5 UX Designer Career Paths: Stepping Up Your Design Career

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Advancing your UX design career can mean becoming a manager, advancing within design, freelancing, consulting, or switching to a related UX role.

[Featured image] UX designer works at a laptop computer.

Working in UX design can be creative, engaging, and lucrative—the average US salary for UX designers is $99,107 [1]. But what options do you have if you’re looking to advance to the next level? There are several career paths available for those looking for what might come next.

Getting started: Entry-level UX design jobs

Those new to the UX field can get started in entry-level UX design positions. It’s also common for people to start in related fields like graphic design or UI design before making a transition to UX.

To get started in the UX field, you’ll generally want to have the skills typically expected of a UX designer. This can include prototyping, wireframing, using design software, and conducting user research. If you’re ready to start exploring, take a look at the Google UX Design Professional Certificate, designed to help you learn job-ready skills in six months or less.

Five career paths for a UX designer

There are several directions UX designers can take their careers as they gain experience and grow their skills. These include management, senior positions, freelancing, consulting, or becoming a UX specialist in a related field.

The salaries listed below are average US salaries based on Glassdoor data.

1. UX management

As UX designers gain experience, it’s common for responsibilities to expand and opportunities to be in charge of projects to increase. This can eventually lead to managerial positions like UX manager, UX director, creative director, and, further down the road, executive positions like chief experience officer, chief product officer, or vice president of UX.

As you progress in your UX career, try taking on tasks that will give you more experience and responsibilities. Working on different types of projects will also expose you to new challenges and teach you how to respond to them. You’ll also want to be sure to have solid interpersonal and leadership skills, as managers oversee groups of people and can interact frequently with employees outside of their team.

Here are the average US salaries of related managerial roles:

  • UX manager: $137,080 + $54,338 additional pay

  • UX director: $147,070 + $57,720 additional pay

  • Chief experience officer: $183,498 + $201,164 additional pay

  • Creative director: $134,984 + $32,378 additional pay

2. Advanced UX positions

UX designers can go on to become advanced professionals. This might mean continuing the hands-on work as a UX designer, but expanding your capabilities and taking on more complex tasks. Eventually, this might lead you to roles like senior UX designer, lead UX designer, or principal UX designer. Senior designers are designers with expanded responsibilities; lead and principal designers further lead projects and oversee larger decisions, generally while still participating in the hands-on design process.

To go down this path, you’ll want to have a variety of UX skills under your belt. These can be areas like user research, graphic design, and experience collaborating across various teams. 

Here are the average US salaries of design roles:

  • Senior UX designer: $126,640 + $21,567 additional pay

  • Lead UX designer: $125,110 + $47,900 additional pay

  • Principal UX designer: $148,842 + $59,045 additional pay

Working at an agency vs. in-house: What’s the difference?

UX designers can work at agencies and as in-house designers within a company. While there’s no rule as to which is better for your career progression, they both have their distinct benefits. Working in an agency generally means you’ll be working with different clients. This can expose you to a lot of different types of tasks and work. Since an agency will likely have several other designers on your team, you might also have an opportunity to learn from others.

Being an in-house designer, on the other hand, will mean you work for one company and focus solely on their products. If you like the idea of having more ownership over a product’s life cycle, being in-house may be more appealing to you. You might also get more exposure to more sides of a business, as you’ll likely be collaborating with other teams like engineering and marketing.


3. Freelancing 

Maybe you’re craving the freedom to concentrate on projects that interest you. Maybe your personal life has changed and you’re looking for work that’ll give you more flexibility. Whether it’s the ability to set your own hours or pick your own clients, there are plenty of reasons UX designers choose the freelancing path. 

If you’re looking to work as a freelance UX designer, you’ll want to prepare your portfolio. Ideally, you would also have a network of designers you can tap into to look for work and help refer you to projects. Building up a social media presence can be helpful. You might also find groups on networking and social media sites like Facebook or LinkedIn to connect with other designers and find companies looking for freelancers. 

Check job boards and reach out to your network to see what rates your target market typically pays.

A freelance UX designer makes an average salary of $107,835 and $25,266 additional pay.

4. UX consulting

A UX consultant is a professional that helps improve an organization’s design and business strategy by offering solutions based on user experience principles. This might mean training clients in best UX practices, researching a client’s customers, or prototyping websites and other products. This would lead to an improved user experience for the customer, and a more UX-minded approach to business by the client.

UX consultants often work as part of a UX consultancy company. They can also work as freelance consultants, or as in-house consultants in a company. If you want to work as a UX consultant, you’ll want to have experience being closely involved with several projects from start to finish. Managerial experience and an understanding of underlying business practices can also be beneficial.

UX consultants make an average salary of $121,136 and $35,318 additional pay.

5. UX specialist

If you find you’re drawn to certain aspects of UX design, making a lateral switch to a related position can be an option worth considering. For example, if you’re intrigued by how engineers bring designs to life in a website or app, it might make sense to explore becoming a UX engineer. If on the other hand, you’re fascinated by user behavior, you can think about making the switch to UX researcher

You can switch by polishing the skills in the field you want to move into. Online courses, shadowing other professionals on your team, or taking on projects that give you more responsibilities in your target area can be a first good step. You might also tell your manager if you think they can help you gain the exposure you want in your current role.

Here are average US salaries for various roles in UX:

  • UX researcher: $96,219 + $19,369 additional pay

  • UX writer: $74,839 + $6,516 additional pay

  • UX engineer: $100,124 + $8,784 additional pay

Getting started 

Whether you’re in a UX design role already and looking for your next step, or just getting started, a good place to begin is to build up the skills you need to progress.

If you’re new to UX, then take a look at the Google UX Design Professional Certificate. You can learn the skills needed to transition to a UX design job in less than six months.

Article sources

  1. Glassdoor. "UX Designer Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/ux-designer-salary-SRCH_KO0,11.htm." Accessed August 9, 2023.

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