Discover more from Jakob Nielsen on UX
UX Angst of 2023
Summary: You think UX is tanking? Think again. The UX sky’s not falling; it’s reshaping. AI integration will facilitate a UX renaissance, while the profession’s rapid growth shows enduring viability. Old timers, stop lamenting. Newbies, gear up for a killer decade in UX.
Angst (German), Malaise (French), Gloom (English), Feeling Blue (American), 😟😢 (Emoji). All languages offer an emotional vocabulary that has marred much UX discourse in 2023.
Permalink for this article: https://www.uxtigers.com/post/ux-angst
Don’t be blue. UX is doing just fine. (“Sad” by Midjourney.)
I am privileged to have grown up in the world’s most sanguine country: Denmark. The national mottos are “stop and pat the horse” and “everything will work out.” (In Danish: “klap lige hesten” & “det går nok.”) I encourage you to take this attitude, even if you don’t have equines at hand. Angst will get you nowhere, whereas positive attitudes breed winners.
Stop and pat the horse. You’ll feel happier and create better work. (“Pat the horse” by Midjourney.)
Bad News of 2023
There has admittedly been some bad news for UX in 2023:
UX salaries are down 11% for 2023 compared with 2022.
Job openings for UX researchers were down 73% from 2022 to 2023 on the job site indeed.com.
Job openings for UX designers were down 71% from 2022 to 2023 on the job site indeed.com.
Thousands of UX professionals have been laid off from seemingly good jobs at tech giants like Google and Facebook/Meta.
But is the situation as gloomy as the percentages seem to indicate? No, we're witnessing a market correction, not an apocalypse:
There was an unsustainable blip in UX salaries in 2022 due to the red-hot job market that year when companies were hiring like there was no tomorrow. (Guess what, tomorrow arrived.) The 11% drop in UX earnings for 2023 brings UX compensation levels back in line with the long-term (inflation-adjusted) numbers.
The 73% drop in UX research job openings from 2022 to 2023 means that the 2023 openings are “only” 53% higher than the number from 2018. Most people would be ecstatic to have the career prospects of a profession that exhibited 53% growth in 5 years. The only reason the 2023 numbers look bad was the feeding frenzy of 2022, when UX research job openings were 466% more plentiful than in 2018.
The 71% drop in job openings for UX designers from 2022 to 2023 was only 23% compared to 2018. It is not that bad of a setback during a severe recession in the technology business.
Repeat after me: 2020 to 2022 was an unsustainable bubble. In particular, the tech giants had grown so bloated with excess staff that a correction was unavoidable. If something cannot continue forever, it will stop — law of nature.
Being old provides many benefits, one of which is that I have seen it before. I can’t even count how many recessions I have experienced, but the two worst for UX were the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2001 when blood ran in Sand Hill Road (the home of venture capital) and the “great recession” of 2009. Those were significant setbacks — the 2023 recession is nothing in comparison.
Good News of 2023
Destruction always carries the seed of new growth. This very year, the future has revealed itself: the future of UX is AI, which will require substantial research and design work over the next decade. Every UX professional urgently needs to learn how to use AI in his or her work to avoid obsolescence next year. We also need more UX work to improve enterprise AI and domain-specific AI implementations. It’ll be a year or two before the need for this UX effort dawns on most business executives, but the light will come.
We have a rule in Silicon Valley called Saffo’s Law (named after futurist Paul Saffo): Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.
Saffo’s Law: Never mistake a clear view for a short distance. (Midjourney)
Following Saffo’s Law, I admit that even though it’s extraordinarily clear to me that the AI revolution will cause a UX renaissance, this is not likely to happen in a big way in 2024. There will be UX jobs again in 2024, but they will mostly be traditional UX jobs, designing the same old boring things. UX salaries will likely stabilize in 2024, or only drop slightly below 2023’s levels. But don’t expect salary increases in 2024 since the long-term UX salary trends are well-established: UX salaries have been the same for 25 years after adjusting for inflation. AI may lead to salary growth, but this is not yet proven.
I expect the AI-driven UX boom to happen in 2025, but I could be wrong on the specific year, as per Saffo’s Law. If AI-UX does happen in 2025, we’ll suffer a stifling lack of UX professionals with two years of experience designing and researching AI-driven user interfaces. (The only way to have two years of experience in 2025 is to start in 2023, but there is almost no professional user research and UX design done with current AI systems.) Two years is the bare minimum to develop an understanding of the new design patterns and user behaviors that we see in the few publicly available usability studies that have been done. (A few more have probably been done at places like Microsoft and Google, but they aren’t talking, preferring to keep the competitive edge to themselves.)
We don’t know precisely when or how the AI-UX boom will happen. Much is currently uncertain. But AI-UX could easily be around the corner because we should remember Nielsen’s corollary to Saffo’s Law:
Nielsen’s Corollary to Saffo’s Law: Don’t assume a blurry view means a long distance. (Leonardo)
Is UX Disintegrating?
Business cycles are one thing. Everybody in business for more than a few decades knows that recessions and boom times follow each other in a never-ending dance. There’s a general recession in the tech business and UX in 2023. The economy is guaranteed to revert to the mean soon, most likely in 2024. A few years later, there will be another boom. When that happens, don’t let it go to your head because that too shall pass.
When something has been the same for several hundred years of recorded economic history, the cyclical pattern is guaranteed to repeat from 2023 to 2025.
