaction Design Foundation — Johannesburg …a group, where knowledge is shared and learning accelerated. Where every skill level, skill set, technology and business type is acknowledged and dissected. Where we learn from a variety of industries, and can leverage in different ways, in our respective projects.
No specifics of our personal work will be shared to protect our clients interests. But our processes, methods, failures, successes and work-arounds can be shared. Each can bring a topic or problem they’re currently facing in their work, and together we can solve it by sharing our personal insights & techniques. Topics are suggested and speakers volunteer.
For more info: Interaction Design Foundation Africa. Join any chapter
We used to have physical meetings in Johannesburg, South Africa, but we've moved to fully remote meetups since 2020. 1st Tuesdays of the month are usually our set sessions at 18:00. But the month will vary. Groups are free, and open to everyone!
If you’re interested in being a speaker, respond to this article, or email: email@example.com ( local speakers for workshops & international speakers for webinars are welcome! )
Hope to see you at the next meetup!
Disclaimer: Local Leaders work on a volunteer basis, we are not paid to promote or affiliated with or hired by the Interaction Design Foundation- we are simply students who study on https://www.interaction-design.org/ website and volunteer part-time to build the design community within Johannesburg, South Africa