Ending the UX Designer Drought

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The user experience design field is booming. We’re making an impact, our community is vibrant, and everyone has a job. And that’s the problem. A quick search for “user experience” on indeed.com reveals over 5,000 jobs posted in the last 15 days (as of March 15, 2014) in the United States alone! Simple math turns that into the staggering statistic of 10,000 new UX-related jobs being created every month.

This amount of work going undone is going to prevent us from delivering the value that UX promises. It’s going to force businesses to look toward something more achievable to provide that value. For user experience design to remain the vibrant, innovation-driving field it is today, we need to make enough designers to fill these positions.

Fortunately, there are a tremendous number of people interested in becoming a UX designer. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for these people to land one of these jobs. That’s because of the experience gap. All these UX jobs are all for people with 2-3 years of experience–or more.

UX design is a strategic discipline in which practitioners make recommendations that can have a big impact on an organization’s revenue. Frankly, a designer isn’t qualified to make these kinds of recommendations without putting in some time doing fundamental, in-the-trenches research and design work. While this might seem like an intractable problem, the skills required to do this fundamental work can be learned!

Someone just has to teach them.

Solving the problem

There are many ways to to teach fundamental UX design skills. Design schools have been doing it for years (and the new, practically-focused Unicorn Institute will start doing it soon). However, to access the full breadth of people interested in UX design, education in UX design needs to be accessible to people at any stage of their lives. To do that, you need to make learning a job.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. Other professions have been doing this for hundreds of years in the form of apprenticeship. This model has a lot to offer the UX design field and can be adapted to meet our particular needs.

What is apprenticeship?

In the traditional model of apprenticeship, an unskilled laborer offers their labor to a master craftsman in exchange for room, board, and instruction in the master’s craft. At the end of a certain period of time, the laborer becomes a journeyman and is qualified to be employed in other workshops. To be considered a master and have their own workshop and apprentices, however, a journeyman must refine their craft until the guild determines that their skill warrants it.

While this sounds medieval–because it is–there are a few key points that are still relevant today.

First, apprenticeship is learning by observation and practice. Designing a user experience requires skills that require practice to acquire. Apprentices are also compensated with more than just the training they receive. Even “unskilled,” they can still provide value. A baker’s apprentice can haul sacks of flour; a UX apprentice can tame the detritus of a design workshop.
Apprenticeship is also limited to a specific duration, after which the apprentice is capable of the basics of the craft. In modern terms, apprenticeship is capable of producing junior designers who can bring fundamental, tactical value to their teams. After a few years of practicing and refining these skills, those designers will be qualified to provide the strategic UX guidance that is so sought after in the marketplace.

A new architecture for UX apprenticeship

The apprenticeship model sounds good in theory, but does it work in practice? Yes. in 2013, The Nerdery, an interactive design and development shop in Minneapolis, ran two twelve-week cohorts of four apprentices each. There are now eight more UX designers in the world. Eight designers might seem like a drop in the 10,000-jobs-per-month bucket, but if more design teams build apprenticeship programs it will fill up very quickly.

Building an apprenticeship program might sound difficult to you. However, The Nerdery’s program was designed in such a way that it could be adapted to fit different companies of different sizes. We call this our UX Apprenticeship Architecture, and I encourage you to use it as the basis of your own apprenticeship program.

There are five components to this architecture. Addressing each of these components in a way that is appropriate for your particular organization will lead to the success of your program. This article only introduces each of these components. Further articles will discuss them in detail.

Define business value

The very first step in building any UX apprenticeship program is to define how the program will benefit your organization. Apprenticeship requires an investment of money, time, and resources, and you need to be able to articulate what value your organization can expect in return for that investment.

Exactly what this value is depends on your organization. For The Nerdery, the value is financial. We train our apprentices for them to become full members of our design team. Apprenticeship allows us to achieve our growth goals (and the revenue increase that accompanies growth for a client services organization). For other organizations, the value might be less tangible and direct.

Hire for traits, not talent

Once you’ve demonstrated the value of apprenticeship to your organization and you’ve got their support, the next thing to focus on is hiring.

It can take a long time at first until you narrow down what you’re looking for. Hiring apprentices is much different from hiring mid to senior level UX designers. You’re not looking for people who are already fantastic designers; you’re looking for people who have the potential to become fantastic designers. Identifying this potential is a matter of identifying certain specific traits within your applicants.

