Over the past month with Tempo AI (formerly called Fifo Labs), we’ve been trying to recruit a full-time UX person. As much as I hear the difficulty of recruiting awesome technical talent, our challenge has been recruiting the right user experience (UX) team member. For most, the UX role has become so lucrative, that considering a full-time role just doesn’t make sense anymore.
What’s fascinating is I distinctly remember when this wasn’t the case. When I was working with Kodak Mobile in 2004, the situation was quite different. Not in any negative way, but we had almost a surplus of strong UX talent with multiple people interviewing for UX opportunities. In today’s economy, strong UX team members (rightfully so!) earn similar compensation as relative technical talent!
This got me wondering – how did this happen? And then it occurred to me that user experience is the next layer in the stack. In the 70s, 80s, hardware was the juggernaut. As seen in Pirates of Silicon Valley or other, IBM and other hardware vendors did not expect software to ever reign. Hardware was the premium and where the money was made but as I was reminded earlier today when I was considering taking my Apple Monitor in for warranty, a 42 inch TV is now $400 – hardware has absolutely become commoditized and the premium moved to software.
But within software, there are multiple layers to the onion. Initial software development was a pain in the butt. We didn’t have the benefit of EC2 and other frameworks and platforms to leverage. I remember while in college in ’99, it took real Computer Science chops to simply build a web application and it cost $500+ per month to just host a simple server and website. Now software can be readily developed and thus why you are seeing multiple movements like CodeAcademy and the Kahn Academy attempting to teach software development to children – this makes perfect sense, building software is a lot easier (and affordable) now than it was in the past! Let’s be honest, who is a Software Engineer that hasn’t at least dabbled in building an iPhone app? It’s simply gotten too easy to write software.
As a result of this, the differentiation has moved upstream. Instead of maintaining a 2:1 engineering to QA ratio within an organization, the QA ratio has vastly shrunk with real-time “live” user-testing and more importantly software frameworks and approaches that better handle user data and security. Whereas the QA ratio is gone down, the engineering to UX ratio has vastly increased which makes perfect sense. The next layer in the onion is UX; there is certainly a growing repository of guidelines and approaches in dealing with UX and we are of-course limited to what is possible with the hardware and software but we are definitely nowhere near a point where UX is commoditized.
So my question is whether UX can become commoditized? And I know most would argue that would never happen just like the hardware in the 70s/80s (eg IBM) and the software in the 90/00s (eg Microsoft) but the reality is that software, just like hardware has been getting cheaper year over year.
On a seperate note, if you haven’t read Steve Jobs biography, I strongly recommend it – it’s incredible to see that someone was paranoid about design in a time when being paranoid about design wasn’t sexy.