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This is a personal tale about where I came from. Hopefully it explains a lot about UX careers and journeys, but maybe not. Regardless, I felt like it was time to tell a short story about how a single data point, me, moved through a career in this thing we call “experience design” or whatever the flavor of the month term is.
The Prompt for this Post
I get a lot of emails based on my UX interview guide, and UX mock portfolio guide. And a bunch from the UX psychologist guide. The emails all have the same question: how do I start a career in UX with no experience or specific design education, or how do I transfer to UX from a different career, or how do I ply my psychology PhD/Masters into UX?
Before I can answer this, let me explain how I got where I am. I’m no bestselling author, I have a few thousand twitter followers I’ve built up over 2 years, nothing like design leaders with hundreds of thousands. I’m not a startup founder, nor have I really worked on high-profile products. I’m squarely in the “average person” slow and steady career path.
Here it is, a single data point about the secret to a UX career. These are the steps I took to get to “where I am,” not that it’s some cinderella story or charmed life. I don’t feel anywhere near the top of my game or career summit. But people ask, so here it is:
- I got a computer when I was about 12, it had windows 3.1. I didn’t start with a commodore 64 or amiga or original Macintosh. I didn’t learn to program, I used it to learn how the OS and hardware worked, and to write short stories. I could have become an engineer, but instead I became a computer nerd hardcore in order to serve my passion about writing fiction (novels, stories) and doing artwork.
- My computer broke, and I went a year or 2 without one. I finally got another computer in probably 1995, with Windows 95. On that computer, I started to play with CorelPhotopaint (it was like Photoshop) and CorelDraw (it was like Illustrator). I was 14.
- My interest in computers got me a job as a network admin assistant that same year at a company that made instructional videos for computer programs and certifications. This was my first job, for minimum wage, $5.25 an hour. I saved all my money and bought a CPU, a Pentium 166mhz.
- I took the VHS tapes home and watched videos on how to use Windows as a power user, Access 2.0, Visual Basic, and HTML. This was 1995, I was 15, and most people didn’t even have email addresses. I would write HTML in HotDog, HoTMetal, I think Microsoft Frontpage and Publisher, and some times straight into DOS from the command prompt using “copy con”. And at the same time, doing graphic and visual design in Corel PhotoPaint.
Okay, that was phase 1. I lived at home as a computer nerd, watching VHS instructional videos on software and spending all my time on the computer. Every second (to this day almost…). I would use Access 2.0 (a database tool) and VisualBasic (a visual software tool) to create interfaces for phone book apps or apps to store Dungeons and Dragons character sheets. I would also do digital art for the short stories I would write.
I did HTML, design, and computer nerd hardware stuff for the next few years through middle and high school. I knew everything about designing for Netscape, and eventnuall IE1.0. One-point-oh.
Author’s note: I dropped out after 11th grade, started working at a web agency, got a GED right away, then an associates degree, then a bachelors degree. So I just say “dropped out” for dramatic effect – really I self-graduated myself early and got on with the dot-com craze and college.
At this job, I had a book I lived by as my bible: Creating Killer Websites. This was published in 1997. It is the basis of my whole career, and still relevant today.
Then, I was handed by my boss Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make me Think. Did you realize this came out in 2000? The words “user” or “experience” are never found together in it. People still talk about the book, it’s canon. It predates The Inmates are Running the Asylum by 4 years.
The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett was published in 2002. Somehow I got ahold of it, I don’t even remember how, and that started my real journey to do UX and move away from nuts and bolds HTML and design. That was 12 years ago. I was a @JJG fanboy and pushed his diagrams and ideas on everyone, and his IA visual vocabulary. Think about it – I was fawning over @JJG almost 12 years ago, as a 21 year old kid.
So here’s phase 2:
- Late 90’s, got minimum wage jobs doing Photoshop and HTML
- Did that through the early and mid 2000’s for dozens of companies and freelance gigs.
- Learned everything about the design of the web to the point that everything started to be “UX” focused around 2006.
Not a very fancy phase. UX wasn’t a “thing” like it was now. A lot of people look back at that era and realize they were doing a primitive form of UX design. A lot of smart people were already doing research, IA, testing – real human centered design that became UX. A select few really were in UX. But think back to web 1.0 and web 2.0, our focus was on building ANYTHING we could, the whole world was doing drop shadows, bevels, gifs… and the world loved it.
