Usability professionals' salaries seem to have stabilized following the wild ride of the dot-com bubble around 2000. Many salary surveys have been conducted since 1998, but the real picture only emerges once you unify the findings and consider the data across studies.
The following chart shows the average annual salary for two types of usability professionals in the United States:
A person with 5 years' experience working as a usability professional.
An entry-level person with essentially no industry work experience.
Average salaries for usability professionals from 1998 to 2011, adjusted for inflation (all amounts are shown in 2012-equivalent U.S. dollars). Sources: HFI (2003), NN/g (2001), Peak Usability (2002, 2004), SIGCHI (1998), and UPA (2000, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011).
These curves don't plot the raw numbers from the individual studies. In each case, I've taken the original findings and run them through mathematical models to clean up some of the methodological uncertainties inherent in salary surveys. Despite these efforts, my two curves are still only approximations. For example, it was definitely not the case that experienced staff temporarily had higher compensation in 2004 than in 2003 and 2005. That bump on the red curve is a study artifact that my calculations didn't remove.
Rather than obsess over individual data points, it's better to look at the chart's bigger trends. Several conclusions are clear:
Entry-level staffers were paid unrealistically high salaries during the original dot-com bubble, when over-funded companies were desperate to hire any warm body that walked in the door.
Experienced staffers were also paid more during the bubble, but their salaries have declined less in the years after 2001.
As a result of the different trends for entry-level and experienced staff, the premium on experience has increased in recent years: in 2011 it was about $4,700 per year of experience, compared with about $4,200 in 2001 (both amounts inflation-adjusted to 2012).
On average, current entry-level salaries in 2012-dollars are about $60,000, and usability staffers with 5 years' professional experience earn about $84,000. (Salaries are lower outside the United States.)
It's interesting to note that entry level salaries held up pretty well during the 2008–2012 recession, whereas more experienced staff didn't do as well because the raises people received for each year's added experience were very small during this period.
The Value of Experience
The difference between new and experienced staff ought to be even larger. In the usability field, skill is strongly dependent on experience. University courses rarely teach the details of how to correctly run a usability study. As a result, entry-level staffers typically need extensive mentoring before they can do a good job in practical projects.
Experience also dramatically increases a person's ability to infer underlying design flaws from observing user behavior. User behavior is remarkably consistent over the years. The more users you've seen, the more accurate your judgments and predictions of future user behavior. All these factors justify a substantial premium on usability experience.
A final trend responsible for downward pressure on entry-level salaries is the emergence of second-tier usability companies that serve clients with less-skilled staff based in low-salary countries. Such services can replace entry-level usability specialists much more easily than they can replace experienced pros.
The $5K/year experience premium applies during the first 10 years of a usability professionals' career. Later, the premium drops to $3K/year. This is reasonable, as the biggest performance gains come in the early years, when newly minted usability specialists are disabused of bad habits from university and learn how to actually do the job in industry.
Somebody with 15 years' experience is probably better than somebody with 10 years' experience, but not by much. (In contrast, somebody with 5 years' experience is almost infinitely better than an entry-level person, and somebody with 10 years' experience is substantially better than the 5-year person.)
Seen over the 13-year period from 1998 to 2011, usability salaries have been remarkably steady. If we disregard the bubble-induced bump around 2001, the long-term change is a trend toward slightly lower entry-level salaries. This difference is probably due to the fact that more and more universities are now pumping out graduates with some usability skills. Usability people are still difficult to recruit, but at least there are more of them around these days.