6 UX Designer Career Paths with Pros and Cons

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the career options available to UX designers. Whether you’re drawn to the in-house stability, the challenging projects of agencies, the freedom of freelancing, the exploration of different industries, or the specialization within the field, each path has its own pros and cons.

3 classic career paths

In-house UX designer path

An in-house UX designer works directly within a company or organization rather than being employed through an external design agency or consultancy. Depending on the company’s size, they either work as part of a design team or as the lone UX designer on the project. This is one of the two most common UX career paths.

The in-house UX career ladder looks something like this: junior UX designer, senior UX designer, UX design manager, senior UX design manager, design director

The pros

1. More influence, ownership, and gratification

In-house UX designers typically have longer-term influence over the design decisions and overall user experience of the products or services. They have the opportunity to continuously advocate for user needs, propose improvements, and drive the implementation of best practices. This means that their a higher probability of seeing their vision come to life, which can be extremely gratifying.

2. Better alignment with business goals

Being an essential part of the organization, in-house UX designers have a better understanding and ownership of the goals and objectives that keep businesses afloat. This understanding allows them to better align their design decisions and strategies with these goals, ensuring the user experience contributes to the company’s success.

3. Continuous design improvement

In-house UX designers have the opportunity to iterate and refine their designs over time, which contributes to greater professional satisfaction. They can gather user feedback and track metrics over longer periods of time, or they can use real-time data and insights to make ongoing improvements to the user experience.

4. Better collaboration

In-house UX designers work closely with other designers as well as cross-functional teams, such as engineers and marketers. This longer-term, close collaboration allows for more streamlined communication and faster decision-making.

5. Familiarity with design ecosystem

In-house UX designers become very intimate with the company’s design ecosystem, including design tools, processes, and systems. This familiarity means increased efficiency and effectiveness in design work.

6. Deeper understanding of the company and product

As an in-house UX designer, you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the company’s culture, values, and goals. This understanding allows you to design experiences that align closely with the company’s vision and the target audience. What’s more, in-house designers have more of a chance to build lifelong professional relationships with their colleagues.

7. Career growth opportunities

Working in-house often provides more opportunities for career growth within the organization. As you gain experience and build a track record, the road to your next role becomes clearer.

The cons

1. Monotony and lack of project diversity

In-house UX designers may have limited exposure to a variety of projects compared to those working in agencies or consultancies. They might be barred from experimenting with new industry trends, emerging design patterns, and innovative approaches that could enhance their skill set.  This can lead to a narrower range of design experiences and potentially limit professional growth and future job prospects. 

2. Internal politics

I’m sure you’ve heard your friends complain about company politics. This is an existing phenomenon for UX designers as well. Design decisions may be influenced by factors other than user needs, leading to compromises or design choices that don’t fully align with best practices.

3. Lack of specialization and flexibility

Many in-house UX designers are limited to the same design and research methods all the time. This can limit them from developing a diverse range of specific skills, such as advanced usability testing, UX research methods, or new, specialized design tools.

4. Resistance to change

Many organizations resist design changes due to factors such as legacy systems, risks, or a lack of understanding of UX and its value. Overcoming this resistance and advocating for user-centered design principles can be a huge challenge.

5. Potential for stagnation

Working on the same product or within the same company for an extended period can lead to a risk of design stagnation. Design stagnation is when a designer becomes too comfortable or uninspired with a product and stops bringing innovative or disruptive perspectives and ideas that can escalate its growth.

Agency UX designer path

An agency UX designer works within a UX design agency or consultancy. They specialize in providing UX design services to a diverse range of clients. They have the opportunity to work on short- and longer-term projects; however, this is often not their choice. Working as a designer at an agency requires you to be adaptable, have rapid context-switching skills, and work well with deadlines.

The agency design position ladder looks something like this: junior UX designer, UX designer, senior UX designer, design lead, principal designer.

The pros

Exposure to diverse projects

Agency UX designers have the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects across various industries. This exposure allows them to tackle diverse design challenges, expand their skill set, and gain valuable experience in different domains. Moreover, since they are exposed to a wide range of influences, they are more likely to come up with creative solutions and ideas.

Building a diverse portfolio

Since they work on various client projects, agency UX designers can build a diverse and impressive UX portfolio. Usually, their collection of projects showcases sought-after skills like versatility, rapid problem-solving skills, and the ability to adapt. Also, a diverse portfolio opens doors for future opportunities.

Fast-paced environment

Agency settings are known for their fast-paced nature. Many UX designers thrive in this environment as it cultivates efficacy: they are required to deliver high-quality work within tight deadlines.

