UX Beginner Case Study: Claire Campbell’s Journey into UX

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guest post by Rosie Allabarton

Claire Campbell’s journey into a career in UX design is a far from conventional story.

Claire had no previous experience of UX design before deciding to take an online, mentored course in the subject. Unlike many UX designers, Claire did not start out as a graphic designer, or a web developer, but had already established a successful career in the arts, an industry far removed from technology and startups.

Before taking the plunge in a UX design course with online school CareerFoundry Claire had studied music education alongside arts marketing and management. On completing her studies she worked in various roles in the field, including as an independent music education consultant and in program management and social media roles for two music non-profit organizations.

It was after leaving the second of these non-profits that she felt like she’d come to a dead end in her career, and decided it was time for a complete change. In her management roles there were some major aspects of the job that she didn’t like very much, and they began to overshadow the things that she did like. She loved working with people but found she wasn’t really needed to interact with people in her job. It got to the point where she was dreading going in in the mornings. She  knew she needed to find a new job, but felt like she’d already exhausted all of the options in her field. She felt stuck, hopeless, and helpless, so decided to start working with a career coach. The career coach helped Claire discover potential careers that would be a better fit for her personality, and UX was one of them.

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Claire’s previous roles had given her plenty of experience working with people in different environments from running workshops to teaching and managing but she knew that coming from a non-tech, non-design background she would need more than just her excellent people skills to succeed in a career in UX design. She chose the course with CareerFoundry because it was aimed at beginners hoping to transition into a new career, not just for those who want to learn more generally about the field or simply apply UX skills to their existing job. From the course she was expecting at the very least to gain a basic understanding of all of the skills and tasks that can fall under the broad term of “user experience” and then be able to apply them in a real world setting as a UX designer.

With so many on and offline courses available for learning about UX design Claire admitted that what attracted her to the CareerFoundry course was that it was solely focused on UX design, unlike many of the other programs she had seen that covered the much broader and theory-heavy topic of human-computer interaction. Claire wanted to get into the field, and working in it, as quickly as possible, so undertaking a masters was not really an option but, as she had zero previous experience, learning from text books would have been too great a challenge.

Claire found the mentor experience offered with CareerFoundry to be the defining feature of her learning. Having a go-to expert she could check in with regularly and discuss difficult concepts with gave her confidence in what she was doing, and a safety net should she falter or need help. Claire developed a great rapport with her personal mentor Meredith, who was quick to give insights and feedback on Claire’s work. Claire told us:

“Meredith was crucial to my success. Talking through the information and the work I’d done with a professional UXer really helped solidify the concepts and helped me refine my own work.”

 

Of all the UX processes that Claire learned on the course, she found she enjoyed wireframing the most because the process requires a combination of strategic and creative thinking.

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Claire’s First Job In UX

Claire knew by around week nine of the course that she was particularly interested in working in a creative agency setting; she felt an agency would be a good fit for her skillset and personality and she would learn quickly and thrive in the fast-paced environment. She began looking into agencies in her local area as well as for regular job postings. When she found a post that looked interesting she would read the job description to see if she would potentially be a good match, but also to see if there were desired qualifications or skills that she did not yet have but could learn or improve upon in order to transform herself into a more well-rounded candidate.

Claire didn’t just limit her search to jobs boards and agencies though. In order to get a more concrete impression of the industry, and to get to know others in the profession she began attending UX professional groups and meet-ups in her area. In addition she began reaching out to individuals to set up informational interviews – people she either found through friends or acquaintances, or even just blindly reaching out to people via email.  She found that in general people were very happy to help her and engage with her on the topic of UX design.

How Claire actually landed her first job as a UX designer was a great example of face-to-face networking and the importance of making a great first impression.

Claire was attending an Irish Fair held in her local area one weekend when she came across a booth for Irish Titan, a digital creative agency. Speaking with a woman at the booth she enquired if the company happened to hire UX designers. Luckily for Claire she was informed that the agency was actually looking for someone, and that Claire should connect with the company on LinkedIn.

