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29 April 2022

My unexpected path to UX design

Christopher Taylor

I sat on a Balinese beach, watching the waves roll and crash and fishing boats bobble up and down on the endless sea. I knew this coming year was going to be intense. I had more work lined up at the start of a year than ever before. I was self-employed, so having all this set up in advance was great. I knew I would work a lot, but I also knew I would earn a lot. These next few years were going to be the years to set me up for the future.

There are two things you should know;

  1. The year was 2020
  2. I worked in tourism

That turned out about as well as you could imagine. I tried to move to a virtual platform, it kept me going, but I was still going backwards, and when it became clear that 2021 would be more of the same, some big decisions needed to be made. I would need to fully reskill into a different industry. Preferably something not so reliant on getting people to travel around in groups. I’d never even heard of UX before I saw a job posting on social media for a UX designer and started to research what it was. At its core, it seemed to be a way to make software and services more efficient for the people using them. It was also a people-focused discipline. Both these things appealed to me, and in early 2021 I started to become serious about a UX career. If I did one thing right back then it was that I fully embraced this;

Know what you enjoy doing and understand what your transferable skills are.

If you’ve googled “become a UX designer” in the last few years, you’ll know there is an abundance of courses out there. I chose to do short courses with the Interaction Design Foundation and later decided on a professional diploma in UX design with the UX Design Institute. I chose this because it is based in Europe, is self-paced (while still offering student support), and is accredited by Glasgow Caledonian University. While I wouldn’t say anything I learned was unbearably difficult, it does take time, and I went down many youtube rabbit holes trying to understand terms and practices with better clarity. You will not be given everything you need to know in any UX course. If you want to build a deep understanding of what you are learning, that will require a lot of extra reading and research, which I am very lucky that I found interesting. I would absolutely recommend the Interaction Design Foundation and the UX design Institute as places to give you direction for becoming a UX designer, but you need to be prepared to put in a lot of extra work. Also, it’s important not to forget that building your UX network is more important than where you choose to learn UX.

It certainly was for me. When choosing where to study UX, I tried to connect with a bunch of people on LinkedIn to ask for some advice. Most ignored me, a few responded and were willing to have a discussion with me. There was more than one person I talked to, but let’s call one of them “Emma”. We’ll come back to her later.

While completing my UX course, I made some mistakes. Foremost among them was getting ahead of myself. I watched videos trying to learn Figma when I hadn’t even learned how to run a usability session yet. I looked at job advertisements when I didn’t yet understand what a UX designer would be expected to do. All this did was make me feel like I would never get it. That I was wasting my time and money on something at which I would likely fail. I was eager to get to the point where someone would give me a job and had forgotten the simple stuff.

One step at a time.

I had my down moments, of course. Being forty-three and moving in with my wife’s parents was not my happy-path, but I kept plugging away. I finished my course, completed my portfolio and started applying for jobs. Entry-level jobs, of course. Unfortunately, the majority of these wanted 2–3 years’ experience so I wasn’t getting anywhere. I managed to get a non-UX job working with recruitment campaigns for the NHS, where I still got to use some of the UX skills I had gained in my studies and a lot of my people skills gained through years of working in sales and tourism. I didn’t love this job, but it was paying the bills and it just didn’t seem that there were any real entry-level UX roles out there. Three months into this NHS job I was having a look at the UXDI slack channel, just to have a look at other people’s work for a bit of inspiration and noticed a job post (of sorts). It advertised the Hippo Academy. A call-out for career-changers who wanted to get into digital design and delivery to come together and learn while on the job and get paid for it. The post stood out to me, as it was posted by “Emma”, one of the people who’d been nice enough to discuss learning UX with me about a year earlier. If I hadn’t recognized her name, I might’ve scrolled right on by.

The Hippo academy was everything I knew I needed and also a whole lot of stuff I didn’t realise I needed. It was hands-on but with backup. It was self-learning but with guidance and support. We learned about agile work practices, inclusive design and accessibility and used these concepts in our real work. I could make mistakes, I could get feedback and I could ask questions from a friendly and varied group of user researchers, content, service, and UX designers as well as product owners, delivery managers, and business analysts. The people at Hippo put in a huge amount of time and effort to help an academy cohort of 25 people make the most out of this opportunity. We worked in small multi-disciplinary teams and completed real projects to get us used to what we would encounter when deployed on client work. It was intense, and exciting and built a great foundation for the work that is to come. I made great connections with other members of the Academy, the coaches, and the wider Hippo team.

I gained experience working in a variety of disciplines while working with colleagues in multiple disciplines.

I look back on my journey to becoming an employed UX designer and there seems to be both symmetry and kismet in the last few years. The random person I connected with on LinkedIn posted the job I now have. I’m about to be deployed on my first client project as a UX designer and the client is the NHS. All the way back in early 2020 I felt like that year and those that followed would set me up for the future.

I didn’t know how right that would prove to be.