Transitioning into UX

You figure out that there’s this great field called User Experience and you want to be a part of it. You read up on it, follow blogs about it, maybe hit up a few people who are in the field…but what next? How do you get from your current situation into the new one? I recently went through all of the above, and then some, and when the dust finally settled, I found myself with the title of UX Designer at my current company. David Panarelli, who I had the privilege to learn under at General Assembly DC’s inaugural UX Design class, recently asked me a number of questions as he put together a talk on transitioning to design (and if you’re interested, he’ll be giving it again). I rambled quite a bit, but hopefully there’s something below that you, fellow seeker of a UX job, may find helpful.

When did you know you wanted to shift away from your older position?

I’d have to give the lion’s share of credit to EightShapes, particularly Dan Brown and Jody Thomas (I’m not usually this name droppy, but they’re awesome). We brought EightShapes into our company to help redesign a couple of our business applications (and later to rework the homepage of our website), and I loved the way they thought. More so, I thought: I want to do what they do.

True story about myself: I love thinking about things like delivery mechanisms for content and communication. I enjoy thinking about IA (although I never thought of it as IA until recently), or making something responsive and how to go about that from a tactical perspective. But once the thing was built, I was more drawn to tweaking it and making it better than filling it with content (case in point, I set up our family blog three years ago, but my wife has written all but a handful of entries). So when I realized that there was a job that let me focus on the things that I loved, I was like, I’m all in.

What did you see as the gaps in your skill set that you had to fill in order to take on the new position?

I didn’t have a solid understanding of the theory behind UX. Not at first. I read a lot on the internet, observed practitioners, set up lunch meetings, etc. I got pretty familiar with the tools as processes around UX (user testing scenarios, prototyping, wire framing). But that’s all surface stuff. I needed a foundation to fully understand UX, because honestly, those tools and processes will all change—when Google figures out how to mind read, we won’t need to worry about user research techniques—but the theory behind UX won’t.

Also, if I’m honest, I lacked confidence to do the job independently. I have an English degree. I self-taught myself into a graphic design role. I didn’t think I had the credentials to do it…and then I realized none of you did! I spoke to a few designers (thanks Dan and Norm!). I joined UXPA and attended a few of their workshops. The community is smaller than you think, so getting handshaking and face time is all kinds of good. Myers-Briggs calls me an introvert, but it was pretty easy to get out of my shell when it came to something I was passionate about. Then I got pointed to General Assembly’s User Experience Design class and was like, ah-ha, this is perfect!

What did the class seem to offer that you needed?

Two things:

  1. The class gave me a solid understanding of the theory underlying UX,
  2. And it armed me with the language of the field (which helped with the confidence thing).

I actually really enjoyed the first half and all the lectures. Without those, the exercises would have felt shallow. Instead, they reinforced theory. Oh, I lied. The third thing it offered was community–not just the instructors (David and nclud’s Max Leyzerovich), but the other students. I loved being in a room with people as passionate about UX as I was. And it’s fun to bump into them at various UX events now.

You don’t know what you don’t know. I went into the class thinking UX was one thing (mostly thinking about the deliverables) and realized it was all-encompassing. That’s an important lesson that I didn’t know I needed.

Any advice for people considering a transition to UX?

UX is all about people, so you’re going to need to be okay working with people. On the one hand, the job itself involves a lot of talking and interacting with others (hence the “user” part of UX design). But it also has a very strong, supportive, and amazing community around it, and being able to socialize and tap into that is key. I guess that’s kind of a universal truth in professional advancement. Point is, be able to talk to others.

Also, be prepared to read. A lot. Seriously, there are a lot of great resources out there, and many of them are books (but they’re great books).

As for just straight up advice, definitely reach out to people you know in the field and chat with them over coffee. Find out how they got into UX, and what they enjoy. That was very insightful. See if you can implement some UX practices into your current role, just to start building a portfolio—talk to your employers and see if they’re open to it, UX is important, so you may be surprised. (Leah Buley’s User Experience Team of One has some great advice on how to do this.) If you can afford it, I’d recommend a class like the one at GA. It’ll help lay the foundation (and build a portfolio piece). Join one of the many groups around UX (DC’s chapter of UXPA is free to join, AIGA is still a good source for networking, and there are a ton of Meet Ups).

Most important thing, though, is to not do nothing. Read, talk to people, join groups, start working UX into your life. Don’t be afraid to screw up. There’s a lot of opportunity out there, but you need to actively pursue it.