There are two general sets of traits to look for, traits common to good UX designers and traits that indicate someone will be a good apprentice. For example, someone who is defensive and standoffish in the face of critical feedback will not make a good apprentice. In addition to these two sets of traits, there will very likely be an additional set that is particular to your organization. At The Nerdery, we cultivate our culture very carefully, so it’s critical for us that the apprentices we hire fit our culture well.


“Pedagogy” means a system of teaching. Developing the tactics for teaching UX design can take time as well, so it’s best to begin focusing on that once recruiting is underway. At The Nerdery, we found that there are four pedagogical components to learning UX design: orientation, observation, practice, and play.

Orientation refers to exposing apprentices to design methods and teaching them the very basics. In observation, apprentices watch experienced designers apply these methods and have the opportunity to ask them about what they did. Once an apprentice learns a method and observes it in use, they are ready to practice it by doing the method themselves on a real project. The final component of our pedagogy is play. Although practice allows apprentices to get a handle on the basics of a method, playing with that method in a safe environment allows them to make the method their own.


Observation and practice comprise the bulk of an apprentice’s experience. Both of these activities rely on close mentorship to be successful. Mentorship is the engine that makes apprenticeship go.

Although mentorship is the most critical component of apprenticeship, it’s also the most time-intensive. This is the biggest barrier an organization must overcome to implement an apprenticeship program. At The Nerdery, we’ve accomplished this by spreading the burden of mentorship across the entire 40-person design team rather than placing it full-time on the shoulders of four designers. Other teams can do this too, though the structure would be different for both smaller and larger teams.


The final component of our apprenticeship architecture is tracking. It is largely tracking apprentice progress that gives apprenticeship the rigor that differentiates it from other forms of on-the-job training. We track not only the hours an apprentice spends on a given method but qualitative feedback from their mentors on their performance. Critical feedback is key to apprentice progress.

We track other things as well, such as feedback about mentors, feedback about the program, and the apprentice’s thoughts and feelings about the program. Tracking allows the program to be flexible, nimble, and responsive to the evolving needs of the apprentices.

Business value, traits, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking: Think about these five things in relation to your organization to build your own custom apprenticeship program. Although this article has only scratched the surface of each, subsequent articles will go into details.
Part two of this series will cover laying the foundation for apprenticeship, defining its business value and identifying who to hire.

Part three will focus on the instructional design of apprenticeship, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking.

If you’ve got a design team and you need to grow it, apprenticeship can help you make that happen!


  1. Fantastic! I devoured this article muttering “yes, absolutely, yes, yes” under my breath like a fanatic. I eagerly read every word thinking what a clear and accessible mandate this is for the leaders in the design field. Only, what about those of us who are not yet the master craftsman and fearless leaders? What about those of us seeking the apprenticeship?

    I was hoping to find a list (however brief) of organizations embracing this model to some extent and offering similar opportunities. I would revel in the chance to participate in this model.

    If anyone knows of companies embarking on this new pedagogy, I am an eager student and a willing guinea pig.

    Much appreciated!

  2. Hi Kaylie,

    Sadly, there aren’t that many. Hopefully that will change soon. Here are some links to the ones I know exist:

    – The Nerdery (Minneapolis): http://nerdery.com/jobs/positions/92
    – Fresh Tilled Soil (Boston): http://www.freshtilledsoil.com/aux/
    – MyPlanet (Toronto): http://myplanetfellowship.com/
    – CP+B (???): http://www.cpbgroup.com/#jobs/intern-with-us (I know least about this one… you’re working on real client work, at least)

    Good luck!

  3. There is definitely a huge gap between the number of UX jobs out there and the number of folks in the industry. That’s exactly what the User Experience Design Immersive program at General Assembly is all about. The goal of our 10-week intensive program is to introduce highly-talented and motivated individuals to fundamental UX skills in a practical, project-focused format that allows them to graduate with polished portfolios and having done real work with real clients.

    You can find out even more about it here: https://generalassemb.ly/education/user-experience-design-immersive

  4. This is nice to read. But in addition, I think there should be a mention about about an important hurdle: “Visa restrictions”. I’m super inspired to take UX as my career road, but was turned down by a few locations including Nerdery, because I am on F1 Student Visa. It’s kinda sad.

  5. Apprenticeship is great; however there are many organizations that already offer some sort of internship directly through select educational institutions. There are some good ones; but there are a ton of really bad ones that drop interns directly into projects to be ‘tried-by-fire’.

