In the second half of grad school, as I began to weigh my post-PhD career options, one of the things that strongly appealed to me about an academic career was the prospect of teaching. Through several years of working as a graduate teaching assistant for introductory anthropology courses, I found that I genuinely enjoyed helping others learn. However, as I began to focus on a career in the field of user experience (UX), the prospect of no longer participating in a learning environment with students seemed like another of the trade-offs for anthropologists switching career paths: that leaving academia would mean leaving teaching.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
Why is teaching part of UX?
The first day I stepped into the office of a software company as a UX designer, I began a process called onboarding. I attended orientations and bootcamps. I started shadowing a senior UX designer on projects. I took several courses to learn the company’s software, along with both required and voluntary workshops on project management methodology, effective teamwork, leadership, and “inspiring trust.” This deluge of new people, jargon, norms, and information felt a lot like the first few months of grad school and my first stint of ethnographic fieldwork. In other words, it was equal parts overwhelming and exciting— but at least this time around, I had some experience with being thrown into the thick of things and having to figure it out.
Learnability and adaptability in the contemporary workplace
My experience starting a career in UX reflects larger socioeconomic transformations as well as the professional and organizational dynamics of the field of UX. In broad terms, the last half-century has been characterized by the decline of assembly line manufacturing that produced physical goods, and the rise of office- and computer-based work service jobs. In contrast to the strict management hierarchy and highly regimented work of the factories that powered many national economies through much of the 1900s, today’s workplaces often strive for flatness, leanness, agility, and collaborative teamwork. Companies have come to view their employees as malleable and flexible with an individual willingness and ability to learn rather than as interchangeable pieces of a static production line (Gershon 2018).
One of the biggest hallmarks this transformation (often called post-Fordism) has been an emphasis on flexibility (Harvey 1990). Flexibility has become essential to not only corporations but also their workers, who must be able to readily learn new things and adapt to quickly changing—and increasingly precarious—circumstances. In this context, soft skills have come to be equally or more valued than hard skills for many employers, as soft skills can more easily translate to new types of work (Urciuoli 2008). This is also seen in how the meaning of ‘skill’ has shifted from a “specific manual or machine operation” to instead “any practice, form of knowledge, or way of being constituting productive labor” (Urciuoli 2008:212). To find their place in this new economy, job seekers and workers are often expected to take on a business-like, entrepreneurial spirit, viewing themselves as a “bundle of skills, assets, qualities, experiences, and relationships that must be consciously managed and constantly enhanced” (Gershon 2018:175). Workers must now nimbly stay up to date with the latest trends in their field, develop their personal brands, and manage their portfolios of skills. At the same time, companies are also investing in various kinds of skills training and other learning opportunities for their employees. What has come out of this emphasis on employee learnability and adaptability has been a highly active and varied pedagogical landscape in the business world (Fuller et al 2012).
Positioning UX in organizations
Perhaps nowhere is this shift more evident than in the fast-paced and ever-changing world of technological design and development, the field in which much of today’s UX work is done. Whether focusing on research or design, it is commonly said that UX necessitates a mindset of ‘continuous’ or ‘lifelong’ learning. This learning ranges from incorporating new tools or methods, to keeping apprised of new design patterns and technological changes, to being a regular part of everyday work through specific design processes or product development methodologies that emphasize cycles of research and iteration. The multifaceted and evolving nature of UX work means that flexibility, versatility, and adaptability are essential traits for UX practitioners.
At the same time, however, UX practitioners also frequently find themselves in a position where they must to facilitate learning. A good deal of work in a UX role often involves educating others about what you do, why it matters, and how you can work most effectively with others (again, not unfamiliar terrain for anthropologists). This kind of explanatory work is not surprising given that UX — itself a somewhat recent moniker encompassing a reconfiguration of product development approaches, business functions, and academic disciplines — is a new concept for many organizations and typically requires changes to organizational structures for it to function or grow.
