Anyone heard of Java? Anyone heard of Java Swing? It’s an old, clunky and long winded library that’s used to build desktop programs. It’s awful and beautiful at the same time and I owe that library my career path. As a programmer just starting out back in college, it was so easy to do. I could sit there typing all day every component that my program needed. That way I felt like I knew what I was doing, even if by the end of the day I only had a form with 3 components on it. Because that is how long winded the code was.
For my college program I had a client, a photography teacher who wanted to promote the new photography course. He had a problem and by the end of the year, he had never seen my product nor had I solved his issue at all. But compared to everyone else’s the front end was on point. My own photography was all over it, and the guys of the class demanded to be in the image of the application’s title. My focus was definitely on how it looked, rather than if it worked. Overall it landed me a D in my Computing ALevel. Little did I know, what I cared about had a name and it was a whole other kettle of fish.
At university I still didn’t have a clue. My first job title for my placement year was Application Server Developer. One of the most back end job titles that I’ve ever witnessed. The company was CDL Ltd in Stockport and it was building call centre software for insurance companies. My first responsibility was going through all the team’s usability backlog. I built features to make life easier for people in call centres. Small things like making tabbing order quicker for people on the phone and automatically triggering search events for postcodes. My team though didn’t know of UX as a discipline. The designs and wire frames came from the business analysts. There also seemed to be a team of designers kept in the attic with precious Macs and didn’t join many projects. Occasionally, they would come onto your team, sit in the corner, redesign everything and then spring it on you. That was pretty much the process. But even through all this, my placement year gave me a stepping stone into the industry. I never knew that people met up to discuss this stuff, nor that it was on my doorstep.
Then I met ThoughtWorks.
These people were insane. Everyone I met lived, breathed, ate, and slept tech. Their work ethic went above and beyond. This at first put me off from applying but by the end of the year after speaking with so many people I thought I might as well try. In the process I fell in love with the culture. The sense of your team being your family, even in the darkest of places like Scarborough or Glasgow. I worked my butt off networking for 2 years, got hired and went to India.
Besides wanting to be in UX, actually being at ThoughtWorks pushed me further in that role. Training was something else. The program set us up to fail. If you failed to test your code, it was deleted by the trainers and they wouldn’t tell you. In paired programming, if you didn’t sit close enough to your pair you were told you were distant and disengaged. For 5 weeks our code was criticised from every angle. So whilst my team was lacking in a business analyst and our client was asking for mock-ups, for my own sanity I pushed myself into that role. I was too scared to touch the code. As my confidence in coding plummeted, my confidence in UX increased.
After that ordeal, I became fussier about the work I did. I wanted any project I could but whilst I was on the beach I made sure to focus on UX. I shadowed other UX-ers around the office. I observed remote user sessions, note taking, desk research, user testing and client relations. I just kept reading about it, then I wrote about it, tweeted about it. 99% of what I did professionally was about UX. Everything I did felt small but I managed to bag my first project!
My first project was a UX My first project was redesigning a site, aimed at campaigning for the right to education. One on hand, it was great! I finally had someone believe that I could do it. On the other I was staffed as a senior UX consultant, when I was a graduate developer, and on my own.
There were a few things I learnt quickly on this project. I was no longer allowed to touch the code. My team were people who knew me, knew my background and had been on my team beforehand as a developer. But was I granted access to the code?
Not a chance.
The project was design heavy but I had asked to accomplish one developer task.
‘The client likes to see progress’
‘The client likes to see progress’
Interesting. You don’t see UX-ers asking developers to send over their git logs. That’s progress.
On the other side of it I personally felt like I couldn’t code any more. It wasn’t my job. I felt like my team didn’t understand UX despite pairing with them. I asked an (actual) senior UX-er to explain a process before the mock-up stage but it didn’t seem to explain it well. I also learnt that people will build a part of them into the designs. What drew me to front-end in the first place was the fact that you can look at it. You can show someone something physical. Code is beautiful, don’t get me wrong but you don’t get the same appreciation. UX technically isn’t visible, but you evoke emotions through a good experience and that’s your feedback. You show anyone an app with no graphical interface and most people don’t know what they’re looking at. People want that too.
I’ve heard from other UX-ers and designers that people change their designs all the time. People have also asked for advice on how to temper the response of: ‘Go play spot the difference. That’s not what the client approved’. When I find an answer it’ll probably be another blog post’s worth on its own.
