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Thinking of Switching Industries Within UX? Here’s What to Consider

You don't always need to have experience in a particular industry before pivoting into it. Here are some notes from someone who's been there.

Words by Molly Malsam, Visuals by Alisa Harvey

I’ve been in the user experience field for 18 years now, as long as my youngest son has been alive. It was my third career. This came after I thankfully pivoted away from my intended path in politics, completed my first career job, and randomly fell into the world of technical writing—followed by very purposefully moving into UX.

I’ve had many titles in this field, from usability engineer to information architect, interaction designer, senior business analyst, senior UX researcher and currently, senior team manager of UX research. In many of these experiences, I was a consultant or independent contractor and therefore ended up moving among industries fairly regularly.

Some fields I’ve worked in include:

  • Banking
  • Document management
  • Database marketing
  • e-Commerce
  • Finance
  • Government
  • Healthcare
  • Technology
  • Telecommunications

This list alone, combined with the fact that I’m still an employed and employable professional, should give you the answer to the question of industry-switching. However, some industries are more challenging to move into than others, which I’ll talk about more in this article.

The beauty of not having experience

In the field of user experience, very often simply not having industry experience is a good thing. Why? Because most industries have users that do not have the detailed knowledge and background that the typical company employee has. One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen when testing experiences is that people who work at a company know way more than at least a sizable segment of their users. They can be blind to things that seem obvious to them, but are foreign to users.

Therefore, they use jargon that isn’t common outside of the field, they explain things in ways that are above the head of the average user, or they assume knowledge that isn’t there and omit valuable information. UX practitioners are always asking whether experiences are simple, straightforward, and understandable. If they don’t have that foundational knowledge others in the company have, they can more easily put themselves in the shoes of that type of user and ask questions others might not even consider.

I’ve encountered this most frequently in the healthcare and finance fields. Both of these fields require a pretty decent understanding of fairly complex materials in order to manage products—but that knowledge comes with the pitfalls of knowing way more than the average person, and forgetting you have that more extensive level of knowledge.

When I worked for a healthcare insurance provider, the product teams didn’t seem to recognize that having over a dozen plans to choose from was potentially not a good thing, particularly when the differences between the plans were not either obvious or important to customers. Of course, we see the obvious issue of choice overload effect. This occurs when people who don’t have a clear preference going into a decision are presented with too many similar options, without an optimal path forward. They then find it both harder to make a choice and are less satisfied with the choice they do make.

The other big concern: when the choices were presented to the users, some of the comparison columns didn’t seem either clear—as in what does this data even mean?—or they did not appear to be relevant or salient to anyone beyond the company or niche customers. It was clear they needed to do some user research on the most important comparison items. This way, they wouldn’t throw too many details at their customers and make them do more mental work than necessary.

So, having that fresh eye on an industry can be very helpful, especially when advocating for and empathizing with users who don’t know the subject matter as well as the typical company employee. Also, most UXers I know are big learners, so it’s a great way to get educated in a new area and conquer a different domain than you’ve experienced in the past.

What are you drawn to?

One thing to consider before moving from one industry to another is what you are or are not intrinsically drawn to, including what you might or might not have an aptitude for. If a particular industry is not interesting or exciting to you, even if you care about creating a good user experience, your passion may wane as you solve the bigger problems and get into less significant concerns.

I once worked at an agency that was shifting from mostly print to primarily interactive. At first, I thought this was an interesting challenge. However, they were also in the marketing industry.

(Insert your favorite joke about marketing here. One of my favorites: Why didn’t the marketing couple get married? They weren’t on the same landing page.)

At first, since I’d never worked in e-Commerce, I dove headfirst into ideal layouts for product pages. I learned how to design category landing pages and get customers through the funnel effectively with minimal dropoff.

But after doing a few of those projects, I started losing interest. I found myself questioning how important it was that people found the best bandage for their needs, or whether dental suppliers got all the relevant information on the microsite about the universal composite brand they were considering.

Don’t get me wrong—I know these things are important to certain people and to an economically developed country, and I don’t think it’s meaningless work in general. However, for me it didn’t invigorate me enough to want to keep putting my best days toward those research and design questions.