But the UX tribe seems to take perverse pleasure in self-chastisement, what with the tidal wave of grumbles implying a permanent degradation, not just a temporary setback. These folks claim to see a secular drop in UX. The old guard appears enamored with its own navel-gazing, yearning for mythic yesteryears of UX utopia. They also scoff at “young folks these days,” with their limited boot camp training, as opposed to old-school Ph.D. savants.
First, let me say that the old days were not as depicted in those laments. Yes, I ascended to the lofty intellectual heights of a Ph.D., but most of the best UX people I worked with in the early days didn’t have anything near the education today’s credentialists demand. The smartest of the lot had only a high-school diploma, and two other top talents had bachelor’s degrees in theater and architecture. (The only top UX talent I worked with who might possibly secure the begrudging approval of the degree snobs did have an MA in Human Factors.)
Emoji for the state of UX. Not! (But it could have been the emoji for UX when I started in 1983.)
For my entire 40-year-long UX career, UX has had to explain itself and argue for funds. That’s nothing new. What’s new is that funding is much more lavish now than ever. I remember applying to the Danish Science Foundation for grants to research hypertext in the 1980s, only to be turned down because that was an esoteric interaction style not worth finding. (A few years later, hypertext became the foundation for the Web. I didn’t let the research establishment deter me, but wrote a pioneering book about hypertext anyway in 1989, two years before the Web launched.)
The only reason for my Ph.D. was the lack of industry UX jobs in the 1980s. The few jobs were mostly single UXers supporting thousands of programmers and hundreds of enterprise applications. People complaining about declining UX maturity today don’t know how good they have it.
Most projects don’t apply the complete recommended UX design lifecycle process. Oh, young people, do you think they did 30 years ago? Was lavish discovery research the norm in 1986? I was there and can testify, No and No.
The hallmark of a seasoned UX professional is knowing how to choose and pick from our overflowing toolbox of UX methods and custom-make a design process for each project that doesn’t waste shareholders’ money but gets the job done. 'Twas ever thus.
The notion that UX is in a state of decline, especially when compared to a supposedly glorious past, is pure fabrication. Instead, UX maturity has improved every decade since I started. Some people may not believe this because the UX world is now 3,000 times bigger than when I started 40 years ago. (Not 3,000% bigger, but bigger by a factor of 3,000, growing from about 1,000 UX professionals worldwide to almost 3 million.)
These many new jobs exist at more than half a million companies around the world embracing UX. Many of these companies only have one or two UX professionals on staff for now since they are still new at UX. This is the same as was the case for the two largest software development companies in Denmark in 1983 when I graduated with no career prospects other than languishing as a university professor.
How many companies have employed professional UX teams for the 25 years needed to progress through the UX maturity scale to a high level of UX maturity? Probably a few thousand. For the sake of the argument, let’s say 5,000 companies have done UX for long enough to reach a high level of UX maturity. This means 1% of companies doing UX do it as I recommend.
The other 99% of companies doing UX started 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or (most likely) just a few years ago. They haven’t had time to progress past the first few levels of UX maturity. They’ll get better. It’s a cause for jubilation, not lamentation, that many new companies are embracing UX and (by necessity) entering at the low end.
It’s a consequence of being in an exponentially growing field that most companies with UX are still new at it. But it’s wonderful to be in such a fast-growing field. At least it’s wonderful for today’s young UX professionals. (We old-timers suffered during the true dark ages of UX: even though the percentage-wise growth rates were impressive in the 1980s and 1990s, we were growing from such a low baseline that the absolute growth was minuscule.)
UX grows by a factor of 3 every decade. This has been true since Bell Labs founded the world’s first UX group in 1945. We will hit 10 million UX professionals in the world around 2035. This means that somebody who starts in UX in 2023 will be able to lord it over 7 million UX newbies in 2035. Today’s newborn UXer will have the requisite 10+ years of experience by 2035 to be considered a genuinely senior UX professional.
Conversely, of the 3 million UX professionals in the world in 2023, only half a million are senior professionals with more than 10 years of UX experience. It’s an unbreakable mathematical consequence of exponential growth that most practitioners are green— as they will be until at least 2060.
Veteran UXers boasting 15–20 years of experience bemoan the supposedly weak and incompetent UX work done by most UXers. Yes, most people are new and don’t know everything yet. This is happy: it’s a sign of our success. Today’s newbies will be next decade’s seniors, at which time they will do better work. Don’t worry.
My message to the new UXers of today:
Don’t be sad, my young UX colleague. You have an incredibly bright future ahead. The current setbacks are mere bumps in a career path that spans decades. Think long term; don’t fixate on present turbulence and you’ll be one of the Masters of the Universe in 2035. (“Sad” by Leonardo.)
Infographic Summary of This Article
Feel free to copy or use this infographic as much as you want, provided that you credit this URL as the source.
About the Author
Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., is a usability pioneer with 40 years experience in UX. He founded the discount usability movement for fast and cheap iterative design, including heuristic evaluation and the 10 usability heuristics. He formulated the eponymous Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience. Named “the king of usability” by Internet Magazine, “the guru of Web page usability" by The New York Times, and “the next best thing to a true time machine” by USA Today. Before starting NN/g, Dr. Nielsen was a Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer and a Member of Research Staff at Bell Communications Research, the branch of Bell Labs owned by the Regional Bell Operating Companies. He is the author of 8 books, including Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, Usability Engineering, and Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond. Dr. Nielsen holds 79 United States patents, mainly on making the Internet easier to use. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Human–Computer Interaction Practice from ACM SIGCHI.