In this episode, Matt speaks to a reader who is in the process of transitioning to a career in User Experience.
Christine, an HR Administrator from Toronto, is looking to change careers and become a UX Designer. What she may lack in experience, she makes up for with enthusiasm, communication skills, and a good understanding of theory. She has a portfolio, built up from time she has volunteered to various projects, has found a mentor, and is actively networking to find suitable roles—including unpaid internships—but is still hitting hurdles. Christine opens up to Matt about the job application process, reflects on how the term “user experience” is often misunderstood by employers, and shares some of the frustrations she’s encountered.
Somebody give this girl a job. Seriously.
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MATT: Good morning Christine!
CHRISTINE: Good evening Matthew!
MATT: How are you?
CHRISTINE: I’m very well, thank you. How are you?
MATT: Fantastic. Thank you for taking some time to chat.
CHRISTINE: No, thank you so much. What time is it over there right now?
MATT: It’s 10.00 in the morning.
CHRISTINE: Oh, good. So it’s not too early.
MATT: No. I have my two-year-old daughter with me today. She’s just happily sitting on the couch watching a little bit of TV while Dad makes a phone call. So it’s all good …
MATT: You left an interesting comment on our blog recently, and I just wanted to chat to you about that, and hear a little bit more. So did you want to explain your experience? Feel free to omit any incriminating names!
CHRISTINE: OK. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote. It was a bit of a rant, right?
MATT: Yeah, you had an interview for an internship, and it didn’t quite work out as you were expecting it to.
CHRISTINE: How detailed did you want?
MATT: Give us the full back story! I think this is something that probably happens a lot, so I’m keen to pick apart what’s going on and what the issues are and how we can help other people in a similar situation.
CHRISTINE: OK, to start from the very beginning, I emailed this company. I was emailing a bunch of digital media companies—small web shops, even the really big ones. I was just emailing them, saying, “Hey, I really want a UX internship. I’m willing to work for free. If you need any assistance, with user testing, or small bits of wireframing here and there, I am here to offer you my services. I sent them my resume, I sent them my website.
And the woman actually replied back. A few of them did, actually. I got a handful of replies.
MATT: Sorry to butt in there—so you’re background is … have you just graduated from university, or do you have a bit of work experience?
CHRISTINE: No, I’ve been working in Human Resources since I graduated. I’ve been doing that for 3-4 years now, and I don’t like it! I’m thinking of a career change. And I’ve been diligently trying to get into UX since April. So it’s been a few months. And I feel like the more I read, the less I know. So I feel extremely green.
I have a mentor named Elisabeth Hubert, and she’s a UX designer in New York.
MATT: Ah, I’m a big fan of Lis’s writing.
CHRISTINE: Oh, yeah her blogs are awesome. She’s so down to earth. When you speak to her, she’s even more down to earth than on her blog.
MATT: She popped up as having followed me on Twitter the other day, and I tried not to get too excited about it, but it was a big moment for me, what can I say? Ha ha.
CHRISTINE: Well I actually told her that I was speaking with you. Because I was nervous, and I just wanted to share with her that you wanted to speak. And she said “I know UX Mastery. That’s really big for you!” And I was like, “Yeah, it’ll be a fun conversation.” And she said, “Yeah, just have fun with it.”
So I have a mentor now, and I’m reading books, and learning about UX. But she told me that the best way to learn is really on the job. Reading is a good support, but really I’m going to absorb way more information if I just start working in it. So that’s why I started to apply for internships, because I know the demand is there, and I know there’s a very little supply. So I did it, and I got a good response rate.
Anyhoo, so this one is actually the second digital media company to contact me. The first one didn’t work out, because it wasn’t really what I was looking for. No sorry, this is the third place—there were two other ones. One’s a big mobile shop in Toronto, but they wanted me to do recruiting as well. And I wasn’t really keen on doing 50% recruiting and 50% learning UX, cos I wanted to just jump right into the UX thing.
MATT: And are these internships advertised? Or is it just you being proactive and thinking, “I’d like to work for these guys, I’ll reach out to them” …?
