How to break into UX (and be successful once you have) An interview with Elizabeth Chesters and Omar Akhtar

Breaking into UX

Right now, it feels like a lot of people are trying to kickstart their career in UX—whether that means starting out from scratch, or making the switch from another discipline (and no, I’m not just talking about dubious agencies rebranding their design teams by prefixing UX onto their job titles so they can bill you extra 😜).

Throw a rock at a UX meetup or event in your area (make it a soft rock, like the music of Bryan Adams, so you can sing Please Forgive Me afterwards), and chances are you’ll hit a person talking about how to get into UX, or progress within a career once you’ve got in.

Throw rocks

Thanks for the free beer, chumps!

Add to that the proliferation of UX training courses out there (we recommend checking out the damn excellent UX Club, School of UX or Sarah Doody’s YouTube Channel for starters), and you’ve got a swirly soup of UX career and education advice that, for newcomers to navigate, can feel like, well, walking through soup.

Always ones to extend metaphors unnecessarily, we decided to strain the soup (like draining the swamp, but less politically charged) to get a flavour for the chunks floating in the mix. Our dearly departed friend* Timi sat down with a couple of these chunks**, Elizabeth and Omar, to get their perspective on how to break into the industry, and how to continue to progress your career once you have. Audio below!

*not dead, just in a better place

**not an insult, just great people


ELIZABETH CHESTERS

Elizabeth is a UX consultant who transitioned into the industry from a development background. You can find her on Twitter @EChesters.

OMAR AKHTAR

Omar heads up the Digital and Technology Recruitment Team at Harvey Nash, and sees a helluva lot of UX-er CVs. @ElOmarAkhtar


Listen to the interview above, or check out the transcript below if you prefer words to sounds. For the bonus prize, listen along while reading the transcript and try to work out the meaning of the mysterious [inaudible] sections. Fun! Here’s what we cover:

  • What recruiters (should) look for in candidates, and how you can stand out from the crowd
  • How to avoid half-assing, and get your ass whole-assing 🍑
  • How to progress your career in an ever-changing field
  • Diversity in UX and tech

Finally, if for some reason you don’t trust either Elizabeth or Omar (let’s face it, who does?), you can see what others in the community have to say on the subject in the Getting Into UX #uxchat roundup.

 


Breaking Into UX

Timi: Today I have you lovely people with me, Elizabeth Chesters and Omar Akhtar. Did I say that correctly?

Omar: Yeah, you said that correct.

Timi: I was trying to enunciate it so I’m glad…

Omar: You did well, Timi.  

Timi: Thank you.

Omar: Did I say that correctly?

Timi: You did. It’s an easy name. Elizabeth’s cracking up. I’m gonna get you guys to introduce yourselves first. Elizabeth, would you mind just introducing yourself, and why you’re here today talking about breaking into UX.

Elizabeth: Okay. So, Elizabeth Chesters, or online I’m just EChesters, which people have started calling me in person. I’m a UX Consultant. Well I’m here because I’ve just changed careers from being a developer. Yeah, I pretty much Tweet everything about UX. So, even despite coming from a developer background, I always made sure that was part of my role throughout all of my developing jobs. And I finally made it last year into UX.

Timi: Started from the bottom, now you’re here. Pretty good.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Timi: Cool. Okay. Omar Akhtar, how about you?

Omar: Hi. My name’s Omar. I head up the Digital and Technology Recruitment Team at Harvey Nash. My reason for coming here is that I do love UX. I do do a lot of recruitment for UXers. And it spins very nicely with my background and out-of-work curriculum activities.  

Timi: Because you’re designing an app at the moment, aren’t you?

Omar: Yeah. Well, I’m building a digital community. Got my own health tech startup on the go outside of work. I was a musician before I got into recruitment, which I did full-time.  

Timi: Musician?

Omar: Before that, I did quite a bit of development because Logic and Cubase, which were the standard music software systems, I couldn’t get the right sound with my Indian drums, my tabla, and my guitar playing, etc. So I’ve been developing and messing around with modules since I was about 14, 15. And a designer and furniture designer outside of work as well. So UX lends itself very kindly.

Timi: I’m gonna go straight to the point of the tension. When it comes to breaking into UX, especially from other careers, what do you guys think? I’m going to ask you to go first, Elizabeth, because you did it recently. What do you think is the biggest challenge? Not just in terms of, you know, CVs or anything like that, but even mental, logistical. What’s the toughest thing you’ve dealt with?

Elizabeth: Toughest thing I dealt with was probably my portfolio and my CV, which…

Timi: Okay.

Elizabeth: Oh, you just said not CV.

Timi: No, no, no. Not to exclude them, but just say don’t feel like it has to be those. But it’s interesting that it is.

Elizabeth: I think, for me, because I was a developer, and I only had little bits here and there, building a portfolio and trying to like display projects from start to finish. It was just like so all over the place. But, I mean, you can’t put on your CV, like, how many books you’ve read. Like, “Well done.” It doesn’t show like what you can do. So I felt like I was very stuck in the theory of things, but I had nothing to prove it. So everything, to me, like worked in theory, and it was great, and it made sense. I’ve spoken at conferences, spoken at meetups. You know, like people were listening to what I was saying, but when it would come to recruiters… Having a job title as well like, Client Integration Engineer was just did not…

Timi: Was that your job title?

Elizabeth: That was my job title. I used to build payment processors and, you know, the menus where they go, “Oh, welcome to blah-de-blah. Press…” I used to build those things, like the voice menus. There was a little bit of UX in there, and…

Timi: It’s like a chatbot?

Elizabeth: Yeah, God. So I was still doing user experience. I did user experience as well at the startup. But because it wasn’t in my job title and, you know, end days, as well, I couldn’t put all that on my portfolio. It just wasn’t getting my foot in the door at all.

Timi: Uh-huh. Omar, like, does that tally up with what you find when you’re recruiting?  