However, about half an hour later Claire was on the other side of the fair watching some dancing, when a man wearing a kilt and an Irish rugby jersey came towards her and asked “Are you Claire Campbell?”. Although she’d never seen him before, she said “Yes”, and he introduced himself as Darin Lynch, the president of Irish Titan. He said he had checked in at the booth and that the woman working there had said some good things about Claire, and she had told him to “look for a woman with a dark pixie haircut who’s wearing red wellingtons”. Claire then chatted briefly with Darin and told him she’d be in touch on Monday morning. Following this encounter she had two interviews that week with Irish Titan’s creative director and with Darin, and by the Friday morning she was hired  as a UX designer for the firm!

What Claire’s story tells us is that although luck plays a role in getting hired, so too does seizing every opportunity. Claire clearly demonstrated her passion and interest in UX design and in what the agency was doing which is what led to her giving such a great first impression. She was active, personable and outgoing in trying to meet the right people and learn as much as she could while onboarding all of the necessary skills.

Of her new job Claire told us:

“I am really lucky because I landed a great job at a great company. I love being in an agency setting where I get to learn about new companies and industries. I learn something new every day and am constantly faced with new challenges, which I find exciting and exhilarating.”

What we can learn from Claire’s story is that no matter what your background, if you are willing and excited to work hard and demonstrate passion you too can succeed in launching a fulfilling, creative and stimulating career in one of the fastest-growest industries right now, UX design.

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Rosie Allabarton is editor at the CareerFoundry Blog. CareerFoundry is an online, mentored school for web development and UX design. Their mentors take complete beginners and bring them up to employable standards in tech.

 

Design Avocados

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dedicated to Terri, who told me this story when I was a young whippersnapper

In a previous post, I talked about a particularly challenging job assignment I had. In my darkest hour, a seasoned co-worker pulled me aside. She told me a story that left an imprint on me to this day. Now, I don’t know Terri just made it up, so don’t get mad if this story is misquoted or belongs to Jared Spool.

the avocado story

It’s the first day on the job for two new consultants. The team lead calls them in for a simple assignment (but it’s really a test).

He asks them to bring him an avocado. They have 1 hour during lunch break. The two hires go their separate ways and tackle the mission.

An hour elapses and the new hires return.

Consultant A returns with an avocado and places it on the President’s desk, signaling the job is done.

Consultant B returns with 3 avocados, and begins to explain…

“See, I don’t know what type of avocados you’re looking for, so I spoke to a vendor at the farmer’s market. I found out that there are over a dozen types of avocados! But in my conversations, I learned that there are 3 types in season right now.

I recommend the Haas, which is the bestseller and most popular with customers. The farmer said I can bring back any uneaten avocados the end of today if you don’t want the other ones.”

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Terri gave me a few seconds of silence for that sink in. The difference is clear. Employee B is the clear winner.

how does this relate to UX Design? 

If you think about Employee A’s approach, it was focused on production. Get the assignment, then produce the result as fast as possible.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach – we all have deadlines, and sometimes it is necessary to just knock something out.

But Employee B’s approach resonated with me on a different level, especially after I’ve had a few years working as a UX Designer. Not only has this employee produced the result, but he/she has focused on strategy. And that, my friends, is a key differentiator that new UX Designers need to understand.

Let’s break down what Consultant B did right, line by line:

Research
“I spoke to a vendor at the farmer’s market. I found out that there are over a dozen types of avocados!”

Doing even a bit of upfront research can make you stand out as a designer. Through this process the designer tells a story and educates the client (President) on the problem space, which will make the client appreciate the work even more.

Recommendation
“I recommend the Haas, which is the bestseller and most popular with customers.”

Having a well-reasoned recommendation gives clients more confidence in your solution. It also gives you freedom to make mistakes. If the client understands that you did your research and came to a logical conclusion, it’s hard to blame you even if the avocado sucks :p

Backup Options
“The farmer said I can bring back uneaten avocados the end of the day if you don’t want the other ones.”