CHRISTINE: Yeah! I’m in HR. Job postings are the tip of the iceberg for openings, and they’re the least effective way to apply for a job. So really: networking, and prioritising your networking is the best way, from my professional experience, to get a job. So I decided to do that and be proactive.
So there were no job postings whatsoever. And I made it super clear in my email that I was really looking for a UX internship—nothing more, nothing less.
So these guys call me up—and it’s the Vice President of Communications. So she’s not in design, and she doesn’t do any of the delivery stuff. She’s doing more on the marketing side. So I thought that was kind of interesting.
And she got a meeting together with me and the Director of User Experience. And this company’s another pretty well established shop in Toronto. They hosted the AndroidTO—the Android Toronto conference—last year, I think.
So I went in, and we just had a chat. He was a really nice guy, very casual. He didn’t actually look at any of my work before we spoke. I think he liked me, because he showed me around the office, and he seemed really keen on meeting up again. So he said he’d take a look at my work.
A week later I got an email with a test. They said “we want you to look at this brief—it’s a real client brief.” They made me sign a non-disclosure agreement, and they also omitted a lot of the confidential information. I looked over it—it was a Canadian Photograph Company. And the door was wide open for me to make any app I wanted based on it, or any sub-brand.
So in my mind, I still thought at this point that it was a UX position. So 90% of my efforts were in the strategy, concept and wireframing stages. 90%! And 50% of that was up to the concept. For the presentation, they gave me a list. They told me you need to provide your concept, your wireframes, and a few pages to showcase your user interface design skills.
So I spent one day doing the UI. Because in my mind, this position wasn’t for a visual designer. It’s not my strength, it’s certainly not my education, even though I do know how to use Photoshop, and I am artistic by nature. So I spent one day on UI, and the rest of the week doing everything else.
MATT: And this is for an unpaid position?
MATT: Just checking!
CHRISTINE: Yup! So the whole time I was thinking, “this is quite a lot of work for a UX internship, but it’s going to be worth it!” So I’m busting my butt, seven days straight, for hours and hours. I made an entire mobile app. It’s 100% interactive, on Axure. And I made the UI, and a Powerpoint presentation, 70% of which was describing my process—What’s the business strategy? What are the user goals? Really walking them through how I came up with the concept, so that when I did show them the wireframe, they would see why I did what I did.
So half way through the presentation, I’m seeing that the Director of UX is looking a little impatient. I get the sense that he really just wants me to jump to the UI. Because the minute I said, “OK, now I’m going to show you my UI,” he got really, really excited.
And I showed it to him, and he said, “Oh, that’s not really showcasing your visual design skills.” And I was like, “Visual design skills? Sorry, I thought this was for a UX internship.” And he said, “No, it’s for a user interface designer position.”
I was like, “Oh my god, I have no experience. Why are you interviewing me for a position that requires experience?” And the VP of Communications was in the room. Three other designers from the company were there. And it was so uncomfortable, because I got really panicky at that point. He and the VP of Communications had a discussion right in front of me, where they basically were saying, “I think we’ve been having miscommunications, because this isn’t the first time a candidate has misunderstood the role.” And at that point, I thought, you know what? I’m just going to speak my mind. And I told the UX Director, “In my mind I don’t think UX is just about visual design. It’s definitely something I can pick up, but I really want to go deep into all the processes that come before then, because you can have a dedicated visual designer on your team to make it look pretty, but everything that happens before that point, that’s where the real thinking happens. That’s where 90% of the problems are going to be nipped in the bud. And visual design is kind of where you finalise everything.
So I told him that, and I gave him my 2c. And I really did want to tell him, “You know, you of all people should understand just how critical and how crucial those steps are, and not to just glaze over them.” But then I spoke to a few people afterwards, who told me: “It’s a digital media company. They have their projects, and they probably are just making things look pretty.”