Omar: Yeah.

Timi: When you look at a CV, and you see a gap, is it usually a similar sort of thing?

Omar: Well, so, I understand the problems and the frustrations because firstly, UXers, it’s saturated. I mean, a lot of people…

Timi: Even already?

Omar: With the CVs, the amount of candidates out there who believe they are UXers, and…

Timi: Who believe.

Omar: …to really go through, to sift through that, it can be very difficult. I completely understand the problems. I mean, I’ve got my own opinions on how a portfolio should look like. But I mean one thing I always ask people is, “How much do you actually enjoy UX?” I mean, “How passionate are you?” and “What books have you read? What meetups do you go to?” And that, for me, when I’m introducing someone who’s junior or trying to break into it. That’s what I sort of really push when I’m speaking to hiring managers who are looking for people with, you know, bits of UX experience or someone who they can mentor and show the ways.  

That’s the biggest difference, for me, with people who are successful at breaking in, I’m not. Firstly, I’m not just saying this because, you know, I’m here. But speaking to a good recruiter who actually understands your work, sort of understands all the systems that you use. You know, wireframes, prototypes, etc., etc. But then can really sift between someone who’s done a course and thinks they’re a UXer, and someone who really wants to get into it.

Timi: Who’s really into it.

Omar: Someone who’s really passionate. And then, yeah, I completely understand that there’s a lot of problems with NDAs and you can’t show stuff in portfolios. But I have always said that the best portfolios I’ve seen, some of the stuff has not been live work. It’s been speculative work or personal projects. And that can put a lot of good context into what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what the solution is. So, yeah, there are ways around it.  

But I suppose as speaking to someone who’s seen a variety of CVs and portfolios, and can sift through the crap. And, you know, the good people, the people who actually are passionate and do go to meetups, can talk all day about the books. And, you know, I love that, when I start speaking to them about the books and the meetups because, you know, when we’re trying to run a little meetup thing and it’s pretty cool. It’s a great space because everyone’s so collaborative and wants to work, and so inclusive. But, yeah, that’s my opinion in a shorthand version.

Timi: So, there’s that.

Omar: In a nutshell.  

Timi: In that a nutshell?

Omar: A big nutshell. A gigantic, BFD nutshell.

Elizabeth: At least all the confidence is altering him.

Timi: Elizabeth, did you find when you did eventually get around these challenges… Because you seem to have a lot of the stuff that Omar was saying works well in your favor. Going to meetups, reading books, showing passion. In the end, was the large piece of the puzzle just, like, speculative work or what was it that helped you crossover?

Elizabeth: I think, for me, it was the networking. Like it was frustrating as well, because I was going to meetups. I volunteered building and doing UX for apps for refugees and field workers and stuff so I had, like, some solid projects. But, for me, it was just being able to find a company like RedEye who actually took the time to listen to what I had to say.  

And I nailed my presentation. I spoke to a user, I got user quotes. I went through all the designs and stuff of what I would like. Research, A/B test, issues that I found. But like a lot of the time, it was just phone calls. It was just like, “You don’t have enough experience.” Like the first time I interviewed at RedEye, they went through like a company restructure so they said, “We can’t hire you at the moment.” But they did actually recommend me to another agency in London. After one phone call, despite being recommended, the guy was like, “You don’t have enough experience.” I was like, “And?” Like I’m nailing this. Like, I’ve got a lot more than experience, and a lot of the passion in UX, as well. I like caused discussions and disruptions in the [inaudible 00:07:56].

Timi: You were on TV.

Elizabeth: I was on TV. See, I had the passion, I was talking about it, I was discussing it with people. I’m like on a huge… Slack UX is like over 8,000 members from all around the world.

Timi: You’re in that Slack group?

Elizabeth: Yes.

Timi: Ah.

Elizabeth: It’s amazing. And that’s how I actually found someone who recommended where they were working, and that’s how I got the interview. I think sometimes when people say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” that can actually make a difference.

Timi: Oh, wow. We have our first insight.

Omar: No, I really agree with that as well. It is who you know. Especially when breaking into this. There’s a lot of hard work and a slight element of luck involved. And, you know, I see some really, really good people. And you try to help, but there is a slight element of luck. I mean, yeah, you’ve got General Assembly at the moment churning out UXers on…

Timi: Churn. That does not sound like a good word.

Omar: Well…

Timi: How do you feel about that, Omar?

Omar: You see so many of, you know, the CVs and the portfolios, and they know the UX but they all look the same. And I was speaking to a startup out at one of the events. We interacted, and he was saying, “Now, we really look at General Assembly because we think they’re a really high caliber of UXers.” But he agreed with me on the same point that they all are the same, apart from that… You get that one person who’s generally got that passion who hasn’t got a standard portfolio that they, you know, churn out, or that they say, “This is how it should look.” But he’s got additional stuff in, like personal projects, a personal insight. And he’s got more context in there as well so you can actually see a story.  

And he said, like, that’s what he looked for. And I said, “Yeah, that’s the same with me.” I mean that’s how I know someone is really good, because he sort of stands out from that crowd. Although that crowd are good and of high caliber, [inaudible 00:09:41] people breaking into all that on their portfolios. That’s also what I look for.

Timi: But I suppose from the point of view of a recruiter, as well, here’s the thing that is worth remembering is that you don’t want just good. Because this is your work, this is your pride. So you want the very…someone who’s a step ahead, a cut above, a bit more passion, a bit more, as you said, context. So, if you’re someone trying to break into UX, it’s not enough to just do the basics, and just follow the templates. You have to infuse some of your… Well, that’s what you can’t fake, is it? It’s the passion. You can’t fake it.

