What’s in a title?

I’ll start with the disclaimer that this is my own opinion, based on my own experience. take everything here with a giant grain of salt (or at least many small ones). Onward!

After six and a half years at eBay and multiple roles on several products, I was given a team to manage. Then I threw it away when I moved to Indeed in February 2019. I made a conscious decision to change from a management role, back to a hands-on Individual Contributor (IC).

What does that mean? I’m still working on UX strategy for my product and helping my team improve decision making through our processes and cultural changes – a.k.a. honest, kind feedback. And yes, occasionally hands-on work. About the only thing I don’t do is write reviews and make hiring decisions.

I frequently grumble about the weird proliferation of design titles. We’re now all UX designers, who are separate from UI and visual designers. We rarely talk about interaction designers (or interactive) designers, information architects, or the myriad of titles that existed when I got started in this field over 15 years ago. That’s not to say I want all of you to get off my lawn. But it’s worth examining, as our titles morph and our seniority levels multiply, how our deliverables change. As a manager, instead of creating the products, I was building a team and acting as a multiplier for their skills via process, coaching, and leadership. I traded in hands-on product time for product strategy and growth. As a rather senior IC, my job is about 80% the same – however instead of writing reviews, I directly shape my product and how it connects to the rest of Indeed’s job seeker ecosystem.

This doesn’t mean I think that “UX Designer” is a great title. It’s a title defined in opposition to what it’s not. It’s not UI or visual design. It’s not wireframes. It’s not design systems. It’s not information architecture. About the only thing you can get a UX designer to commit to producing is a stack of scribbled-upon post-its. As much as I want to throw my hands up and yell at everyone to get off my lawn and let me have my UI, they’re right, and it drove me nuts during hiring. It’s not about the UI – it’s about the entire experience about using the product – synthesizing user research, understand the underlying systems, and teaching complexity through a user interface. Yes, a user interface. Whether it’s a fork at a restaurant, car’s dashboard, or a smartphone app, the user’s experience is ultimately defined by how they interface with it, from discovery to dismissal.

For the record, I don’t think any company has a perfect structure. Facebook calls their IC’s product designers. Whatever your specialty is, you’re expected to shape your product from end to end – which is great. However, this also makes it difficult to show recognition of effort when you inevitably leave since there’s no obvious promotion path. eBay, instead of creating a dozen arbitrary titles, recognizes growth within titles, by creating levels such as Designer 3 or Senior Designer 1. Of course, this process can also be weaponized, and has drawbacks in terms of unclear expectations and growth patterns.