Entrepreneurial mindset

Working in an agency environment cultivates an entrepreneurial mindset since agency UX designers are often involved in business development activities, pitching proposals, and winning new clients. This experience hones their business acumen and enables them to see the business of design. If your end goal is to become a freelance UX designer or open your own design agency, this mindset is vital.

The cons

1. Lack of Long-Term Ownership

Agency UX designers’ time on a project is limited, which results in a lack of long-term ownership over the products or services they design. This can be demotivating for designers who enjoy seeing their work evolve and make a lasting impact.

2. Limited control over project selection

Agency UX designers may have limited control over the projects they work on. In many cases, they have to adapt to client demands and priorities, even if those don’t align with their personal interests or preferred design methodologies.

3. Frequent context switching

Working in an agency often means working on very different projects (sometimes simultaneously). This requires designers to constantly switch from one project to another, which means an increased cognitive load. If they can’t manage constant context switching, this can impact the quality and depth of their work.

4. Time constraints and deadlines

Agency UX designers often face tight deadlines and time constraints imposed by clients and contracts. This can be very stressful, and designers often have to sacrifice quality to stick to the timeline.

5. Less predictable workload

Different projects come with different workloads and dynamics. There are contracts in place, but a lot depends on the stakeholders, and the teams agency designers have to work with. This leads to a certain extent of unpredictability, making it challenging to plan and manage work-life balance.

6. Managing cient relationships

The success of agency UX designers depends on maintaining positive client relationships. If client relationships are strained, it can impact job stability and future opportunities within the agency. Therefore, agency designers need to be very good at managing a wide variety of personalities, which can be exhausting.

Freelance UX designer path

When designers start their freelance business, it means they’re already at the top of the career ladder, as they’ve become the head of their own, one-person design company. Most UX designers don’t start out as freelancers, though. They put the work into their careers as in-house or agency designers, and once they have enough experience, they take the plunge. And most successful freelancers will tell you to follow the same path.

But once you become a freelancer, you have the same option of any other designer: you can become a specialist, generalist, consultant, design auditor, and so on. Further down the line, you can build your own agency if you please, and the circle continues.

Read our comprehensive guide to becoming a freelance UX designer!

3 new school career paths

Industry hopper path

An industry hopper works as a UX designer in various industries. What I can see is that for most designers, this is a stage early in their careers when they’re still trying to find their footing. However, I also know designers who like the challenges of trying themselves in a different industry.

The biggest issue with this career path is that, in many cases, you won’t be able to start on the same seniority level as in your previous job since you’re not yet experienced enough. This is especially true for product designers who go from small-scale B2C products to ginormous projects with vast data and strict processes.

The interesting thing about this career path is how it relates to being an agency and in-house designer. Most agency designers are also industry hoppers since they have work on various projects in various industries. Meanwhile, if in-house designers are industry hoppers, it can mean that they frequently change workplaces.

Being an industry hopper comes with one significant danger I want to warn you about. Companies want to invest in professionals on whom they can rely for a longer period of time. Therefore, many employers are wary of designers who change jobs too frequently. Please note that you can be an industry hopper without changing your job too frequently.

Role hopper designer path

A role-hopper designer is someone who changes roles within the realms of UX. For example, going from UX design to UX research, UI design, product management, or microcopy writing. Since they’re switching roles but you remain in the world of UX, they have a much easier time than someone who switches careers.

The best way to manage the role hopper journey is to start getting more involved in the role you are interested and ask someone to mentor you. I’ve seen this formula work successfully many times in our mother company.

The advantage of being a role hopper is that you don’t necessarily have to look for a new job if you want to switch. Many companies support role-hoppers, meaning you can start a new career without having to figure out everything from zero.

SME UX designer path

Today in UX, you’re either a generalist or a specialist. However, like other growing and diversifying fields, specialization is the path many designers opt for. This means that after an initial training period and gaining enough experience, designers choose a UX subject they become an authority on. For example, design system specialist, information architect, prototyping specialist, etc.

The advantage of this is that a well-chosen specialization makes you more special and indispensable. If your company is working with a design system managed by you – the design system specialist – it means that you’re essential for said company’s workflow, so your position is more secure than someone who’s a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Therefore, if you feel passionate about a particular specialization within UX, use that passion as fuel and make yourself an authority on the topic.

What’s next?

All these paths are viable for UX designers. But regardless of which one you choose, there’s one constant thing: you’ll need a portfolio to present your skillset and expertise. That’s where UXfolio enters the picture. With our pioneering portfolio builder, you showcase your experience in the form of streamlined case studies that’ll advance your career in the long term. Try UXfolio for free!

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