Omar: Yeah. I mean you see that, you understand the templates. After a while even if you’ve got no design or creative experience, you’ll get used to templates, portfolio templates. And I always say, “Lead the best d foot forward.” Always have the one or two projects that you are the most passionate or the best ones, the first thing to see. From a recruitment point of view, I see so many CVs, and sometimes, I’ll just look at the CV and go, “No. Not even bothering with the portfolio.” Once I’ve gotten to the portfolio, I wanna see the best piece of work. And then I can start to really sort of delve down, and look at it, give it context, why are they doing that.  

And I also want to see a journey as well. Because this is all the things that the clients want to sort of see. I mean, it’s difficult as well because every client has their own interpretation of what’s good, what’s bad, what they want to see. You’ve got to try to find congruency in what I believe is good with the amount of stuff that I see and what clients think is good. You know, I think as well… I hate using the word “candidates,” but what they want to portray as well, you’ve got to really sort of understand. But, you know, you have to go through several layers before you can even get to that point. And it is difficult. But, yeah, I mean the amount of CVs I get sent, it is difficult. But you’ve got to do that something special to stand out a little bit.

Timi: Cool.

Omar: And work with a good recruiter.

Timi: Thank you, guys. That was really insightful. I learned a lot from that exchange myself. So I’m gonna move on to the next question, which is which qualities do you think put you in good stead from your previous role as a dev?

Elizabeth: I don’t think it’s that role specifically. I think the curiosity needs to be there, and I’ve always had that and the determination. So, I think from my last role, because I was doing everything UX outside of work, it was just making me more frustrated. So I think caring on the determination of, “I’m gonna be in UX and I’m gonna be one of the best in UX.” That is one of my goals. I’ve got plans for a book. I’ve been doing a research project for, like, two years. I am on this like Donkey Kong.

Timi: So, the frustration basically fueled you?

Elizabeth: Yes.

Timi: Is there nothing from a dev skill set or the soft skills, shall we say, that carried over or was useful in helping you break in?

Elizabeth: For my role as a consultant, it has been really helpful. So, I remember in my like first or second week that I was told to do an expert review on a retail website. And I got told, “Oh, you don’t do the like payment confirmation page because we never get to see that. We, obviously, don’t put payment through just to review a thing.” But because I used to do like payment processing stuff, I knew about dummy data of, like, Visa cards. So I actually tried to put a payment through with a fake card, and it went through. So I was like, screenshot everything. And I just put it onto like a shared drive and I felt like some UXer with, like, dev superpowers. But, like…

Timi: You know Underworld where there’s like the hybrid of the werewolf and the vampire? That’s you. You’re the werewolf-vampire hybrid.

Elizabeth: I just don’t know if that’s a compliment or not.

Timi: It’s a compliment.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Omar: Oh, bloody I would say a t-shirt.

Timi: A t-shirt. Yeah. We’ll get to that.  

Omar: Yeah.

Timi: It’s coming.

Elizabeth: But, saying that, being a developer always hasn’t been great. So, I remember interviewing for somewhere, and they said, “Oh, you’re too much of a developer.” And it’s like, “Well, I am.”

Timi: You got pigeon-holed.

Elizabeth: Yeah, pretty much. And, I was like, I’ll be the first to admit my design skills are lacking like in terms of aesthetics and stuff but I can do wireframes. I know that. [Inaudible 00:14:00] I come from marketing. And I can build at least feasible wireframes because of my development background. So I had to learn how to sell being a developer as a superpower with UX rather than just going ahead and saying, “I’m a developer.”  

But now I’m in UX, I don’t feel like I have to overcompensate so much. So I do say like, “I am still a developer, and my job role does not define me. I learned React and Ruby at home. I built my portfolio from scratch. It’s all open source. And I am a developer, and I am UXer. That is allowed.”

Timi: It’s possible.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Omar: I think it’s…

Timi: Omar…

Omar: …[inaudible 00:14:36] on this. It’s such an expansive area, design and UX. People in UX are not sure how to define certain aspects of it. Like, I had a roundtable, “The Future of UX,” November time, and I had quite a few UXers and we were talking about various problems, trials, etc., etc. But we started off with, “What is UX?” And put up these Post-It notes. Yeah, there’s a lot of congruency with collaboration and putting certain people first. But a table surrounded by a herd of UXers, we couldn’t come up or couldn’t agree on a defined, you know, “This is 100% what UX is.” And that’s the problem. It’s such an expansive area, such an expansive niche with so many people coming from different aspects that, you know, it’s tough.  

Timi: It is.

Omar: But it’s fun. It’s an awesome space to be in.  

Timi: Like when employers are hiring specifically for entry-level jobs or people who are new to the field. Is there anything that you think can work in a candidate’s favor from carrying over skills from their previous jobs?

Omar: I’m probably lucky with the fact that the people that I work with, when they are looking for entry-level people, it is more the softer skills and the passion that they look for. And, again, I’m sorry to stay the word again, but it’s so expansive a concept, “passion.” But that’s what they look for. They look for people who’ve have got some skills, but want to be taught, want to learn. And I think I’ve, just hearing your sorts of stories and Elizabeth’s story that I’m very lucky with the people I work with. Whenever they’re looking, they’re just like, “Look, I want someone who goes to meetups, who takes time out of their day to learn new concepts.”

Timi: They say that?

Omar: Yeah.

Timi: Categorically ask for it?

Omar: Yeah.  

Timi: That’s encouraging.

Omar: Yeah. They want people who go out of their way to learn. You know, because they say that, “Would you go to a doctor that doesn’t keep up to date with new techniques and new medicines?”

Timi: That’s true.

Omar: No, you wouldn’t. Or a lawyer. So why in design, where there’s so many new things happening, would you not do that? That’s a question I ask to, you know, mid-weights and seniors when I speak to them for the bigger roles. “Do you often go through this?” Obviously, it’s a lot different when you’ve got family, kids, wife.

Timi: Yeah. Like some people we know.