So he and the VP of Communications were like, “Your presentation skills were amazing, this was a really wonderful presentation. We just want to see more of your visual design.” And they showed me what they did with the client, and they basically had a sub-brand which is a product where you can build a greeting card with photos from Facebook. Then a week later, they sent me another test, where they said: “OK. Now you can prove your visual design skills by redesigning the marketing splash page …
At that point I got frustrated, and asked: “OK. What are you looking for? What is the position? Send me the role description.”
She sends me the role description, it’s for a user interface designer—90% of the job duties and responsibilities are visual design, and nothing to do with UX. So I answered, “I’m getting confused—are you looking for a UX intern position? Or are you looking for a full-time designer? Because this role looks like someone needs to have 3-5 years experience.” And she says, “Well it depends on your skill level. It could be an internship, or it could be full-time.” And then a minute later, she said, “But it seems like we need someone with more experience than you for this position.” And I was like: “But you knew from the beginning … I applied for a UX internship position, and you saw my resume, that I had no experience, and everything I’ve been doing has been independent projects and independent learning!” So I politely declined and said, “I don’t think this is a good match, but I really love your company, I love the culture, so if you guys come up with a spot for a UX internship, give me a call.” And she was like, “Yeah, for sure.” And she tried to enrol me in this training session that her UX lead was doing on wireframing or prototyping or something. She tried to get me in there, couldn’t get me in there, so our relationship ended there.
Ultimately, to sum it up, it was a massive communication error between her and the director of UX. They totally misunderstood each other on what they were looking for. And then ended up with a lot of confusion on what happened with me. So that was kind of a red flag for me—for a VP team to have that much discord or misunderstanding between each other. That was a little bit weird. Especially for a small company that only has 50 people. That shouldn’t be happening.
So I’m not as impressed as I was before. And it was frustrating to go through that experience with the other company, where they only wanted me because of my recruiting skills, and they were just offering the UX thing to try and entice me, to get free labour, essentially.
And my mentor was like, “Yeah, that was sketchy. It’s a good thing you didn’t go with them.” But they also won the Webby award for their app! I think I could have learned a lot!
MATT: Here’s my take on all of that. I think you are definitely right to be sceptical if the UX Director of a company clearly has a misunderstanding of what UX means. I think it was actually Lis Hubert who wrote an article a while back around this whole “UX/UI” misunderstanding.
So good on you, for speaking your mind and trying to get that clarification. I wonder if they’re going to go and use your ideas themselves! I do think that making you do much work for a free role is borderline spec work, essentially. It sounds like you put a huge amount of effort into that. So good on you for standing your ground!
By the same token I do think that finding your perfect role off the bat is probably something you need to work towards. In any job—for example, there are aspects that I’m not as passionate about as others. For me, that’s the finance, and the business management stuff, invoicing. I don’t get too inspired by that, but because I’m a freelancer, it’s part of the deal and something I need to accept and find a way to … I use some tools to make it a bit easier. But I think there is always going to be some aspect of a role that you need to accept isn’t going to make you wake up in the morning and jump for joy.
But if overall you’re getting some good experience and you’re doing things that you’re passionate about … maybe 50% recruiting might be pushing the friendship in terms of that split. It sounds to me like you’re going with the right attitude and the right approach. The amount of effort you put into all that preparation … you’ve clearly got a good handle on user-centred design process, and having a portfolio to use as a launch pad to talk about your process and defend your design decisions. So all I would see is: just keep at it. There’s a big demand for this kind of skill, and there are companies out there that are looking for these people, and I have no concerns that you’re not going to find something soon. Because it sounds like you would bring some amazing insight to companies that aren’t enlightened about this stuff. Keep your chin up, keep doing what you’re doing, and it’s going to happen!
CHRISTINE: I hope so! It’s getting to the point where, you know when you run hot for so long, and you’re living and breathing it, and you’ve done a few interviews … and then you start feeling that discouraging part. That’s why I met up with Lis, and she sympathises with the plight of no-one being really willing to invest in real UX design. Companies thinking that if it looks pretty, it’ll work well. So that was nice. And I love that Lis is an information architect, she doesn’t touch visual design. I love that. Because I don’t want to be a work horse. I don’t want someone to say: “Here are 10 websites. Make them look nice.” And essentially that’s what they do.
