Careers in Human–Computer Interaction (HCI) and User Experience (UX)

Getting a Master's degree with a specialization in HCI? Wondering where to go next? Here are some pointers to what kind of jobs and career paths are waiting for you. Where available, I've included resources relevant to Germany. A big shoutout for many tips to Prof. Dr. Anna Lea Dyckhoff from the FH Aachen who has been working in UX as a professional for many years (and took our HCI classes ages ago), and to several fellow faculty from the German HCI/UX landscape for their feedback.

Industry or Academia?

You can do exciting work as an HCI researcher at a university, and as a UX professional in industry, whether as a freelancer or employed in a company. And applied research institutions like the Fraunhofer Institutes blur the boundary between research and industry. The Fraunhofer FIT is an example with an HCI/UX emphasis. Most pointers below are for industry jobs, but see the "PhD" section below for advice on academic careers.

Your choice depends on what excites you the most: getting products deployed or expanding our understanding of how people interact with technology.

Developer or Designer?

There is a fairly big difference in the kind of work — and the money paid! — between two fundamental job profiles:

  1. The Developer: This includes all jobs that are mainly about software development but also need HCI/UX skills. They generally require a strong background in software development and computer science with extra skills in HCI and UX. This is the profile for all Master's degrees that we teach HCI for, like our M.Sc. in Computer Science, Software Systems Engineering, or Media Informatics / Human-Centered Intelligent Systems. Our M.Sc. in Human-Technology Interaction and Communication (MTIK) also falls into this group if you have developed a strong interest and profile in the technical development and coding side of things. These jobs tend to come with higher salary levels.
  2. The Designer: This includes all jobs that focus less on the technical side and more on the design and psychology side of things. Doing user research, creating wireframes, and running usability studies are some typical tasks. With one of our Master's degrees and our HCI classes, you will do well in these, especially if you found that your interests lie less in coding. However, while these are just as (if not more) important and exciting as the Developer tasks, they unfortunately tend to come with lower salary levels. You are competing with applicants that have a Master in areas like (pure) HCI, Design, Psychology, or Cognitive Science.

Fortunately, the industry is increasingly aware that UI/UX design and development are a major and crucial part of software development, so the demand for both kinds of jobs is growing. See this Adobe blog post, for example.

To make it clear what skills you have, explain the contents of your HCI/UX-related classes briefly with some method keywords like "paper prototyping", "developing user interface toolkits", etc. in your CV. Hiring teams need to understand what skills you have, and they don't have time to look up every curriculum online.

Job Description Keywords

On professional search engines like Stepstone, the job titles and keywords to look for if you want to work on the user interface side of things are constantly changing.

  1. For Developer type jobs (type 1 above), look for UX/Usability Engineer, Front-end Developer, and similar terms.
  2. For type-2 (Designer) skill profiles and interests, examples include User Experience (UX) Designer, UX Researcher, UX Specialist, Usability or Human Factors Expert, Interaction Designer, and Product Manager.
  3. Senior job titles include terms like UX Director / Lead / Manager, and can be available for both Developer and Designer skill profiles.

See the NNG Report linked under "Career Descriptions" below for more examples.

Finding Your Crowd

Find others interested in or already working in UX to network, learn about their careers, and find a job. Online, the German Usability Professional's Association is the prime resource of this network. They have job postings, online job fairs, event listings, and more. Join them (it's just 35 € for young professionals) for various benefits and exclusive resources.

Even if you are not interested in PhD positions, also join ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery) and SIGCHI, ACM's Special Interest Group on Computer–Human Interaction. ACM is the biggest international association of students and professionals interested in computing, and SIGCHI is the same for HCI and its applications. For students, it's only $29 a year in total, and the conference rebates (and free access to Grammarly Premium) alone are worth that price.

Look for local meetups, like the UX Aachen Meetup in our region. Even if a group is not not currently active, contacting their organisers or going through the list of members can help you connect to your local crowd. In our region, also check out networks across the border, like local chapters of the (gender-inclusive!) Ladies That UX.

Career Descriptions

Remember Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things? Together with Jakob Nielsen, he runs the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) Design Consultancy, and their resources are always worth browsing. In 2019, they released the 2nd edition of their free UX Career Overview Report, which interviewed hundreds of UX practitioners around the world (5% from Germany). They also provide a short summary article.

Professional Career Paths

Many companies have understood that they need an HCI/UI/UX expert to succeed. As a result, job openings outside the behemoths like Apple, Google, and Facebook/Meta are abundant. Yet, you may still find yourself to be the first hire in that area at a company, especially at smaller and more traditional places. In that case, Leah Buley's book The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide may be a comforting and enlightening read.

If you join a UX Consultancy like IDEO, on the other hand, you don't need to explain why what you do is important to them, but you may still need to explain it to your clients.

User interfaces are not limited to software, of course. German companies that produce hardware (from Steinberg in audio to Eppendorf in lab equipment to Daimler in, well, cars) also need UI/UX developers and designers.

Doing a PhD

If you enjoy defining your own problems and extending our understanding of how people interact with technology, and you liked the more self-directed work of your HCI-related Master's thesis, talk to your advising professor or a PhD student about doing a PhD. While a PhD keeps a career path in academia open, it does not preclude you from working in industry after you complete your PhD. On the contrary, in Computer Science and HCI, many more strategic and higher-level positions are often filled specifically with PhD graduates, since they combine project management and team leadership experience with an excellent foundation in their field and the proven ability to tackle complex problems. See some characteristics of successful PhD students at our lab.

To see where our own PhD graduates ended up with their CS/HCI background, check out our alumni page. Your lab probably has a similar page; ask around. They might even be looking for new team members...

You don't have to stay at your current university. The CHI-Jobs mailing list run by ACM SIGCHI has frequent international postings for open PhD (and postdoc & faculty) positions. There's even an open archive of all posts to browse. Some companies will also let you do an external PhD in collaboration with a university, to attract and retain top talent. 

Internships during your Master or your PhD can give you a taste of working in a particular industry while pursuing an academic degree. Ask your advisors.

Remember to join ACM and SIGCHI (see "Finding Your Crowd" above).

Other Online Resources

The Thinkful learning platform has a good collection of UX blogs and UX experts to follow.

Many places offer online UX courses. The topics often overlap with our Designing Interactive Systems class. Examples are the Google UX Design Professional Certificate (even in German) and the courses from IDEO University.

Finally, for a fresh perspective, check out young video bloggers like Indra Burkart (in German). 😊

Jan Borchers

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