Omar: Yeah, okay. Um, moving swiftly on. So, yeah. I suppose, as well, when you come from a development background, developers, you can get some great developers. But if they can’t translate what they’re trying to do to the stakeholders then that greatness can be lost. So the softer skills are just as important. Being able to have congruency with what you’re trying to do, what the company or the stakeholders are trying to do, trying to amalgamate it.

Timi: Bring it all together.

Omar: Yeah. You could be the best person, but if you can’t translate, if you can’t interpret or show someone what you’re doing. Why you’re doing it, and how it coincides with the bigger picture, well, you’re gonna be lost.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Timi: Which is what I guess you did, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s exactly what I experienced.

Timi: That’s exactly what you just… You had to move from the point of just presenting that you were a developer…

Elizabeth: Yes.

Timi: …to communicating, I guess, either by doing or by connecting the value that that brings.

Elizabeth: And also, trying to portray that into meetups, and books, and everything else, and the passion onto, a what, a two-page CV is hard.  

Omar: It is.

Elizabeth: Especially when it’s like… I prefer the research part. So, doing a portfolio for me in research and trying to explain the thought process. And I’m just like, “What?” You know, “What?” I’ve got no idea of, like, every train of thought I’ve had and every decision I’ve ever made about tiny little…

Omar: Dictaphone. They’re coming back.

Elizabeth: …bloody thing. So, it can be hard. I don’t know if I thought this personally because I am a new developer and you said like it’s hard to find developers who may be able to translate that. But I’ve seen designers who also suffer the same thing.  

Omar: Oh, yeah.

Elizabeth: And you’re just like, “What are you doing?”

Omar: I’m saying it’s not something which is, you know, completely…

Timi: Completely specific.

Omar: …specific to developers, but it’s something that I see a lot more in developers. Because creative people usually are a little bit more…

Timi: Sometimes too much.

Omar: Yeah.

Timi: And then we start bullshitting.

Omar: Yeah, extrovert, and flamboyant, etc. You know, know how to sell what they’re doing. But developers because it’s an intricate sort of job, sometimes it’s like that. But it’s not something which is just specific to that. But, yeah, 100% right. Like you get that, as well, with designers.

Elizabeth: And that stereotype, I just feel like probably bit me in the butt when I’m like trying to get my foot in the door. It’s like, “Oh, you’re a Client Integration Engineer.” I’m like, “Yeah.” “You don’t work with people.” I’m like, “Client is literally in the job title name. I deal with people.”

Omar: Again, though, so CVs as well. I mean, the amount of CVs that I see and that… Yeah, those of… I can’t name his name, but he…

Timi: Oh, we know it’s a guy. First piece of information. Carry on.

Omar: Oh, was that just a red herring? Was that a McGuffin? Maybe.

Timi: Interesting.

Omar: So, this gender-neutral individual, he’s got a great experience, just an awful CV. When you speak to him, he really knows his stuff about UX, and he’s really passionate. And he’s talking about, again, he wants to write a book, and points you in the direction of his blog, which is fantastic. But, his CV, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was just like, “You know, I’ve seen this CV a few times.” I actually wanna to speak to him because, you know, he looks half decent. And I was like, “Look, I’m happy to help you with your CV because it’s best foot forward.” You know, if someone’s scanning through loads of CVs and they saw that, they wouldn’t think, “Okay, let me speak to him.” But he refused to. He was like, “No, it’s fine. It’s just the foot in the door.” It’s like, “Yes, but if your foot is not getting to that door, it’s not a foot in the door. You’re not even out of your house.”

Timi: Because if the market’s saturated, we’ve gotta account for human nature no matter what. If you’re getting loads of applicants, you’re gonna skim through a…

Omar: Human nature, yeah.

Timi: It’s like advertising or marketing.

Elizabeth: Well, it’s UX as we know it.

Timi: I’m relevant, guys.

Elizabeth: Skimming through sites, tell me what you think.

Omar: Yes, but human nature also plays a big part in the recruitment process as well. Hiring managers and even recruiters can just have a single thing that they just decide that they don’t like. And they’ll just mark that file down and think, “No.” And that, again, can be a problem with breaking into UX. That hiring managers or someone will just highlight something or have some sort of a predisposition about what the problem is before talking to someone. And that said, there’s sort of no going back from that. Human nature plays a massive part in this as well.  

Timi: Mm.  

Omar: That is recruitment. I mean, the biggest thing about recruitment is there’s no science to it because people are people.

Timi: Yeah. Last question. I’m just gonna wrap this up with a nice negative question. What is the costliest mistake you think newbies make when trying to break in? And how can they avoid this mistake? Start, again, with you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: I think just not believing in it. So, I think when I started out, it was like, “Oh, so what do you do?” I would be at like a UX meetup and say, “Oh, I’m a developer, but I’m really trying to get into UX.” And it’s just like, “No.” And I’ve told this to other people. You have to believe in yourself. You have to tell the people that you’re a UXer or they’re not going to believe you. And you have to want that because it is not easy changing careers. You have to go for it 100%. And I think not believing in it, and not learning how to sell themselves, and, I suppose, just being half-assed. You can’t skimp on UX.

Timi: Gotta be whole-ass.

Elizabeth: Yeah. You gotta be one whole assed…

Timi: On the whole seat.

Elizabeth: …UXer.

Timi: Yeah.

Elizabeth: If you’re a QA, you’re a UXer with QA skills. You’re a developer, you’re a UXer with developer skills. You have to sell that. You have to learn to sell yourself. You are the package. And I think that’s the costliest mistake. You can’t half-ass UX.  

And I think that’s also an issue inside the industry as well because it’s now, all of a sudden, important if you’re not a senior. You know businesses are looking for someone with all this experience because they know that they can’t skimp on UX. And then entry-level people aren’t really getting that experience or their foot in the door because they… You can’t… We haven’t got the experience and businesses are just like, “Nope. We need someone with like all of the knowledge.”  