MATT: By the same token, visual design skills are clearly what a lot of people latch on to. So if you can work on them and find a way to add that to your skillset, then it’s definitely going to give you an edge over people that are looking for a pure research role or just want to do interaction design.
CHRISTINE: Yeah, I’ve thought about that. Learning just the UX part is so incredibly time-consuming. I have seven books. I’ve read through three. I did a course that took several weeks to finish. And reading all the blogs that you guys write, keeping abreast of everything that’s happening. Responsive design is out now—oh my gosh. So I’m really overwhelmed already. So I thought about it, and thought, “If I could add that to my skillset—if I could say “hey, I can make this look awesome.” That would make me a thousand times more marketable. And I could probably morph into a full UX role … you know what I mean? It would open up a lot of doors.
MATT: I think there are a lot of parts to it though. Finding a role that just gets you involved in a project, whether it’s in a content capacity, or … a lot of UXers were previously developers, writing front-end code, and they transitioned by taking it upon themselves to do some user testing, even thought it wasn’t part of the project plan. And all of a sudden the insights that come from that become invaluable, and they end up, by necessity, morphing into a usability and a UX role.
CHRISTINE: I definitely see that it’s a lot easier for people already in IT to get to that path. I have a good design eye—when I was little, I painted, I drew. I have an artistic nature. But I’m not going to lie—university killed it! I studied political science and sociology. All I did for six years was read, read, read, and write. And I didn’t touch a pencil since I was a teenager. Even then, website design is very different from painting a picture. So I know what colours look good. I know typography, and what fonts look good. If you give me a hideous site, I could definitely do a better job of it. But I don’t think I’m confident enough to say, “Yeah, I can handle this by myself.” If anything, a creative director would be telling me “this is what I need you to do.” Because it’s like a muscle, and it’s dead right now, you know what I mean?
And my philosophy is—it’s my personal preference that the simpler it looks, the more I like it. The fewer colours, the same font … I’m like that, and everything I do is very simple, and I don’t think that really showcases very much talent. I don’t have a lot of confidence that I can go into a UI design position…
MATT: Neither do I! I don’t think it’s fair to try and aspire to the kind of photorealistic polish that you see on sites like dribbble. I used to browse dribbble every day, and get inspired, and then I started getting depressed that I’d never be able to achieve the same level of polish. But I would really recommend trying to tick the box without trying to be the most awesome UI designer in the world. A UX designer is, by definition, a generalist role. And I think you just need to tick that box and prove that you’ve got that skill, without trying to pretend you’re the best designer in the world.
I don’t think that’s what people are looking for. It’s really just about “Is that box ticked? Is the research box ticked? Is the prototyping and user testing box ticked?” If you’ve got that full suite of understanding of the big picture… that’s what I’ve discovered makes someone marketable. That would be my advice. Don’t be precious about showing what your skills are right now. It’s easy for me to say, but don’t get scared about putting them out there and showing what you can do. Knowing that you’ve got a certain style, or you do “simplicity” and that’s what your style is … that’s OK! Get it out there. People like seeing visuals—if they can see the full process, from start to finish, and that’s one part of it, great. That makes you marketable.
But I get it. It can be scary when you see these amazing visual designers.
CHRISTINE: Right. It’s so easy to copy. But to come up with that on your own—that’s a true talent.
MATT: Like I said, unless you want to go and become the most amazing visual designer, you just need to tick the box. It’s OK to just be OK at visual design. That’s how I would describe myself.
CHRISTINE: That does make sense, because some projects aren’t going to require a crazy, amazing design. I look at the most popular apps, and it’s not so much visual design as it is really good IA with some nice colours. Like, if you look at Facebook or Yelp, they’re so simple.
MATT: And there are some sites out there … we’re working with a non-profit at the moment, and they haven’t really had anyone, even with an IT base, working in-house. They just have a couple of developers that have done stuff over the years. And the experience of their site is awful. And to bring them up to the bare basics of best-practice conventions is an amazing leap forward. We don’t need to make this site win awards and blow people away when they launch it, you know? We just need to give them best practice and make it tailored to their users. Delight can come from giving people a usable experience that empowers them. It doesn’t need to be an award-winning visual feast.