The Consultant Years
So at some point, I think a lot of people who came up through the 90’s and early 2000’s morphed into real UX designers, leaving behind the focus on graphic art and HTML and leaned hard into what we call UX. Some didn’t. Some stayed with the design and innovation that has made the web beautiful and wonderful. I have infinite respect for this half of my tribe, they are the ones doing the Apple designs, the CSS3 innovations, the apps and sites that make the news because of their beauty AND function. Makes me wonder if I should have stayed a pure designer. But no, that wasn’t for me.
In about 2005, I started working alone as a consultant doing “UX” and design for whatever clients I could find. This went on until about 2010, it was a slow fade into and out of this phase. I worked on every type of project imaginable, and really started to focus on UX as the primary goal, designing end-to-end for people and even taking over their business strategy for the web with the user-centered, holistic approach in mind.
Again, I think this is just how my brain works as a secret novelist. Everything is a story, a process, and end to end journey. Even my blog posts are structured like novels if you go back and read them close (and they take about 3 minutes per word to write the longer essays). By the end of this run, UX was a thing, the hottest job title around, and as I re-entered the ranks of the gainfully employed, I was now a UX designer. I’d settle for nothing less.
Back to Employment
I came back into the workforce a changed person. I got a job as a UX lead, then a job as a UX manager, then a job as a UX director, and then pivoted and moved to Silicon Valley and now work at Intuit as a Principal Service Designer. It’s just a natural progression, the details aren’t important. I did UX work, pushed the companies past their breaking points, and eventually had the credibility, experience, and portfolio to become a Service Designer at a 25 billion dollar company and one of the most established in Silicon Valley.
What I do now
Now, I’ve sort of left behind the UX of specific parts sites or products, and focus on the experience of the whole journey. If you need a primer on what that is, go here, read this, download the PDF. It’s still “UX”, but really it’s focused on how people experience something in totality, from the actual tangible elements, to the intangible spaces between elements, and the psychological and emotional journey they take along the way. In the end, though, it’s still just designing the experience a human has when interacting with anything. You can service design someone waking up and heading to work – think of all the things they do and experience between those 2 things.
That’s it. I have no silver bullet to getting a job in UX (and especially service design). Just a lifetime of regular lead bullets. I didn’t go to graduate school for HCI or a an MBA in Design Strategy (yet… there’s a strong chance I am going for a non-design MBA before the decade is up), I didn’t win a gameshow like American Idol and land in a cinderella job as a UX debutante. In fact, I feel like I’ve moved too slow, missed out on dot-com 1.0, and 2.0, something I regret every day. I was toiling away in Utah while Larry and Sergey were in their garage, hours away from changing the world. If I could send 4 words back through time to my young self in the summer of 1998, it would be “greyhound ticket. palo alto.” But, it’s now 16 years later, and I’m finally here.
The point to all of this is that I don’t have an easy answer to a job in UX, service design, whatever you call “it”. I am 33 have been “doing this” for 20 years. I’ve never had a job that wasn’t this. I’ve never had a HOBBY that wasn’t this.
So, I do my best to share what I know about today’s world, what jobs are like out there, the things I’ve seen as an interviewer and an interviewee. More than anything, I want to help others like me. From whatever walk of life or background. But honestly, I have nightmares about what I’d do if I was 17 again in 2014, trying to break into this world. Not sure I would make it. Some days, I am not sure I’ll even make it in the present! Do you know how many companies I worked for during the dot-com folded? How many times all designers were cut since the company was going broke and could only afford the programmers? How many interviews? How many times companies without any investment in design have diminished it down to almost being irrelevant? This is a hard career. It’s easier now, but for a while, I wondered if I should abandon it and pursue something not related to tech.
All I can tell people, the only thing I truly know, is that you need to toss out “work smarter, not harder” of your vocabulary. Get rid of it. Ignore it. The real axiom you need to focus on is: work hard in smart ways, have a relentless and punishing work ethic, make every step you take slightly more vertical than the last as you scale the mountain, and above everything else, have your personal “why” you do this. I can’t stress the relentless, punishing work ethic enough.
There are no shortcuts or secrets. Working in hi-tech, design, UX, is a hard path. This is not an easy career. Fall behind, let things slip, or don’t stay hungry and focused and another 20-something designer is going to swoop in and you’ll be competing with fresh blood, head to head. It’s a fun job, but it’s still a job. There are no UX rock superstars. Don’t try to be one. When people talk about you, make it your goal for them to say “So and so? They’re the hardest working person I’ve ever met, and it really shines through in their talent and performance.”