Three UX Designers on Why They Design and How They Got Started
GrowthX Academy spoke with three UX designers about what inspired them to pursue a career in the field and how they got started. They each came to UX design from different careers but were all fascinated by the opportunity to optimize user experience.
We asked how they decided to dedicate their careers to design, and what advice they have for other would-be designers — either straight out of college or from a completely different field.
Lisa Ratner graduated with a media studies degree in 2008. She worked for several years as a documentary filmmaker before transitioning to design. Rachel Shahvar majored in advertising, graduating in 2007, and spent the first five-plus years of her career in production and graphic design. Elizabeth Stark graduated in 2010 with a graphic communications degree and started her career in marketing before becoming a UX designer.
Why I Chose Design
Lisa Ratner, urban planning-focused UX designer at Code for America: I was taking web design courses at a community college and doing freelance website work for small businesses and nonprofits. But I was finding myself attracted to advocacy work in mobility and public transportation, so I pursued an urban planning certificate program at UC Berkeley. I didn’t want to get stuck in a bureaucratic urban planning role after graduating. When I heard about a UX design certificate program, I decided to pursue UX intending to apply to urban planning. At the time, that career path didn’t really exist yet. But I felt confident that it should, that what government really needs is some user experience research and design. Now it’s called “civic tech.”
Rachel Shahvar, Senior UX Designer at Hero Digital, LLC: I spent the first five or six years of my career doing production and graphic design work. One day, while doing production work for a new website I noticed that the image carousel made no sense — when there were only two photos, the second photo showed up to the left, rather than the right. It was very counter-intuitive to hit the left arrow to see the next photo in that situation. When I brought this up, my boss laughed and said, “It’s way too late to fix that.” I later found out that what I was complaining about was the “user experience,” and I became obsessed with it.
Elizabeth Stark, UX Designer at Epsilon: After wrapping up a master’s in brand development and a bachelor’s in graphic communication I still wasn’t quite sure what career path I wanted to pursue. I took several freelance positions in marketing and social media, waiting for a bigger opportunity to come along. A year later, I got a job at Epsilon, a large marketing agency in San Francisco. The role I took was as a business analyst, but the digital design team needed more help in UX. At the time, UX was something I was very unfamiliar with since it still is a relatively new field. My graphics background, brand/marketing experience and eye for detail made this role feel like the perfect fit, however.
Getting From Here to There
Ratner: It was a challenge getting my first couple of UX gigs. I took a couple of jobs that I knew were not the right fit, but I also knew I had to get my foot in the door. To be able to get to a place where I could be picky about where I worked, I had to continue polishing my portfolio and adding new projects to it. I constantly took classes and went to conferences. I also helped run a UX book club to stay current in the field. Today, I’m a UX researcher and designer for a civic tech nonprofit, Code for America. We work with city governments on improving delivery of public services. If you are switching careers, I recommend repurposing your domain knowledge from your last job to help you get a UX job. Because of my past advocacy work, I was able to break into civic tech.
Shahvar: When I first got interested in it, UX was not as big as it is today. I was ready to go back to school, but I couldn’t find any programs — and most of the posts I read after Googling “How to become a UX designer” said to not go to school. Instead, they all said the same thing: Find a mentor and make a lateral move. That sounded impossible, so I kept the idea in the back of my mind and just constantly told everyone I worked and interviewed with, “I’m really interested in UX design.” One day, I said it to the right person and boom: lateral move and I’m a junior UX designer.
Stark: A month after helping out on the design team, I started to be exclusively put on projects that allowed me to grow my skills in UX. A senior UX designer also acted as a mentor to me and gave me tips on how to advance in my career. She gave me opportunities to learn and encouraged me to read books and blogs that would improve my UX knowledge. I was lucky, but it was a few members on my team that gave me the confidence to really pursue that career.
How to Tackle Early-Career Challenges
Ratner: The reason those first get-in-the-door jobs didn’t fit for me is because the organizations would say they were very interested in research and testing, but in reality they were only willing to pay for “wireframe monkeys”. I love wireframing, but only if it is based on research and user-testing. I would advocate tirelessly for research and testing but ultimately if those are things you care about, you need to find a company that values those things, too.
Shahvar: As a UX designer, I feel like my job is to make things make sense. When I starting out oftentimes the answer was so obvious to me that when a client would push back I would get very frustrated. How could they not see it my way? It was the only way that made sense! Then I realized that my job was to make it as clear to them as it was to me. I’ve learned present in a way that is hard to push back on. I make sure I have a reason for every decision I make. If they still don’t agree, I point out the drawbacks of their decision, take a deep breath, and remind myself that I’m not saving lives, just crafting experiences.
Stark: The advice I would give someone who is looking to get into UX is to make sure you are empathetic, curious and have an attention to detail and a true passion for producing work that has the user in mind. These are key qualities for a good UX designer. It’s easy to assume the design you’re creating is the right one, but without any background on your users — which you gain from research, testing and/or interviews — designs are just a guess, which is not what UX is about.
Why it’s worth it
Ratner: As you can imagine, there is a lot of inefficiency in local government. During my user research, I watched people struggle to navigate government websites, only to be left having to print forms, fill them out by hand and mail them, without knowing whether the form had actually been received. On the city side, staff would receive forms with illegible handwriting, manually enter the data into a database (often incorrectly), and then mail back the permit, license or acceptance letter. Instead of feeling frustrated by these slow and often laborious processes, I get to be involved in fixing them. I just ran the analytics for a new product and found we are saving the city 66 hours and $3,600 per month. More importantly, the impact our organization has on people’s lives is what makes me feel incredibly fulfilled and deeply in love with my work. Outside of work, the best part about investing in an education in UX is that all the knowledge about how to be more observant helps you become a more empathetic and open-minded person.
Shahvar: I love tackling complex problems and making them simple. Now that the web and digital experiences are pervasive in all aspects of our lives, there are numerous apps and websites that do the same thing — the only difference is the experience. People are at a point where they’d rather pay more for something that is easy to use than get frustrated with something free. UX is the key differentiator for most products out there at this point.
Stark: To me, UX is extremely important because we are the ones that listen to the users of a product/website/app and incorporate their feedback into our designs to make their experience intuitive and delightful. Whenever I am given the opportunity for more projects, I am excited to understand the product or service, get to know the users who interact with it, and make sure their experiences are the best they can be. I knew I had chosen the right career path when something simple within my wireframe design was something I could prove was essential to a design. I love being an advocate for users.
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