On the other hand, if an industry’s subject matter is particularly challenging for you, you may feel like you’re constantly back in school in the class that you hated. I worked in telecommunications for several contracts mostly as a technical writer. I found myself repeatedly trying to absorb information that simply has never made sense to me, and refused to find a permanent home in my brain.

No matter how many times I read about it or had someone explain it to me, I just could not internalize the concept that data is transmitted by an electrical signal and that’s how we telecommunicate. Even though I could take that information and regurgitate it using similar words, it still felt like another language. Instead of being fascinating or intriguing to me, it was rather tedious and frustrating.

I quickly found that while my town is a telecommunications hub, that was not my preferred industry. If your UX job in a particular industry involves topics that make you feel this way, you might not last long.

Highly regulated industries

As I mentioned, you may have some unique challenges transitioning into certain industries. In my experience, these have been those that have a lot of regulations they need to conform to, which can impact your ability to function at the speed and ease with which you may have become accustomed in other industries. On a federal level, some of the most regulated industries in the United States are finance, insurance, transportation, and manufacturing.

Of these, I have the most experience in the finance industry. The larger the company overall, the more likely your work may be impacted by regulations. It also depends on how risk-averse the company itself is. Some may be more cautious than others and choose to interpret regulations in the narrowest way possible in order to minimize risk.

When I moved from contract work to a permanent position in financial services, I experienced a rude awakening. Because they were very thorough in approving software applications for general use, I found that most of the productivity tools that had become a standard part of my work life were not available to me.

We did have tools that had some of the features I had been used to, but they were more of the traditional, less user-friendly and collaborative nature. I had to settle for less efficient ways of working for a while, and go back and re-learn products I hadn’t used in a while. Since then, we’ve gotten access to more tools that I enjoy as they’ve become more publicly available, and vetted through our information security team. However, access to the latest technologies will naturally lag in a heavily regulated industry, so that’s part of the experience you may encounter.

Another impact this may have on your UX work is working with the company’s customers and dealing with personal data. This is always something you should be careful with, no matter what industry you are in. But you may find particularly strict requirements in finance and other industries where sensitive information is managed for customers. They are rightly concerned about any customer data getting hacked that could uniquely identify an individual, so you’ll need to learn how to manage sensitive data appropriately.

This means it will likely take more time to prepare your user research studies with additional steps in place to ensure this layer of security. Also, you may need to be prepared to handle complaints that could arise in the course of your activities. Be especially sensitive to your role as the face of the company in your conversations, knowing what requirements that entails.

Finally, highly regulated companies typically have a strong legal and compliance team that carefully manages and scrutinizes client communications. Sometimes this can come into conflict with usability and ease—if you’ve ever read any “legalese” you likely understand this inherent challenge.

It’s certainly possible to design these kinds of communications in a user-friendly way and to test and iterate to refine them, but don’t expect to find that all the staff on these teams are as concerned about usability as you are. This situation does present an opportunity to effectively partner with these groups to find some common ground in desired outcomes for everyone.

Here are a few tips for working in regulated industries like what I’ve described:

1. Expect that everything you do will take longer than you’re used to

You’ll deal with additional processes you haven’t encountered, approvals from various teams, and potentially more time preparing your research results (to scrub any personal information from the findings, for example).

2. Become an expert in your company’s customer regulations

Most of the regulations that affect your work will stem from consumer protection, so don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s not important for you to know these details thoroughly. If you’re a researcher, one of your duties is to protect the rights of those you include in your studies. Knowing more about this than you might need at any other company is a good thing overall, and will help you be a more sensitive researcher.

3. Only collect necessary information in your studies

If you’re a new researcher, you might be so excited about all the data you can get about people that you ask too much. Carefully consider all you are asking to ensure that it really has a purpose and will be used.

4. Make friends in key places

Find allies in legal and compliance, and product partners who’ve been around the block and know where the land mines are. These relationships can help you avoid issues and know how best to work through challenges.

Switching industries may feel daunting at first, but it is totally doable within the UX industry. Knowing what interests you most and what won't interest you over the long haul is key to finding the right fit for you.

Molly is a User Experience Research Manager in the financial services industry. She has a master’s degree in communication and has over 20 years of experience in the UX field. She loves learning more about how people think and behave, and off-work enjoys skiing, reading, and eating almost anything, but first and foremost ice cream.

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