Not only has the consultant provided a sound recommendation, but has mitigated risk by allowing the client to choose freely without incurring greater cost.

strategy is the differentiator

The key lessons I took from this story is that having a strategy, doing a bit of research and providing a thoughtful recommendation goes a long way. UX Designers are the new breed of talent that can fill the strategy gap in product design.

Throughout your career, you may come across production-oriented environments in which you are handed assignments without much explanation of how they should be done. Or what the point of a project is in the first place.

As UX Designers, it’s up to us to be the thinkers and strategists in order to elevate our users and their experience of our products.

And if you need a story to job your memory, just remember Design Avocados :) 

Finding a UX Job: Farming Vs Hunting

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Dozens of tabs filled my browser window. I was applying to as many UX jobs as I could, and it was hard to not get overwhelmed. It felt like I was sending my resume into a digital black hole, with little chance of getting callbacks from recruiters.

Granted, after dozens of job applications over several months, I finally landed my first UX job. It felt like pure luck, because I was about to burn out.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this method to finding a job was a literal job hunt.  It was all I knew how to look for jobs.

Fast forward 2 years later, I got a great job through my network. It was (nearly) painless and came to me unexpectedly. Getting my second job didn’t feel like job hunting…it was a result of what I call farming. 

Farming is how humans have been able to advance as the dominant species on our planet. Before, we were hunter-gatherers constantly in search of food, and didn’t know where our next meal would come from.

With the advent of farming, a systematic way of producing food became the norm. For the first time in history, humans didn’t have to be at the mercy of starving until their next successful hunt.

In this post, I use farming vs hunting as an analogy for finding UX jobs. Both can be effective, but many UX beginners fail to recognize the value of farming as a strategy. Let’s dig into why that is.

WHY JOB HUNTING IS LIMITING 

Think of the typical job hunt. Most people go on Indeed and other career sites, forage through job postings, then apply to jobs that seem like a good fit.

This can be a grueling process that takes months, or even longer. It feels like you’re just another face in an ocean of applicants.

Then you hear about the friend who got hooked up with her job through a friend, or skipped several stages of the interview process. Or the colleague whose side project got picked up and is landing him great freelance gigs.

To those who only job hunt, hearing results like this can be infuriating. What are they doing differently?

while career sites and job boards still collect the highest quantity of applications, employee referrals garner, by far, the highest number of qualified hiresJobvite

HOW TO START FARMING

Imagine someone who’s yet to land her first UX job. She starts going to meetups, volunteers at events, and meets UX designers and mentors.

All other things being the same, she’s more likely to get a good UX job than someone else who just applies online.

She’s building a name for herself…she’s not just any random person who wants a UX job.

Farming requires a few key mindset shifts:

Mindset Shift 1: Network Organically

Those who take a farming approach slowly get to know the community around them. Their approach to networking is “let me get to know my peers in the industry,” instead of coming from the hunter’s perspective “let’s see if this person can hook me up with a job.”

No one likes talking to a newbie who immediately wants something from them, especially if the newbie is unfamiliar and unproven.

People who take the farming approach build a base of familiarity. They show up. They’re involved. They have a familiar face.

When applied to networking, farming helps people think of you when an opportunity comes along.

This builds a solid base of referrals in the future.

While only 7 percent of applicants come from referrals, this small number accounts for nearly half of hires (40 percent).Jobvite

Mindset Shift 2: Build Career Capital

Another farming strategy is to build career capital. This means building something that simultaneously creates value and attracts positive attention to you. This could involve:

  • Side projects
  • Blogging
  • Organizing events / creating a meetup
  • Any other project, including your own startup!

By getting noticed online for design and UX, people will make the connection between you and what you want to be known for (which, if you’re reading this blog, is probably UX design).

Example: my friend Norman Tran is making a name for himself in the design community by writing design articles on Medium. He’s building a platform around his interests in Design Thinking, Mindfulness, Civic Engagement, and Play.

Do something you’re proud of and share it. It might not yield immediate results, but over the long term you’ll reap what you sow.

Mindset Shift 3: Contribute Consistently

The most egregious mistake beginners in any field is failing to stick around long enough to reap the benefits.