Timi: I see. So it’s like a double-edged sword.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Timi: Screwing us over.

Elizabeth: So you’ve got juniors not selling themselves properly. They’re half-assing. I mean, it’s broad. It’s easy to say that people are half-assing their CVs, or they’re just, like, [inaudible 00:22:56]. I mean, it’s everywhere. Like, designers come up and say, “Oh, UXers. But what do you actually do?” “Oh, well, I just, like, made this button rounded.” They’re like, “Mm. Okay.” I’m like, “Okay. Yeah. Come back to me later.” And then you’ve got businesses that are just like, “I need everything. I just need this like unicorn.” Just like… No.

Omar: It’s called a unicorn for a reason.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Omar: You know, because they don’t…

Timi: It doesn’t exist, does it? I almost swore there.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Well, “I want someone who does, like, feasible designs, can speak to the developers, and can do pretty aesthetics. Create a brand, and…”

Omar: Left-handed, [inaudible 00:23:31] player, flamenco guitarist as well.  

Timi: They’re asking for people who can write now, as well.  

Elizabeth: Yeah. No life outside of… You have a life outside of all this.

Omar: I think, great point by Elizabeth. That, you know, if you’re gonna go try to go into UX, you have to be a UXer. You have to be able to display UX passion. You can’t just half-ass do it.  

I think another problem is just thinking that because it’s the buzzword and because there are so many jobs out there that jobs will come to them. People have to put the work and they have to put a shift in. They actually have to be decent people to get on with as well. The amount of times I’ve spoken to people who look all right but like there’s just a sheer arrogance to the way they approach everything. That they think they deserve something. It’s the people who will put in the time, and the effort, and realize that it is gonna be hard, but with a bit of luck, you’ll hopefully get them to think you’ve done a phenomenal job. But, yeah, the arrogance. The arrogance of people. Just put the time…

Progressing your UX career


Timi: So, we’ve conquered breaking into UX. Thank you, guys. How about now, when you’re in UX, how do you grow your career? So this time I’m gonna flip it around. I’m gonna ask you first, Omar.  

Omar: So, how do you grow your career?

Timi: No, I haven’t asked a question.

Omar: All right.

Timi: The first question is…

Elizabeth: Wait your turn.

Timi: The first question is, which qualities most effectively aid career progression in UX, do you think? Are they different from the qualities you need when you break in or is it more of the same?

Omar: I personally think it’s more of the same. You would hope that there’s been a development in their portfolio, and their experience as well. Once people have broken into it, you want someone who’s been at a place for a decent amount of time. Where they could have been mentored and worked on good projects.  

And then following on from that, the question that I always ask is, “And what was your involvement in the projects?” Because this is something that gets noticed straight away by decent recruiters and hiring managers. Are people who have a decent portfolio, they’ll have decent experience, and decent work. But, you know, when you speak to them, they’ll say, “Well, this is what we did,” and “We did this.” But it’s not about what “we” did. I want to know what you did. And that, for me, is something that I look at when people get two, three years’ experience. And that’s a big mistake that they make. They talk about the team. Although UX is all about collaboration and working with other people, that’s the biggest mistake that people make. Talking about “we” instead of “I.” I want to know what your involvement was. What did you do. What were problems that you solved, and how, why, etc.” It’s more of the same, but that’s the problem that I see.  

Timi: Okay. And Elizabeth, now that you’re in, you’re working in UX, have you found out your goalposts have shifted a bit? Sorry not your goalposts. Your goals have shifted a bit in terms of where you’re applying the most effort and where you’re trying to develop? Or is it…?

Elizabeth: I think I’m trying to… I don’t know because I’m now just getting into research and I’m finally getting an experience of actually putting the theory into practice. That’s pretty much one of my goals.

But, in terms of like growing, I think I’m having to learn to, I don’t know, like, let go of the overcompensating and being more collaborative. I’ve learned to take the lead on personal projects and stuff like that. So taking the lead for me wasn’t the problem and neither really like was the collaborating. But I suppose accepting feedback and coming to terms with the fact that your theory is going to be challenged. And user testing does that with me every time.  

Timi: Does it shock you every time, or are you used to it now?

Elizabeth: I think it depends on the research and, like, some things you wholeheartedly believe. Like, I did some international research in Mumbai. And I really wanna do like localization…  

Timi: Wow.

Elizabeth: …and stuff like that. So, for me, like psychology said something like the Similarity/Attraction Theory. People respond better to people who look like them. But I sat down with this guy in Starbucks, and I asked him about the models on Zara. And he was like, “Oh, I don’t know how I would react if I saw Indian models depicting clothing. Because when I buy into Zara, I want to feel international and buy into the international community.” I was like…

Timi: Wow.

Elizabeth: I found that really, really intriguing. So even just little bits like that can flip everything. And, to me, you would want your whole system, agents to be Indian on an Indian website, or your models to be Indian so that you can relate to someone. And this one guy just comes along and just basically shits on all your theory and you’re just like… You need to learn how to deal with that. Yeah. I love the book “Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries” by Steve Portigal because he’s made me feel so human. Because, if the things go wrong, and… I think what is… I mean, user experience, even the term “user” doesn’t build empathy with people.

Timi: I know what you mean. Yeah.

Elizabeth: So I think that for me, as well, has sort of, maybe not shifted my goals or anything, but is allowing me to adapt, and learn, and be able to make mistakes, and still feel like I’m a doing a good job. Because the imposter syndrome, like when you’ve changed career as well and you feel like you’ve had to overcompensate for such a long time, can have a huge effect on you. Just your mental stability. Think of how, like, every day can differ on the tube. Like, you are surrounded by people and you actually are working with people.

I mean, and you are a person. Like, if you’d been sat in a room for 3 days with like 12 people which I’ve done projects on like that, I was weird, by the end of that. Because you have to be so positive, and so neutral, and on the ball with exactly what you’re saying. You’re not guiding people. You’re not encouraging them to say “the right thing.” It was weird. I was just, like, I’m so neutral by now. It was so weird!