CHRISTINE: Yeah, right. I know it’s a lot easier to get in that route. But these days I’m working 40 hours a week, and when I come home I just want to learn more about UX. And I don’t know if I should put a hold on my job search and just keep working at new projects and keep doing my own thing, or if I should keep emailing people and networking and finding people on LinkedIn and meeting up with them … I’ve met up with a handful of people already. Do you think I should just keep meeting people, and keep applying? Or do you think I need to be a little more knowledgeable about stuff. I know the basic theories of things, but if you ask me: name me all the situations where an icon would be used better than a text link … I could probably give you two or three, but I’m not totally all there right now.
MATT: It sounds to me like you have a pretty good handle on the big picture and the process. I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep learning, because this is an industry where we can always keep learning, there is always something new to get your head around. But networking is always going to pay dividends.
Your online presence—have you thought about maybe starting a blog and documenting your journey, and clarifying your own thoughts by writing about them? Is that something that you’d consider?
CHRISTINE: I have a blog, but I was mostly using it for self-reflection. I was just writing down what I’ve been learning in class, and what I find useful. Because I like to go back to them and read what I wrote in case I forgot something. But I’m not focussing at all on SEO. I don’t have any hits on my page; frankly I haven’t had the time. My primary goal isn’t to get a web presence right now as it is to just get a job. But I also see the value of having a brand, and having people know you. So mostly my website has been to showcase articles I’ve written. I can write, I can think. And I did learn these UX things, so I did want to write it to show prospective employers that I have actually done the legwork. And then I use my site to just put the wireframes I’ve been working on.
MATT: And those projects you’ve been creating wireframes for. Are they hypothetical projects? What have you based them on?
CHRISTINE: One of them is a startup—a side-project that some colleagues of mine have been doing. One is a BA, the other is a developer. They’re creating a mobile application to attend sporting events around the city. So that one was me working as the UX designer, going all the way up to low-fidelity wireframes. And the second I did, we talked about before. And then I want to do another app for people with eczema. My friend is starting a business, and she has a website, and she’s doing some ecommerce with some products relating to helping people with eczema. So I’m starting the strategy phase of that one. But she’s getting married now! So she’s very busy. It’s difficult to sit down with her and get that part hashed out.
MATT: It sounds like you’re doing everything right, and you just need to be patient. Having an online presence, networking with people, continuing to learn, getting some experience by donating your time … these are all the things that I advocate and recommend. You’re putting yourself out there, open to a bunch of opportunities, and one of them is going to bear fruit, I’m sure of it. So keep doing what you’re doing! Keep being excited. Keep meeting people. The rewards will come, I’m positive.
CHRISTINE: I hope so! Because I’m so excited about this industry, and I think it’s only going to get more and more interesting.
MATT: Well I would love to stay in touch and hear more about your journey and how it pans out.
CHRISTINE: Yeah! I’m always visiting your site. It’s in my bookmarks. I’m always reading your articles—I love the articles where you ask people to share their experiences. I love that. The UX community is pretty tight-knit, I find.
MATT: It is very supportive.
CHRISTINE: And your site was the first one that I really read almost as much as I could on it.
MATT: Well that’s just made my day, haha!
CHRISTINE: Seriously! Your video on why you like UX, and a day in the life of a UX designer, with you biking to work, and putting the kids to bed. I was like, “This makes it so much less daunting.” And it was encouraging to see ordinary people just really loving their jobs, that’s what I want.
MATT: Well Christine if there are any employers out there listening to our conversation, we’ll make sure that your contact details are available so that they can reach out to you. I think you’ve got a lot to bring to them.
CHRISTINE: Haha, sure!
MATT: Well thankyou so much for your time and for chatting. Keep us posted we’ll stay in touch.
CHRISTINE: Yeah, it’s been fun! Take care Matthew.
MATT: Take care. See you Christine.