High UX Salaries have Held Steady for 25 Years
Summary: After adjusting for inflation, salaries for UX professionals have been about the same from the earliest salary data in 1998 to the newest data collected this year. The gap between entry-level staff and senior UX professionals has grown in recent years, marking a noteworthy rise in the value of UX experience.
The latest salary survey for UX professionals shows an uptick in salaries in the United States as of the data collection period in May 2023. But the more interesting conclusion is that (after adjusting for inflation) UX salaries have been almost the same, with minor fluctuations, from 1998, when there were 21,000 UX professionals in the world, until now, when there are an estimated 3 million UX professionals in the world. (A growth of more than fourteen thousand percent.
This most recent salary survey was conducted by the company User Interviews, which is an excellent source for recruiting test participants for various types of user research studies (not just interviews, as their name might imply). Data was collected in May 2023 from 929 respondents. The study focused on user research practitioners, not all UX professionals. However, past studies have shown that researchers and designers tend to make about the same if they have the same talent and experience levels.
The United States emerges as a treasure island in the lucrative world of UX, whereas the rest of the world is still seeking its gold. (“Treasure chest” generated by Midjourney.)
You can read the full 2023 UX researcher salary findings on their website. One interesting result is that salaries are dramatically higher in the United States than in the rest of the world. The difference is so big that my only advice for any company recruiting UX talent is to focus your search on the 90% of the world’s UX professionals who work outside the US. Median salaries were more than twice as high in the US than in Germany and The Netherlands — countries usually considered expensive places to hire. And US salaries were almost 4 times higher than those in Poland.
You might think that this means you can employ four Poles for the price of one American. But I recommend hiring two exceptional Polish talents for the price of one average-talent American. Considering that the best UX people deliver at least 10 times the results of average UXers, you’ll be getting twenty times higher return on your money from the Poles.
Can this disparity endure? Over the long term, such pronounced gaps are patently unsustainable for getting the same work done. Higher salaries in the US were reasonable 25 years ago, when the US had much higher UX maturity than other countries, meaning that American UX professionals were like seasoned goldsmiths, offering refined craftsmanship compared to the shoddy work (on average, of course) delivered by staff in lower-maturity countries. The sands of time have softened these disparities, as many countries now boast high-maturity workplaces where UX professionals can hone their skills.
The most interesting to me is to compare the new data with older UX salary data, which I have done in the chart below. The graph only shows USA salaries because earlier studies mainly included respondents from the United States. All amounts have been adjusted for inflation to be stated in the purchasing-power equivalent of mid-2023 USD dollars.
Note that the chart does not show the raw numbers reported by each salary survey. Instead, I have subjected the data to regression analyses to identify the statistically likely starting salaries (for new graduates with no professional experience) and the median salaries after 5 years of professional UX work.
Data sources: 1998 ACM SIGCHI, 2000 UPA, 2001 NN/g, 2002 Peak Usability, 2003 HFI, 2004 Peak Usability & Spirit Software, 2005-2011 UPA, 2014-2021 UXPA, 2023 User Interviews.
The most obvious conclusion is that UX salaries in the United States have remained roughly unchanged for 25 years after adjusting for inflation. The two main exceptions are:
During the dot-com bubble around 2000, entry-level salaries reached unsustainable zeniths as companies scrambled to get online and hired any warm body who walked in the door. It took a few years for entry-level wages to return to more sensible levels, but down they came.
There has been a trend since the Covid pandemic for experienced staff to get higher salaries. Starting salaries also increased by a smidgeon, but not by nearly as much as experienced folks pulled home during this period of intense growth of e-commerce and virtual services.
The second point seems more sustainable, though it’s also possible that there will be a bit of a correction, with compensation for experienced UX staff dropping back to the norm now that the panic has subsided. (And also as companies realize how much more they get for their money outside the United States, where senior UX talent is becoming increasingly available.)
The experience premium (the extra money paid to people with more experience) has gradually widened over the last 25 years, a healthy trend. UX professionals do get much better at their jobs during the first 10 years, mainly due to the abject failure of the education system to prepare them for real-world demands adequately. So the first few years on the job mainly constitute basic training that people in other professions would have received in college. New hires are almost worthless at first (sorry, newbies), and you hire one for his or her potential the following year.
Currently, the early-career experience premium in the United States is $9,500 per additional year of UX experience, so that’s the raise you should expect if you’re doing a good job.
The experience premium is justified because the UX profession intrinsically depends on patterns: recognizing user behavior patterns during research and understanding design patterns to know which one to pick for each user behavior pattern. A vast range of patterns exists in both cases, so it takes a decade to learn enough for peak UX performance.
In most UX salary studies, the experience premium drops after around 10 years of experience, which also makes sense. Yes, there’s always more to learn. Still, going from, say, 13 years of experience to 14 years of experience only adds marginally new knowledge, while some of the knowledge accumulated 14 years ago will grow stale or obsolete.
So for the last 25 years, UX professionals have realized rapid salary growth for the first 10 years of their career, followed by low salary growth during subsequent years.
Will this trend continue in the future? Usually, past patterns are likely to continue when they have been stable for 25 years. But introducing useful AI tools within the UX process may profoundly alter the dynamic. AI prolongs old knowledge workers’ useful careers, which may be more game-changing for UX professionals than for other professions.
Generative AI takes over much of the heavy lifting in producing many alternate design ideas and possible explanations for research observations. This reduces the demands on fluid intelligence (a young person’s strength) while adding a premium on crystalized intelligence (an old person’s power) for winnowing the profusion of creative (but sometimes inane) AI contributions.
Thus, it’s likely that the UX experience premium will increase in the future and also that the premium for substantial experience (beyond the first 10 years) will grow even more due to AI.
Update for 2023 Q3
On August 22, 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported a recent decline in starting salaries within the United States, revealing a drop of 18% for developers and engineers, and an 11% decline for UX professionals, when compared to late 2022.
For those of us in the UX field, it's somewhat satisfying to note that our salaries have suffered a smaller reduction than those of developers. It's a telling sign of the importance and recognition of UX that a UX job was the lead example featured in a mainstream Wall Street Journal piece on the job market.
While the salary decline may be disheartening for recent graduates or anyone seeking a UX position in the latter half of 2023, I perceive this adjustment as a healthy normalization for the future of the UX profession. The indiscriminate hiring frenzy and inflated salary offerings in late 2022 were symptoms of a market that had lost its equilibrium, driven by relentless competition.
While the salary decline may be disheartening for recent graduates or anyone seeking a UX position in the latter half of 2023, I perceive this adjustment as a healthy normalization for the future of the UX profession. The indiscriminate hiring and inflated salary offerings in late 2022 were symptoms of a market that had lost its equilibrium, driven by relentless competition.
The key takeaway? We're returning to a familiar trend. UX salaries haven't disastrously plummeted but rather have realigned with historical norms. This adjustment is far from a calamity; we’re reverting to mean, which signifies stability and long-term health in the UX profession.
The pile of money paid to UX staff in the United States had become unsustainably high because of the feeding frenzy in the job market in late 2022, as companies were staffing up at any cost. During the second half of 2023, UX salaries have reverted to the mean, which still means generous compensation levels. There’s still gold in them thar UX hills, just not as much as in 2022. (“Money” by Leonardo.AI.)