Timi: I’m so neutral!

Elizabeth: But you have to accept that every day is just gonna be different, and you’re gonna be challenged on every opinion, everything that you’ve read, seen, wrote about… I mean, I read back my blogposts from like a year about, and I’m just like, “That’s…That’s not true. That’s changed.”

Omar: But that’s what UX is, it’s ever-evolving and changing as new things happen, new occurrences in the world, it evolves, it changes. And you’ll meet one user who completely rips to shred what you thought was the overall outcome, interpretation. Again, that’s why it’s such an exciting space, because it’s evolving all the time. And it evolves through innovation, and really cool things that are happening, and cool designs. Really, I cannot reiterate how great a space it is…

Timi: I admire that.  

Omar: …and the creative minds that you deal with trying to solve the problems.

Timi: And I think it’s a losing battle to try and pretend to be on top of it all because it’s not defined yet. It’s gonna change. It’s gonna evolve. It’s gonna, like…

Elizabeth: People will.  

Timi: Yeah.

Elizabeth: We do.

Omar: We change, we evolve, and it’s just a reflection of that.

Timi: And, I think I mentioned this before it’s not an industry that’s, like, crystalized yet. But it’s like, “This is what it is. This is how we do it.” And over like, you know, decades and centuries of people doing the same thing. So, yeah, I think you do have to embrace that a lot. Yeah.

Omar: One concurs.

Timi: Which qualities do you think would hamper a career in UX? Omar? I guess we kind of covered it a bit, but is there anything that you think if you hold onto a certain behavior, either from another discipline or in your personality, it will get in the way?

Omar: People not wanting to evolve, and learn and change with the times. Some senior UXers that I spoke to, they get very very irate about how certain jobs go to certain types of individuals over them. But they’ve been, more or less, doing the same thing for the last 110 years. And, yes, they have evolved a bit but not to the point where they can see the whole game to holistically look at UX. I think it’s that. I mean, what’s the old quote? Which is, it’s just true, everything about… “It’s not the strongest or the most intelligent that survives, it’s the one that’s most adaptable to change.”

Timi: Yeah. It’s the one that’s most adaptable to change. That one was…

Omar: Yeah. That’s the thing with UX. It’s the people who do well are the people who can change and amalgamate other aspects of other areas within what they do. Because the people at the top, they want people who are well rounded. Who can get on with people, who can do design, who can do this, do that and it’s like jack-of-all-trades. I know…

Timi: Is there a limit, though? Because at a certain point, you can’t go [inaudible 00:32:25]. You can’t stretch forever.

Omar: Yeah. It’s also a point of what you want to do, and what people want to do. Some people are just happy to literally just be working on wireframes. Some people just want to do research, and they’re happy to just, you know, go and do some modules, HDIs, psychology, etc. and just do that. And that’s what they enjoy. But the one thing that, I think, hampers people moving forward is just not sort of expanding, and increasing that knowledgebase, and, again, not evolving.  

Timi: Okay. Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: Yeah. I think, just on that, just getting defensive as well. In fact, I think that really hampers people. I think that’s the one thing I’ve heard distinguishes between someone being a junior and being a senior. And, again, just embracing the change and just accepting that it’s just you’re working with people. Shit happens.

Timi: Yup. It does.

Elizabeth: And your design is not the best in the world. Sorry.  

Omar: I mean, I’ve designed. I haven’t been doing sort of design stuff out of work. I understand how people can get quite precious about it. And, you know, it’s like your little baby. And you don’t want anyone to say your little baby is ugly. Some people’s babies are ugly, though, and they do need to be told.

Timi: Everybody…

Omar: Well what are you expecting with that, you know.

Timi: Well…  

Omar: #justsaying.

Timi: …to the extent…

Omar: Well, no, people get very… You know, it’s an ego sort of thing.

Timi: Each of us is actually technically in some kind of popularly-defined minority group. So, to this question, do you think it has an effect? Because I see it all the time, articles about being Black, or an ethnic minority, or a woman, or whatever you holding back from a career in tech. What do you guys think? Speak honestly, please. I’ll start with you, Elizabeth, because you look more uncomfortable about it.

Elizabeth: I don’t know. So, my boyfriend and I worked in the same place. and we’re both outspoken, both northern, to put it as bluntly as that. I know my time there was not as great. I was considered to be aggressive. I was considered to be a… Just anything but what a UXer’s supposed to be, I suppose. It didn’t really end well. And for me to see my boyfriend just go the complete opposite. So, he got promoted. He got everything. And I’m just like, “Hello?” Just because it’s a woman who’s outspoken. I don’t know if that was a factor in it, but I felt like we’re really similar. So I got the bad end of the stick and he got like the great end. Yeah.

Timi: Was the communication there with that particular…with people? Was there dialogue? Did you guys talk about what was going on? Or was it just one of those where there was tension, tension, tension, explosion?

Elizabeth: Yeah, pretty much. I don’t know. I find it difficult, I think, to cope with it. So, for example, someone made a picture and it said, like, “I something Manchester.” And I asked what it was. It looked like a strawberry. She said, “Oh, it says ‘I Heart Manchester.” Because it looks like a strawberry. And I was like, “A-ha. It looks like a strawberry.” And I got cautioned. I got like told that was aggressive, and this is what people were talking about. And I was like, “What is offensive about strawberries? I love strawberries.”

Timi: I do too.

Elizabeth: It looks like a strawberry. She got told off by marketing anyway. I was like, “Well, I got called aggressive for calling something a strawberry.” And I was like, “I don’t know how to handle it.”

Omar: [Inaudible 00:36:00] she got quite offended by getting called a strawberry. Fruit fact.

Elizabeth: Good to know. Good to know. I’ve just given up comparing anything to fruit these days.