    Anyway, the reason I was commenting; is that I’m a UX hired gun. I don’t belong to an organization, and don’t hire apprentices. That said; I think people like me can contribute to solving the current circumstances the UX draught has created.

    Many organizations have been forced to lower the bar regarding their UX hires; filling their teams up with unqualified practitioners. As a hired gun, I’m able to fly into different organizations and mentor their teams through actual projects. Kind-of a reverse-apprenticeship. Wrote a cautionary tale about this; you can skip to the bottom where I describe a recent opportunity where I’m doing exactly this.


  6. As a multi-disciplined UX and CX practitioner for many many years, I’d like to add a different twist to this article, which is certainly an interesting read. In my experience, there isn’t necessarily a drought of UX designers but rather a drought of ‘inexpensive’ UX designers. There’s many of us out there with a wealth of experience and knowledge, but we choose not to practice our passion for peanuts.

  7. As someone in the industry of digital marketing design looking to transition into the a more UX focused role, yes, yes and yes to this! The ideas presented in this article is everything one who is already in the industry would need to grow towards the UX field. This article is a great “Step 1” resource for any aspiring UX designers. Can I look forward to a follow-up “Step 2” article with perhaps more resources? 🙂

  8. Identifying the need to train people to fill a gap is fantastic. But I’m wondering how this is any different from internships.

    Are you proposing that apprenticeships be paid or unpaid?
    Is it posted as an apprenticeship, entry-level job, or internship?

  9. Rachit: I’m bummed about that too, but that directly relates to the value proposition of apprenticeship. For us, our goal is to hire apprentices permanently with apprenticeship essentially being extended on-the-job training. So it’s hard for us to hire someone as an apprentice who can’t fill the subsequent designer role. Other companies have different uses for apprenticeship, so those might be better options for people in your situation.

    Jordan: Apprenticeship is VERY different from internship in both purpose and rigor. But yes, independent consultants can help make more designers by helping their clients build their own teams. I think people in your situation can also take on apprentices in a more traditional sense. You’ll have to figure out the value proposition for yourself there, though.

  10. It’s a shame that we’re not seeing the same importance being put on UX design(ers) in our company/country (South Africa) as it seems you have. So many of our websites and online apps lack the necessary ‘togetherness’ to be on par with the rest of the world.

    As a Java and web developer, my skills are more on the technical side, but I have a big interest in user experience design and practices. My only problem is to get exposure.

  11. Deb: There’s a lot wrapped up in your comment. Geography is a huge factor in your salary. First, I know very few rurally-based UX designers. So you have to be near a metropolitan area. Second, you have to deal with NYC/SFO salary inflation. E.g., I could make half as much as a UXD in Minneapolis as I would in SFO but take home more because of cost-of-living differences. Here are some resources to help you calculate and negotiate your worth:

    IAI Salary Survey: http://iainstitute.org/en/learn/research/salary_survey.php

    UXPA Salary Survey: http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/usability_resources/surveys/SalarySurveys.html

    Henry: Yes, this article was only an overview. I’ll go into depth in each of the five components of the architecture in subsequent articles.

    Paula: Apprenticeship is *very* different from internship. First, the level of commitment from the intern to the organization and vice versa is very low. An acceptable outcome of internship is for the intern to realize they don’t want a career in the field. Apprenticeship is a much greater commitment. It’s paid (apprentices earn a low but livable salary) and organizations invest their own resources into developing apprentices for a specific end. On the apprentice’s end, if they have an existing career (as many of ours did) they need to let that go in order to pursue apprenticeship. No one seeks an apprenticeship to become rich. : ) Second, interns are often still in school. We do not hire students for apprenticeship because our goal is to develop them into full junior designers. Third, the level of rigor in an apprenticeship is much higher than in any internship program I’ve encountered. Apprentices set goals, mentors track progress against those goals, and they provide apprentices with meaningful, real-world work to help them reach those goals. Finally, real-world work is the *focus* of apprenticeship. Many (not all) internships rely primarily on “internal projects” which prevent interns from seeing how practicing designers handle tricky business and client situations. I could probably write a whole article on this but this is the short version. : )

  12. As someone who spent the last 6 years looking to find otherwise, I’ve noted:

    – There are plenty of design openings in low experience (from my perspective) jobs in the 2-3 years range.

