Salary Survey: User Experience Professionals Earn Good Money

by Jakob Nielsen on May 27, 2001

Summary: A survey of 1,078 user experience professionals finds that usability specialists make more money than designers and writers in the same field. In all three areas, salaries are highest in the U.S., lower in Canada and Asia, and much lower in Europe and Australia.

Usability was a well-paying profession in 2001: A usability specialist in California with five years' experience has an estimated cash compensation of $90,118 a year, not counting stock options or other benefits.

This number is at the high end of our detailed survey, which analyzes salary data from 1,078 professionals who attended the User Experience World Tour from November 2000 to April 2001. This is a response rate of 40% of the 2,682 conference attendees. Because we surveyed people at a high-end professional conference, the data probably reflects the salaries of good user experience professionals; less accomplished staff is less likely to get approval to attend such events.

We asked respondents to state their total annual compensation from salary and bonuses; we did not include stock options and other benefits. Given that most stock options have been under water recently, cash compensation may be the most important number anyway.

See also the 2011 update to these salary numbers.

Usability Specialists: Annual Compensation

Our multiple regression analysis of the salary data produced the following amounts as the best estimate of expected starting salaries for usability specialists in different parts of the world. The middle column is in U.S. dollars; the right column indicates the corresponding amount in local currencies, using the exchange rates prevalent when we collected the data.

United States  $67,118  
Canada  $49,866  C$74,796
Asia  $49,297   ¥5,709,579
Europe  $36,166  €41,476
Australia/NZ  $35,961  A$68,321

Note that almost all of our Asian respondents worked in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, or Singapore. Salaries are likely lower in poorer Asian countries.

Designers and Writers Earn Less

In addition to compensation for usability specialists, our survey also includes data from other groups of user experience professionals. The results? Compared with the annual salaries of usability specialists,

  • designers made $6,181 less, and
  • writers made $9,709 less.

These estimates are based on a multiple regression analysis that accounts for geographical location, job title, and years of experience. Thus, having the job title "designer" would on average predict a salary that was $6,181 lower than having the job title "usability specialist."

There are many different kinds of designers, and in the interest of keeping the survey short, we did not attempt to break out professional interaction designers from graphic designers or other web designers.

Experienced Staff Earns More

Compensation increased by $2,265 for each year of professional experience. Thus, somebody with five years' experience would make an average of $11,325 more than the starting salaries shown in the table above.

Impact of Individual Skills

Our full multiple regression analysis accounts for only 44% of the salary variance in the responses. In other words, 44% of salary variability is explained by job function, geographical location, and years of experience. This leaves 56% of the variability to be explained by other variables.

Intuitively, most of the residual variance is probably explained by differences in individual skill. Some people are just better at what they do than others, and people's ability to understand user behavior and its impact on design is not solely determined by how long they've been in the business.

Unfortunately, we could not find a simple way to assess professional skills in a survey. We joked about adding the question, "Are you any good?" with responses ranging from "1 = I mess up constantly" to "5 = Brilliant work every time." Realistically, though, the only way to assess skill would be to subject respondents to an exam or collect evaluations from their bosses. Neither tactic would have done our response rate much good.

Are They Worth It?

Are user experience professionals worth their high salaries? Absolutely. In fact, the writers deserve an immediate raise. Online writing is not just content, it's the core value on most sites and the first thing users look at. Writers are certainly worth more than what our respondents are being paid.

Nonetheless, it's easier to justify usability specialists' salaries because their work contributes directly to the bottom line. It increases productivity for work-oriented sites, and increases conversion rates for marketing-oriented sites. For example: We recently studied a corporate intranet site and, by fixing just one of the usability problems we found, the company gained an estimated $330,000 per year in employee productivity.

Read More: Detailed Data Analysis Available

Additional statistical analyses and tables regarding 2001 salaries for user experience professionals are available.

Our full report contains specialized multiple regression models estimating salaries for each of the major regions (U.S., Europe, U.K., Asia, and Australia) as well as estimates of the differences between countries and states. It will come as no surprise that jobs based in New York, California, London, and Hong Kong pay substantially more than jobs located elsewhere.

See also the 2008 update to these salary numbers.

More issues related to the job performance of usability professionals are covered in my 3-Day Camp on Usability in Practice at the annual Usability Week conference (selected cities only).

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