Timi: Don’t compare to fruit, that can get you in trouble.  

Omar: “Fruity regards,” that’s how you should’ve signed off your email.  

Elizabeth: Yeah. Although, I think, actually, I went to like a closure because this is a programing and language thing. And none of the guys actually looked at me in conversation until I got my laptop out and I’ve got, like, the geeky stickers all over it. And they’re just like, “Oh, I really like your stickers!” And then, only then, did they…

Timi: But guys can be weird, though…

Elizabeth: …decide to…

Timi: …especially around women. Sometimes, it depends.

Elizabeth: But women are just as territorial sometimes. And they..

Timi: Women can be, yeah. This is true.

Elizabeth: I’ve been an Android [inaudible 00:36:44] and the woman’s like, “As a woman, I don’t feel like I’m asking the same…” I’m like, “That’s got nothing to do with being a woman. Don’t drag me into it because you don’t know how to word your questions appropriately.”

Timi: Oh, good point. Good point.

Elizabeth: I’m not having that. I don’t have to get your search into my questions.

Timi: Yeah.

Elizabeth: No offense to you but boobs are not…

Timi: Yeah. I agree.  

Elizabeth: Don’t [inaudible 00:37:05].

Timi: Certainly these things exist in the world. But I think sometimes if you go in primed, expecting, and connecting everything to it, it’s not gonna help you anyway. I think having the kind of mentality we discussed early on. Which is, you know, “This is what I wanna do. I’m gonna pursue this goal until I hit it.” Rather than being distracted, and maybe, maybe not, they think this, or they think that. I mean there are some cases where it genuinely is an issue.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Timi: Like with you, these colleagues you’re describing. I don’t know whether it was that, or you guys just didn’t gel.

Elizabeth. Oh, we did afterwards.

Timi: Oh, you did afterwards?

Elizabeth: Oh, sometimes. Oh, sorry, I was thinking. Sorry.

Timi: Oh, okay.

Elizabeth: You said the colleagues, not the…

Timi: No, I’m talking about when you were at the workplace. But, Omar, what do you think? Because, obviously, you’re a gatekeeper, do you screen out people who are brown?  

Omar: Yeah. So, I only recruit white people.

Timi: White people. Men?

Omar: Yeah. Just white.

Timi: Preferably above 50?

Omar: No, no, no.  

Timi: Nah, keep it young.

Omar: I’ve got to be ageist, got to be sexist, and racist. No. The one reason that I think it’s not as bad in UX is that it’s creative. It’s open-minded. Anything which is spurred by imagination, has a creative element to it, where people are inclusive. So, from that side, it lends itself nicely to inclusion and diversity more than other areas.  

But, yes, there are still problems. We’re very luck at Harvey Nash. Like, we’ve got a fantastic lady there, Carol Rosati, who’s received an OBE for her work on diversity on her roundtables on diversity. They’re just so interesting. But it’s not a simple thing which can be solved overnight.

Timi: It’s true.

Omar: You can’t go in and do a talk on why you need to be diverse, and all of a sudden, you’re going to get a handful of people of color and women in there. It’s not just in the workplace. These are all bigger issues which stem from school.  

Timi: Yeah. Yeah.

Omar: And then it’s a whole complete cultural change, a mind frame change. Yes, it is a lot more difficult for women to get to certain levels. And, yeah, I suppose you have to be better than the men. You have to be more shrewd. Because if I was aggressive and you were aggressive, I’d just get the… They’d just see me as, you know, boisterous. You’d be aggressive. And it’s a lot more difficult. Why should that have to be the way? Unfortunately, these are the cards that we’ve played with.  

To just take it out of UX, one of my sisters, she’s really, really high up in the banking world. Her company, they always hire someone on massive wages to look at the diversity issues, And it’s the same problem. It’s like, yeah, they’ll leave after a year or two years because you can’t change a culture overnight. One person coming into the company is not going to change anything. Change has to start…  

I mean, transformation, in IT, we always have these digital transformation projects that happen. When are they most successful? When it’s from the top-bottom or when it’s from the bottom-up? If it’s from the bottom-up, you’re not gonna get the stakeholders, the shareholders involved, If it’s from the top coming down, you’re more likely going to get that because you know the people at the bubble bought into this. But it doesn’t always work like that. You know, there’s no sort of formula to it. Again, it’s just a narrative, which I think there’s gonna be issues for a generation.

Timi: I’m asking both of you, now. Do you think that that whole issue would benefit more from initiatives to just foster that inclusion? Rather than as much focus, I guess, on the fact that it’s there?

Omar: Well, I’ve got a little bit of experience in this in that I’m sort of also a trustee for a charity that builds schools for girls, primarily in Pakistan, and war-torn areas, and [inaudible 00:41:06] etc., etc. I think the most important thing is education of girls in certain subjects and certain areas. Like, they need to be more inclusive. It can’t be seen as a boy thing.  

It has to start at school for it to really become prevalent. In my opinion, it’s not gonna happen in our generation. That’s through what I’ve seen with the charity work and with professional work.

Timi: Yeah.

Omar: It’s a big topic, but old statistics, any statistics you want to ever look at just prove the fact that the more inclusive, the more women who sit on the board, the more successful, the more sustainable, the better that you are prepared. Because women have different skills than men, which they think in a more rational way. As we all know how men think. So, yeah. I mean, everything… It’s just, it’s amazing because all research statistics point to a better workplace with these environments. But it’s getting rid of that “lad” culture, isn’t it? Well, you see that in London, don’t you? Lad culture, “You’re a lad. Go bounce.”

Timi: It’s not as bad in UX, I think, because UX attracts…I think it attracts people of a certain kind of interest.

Omar: But that’s the great thing. It’s creative. It’s creative.

Timi: Yeah.

Omar: It’s collaborative. We are not so…

Timi: Not to say lads cannot be creative.