In this context, a primary concern for many UX practitioners is the extent of the ‘adoption’ of user-centered practices and processes in their organizations, which is often assessed against the various models of ‘maturity.’ Alongside these models exist a number of design consulting agencies that also offer ways to identify and solve barriers to UX adoption. Underlying many parts of the adoption and growth of a successful UX research and design practice are various strategies for educating clients or coworkers about UX. In turn, the educational strategies for developing UX research and design practices requires deft use of the soft skills of communication, collaboration, and brokering— skills that have become highly valued in the world of UX and in which anthropologists are often well-suited (see also Nolan 2014, Denny and Sunderland 2014).
What does teaching look like in UX?
Though I started on the learning side of UX pedagogy when I first joined the company, my position as a UX researcher and designer in a relatively new design department meant that I quickly found myself encountering a variety of teaching opportunities. These opportunities now make up a core part of my role and vary widely in their formality, degree of explicitness, and audience.
Teaching opportunities and teachable moments
Given the importance of skills training and knowledge acquisition in today’s workplace, instances of more explicit or formalized teaching and learning are fairly common in a UX position. Depending on the type, size, and managerial style of the organization, these teaching and learning moments could include workshops; talks or presentations in a variety of contexts or audiences, such as a team meeting or a company townhall; and brownbag lunches or employee special interest groups. Additionally, many companies host conferences, symposia, or other events, not just for their own employees but also for their customers and users, at which employees typically present new work or lead workshops. In my three years working in UX, I have participated in many of these teaching opportunities, such as developing a conference workshop aimed at helping programmers incorporate basic design research activities into their projects (see also Ikeya et al 2007). Beyond the walls of the company, things like webinars and presentations or workshops at professional conferences are also increasingly common for UX practitioners. The close proximity of many UX job hubs to colleges and universities presents opportunities for guest lectures or part-time teaching in traditional academic environments. Regardless of the size or format, spaces dedicated to more structured teaching and learning are consistent parts of UX work.
Alongside the occasional workshop and other dedicated teaching spaces, more informal teaching and learning happens on a near-daily basis. As UX work can cut across a number of business functions, domains of expertise, and organizational processes, you often have to share or pick up parts of the specialized knowledge of others working on a project, as they can have an impact on your research or design activities. For example, in the course of a day, I might quickly review work in a daily project status meeting, help a team member learn a new technique, visit a coworkers desk to answer questions or iterate on something, offer constructive critiques of colleagues’ designs during a team meeting, or run into someone in the hallway and need to clarify something. Beyond one’s own organization, many industry professional communities have sprouted up on various social media platforms, such as Slack workspaces or LinkedIn groups, to facilitate research and design professionals engaging with one another about their work.
Teaching can also occur in an even less explicit fashion when certain concepts, rationales, or decisions become embedded in the outputs of UX work, especially when you know that others will be looking at something you’ve produced without you being present. In such instances, I pay particular attention to how I can embed my reasoning and considerations into whatever deliverable I’m creating, such as through the creative use of annotations or layers on a design. Similarly, while creating a repository for the original research that our teams do, my colleagues and I work to include instructional features into the design of the repository itself in order to foster the responsible interpretation and re-use of study methodologies and findings. In all these less formal or explicit instances, teaching often occurs in service to another activity or goal rather than being the point of the interaction itself, and sometimes occurs without the teacher being physically present.
Lastly, as a relatively new UX practitioner, the variation in audience dynamics is also something that has surprised me about teaching in industry. While most teaching occurs horizontally among colleagues who might occupy roughly the same standing in an organization, researchers or designers often have to “teach up” to managers, heads, directors, and executives. This is especially the case for those working in consulting, who are often brought in by executives so they can solve a particularly difficult challenge in an organization. While the interpersonal dynamics might vary depending on the teaching context (e.g. whether it’s a collaborative workshop or an important presentation), with this kind of audience, the stakes are often higher, as executive staff can shift the direction, resources, or priorities of work across various levels of an organization. Because of this, teaching up is a crucial part of gaining support for expanding the scope and scale of research or design work in an organization.
