Only recently have companies started regularly paying attention to user experience (UX), which studies the way real people interact with websites, applications, and software products. Because the practice of UX is still so new, most UX professionals started their careers doing something else. They were graphic designers, public relations professionals, journalists, psychologists, teachers, singer/songwriters…you name it, someone in UX almost certainly started out doing it.

We recently hosted an expert panel featuring UX professionals from a variety career paths and backgrounds. They explained what drew them to UX in the first place, how they got where they are today, and what advice they have for those looking to get into the field or looking to hone their usability skills.

The Expert Panel

Raymond Barrett, UX Architect, American Specialty Health
Joseph Chiariello, UX Manager, US Patriot Tactical
Tracie Dawson, Content Strategist, truematter
Jason Reppy, Senior User Experience Strategist, Dominion Energy

What We Learned (in a nutshell)

  1. UX is rooted in a concern for others.
  2. Bring your existing skills to the table.
  3. Educate yourself.

1. UX is rooted in a concern for others.

Everyone was looking at us like horns were growing out of our head when we’d say, “What’s the customer going to think?”
-Jason Reppy

Understand your audience.

Our panelists, though they come from a wide range of backgrounds, all shared a common practice in their careers: They actively sought feedback from those engaging with the things they created. Whether creating music or classroom materials or stories or digital products, they all improved their work by listening to their audience. Even though they didn’t know it at the time, they were practicing the most basic principle of UX – interacting with real users.

You have to have a radical empathy. I get easily frustrated with things and want to fix those things.
-Tracie Dawson

Solve real-world problems for real people.

Our panelists and many like them started out solving problems in the real world, so it’s no surprise that they took immediately to doing the same in the digital space.

Panelist Joseph Chiariello gave an example explaining a specific, real-world problem for his company’s users: members of the military. Military personnel, he explained, must purchase their own official uniforms and equipment. Everything they order must match their position’s specifications to the letter. This can be a confusing undertaking as each uniform contains multiple parts that are sold separately and can look similar. That’s frustrating enough, but to make things even more difficult, military men and women deployed overseas often get very little time to be online. For them, the ability to find what they need quickly – even over a poor internet connection – can be the difference between being able to order required items, or even the difference between whether they get to call home or not. His company’s digital products, he realized, must solve these very unique, real problems for their users.

I have to learn how to talk to people, listen to what they’re saying, and change what I’m doing. That’s when I realized what UX is about—getting that feedback.
-Raymond Barrett

2. Bring your existing skills to the table.

Find what you’re interested in and then you can pursue that.
-Raymond Barrett

UX happens through the combination of many skillsets.

Creating excellent user experiences is a multi-disciplinary effort. The screens our users engage with are visual, informational, functional, communicative, structured, business-driven, etc. Getting all of those parts right requires multiple types of people. A partial list might include designers, writers, researchers, testers, architects, and – yes – developers.

It’s also worth noting that we are limited by our human brains, which internalize biases that we can never entirely remove, no matter how hard we try. We need a team of people unlike us to introduce new points of view and effectively solve difficult problems.

Determine what makes you care about solving problems for people, and use that.

Your skills, background, experiences, and perspective will set you up to be a worthy member of a UX team. Think about where you come from, what you’ve done, what you know, what you like, and how you can use all of that to solve real problems for others.

Set to work finding what problems you would like to solve that are woefully unrecognized. Do your research, even when your boss or client didn’t ask you to. Present solutions, even when no one else recognized a problem. Unrelentingly advocate for making the digital world better to everyone you know, even if especially when they disagree. Back up your theories with usability tests, even if you have to coordinate the testing yourself. Over time, you’ll establish expertise in your chosen area. One day, someone will give you your own UX advice. When that happens, smile and agree. Then get to work on the next big problem.

I think it’s something that anyone in the industry just thrives on, it’s a burning desire for them to figure out new ways to do things.
-Joseph Chiariello

3. Educate yourself.

I’m always thinking about the best way to communicate. To glean tips for translating that into a digital space, I subscribed to courses offered by my library.
-Tracie Dawson

Make use of what you can find.

Many UX practitioners are self-taught from materials and training opportunities they’ve found for themselves. A few institutions are starting to offer degree programs, but even those are few and far between. Our panelists told us their top tips for building UX skills in the absence of options for a formal education:

  • Research online courses and interactive tutorials. Many of these are available as free resources.
  • Look for UX-focused groups in your community. Attend their events. If no such groups exist, create one.
  • Check out what’s available at your local library. Libraries often offer access to highly respected training courses for free.
  • Reach out to UX professionals in your area. Offer to buy them lunch or ask for a quick phone call. Figure out how they got where they are and ask for their advice to kickstart your UX career.
  • Get certified. When you think you have the UX chops, tangible proof may help convince potential employers. Look for reputable certification courses in UX topics.

You can pay to take certification courses, there is definitely value in that.
-Joseph Chiariello

Apply UX skills at your current position.

You don’t have to be working in UX to apply usability principles to your everyday work. Start by pushing your team and organization to consider the experience your organization is offering to customers or clients. As you build experience and expertise, craft your resume to reflect the ways you apply UX to your job and your success doing so. Even if your official job title is completely unrelated to UX, it is very possible to implement usability principles into your day-to day-work.

For example, before panelist Tracie Dawson became a content strategist, she was an English composition teacher. She created a syllabus that was easier for her students to understand and use, a big improvement for all involved. When she applied for a position in UX, she pointed to this experience as a real-world problem she solved to great success.

I was mocking up my syllabus in InDesign because it made for a better experience for my students. They were actually reading the syllabus once I got rid of the inefficiencies.
-Tracie Dawson

Build your portfolio to highlight your skills.

Our panelists agreed that the real key to obtaining a job in UX is creating a comprehensive portfolio of your work. And don’t just show visuals! Anybody can make an impressive interface when there is no client and no pressure and if the thing doesn’t actually have to work. Employers want to see that you can solve problems. Explain the challenge you faced, how you solved it through UX, and what your outcomes were. Wherever possible, include real numbers and metrics that illustrate your success.

The path [to a career in UX] is clear, the key is getting the portfolio to back it up.
-Jason Reppy

A Career UX: No longer unUXpected?

Our panelists are living proof that UX professionals come from all walks of life. But despite their differences, they have a common outlook on the world: a natural empathy for others when things don’t work well and an innate itch to make those things better. This desire to improve real-world experiences for people, whether in a digital space or not, eventually made them successful user experience practitioners. If you feel the same push to make things better for real people, you already have a solid start toward starting a career in UX. Put our panelists’ advice to good use, and go for it.

About truematter

Our team has been doing the real work of user experience since the earliest days of the commercial web. We’re out to make your digital products a whole lot better.

Our multi-disciplinary team members didn’t start out in UX either. But you’d never know it talking to them today.

Author: Metta Giese
Graphic: @djosephmachado
Editor: @baileysendsword