Naturally, when you enter a new field, you’re exploring. You want a list of the best UX tools. A list of all the best UX books. All the people you should follow on Twitter.

Regardless of how many things you look up or know about, the biggest difference comes from doing something consistently and to completion. The best course is the one you actually finish. The best book is the one you actually read.

Want to stand out in a community? Here’s a helpful non-hack: consistently contribute to a community.

If you find yourself in several forums, Slack groups, Facebook groups, and LinkedIn groups, the simplest hack is to choose a community and put all your effort there.

Become a top poster. Check in often. Answer people’s questions. In general, be a helpful person. If you’re not already part of any UX community, here’s a quick list to get you started:

I guarantee that getting known in one of these communities will take you farther than spreading your efforts thin across all these groups. Why do you think monogamy is still the norm? :p

COMPARING JOB HUNTING VS FARMING

Here’s a quick comparison table to summarize the differences between job hunting and farming:

Hunting Farming
Reactive Proactive
Short Term Long Term
Little Investment on Relationships Developing Relationships 
Finding Opportunities Creating Opportunities

I’m not saying that hunting is bad, or that farming is the only way. Finding a great job usually requires a mix of the two.

The point is that creating actual value makes the biggest impact on your job search.

Most job seekers you meet will not have a farming mindset. They won’t be thinking of how to help others or creating something of value, when in reality this is one of the best approaches to not only finding a UX job, for guaranteeing yourself job security for life.

If you’ve been hunting too long, adopt the farming mindset and set yourself apart.

UX Job Tenures: Is Job Hopping Bad For Your Career?

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"Hmm...I don't know about this candidate. 
His design skills are good... 
but he looks like a job hopper."

I looked at the resume again. Was management referring to the candidate’s last position, where he stayed for 9 months? It wasn’t an awfully long time, but to me I wouldn’t have labeled someone a job hopper just for staying somewhere under a year. So I began digging around.

This is one question that’s been coming up a lot lately in the UX Beginner community…how long should you stay at a job?

When you find yourself in a design or UX interview, you may be asked to explain your tenure – or how long you’ve worked somewhere.

If you’ve ever been concerned about the stigma of short employment histories, this post is chock full of tactics that will help you navigate this tricky interview situation.

First, some interesting stats:

Did you know that the average tenure of Google employees is 1.1 years? Amazon employees stay for even a shorter duration at just an average 1 year. This data comes from a Payscale study looking at employee loyalty.

The first thing to notice is that there’s a high correlation between average employee age and average employee tenure. It kinda makes sense – the younger you are in your career, the more you’re trying to learn and grow, which mostly happens through switching jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this correlation, as well as pointing out that the average tenure across the entire study (PDF) stood at ~4.5 years.

Yet it seems that we are approaching a new normal: 91% percent of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years (FutureWorkPlace).

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That’s a lot of numbers, but what about the UX industry? That’s where things get hairy, because I couldn’t find solid data on this topic. Take the rest of the article with a grain of salt (as you should with any article), as this is based on my personal experience + anecdotes from fellow UX designers in the field.

What length of time do we define as job hopping in the UX industry? There really is no number, and it’s all about perception.

From what I’ve heard from recruiters, consistently staying at companies for under 1 year can raise red flags. There’s just a perception with time – there’s little difference between 10 months and 1 year, but the former just sounds much shorter.

Anecdotally, none of my friends (in their mid twenties) have ever gotten crap for staying at a place for  ~2 years. This is no magic number, but if you’re worried about being a hopper and you’re approaching your 2 years, just stick it out for a few months.

Unless… your job sucks the happiness out of your life, then let’s evaluate job hopping with a quick Pro/Con list:

Pros and Cons of Job Hopping
Pros Cons
Find a better cultural fit Can be flagged as “job hopper” by recruiter, flight risk by management
Diversify your design experience You want to enter an industry/company that values long job tenures
Add more projects to your portfolio Potentially lose out on bonuses/retirement incentives if leaving too early
Higher Salary by switching jobs vs waiting for a promotion Potentially lose out on stock options / exit, especially at a promising startup

Notice that the most of the good reasons for switching jobs centers around growth of some short. Personal growth and financial growth are hugely important, especially for those early in their careers.