Blurred boundaries between teaching, learning, and doing
In contrast to academia where lectures, tests, and homework demarcate distinct spaces and forms of pedagogical labor, I quickly discovered that such boundaries were much more blurred in the teaching opportunities afforded by working in a corporation. While UX roles often entail teaching about the concepts or practicalities of UX, job specialization in contemporary workplaces make it important to learn the same nuances of your coworkers’ domains of work and knowledge. Sitting next to user interface (UI) designers, graphic and motion designers, programmers, business analysts, web writers, project managers, and people in a number of other roles has impressed upon me the “simultaneity of work, learning, and teaching” and how “work confidence and competency are constructed in situated activities” as professionals with distinct knowledge and organizational roles engage with one another (Beck 2005:1).
When I was teaching introductory courses to students who were mostly not anthropology majors, I sometimes wondered about the extent to which they would apply course content once they had left the classroom. However, when teaching and learning with my coworkers who come from all kinds of backgrounds, there is often a different level of interest and immediacy in using the knowledge we share. For example, through consecutive projects I have helped coworkers gradually learn to craft better research questions and become more comfortable with a methodology, and I have also learned to lead a project team and how to design and build an interface that meets accessibility standards. Through these experiences, I realized I didn’t just like teaching anthropology per se, but rather, I liked teaching concepts and methodologies that enable people to approach their activities or surroundings differently. Though undoubtedly possessing their own limitations, I’ve nonetheless come to view the pedagogical opportunities that arise in the business world as offering unique opportunities to teach and learn in context, which help those involved become more intentional, effective, and ethical actors in the world. It turns out I never stopped teaching when I decided to pursue a career in UX — the teaching just took on different forms.
Tips for leveraging your teaching experience when applying for UX jobs
Hopefully I’ve illustrated how teaching experience can be beneficial in UX or other applied work. Here are a couple tips for how to handle your teaching experience when it comes to applying for these kinds of jobs:
- Unless a position specifically calls for it, teaching experience itself is not something you’ll generally want to lead with for a typical UX job. Depending on how much content you have on your resume, you can either include teaching experience in the ‘positions’/‘experience’ section of your resume or create a separate section for it (which could also include other teaching-related experience if you need to round it out, such as mentoring or presentations). The same idea applies to cover letters or interviews; use teaching experience as a supporting element to showcase important soft skills.
- Whether on your resume or during an interview, focus on the practice and skills of teaching rather than the subject matter (unless it’s directly relevant to a job posting). You can ask yourself the following questions to help elicit this kind of information: How many students was I responsible for? Have I taught introductory or advanced courses? What kinds of students did I teach (e.g. non-majors, honors)? How much of the lecture or other course materials did I develop? What was my strategy or rubric for why I taught the way I did? Did I perform any self-led teacher evaluations, and how did I incorporate any feedback to improve my teaching? Did I take further training to improve my teaching skills? Was I selected or nominated for any teaching-related awards? Briefly considering each of these questions can help you distill key parts of your teaching experience and craft succinct narratives that connect your teaching experience to a position — and if the subject matter of the course is relevant, then it’s icing on the cake.
Sincere thanks go to Molly Rempe, Karah Salaets, Diana Steele, and Angela Ramer for their insightful editorial feedback on this post.
Beck, Sam. 2005. Work, Experiential Learning, Lived Practice and Knowing-in-Action. Anthropology of Work Review 26(2):1–5.
Denny, Rita and Patricia Sunderland, eds. 2014. Handbook of Anthropology in Business. New York: Routledge.
Fuller, Allison, Lorna Unwin, Alan Felstead, Nick Jewson, Konstantinos Kakavelakis. 2012. Creating and Using Knowledge: An Analysis of the Differentiated Nature of Workplace Learning Environments. In The Knowledge Economy and Lifelong Learning: A Critical Reader, edited by D. W. Livingstone and D. Guile, 191–206. Sense Publishers: Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Gershon, Ilana. 2018. “Employing the CEO of Me, Inc.” American Ethnologist 45(2):173–185.
Harvey, David. 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Ikeya, Nozomi, Erik Vinkyhuyzen, Jack Whalen, Yutaka Yamauchi. 2007. “Teaching Organizational Ethnography.” EPIC 2007: 271–283.
Nolan, Riall. 2014. A Handbook of Practicing Anthropology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Urciuoli, Bonnie. 2008. “Skills and Selves in the New Workplace.” American Ethnologist 35(2):211–228.