The UX Career Path: From Wireframes to Coaching

I have attended the IA Summit every year since 2008. This year’s event takes place in my new home of San Diego, so naturally I’ll be there. It’s hard to believe it will be my 7th consecutive year when I still feel like a newbie. I love this community, I love this conference, and I love being a part of it in any small way I can.

In 2009 in Memphis, I spoke on a panel with Sarah Rice, Jenn Anderson and Chris Fahey titled The Courage to Quit: Starting, Growing and Maintaining Your Own UX Business. The same day, I gave my very first conference presentation titled Evangelizing Yourself: You Can’t Change the World if No One Knows Your Name. To my total surprise, the talk was a hit and now has almost 140,000 views on Slideshare. I get emails about it to this day.

The next year, the IA Summit organizers invited me to give the closing plenary at the 2010 conference in Phoenix. I was floored and deeply honored. It is a coveted responsibility of a member of the community to define where we collectively are in our evolution and make a rallying cry for where we need to go next. My talk titled Transcending Our Tribe was a call for inclusion, personal accountability, acceptance of fear and cultivation of love in everything that we do.

I haven’t spoken at an IA Summit since. I have been privileged and humbled to attend every year as an audience member, a learner, a mentor and a friend. I have gained so much from every interaction and left each year inspired to give more to my work and to the community I love so much.

This year I submitted a brand new talk, but sadly it was not accepted. With 400 submissions and only 51 available slots, the 12% acceptance rate just wasn’t on my side. I received beautiful feedback from peer reviewers and feel encouraged to continue to pursue it, either at other venues this year or perhaps submitting it to the IA Summit again next year.

I would love to receive more feedback on it, to strengthen the proposal or get ideas for content to include. Thank you for taking the time to read it and offering your thoughts.

And see you in San Diego for what promises to be another amazing year!

The UX Career Path: From Wireframes to Coaching

When I was three years out of college and unclear what was next for me, I asked my manager at the time about the UX career path. “I don’t know,” he said, “but don’t follow mine.”

It was then that I became involved in the UX community, looking for guidance and inspiration. By observing the careers of others and asking a lot of questions, I began to map out my own desired trajectory.

Six years later, I’ve gone from a full-time wireframer to a certified professional coach, from designing interfaces to designing companies. In this talk, I’ll share the stages of my professional evolution — how I decided what each step would be, how I made it happen, and what is coming next — as I strive to expand the role of User Experience within leading organizations and in our own community.

Stage 1: to make digital products easier and more pleasurable to use

Stage 2: to make digital products that meet customer needs

Stage 3: to make digital products that meet customer needs and business goals

Stage 4: to help product teams establish a user experience practice

Stage 5: to coach senior leaders and product teams on cultivating compassion for customers and colleagues

Future stage?: to coach senior leaders on cultivating greater self-awareness and practicing better self-care


  • A potential path for their own careers
  • Figuring out what your next step should be
  • How to define your own path
  • The expanding role of User Experience within organizations and what that means for practitioners
  • A better understanding of coaching and how it applies to UX

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  1. says

    This is awesome, Whitney. I’ll also add that this isn’t exclusive to UX. My path has been very similar; while I’m still doing lots of creative direction and design, a good portion of my time is spent with small- to medium-sized agency owners, helping them position their companies properly to put them in strategic places to do the best work for their clients. Seems natural to want to share the experience we’ve gotten with people in a way that can’t come effectively through deliverables.

    Thanks for writing this!

    • says

      Thanks so much, Dan. I really appreciate your perspective – that this isn’t just UX. I wonder if it’s fair to say this is the trajectory for design professionals of all stripes, or just designers in technology? What do you think?

      • says

        Hmm, good question. I’m not sure, but I’d guess that people who get really good at a thing tend to want to share that with others. And, given that a primary role for designers—technology or not—is to make things clearer for others, I’d bet lots of designers have that itch. I’d love to see some stats on this either way. Have you ever come across anything like that?

  2. Dan Malarkey says

    I totally relate to this.

    Over the years I’ve slowly come to the realization that I’m not only designing + educating the user base, but I’m also educating + strategizing companies who are incompetent to design, and the value it brings.

    Thanks Whitney!

    • says

      Hmm that’s a great question, Andrew. Maybe it’s in the same phase as designing products – you’re looking holistically at the strategic offer across platforms. I’d love to consider that further.

  3. says

    Thanks for the great article. I’ve followed a similar progression in terms of moving from designing products to designing process and teams. In one way, it just feels like the natural shift in interest of designing bigger things. In another, its more satisfying to be closer to the result of your efforts. It’s ironic how designing more abstract things can result in more concrete satisfaction.

    Two thumbs up for coaching and making that transition. My girlfriend is a life coach has had a huge impact on the way I “coach” colleagues and mentees. And not surprisingly, UX has had a great application in her world of softer subjects. Go UX!

  4. Mo says

    Thanks! I wanted to ask – how does one get into coaching? And get paid doing it? I have a passion for coaching – but my background is design. Agile coaches make lots of good money (and sounds like a great job helping teams work better to create products) — but they typically have an engineering background.

    Do you suggest I look into Agile coaching certification? How does one shift their career into coaching from UX? What jobs are out there for design/coaching skill sets?


    • says

      Mo, thanks so much for your comment. There are many paths to coaching. I’ve written about mine in a few different posts, especially this one:

      You can choose to certify like I did, but it isn’t required to be a coach, just like certification isn’t required to practice UX. You have to make the best decision for your own needs and for where you’re trying to go in the long run.

      Perhaps I can work with you to help figure out where that is. You’d be a great candidate for my Plot Your Course program starting in January.

      Take a look and hit me up with any questions. Have a great holiday.

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