Omar: No. People like that are more likely to be inclusive. I mean, not to get too political or to completely take this. But I mean one thing that fascist dictators always do is that they always stop film and they always stop the arts.  

And as soon as you get people to stop using their imagination… You can force feed stuff into them about, you know, being this way. You know, the arts, creativity, it’s a big thing of why being human’s so great. I’m like, “God, how awesome. Pass me a book, kids!”  

Timi: [Inaudible 00:42:58] I think you’ve actually done some work with this kind of stuff, haven’t you? I know you…

Elizabeth: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of things. So, it’s funny, actually, when you mentioned like the schools and stuff. When I did my code club in third year of uni, there was actually more girls in the code club. And there was none of this expectation that it was the boys. And, you know, more of the boys dropped out than girls. And, actually, one of the best students in the class was a girl.

Omar: That’s really good to hear. That’s really good, considering how it was like back in the day…

Elizabeth: But what’s changing? Like, when I did a similar teaching day event at a school in Blackburn with work, it was an all-girls schools and they just… I don’t know if it just wasn’t their thing but the attitude was completely different. None of them really…

Omar: Don’t you think that it also has to do with the teachers as well?

Elizabeth: Yeah, my teacher had a huge impact on me. Because I did computer in college, not just uni. And I’d just sit in protest until he’d helped me fix my code.

Omar: I can’t imagine that.  

Elizabeth: Cheeky.  

Timi: So you think… Wait…

Elizabeth: Something just goes…just happened in between. I don’t know. We see this a lot in confidence when like women hit puberty. I think that then you’re getting told by the guys, like, “You can’t do this.” I got told numerous times I wasn’t supposed to be in my career.

Timi: Really?

Elizabeth: And I told them to sod off.

Timi: Correct.  

Omar: But, that said, it’s not something which is going to change overnight. A few conferences, or going to a few talks, and a few sorts of meetups is going to solve it. Something which… To go in…

Timi: What do you think will solve it, then? You kind of explained what… Do you think it’s more of the same kind of stuff that you’ve been doing, Elizabeth? Like, you know, extracurricular stuff? Or is it just a thing whereby we’re moving in the right direction, we just keep moving?  

Elizabeth: I think it is having a huge impact. So, like, Code First: Girls and schools like 23 Code Street, they really do help empower the women to have the conversations with the guys, so… And, you know, predominantly, at the moment, most developers are men.  

Timi: Dudes.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And just to be able to go over and have that rapport that and break through the stereotypes, I suppose, of you know, women can’t code, and this, that, and the other. To have that empowerment.

Timi: Is that a stereotype? I know there aren’t as many women, but I didn’t know…

Elizabeth: I don’t know. Yeah, I been told that, “Oh, you know, you shouldn’t be doing computer science.” And I’m just like, “Well…”

We are headed in the right direction, I think, Code First: Girls. It may not be career changing at first, but having that empowerment and confidence, and the safe spaces, as well, to be able to… I don’t know. Again, the Similarity/Attraction Theory. This actually does work like having someone, I don’t know, just to relate to, I suppose.

Omar: Someone who’s done it who can go back and show other people that you can do it as well.  

Timi: Yeah.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Omar: And the more obstacles you overcome, probably the better. Because you’ll be better than all the other people who don’t have to overcome the obstacles, the lads, the guys. You’ll be stronger, and tougher, more intelligent for it.  

Timi: This is true. So I’m assuming you, guys, l think it’s the same for ethnic minorities over everyone else, the same kind of argument? I don’t wanna delve into that. But I just noticed we focused on women, and I meant in general.

Elizabeth: I hate that.  

Timi: No.

Elizabeth: No, I hate the fact that diversity in tech always turns into women in tech. And I hate…

Timi: Do you think it’s because you’re a woman? Because I feel that way about Black people. It’s like I’m more sensitive to it. I feel like it boils down to that. But…

Elizabeth: Possibly. I don’t know. Like, if you have the same thing, then, I mean, I don’t get that. Like, with Black people in tech but it just… But you just get automatically involved in this argument that I just personally can’t be arsed dealing with.

Timi: I’m with you. High five again.

Elizabeth: Thank you.  

Timi: I’m with you.

Elizabeth: I mean it’s just rammed down your throat. It’s just, like, I do Code First: Girls because they’re a great initiative. It happens to be a women’s thing. I put off going to things like Ladies at UX for years because I just didn’t understand why they needed the safe space for women. And I personally just didn’t like it and just… But that’s not something that they ram down your throat. It happens to be a safe space where women happen to go.

Timi: Yeah.

Elizabeth: And my perspective changed after actually speaking at Ladies At UX first. But I’m tired of the argument. And it’s like diversity is not just women, it is everything. And having a diverse team has a huge impact. I mean, because I do a lot of research into [inaudible 00:47:32] as well, I can see the massive benefits in how to build user experiences for people who may not be from this country and happen to be here. That actually happens. People immigrate. Like, it has a huge effect.

Timi: I agree.  

Omar: Just a reflection on society, though, isn’t it.

Timi: I agree.  

Elizabeth: Has to be. It has to…

Omar: But, no, I agree. It’s like, why should people always talk about… Oh, yeah. [inaudible 00:47:59].

Timi: We don’t have to reduce every woman, or ethnic minority, or every conversation to those things.

Omar: Why don’t we just talk about how great they are?

Timi: Exactly.

Omar: But this is the era that we’re living in. This is the world that we live in. Where, you know, if you’re not White, blue-eyed, middle class, it’s tougher. So, yes, we should celebrate, but we should also remember that, you know, it’s their skills first.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Omar: Everything else second, third. It’s their skills and who they are as a person, that should be the important aspect of what you look at.

Tom Lloyd
Digital marketer with an analogue heart, getting SaaS’y with data and content. Head of Marketing at WhatUsersDo. Infrequent updater of bios, so who knows how accurate this actually is.

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