How to Identify the Right Interaction Design Job / by David Sherwin

Sketching Your Career Path - Illustration by David Sherwin

“If I want to work as an interaction designer, what kind of job should I look for?” Answering this question isn’t easy, especially for those new to the field. Interaction designers are employed by in-house corporate design teams, design consultancies and studios, startups, governments, research institutions, schools, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and many other organizations. Job titles are wildly inconsistent, even within very narrow disciplines. How does a designer even begin to consider the available options?

Over the past seven years, my partner Mary and I have coached hundreds of interaction designers from dozens of countries on what roles they could pursue. The market has never been better for interaction designers, with possibilities that didn’t exist a decade ago. Yet we still hear designers describing their job search in particularly limiting terms. It sounds a little like this: “I could work in-house on a design team… or at a design consultancy… or maybe a startup…” 

We think there’s a better way to frame up your job search. Start with these four questions.

1. What Do You Want to Learn in Your New Job?

Designers put a lot of attention into both the products they’re creating and their portfolio of work. But if we focus too much on output, we lose sight of what we’re learning at work. Before pursuing a new role, we encourage designers to do a self-assessment regarding their strengths and areas for growth. 

No matter whether you’re just entering the field or trying to move to the next level, it’s unlikely you have all the skills you need. What skills do you want to improve to round out your overall skill set? Which skills do you need to keep practicing in order to stay sharp?

When coaching designers, we ask them to self-assess their skills in the following areas:

Core Design Skills

Being a wizard at the latest design software won’t forgive sloppy thinking in your work. The core of your craft as an interaction designer is related to critical and creative thinking. These skills always need sharpening: identifying assumptions, problem framing, generating ideas, sketching and presenting work, stress-testing work through critique, and demonstrating traceability throughout the process. We also recommend that designers have at least a rudimentary understanding of systems thinking.

Technical Skills

These are the hands-on design skills that you’ll end up using every day in your role. For an interaction designer, this means facility with everything from user research to creating user flows to designing and prototyping interfaces across a variety of media. Evaluate which incidental technical skills you need by sniffing around to see what tasks and programs are being used at similar companies; you probably don’t need to go much further than job listings for this. Temper that list by looking at your own workflow to make sure you aren’t confusing process and tools. (Quick test: How easy is it for you to describe your process without mentioning keystroke combos or tools by name?) Software comes and goes, but the ability to think your way around a process is an evergreen skill.

People Skills

How effective are you in how you communicate, facilitate, and collaborate? Every interaction design job will require you to collaborate closely with other designers, cross-functional partners like engineering and product management, as well as clients and sponsors of your projects. You’ll also have to work with external vendors, and don’t forget the customers and users you’ll regularly speak with.

Professional Skills

These are skills you need for any job. Time management, follow-through, and business writing are some of the basics that are required every day. If you’re struggling in any of these areas, you know to shore them up before embarking on your search.

Once you’ve listed your strengths and areas for growth in these areas, consider how you’d want to learn those skills. Would you expect a manager or mentor to actively help you develop those skills at work? If so, how? If not, are you comfortable learning new skills and tools on your own? (You’ll see this in job descriptions that use coded language to recruit ‘self-starters’ that are ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘lifelong learners’.)

2. What Problems Do You Want to Be Solving?

This question can be daunting, even for experienced designers! But it’s worth spending time with this question, for one simple reason: You’ll be unhappy if you end up in a job where you’re addressing problems you don’t want to be solving.

Get a sheet of paper and a pencil and write down which problems you’d personally want to help solve as a designer. Here are some categories of problems to help you get started. 

Social Problems (aka ‘Wicked Problems’)

You may think: I could tackle something here, but I just don’t know where to start. If you want to tackle capital-P problems around poverty, inequality, and climate change, helpful resources are the site for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the 80,000 Hours project.

Problems of Everyday Life

There are the everyday problems we personally deal with, the little frictions that upset us when riding public transit, buying food to cook for dinner, or figuring out how to save money. These can often tie into wicked problems, but everyday problems allow an interaction designer to encounter them on a more personal and specific level.

Problems with Products We Personally Use

This seems fairly obvious, but it’s worth mentioning problems with products that we’re familiar with. There are products we use all the time, and they’re full of problems both large and small. We talk to a lot of designers who prefer working on these sorts of discrete, internal problems, especially if a particular company or product has a significant impact on the world. Systems thinking is especially important here, since it frequently gets overlooked in this space.

