How an Almost Professor and a Wannabe Doctor Got into UX

May 18, 2020

As usability and user experience continue to become priorities for companies developing products and experiences, the demand for UX professionals is growing. However, those who lack a traditional design, usability, or human-computer interaction background face significant obstacles in making a successful transition into the field of User Experience, as Jon Walter noted in his recent article on UXmatters, “Breaking into the Field of User Experience.”

But it can be done! Amy originally planned to become a university professor. Ruben wanted to be a doctor. A LinkedIn connection put us in touch. Although our backgrounds are quite different, we both have a deep passion for User Experience and had some surprisingly similar experiences on our path into the field. Even though we’ve never met in person, the timing of our connecting with one another created a serendipitous opportunity for this virtual collaboration in sharing our UX stories.

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What were our original career plans?

Amy: I saw myself taking an academic route. I was a nerdy kid who liked school and enjoyed reading and didn’t mind homework all that much. I attended the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, for graduate school and planned to earn my PhD eventually.

Ruben: I always liked studying the anatomy and physiology of the human body and used to say I was going to be a great doctor. At the age of 17, after I graduated from high school, my parents decided to move our family from the Dominican Republic to the United States. After several months in the United States, I started finding out what it would take to become a doctor in the US. I was stunned by everything I would have to do and all the academic requirements I would have to meet—and I was in the middle of learning English. My dreams of becoming a doctor fell apart.

How did each of us decide to change to a different field?

Amy: I was working in the Public Relations office at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. The Library had an opportunity to collaborate with Oxford University and other institutions for a joint exhibition called Manifold Greatness, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible. I was part of the team who worked on creating the blog and Web site that accompanied that exhibition. I was heavily involved in developing online content for various audiences and working with visual designers to create the site’s look and feel. It was all about information architecture, content strategy, and persona research—in other words, all about the user experience. But the team didn’t refer to the work using those terms.

After working on Manifold Greatness, I was hooked. I wanted to understand more about what went into creating amazing online experiences. So I started looking at every aspect of what went into digital ecosystems—not just the content.

Ruben: I decided to take an admissions exam at a college of technology, and I passed! Since I had always been a very artistic boy and liked to paint and draw, I chose Digital Media Arts as my major. That is how my career as a graphic designer began. I started working in New York City with well-known design agencies, and I fell completely in love with the field of design.

What particular aspects of our backgrounds have shaped our experiences in the field of User Experience?

Amy: People often ask me how someone with a degree in medieval history came to be working in a position that is so often associated with technology! However, at its core, history is the study of how people understand their world and the changes they experience in it—as well as how people react, learn, and adapt to those changes. That’s not so very different from the central questions that User Experience addresses!

Ruben: As designers, we need to evolve and grow professionally and personally. One of the big problems that led me to venture into the field of UX design was the knowledge gap that existed between developers and designers. This was a huge challenge back then. Some designers created pages, landing pages, and mobile designs without considering whether building their designs was technically feasible. Often developers built applications and Web sites without taking the user experience into account.

How did we approach acquiring the UX skills and experience we needed?

Amy: It was like moving from one stepping stone to another. I was very intentional in seeking out projects that would build my skills. In particular, I looked for opportunities to transition my existing skills into gaining new, more UX-specific skills. I took some additional courses in areas where I needed formal instruction and earned a recognized UX certification. I was also fortunate to have great mentorship along the way.

Ruben: I started learning basic HTML/CSS and JavaScript to better understand the development world. Because I was able to empathize with engineers and developers, I definitely made better decisions in designing digital experiences.

Is there anything we wish someone had told us when we were just starting out?

Amy: Don’t try to learn every aspect of User Experience at once! Focus on just one or two areas, become comfortable and competent in those, then tackle another area. If you try to take on too much, it’s like trying to drink from a firehose. You’ll be overwhelmed

Ruben: One of the most important things I would have liked to know from the beginning of my career is the importance of working closely with developers and engineers. Designers need to better understand their world so we can take a better approach to creating digital experiences.

What advice do we have for others who want to break into User Experience?

Amy: In User Experience, there is always something new to learn. Curiosity is a great trait for any UX designer to have! For example, I’ve been taking a series of courses on game design over the last several months. It’s been incredibly fun! I’ve enjoyed getting a chance to see others’ creative work while creating my own projects and exploring a domain that’s completely new to me.

Being flexible and always willing to expand your design skills into different media—for example, voice user interfaces (VUIs), augmented reality (AR), or virtual reality (VR)—can create exciting new opportunities for you as those spaces continue to evolve. I also love the idea of cultivating both my mindset and my skillset, as Pabini Gabriel Petit describes in her UXmatters article “13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life.” That’s so important!

Ruben: If you want to become a great UX designer, I recommend that you do these things:

  1. Learn to code in basic HTML/CSS.
  2. Truly understand the nature of the problems you’re solving.
  3. Always keep learning about User Experience.
  4. Be humble. No big egos!
  5. Exercise your ability to listen well.
  6. Read!
  7. Practice, practice, practice.
  8. Teach all you have learned to others. 

Independent Consultant

Pittsburgh, Pensylvania, USA

Amy ArdenAmy loves working with organizations to solve complicated problems. She believes that every day is a chance to use design to make something a little bit—or a lot!—better. Over her career, she’s worked with nonprofits, federal agencies, professional-services firms, and Fortune 500 retailers. Her favorite projects include designing a chatbot to help provide information to the public about opioid abuse and creating an exhibition Web site and social-media channels for the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. Amy enjoys talking shop and learning from other UX professionals. In addition to writing for UXmatters, she has presented at several conferences, including Customer Contact Week 2019, IA Summit 2018, and UXPA DC 2017.  Read More

UX Design Manager at Liquid Interactive

Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA

Ruben CespedesRuben has more than 15 years of professional experience in User Experience, creating attractive, intuitive, simple user experiences. His passion is solving tough customer problems by integrating information architecture, user research, smart technology, and beautiful design. He currently leads a team of UX designers at Liquid Interactive, where he was formerly a senior product designer. In his spare time, he enjoys creating educational content about User Experience, visual design, and coding on his Instagram account.  Read More

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