Conversely, most of the cons on switching jobs deals with other people’s perceptions and potentially losing out on financial incentives.

So here’s a quick heuristic: if the benefits of personal growth heavily outweigh the cost of switching jobs, don’t hesitate to move on.

Oh wait, but you still might get grilled on your job history in an interview. Let’s dig into that.

How to Handle Short Job Tenure(s)

As I mentioned earlier, the stigma behind a short job tenure is an issue of perception. Thus we can handle perception with a few strategies:

Positioning Yourself  

There are countless ways to position yourself, but the main strategy is to focus on the experience you bring to the table, and offer a solid explanation as to why the company you’re interviewing for interests you.

If asked about job tenures or why you’re switching jobs, the best answers center around personal growth. Some examples:

  • Affinity for a certain industry
    • “I’m a huge gamer and working as a UX designer in this industry would be the perfect intersection of my skills and interests” 
  • Desire to work in a new work environment
  • Interest in a specific types of projects
    • “At my last job, I designed a lot of responsive websites, and I particularly enjoyed designing for the mobile viewport. This job would allow me more opportunity to work on mobile apps, which I’m very passionate about”
  • Desire for a certain team structure
    • “I’ve typically worked in small teams or as a solo UX Designer, so I’m excited that your company has an entire team of interaction designers, UX researchers, and beyond.”

There are also many bad explanations. In general, avoid anything that comes off as a complaint about previous employers, such as…

  • Bad-mouthing your superiors or co-workers
  • Talking about Interpersonal issues
  • Complaining about the culture (this raises red flags…was it other people who were bad, or was it you who just didn’t fit in with anyone?)

Show Them You Care

Another way to position your experience is to do a lot of research on the company you’re interviewing for. When you show up to an interview with a lot of knowledge about the company and can even propose suggestions, you position yourself as a serious candidate.

Suddenly, how long  you were at your last job doesn’t matter as much because you’re that much more knowledgeable than other candidates.

Side Projects

Job hoppers can further position their experience by doing and talking about side projects. Imagine going for a UX role at company that only has a web (not mobile) presence. Let’s say another candidate has 5+ years on you, but is coming from another industry as well.

If you do a side project doing an exploration of what a mobile version of that website looks like, your experience could become much more relevant than the other candidate, regardless of your job tenure.

Some Contrary Food For Thought 

In this article we went in depth dealing with the potential stigma of short job tenures…but can it actually hurt you to stay somewhere too long?

Long story short: experience trumps everything. Someone who’s been working at a company for 5 years, but don’t have that much work to show, can actually be hurt by their long job tenure.

Here’s a quote from Jobvite CEO Dan Finnigan:

It used to be that when you were looking at someone’s resume and they changed jobs more frequently than every five to seven years, they’d be labeled as a job hopper, unstable, greedy or selfish, unable to hold a job. Whatever it was, it usually flagged them and pulled them out of the stack. Now, in some regards, I think it has flipped. Now when recruiters look at someone who has stayed in a role for more than three years, the question is why? What have they been doing? … The world is changing really fast. There’s this intuition that if you’re doing the same job for more than three years and your job didn’t change, that means either your company’s not that dynamic or you are not that dynamic. I’m not saying that’s always the case, I’m just saying there’s this increasing perception.Jobvite CEO, Dan Finnigan
Takeaways and best practices
  • Unless you work freelance, staying at jobs consistently for less than 1 year raises red flags, and staying somewhere for 2 years is a very safe zone
  • However, experience trumps job tenure. When evaluating the Pros/Cons of switching jobs, choose what provides the best experience, especially if early in your career
  • When interviewed about short job tenures, root your answers in personal growth

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Survey Time: Give a little, Get a LOT

To get a better picture, I am putting together a short UX Job Tenures Google Survey

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Not interested in the survey? It’s okay – if you haven’t joined the 1200+ other subscribers yet, do so below to get the latest UX articles and resources I publish.