Problems We Don’t Directly Encounter, But Are Important to Address

The world is filled with thousands of products, services, and experiences that we may never directly encounter, but that are critical to society. There’s an entire world dedicated to protecting financial data from hackers. There’s software for oncology specialists to use to keep track of radiation dosage in their patients, so they don’t accidentally hurt them. Airports and post offices need care and attention to work at their best. These “invisible” problem spaces, which are full of complex challenges, require due care and attention from interaction designers.

Problems We Don’t Want to Solve

Lastly, there are the problems we don’t want to solve. Not because we aren’t interested in them being solved, but because, from a moral perspective, we aren’t comfortable in addressing them, or we believe there are risks in how the solutions could be used. We could make a list of these kinds of problems, but for each person these are going to be different.

When you’re assessing potential job opportunities, ask in your interviews what problems you’ll be helping them solve. This will give you a strong indication of how your time will be applied in your role and what kinds of knowledge and skills you’ll gain. (We intentionally didn’t include a category called “Business Problems”, as it’s likely that you’ll end up addressing them no matter where you work.)

3. What Impact Do You Want to Have in Your Role?

You know what you want to learn and what types of problems you’d like to help solve. Now what kind of impact do you want to have as a result of your work? We’ve made the question about impact separate from the one about problems, and it’s important that you do it, too. 

In its simplest form, impact is how many people over time will achieve a benefit from your work. But it’s not as simple as saying “I want my work to impact people at scale”. How impact is delivered is unique to the product you work on, the audiences you’re serving, and the problems you’re solving. Here’s an example.

Imagine you’re a designer working with an NGO to create a new preschool. You’re helping with every aspect of the school’s design and delivery in a community where it’s rare for children to receive education before the age of seven. Over three years, children aged 3-5 will get five hours of schooling every day. Let’s say each class has thirty students: that’s over 90,000 hours of direct service delivery from teachers and volunteers at the school. You get to personally see how the students benefit from your work.

Compare this with working on a feature for a communications product that has a user base of 250 million people across ten countries. Your design work will help educate the users of the product regarding how they can create group conversations with friends and family. You start by rolling out the feature to one percent of the user base, and out of that cohort ten percent start creating groups and communicating twenty percent more with family and friends through the product. Perhaps this adds up to 90,000 hours of increased messaging overall across half a million people. You see aggregate metrics that speak to product success, but would need to conduct in-person research to understand how customers are using it.

In both of these cases, your work as a designer has an impact. We’re not making a value judgment about which option is a better use of a designer’s time; it’s up to you to determine what you need to be motivated around impact. 

When assessing work opportunities, ask employers about impact: how they measure it, how designers contribute to it, and the ways that they address potential negative impacts. When comparing job opportunities, consider how close you want to be to the user base and the depth or breadth of impact that can be achieved. There are also many roles where the potential for impact is internal, on the people working alongside you in your organization.

4. What Would a ‘Day in the Life’ Look Like For You at Work?

Good morning! It’s a beautiful day outside, and you’re about to roll out of bed and head to work at your new job as an interaction designer. 

Now picture the scene. What time of day is it? In what kind of city or town are you? What does your home look like? After you get ready for work, what’s your commute?

Fast forward to the workday itself. How do you find yourself spending your time in this job? What are the activities that keep you busy? How much of the work involves collaborating with others, versus doing work on your own? What does that collaboration look like? With whom?

Now you’re wrapping up your workday. When is it? Where are you? What will you be doing after work? During the weekend?

We spend so much time thinking about the possibilities of a new job, that we forget what it’s going to be like hour by hour while we’re getting work done. Visualizing your ideal work day will help you answer many questions, from your ideal work/life balance to realistic expectations regarding compensation. Different companies and cities will lead to radically different lifestyles.

Take Time to Self-Search Before Starting Your Job Search

Make sure you have some answers to these four questions before applying for jobs. You’ll be able to better sift through job descriptions, ask more focused questions of employers through the hiring process, and be prepared to receive feedback along the way about how your skills and interests map to potential roles. You’ll also have a better sense of what tradeoffs you’re willing to make when comparing opportunities, in return for what you will earn and learn.