So at this point I’ve heard it from both sides. Developers say designers and UX-ers are stubborn and they don’t compromise. Designers argue good designs don’t compromise. UX-ers say developers are lazy, reluctant to change the code and will change things behind your back. What both sides seem to forget is that while the tech industry is not as lonely as you expect, people can be quite independent. It’s normal for someone to be a UX team of one. It’s normal for programmers to sit on their own all day bashing out line after line. Both sides need to learn how to collaborate with each other. While a developer may not be sure what makes a good experience, they’re the ones building it. It comes from their code just as much as your wire frame.
The developer in me is now more confident in my developer skills because it’s an ‘extra’. Now I’m panicking over how much I don’t know in UX. I still want to teach coding, because I can and I want to cling onto the skill. I want to code enough that I have the confidence to build my own projects if I need to. Do I ever want to build an IVR again though? Nope!
Come the first day at my new job, I hadn’t written a single piece of code. I hadn’t even looked at a line. Nor was I going to be given the task to do so, nor would I do so in this job. That was fine, but I didn’t feel productive at all.
There have been absolutely no regrets though. I’m having UX debates and being challenged on my theory. Already I’ve done my first demo, expert reviews, mock-ups and competitive analysis. [RedEye have even featured me on their blog].
In my second week I was told to review a checkout process. Given my history in building payment processors, I knew about dummy card data. I was told explicitly to leave the checkout confirmation page. But I hedged my bets, put a dummy card number in, and the payment went through! That was a huge red flag. No website should tell the user they’ve paid and then actually take the payment. I almost sent a bikini to my grandma’s but it was worth it. I then captured the screen and sent it to my colleagues, so that they could also review the screen. From here we found another 5 errors and some were major.
Even though I’m now doing UX during the day, I still volunteer my time for different groups. I have plans to go far in user experience, especially with cultural inclusive design. I’ve already told the International Research team at Google that I have my eyes on them. In the meantime I keep pinging them with emails and my articles!
I still can’t help but feel like I want a PhD or a masters in HCI. I’ve heard too many people say it’s not worth it, the debt especially but also the rewards afterwards. I work with people who have PhDs, and they’re in the same position as me. I want to argue that degrees do give you a platform into things, if itself the degree isn’t worth it. My placement and final year gave me a huge stepping stone into the industry. I would want to write papers that have academic backing and do research not influenced by clients and their budget. I want the rapport, when I say I’m Dr Chesters in HCI.
At the same time, my boyfriend and I have a really nice flat in London. Great location, 2 bedrooms, great price. If I want to be in London I can’t afford this flat and to study. If I want to leave London and come back, there’s a slim chance I’ll find a flat like this one. I’m stuck. I feel like I just got to London, but I always pictured myself moving abroad, wherever that might be.
My cultural project is called Budaya. It’s short, catchy and also means culture in Indonesian! The project studies what consistently changes across cultures. Then I want to see how it changes and how it affects user experience. So far I have a template of what changes, which is the next article I’m releasing. An example would be language. Cultures have different languages, but what else changes when the words do? Things like navigation for right to left languages change and primary buttons move. If you think UX is challenging in the Western world, try localisation! It is beyond fascinating.
I’m not sure if it’s because my job title changed or that me talking all the time about UX has finally paid off. Now people are asking me for my help in UX. I’m teaching UX for CodeFirst:Girls with a master-class. In the Women Hack for Non Profits Slack channel I have people pinging me their surveys for advice. I’m still in a position where I ask for UX help every day, but it sure feels good to be asked as well. Job titles maybe not be relevant, but they sure do help build rapport with people. It’s like your social proofing in one line. Someone has hired you for these set of skills in particular. Everything else is a bonus.
For anyone wanting to go into UX but don’t have the job title and don’t have the formal skills, still try. Start interviewing. With every interview you get it’s a step closer to where you want to be. For every no you get it’s a company that doesn’t deserve you.
It’s not as easy though just to get interviews because you apply. As much as I don’t like UX portfolios (because mine never looks right) I know I still need one. And so do you. There are more than enough groups who need your skills as UX for your portfolio. Starting your own projects isn’t that easy in the first place but even more difficult when you don’t code. Find a group, find a team and find a project. If you’re stuck, here is EmpowerHack, they have projects who are all about building apps for refugees. Women Hack for Non Profits is another group with clients who have a range of needs.
You will always have companies turn you down whether you’re experienced or not, and whether you’re changing careers or not. Finding your next role is going to take time. You’re going to get turned down because of one skill you don’t already have. You’re going to be knocked back because a senior applied for a junior role, and the internship still requires 2 years experience. But you have to have that drive to get what you want, and earning it sometimes takes longer than planned.
You’ll get there.
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