    – There are next to zero jobs in anything above that range. Having almost 2 decades of experience, I was hit up constantly as a perfect match for 2-3 years of experience roles and almost ignored completely for anything above that.

    – Almost everyone outside of (and some inside of) the UX field think of UX as visual design. If your skill set has to do with test or interaction, your going to be asked for a portfolio anyway. Putting non-visual items into this portfolio won’t help. It only confuses people.

    – The jobs pay really badly. I went back to engineering where I could be payed more as an individual contributor than I was offered for a Sr Director of design role.

    – At anything above 2-3 years, the market is looking for unicorns. I’ve seen UX director jobs stay open for 1-2 years at major companies in Silicon Valley (Cisco, Ariba, etc). Having had a chance to talk with some of the hiring managers, they are looking for someone with a PhD is design, development experience and a thought-leader recognized by the design community.

    Sounds negative, but eventually will hopefully change. I’ve heard that there are more upper end positions opening up in San Francisco.

    Best and Good Luck


  13. I totally agree. If we don’t do I something to create a new generation of great people, the industry will not flourish.

    One agency in the UK seems to be taking this seriously. Wilson Fletcher have created a new Masters degree with Brunel University that looks a lot like a high-end apprenticeship to me. I was even tempted to do the thing myself (and I’m old)!

    Here’s the course listing:


    Their MD wrote a pretty empassioned article about education in their digital magazine too (where I first heard about the course):


  14. This is excellent. I admire you and the Nerdery team for the effort put into the development of this idea. Really, this is a concept that could (and should) be applied to other disclipines in and outside of the web realm but I totally agree that if fits very nicely with the UX discipline

    I was curious if you guys use during the apprenticehsip any books or other resources as supplemental material that you could share?

    Thanks for the article and look forward to the next parts.

  15. Joe: Thanks so much! Those resources are fantastic! And I agree… I think the idea of what I’m calling “industry-side education” is one that is only going to grow in importance as time goes on. Academia can’t keep up. I’m fascinated by the Brunel/Wilson collaboration though… That seems to have a lot of promise.

    Juan: In the past, I’ve set out reading lists for the apprenticeship cohorts, but in upcoming cohorts I’m going to let them plan their reading and then just help them identify the best resources. I do have something that will help you, though… I maintain six UX-focused book lists on Amazon separated primarily by the area of UX they deal with (one is an intro list). You can find that list here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/richpub/listmania/byauthor/A3X6N1KQA7HQF

  16. Wow! Great article Fred. At Design Incubator, India, (www.designincubator.com) we have been offering apprenticeship programmes for the last 8 years with exactly this thought process. Typically one year long, we feel happy to have helped more than a dozen professionals shape up their careers and move up quickly in a niche discipline. This article nicely sums up how organizations and professionals should think of apprenticeships.
    A professor from my design school National Institute of Design (India) told me something way back in 2000, when I was getting ready for professional life. He said, from here on for another 7 to 8 years, you will actually learn the practice of Design. Do not get hired somewhere just for money, get hired for what you will learn in your early years. Do not select a salary, select a mentor, and convince him to hire you! What you learn for the early years, will shape how and what kind of design you do for the rest of your life. One of the best advices I ever got from a teacher!
    I think Design is best learnt from a guru. Finding the right guru and convincing him / her to take you on as a young apprentice, could be a challenge.

  17. Brilliant stuff, has inspired me to establish an apprenticeship program in our company in Hong Kong. Thanks Fred! 🙂

  18. That’s fantastic, Patty! That makes me really happy to hear! Thanks for helping solve the problem. : )

  19. Good points, and as an educator I very much appreciate when my students are taken on as apprentices.

    We’ve designed a new undergraduate program at Purdue University… It will focus on UX, and by the time they graduate, students will have 3-4 years of experience on real projects.

  20. The fact that companies are (sadly) hiring so many unqualified individuals without design or HCI degrees leaves no doubt in my mind that there’s no drought. I’ve worked with people with literature, business, and communications degrees and they’re always the most sophomorically confident and low quality ‘designers.’ Or companies are hiring someone in India with a 8-10 week UX training program and little real understanding of quality design.

    What worries me more is that there’ no real certification to being a UX designer like there is with engineers.

  21. I would love to start an apprenticeship program at our company. We have the same problem as a client services organization trying to find UX professionals with the proper skills. I’m very interested to know when you will have the followup articles ready or how I can learn more about how to put together my own program.

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