I got to meet designers at Spotify and Bumble and here is what I learned
How to curate your budding UX career and navigate the treacherous waters of the industry? Let’s hear from the experts who live to tell the tale.
Last week, I took part in a discussion panel organised by BrainStation, a coding bootcamp school. Three expert invitees shared their insights on starting and building a career in UX design.
What piqued my interest in the agenda of the event was the variety of design career paths each of the speakers represented. Charlotte Hamilton, a CRM lead at Osmii, explained how successful marketing strategies rely on a careful reading of the data. Paula Reid, a content designer at Bumble, spoke of her journey from journalism to crafting microcopies for some of the most popular apps. Finally, Michelle Tran Luu, a PM at Spotify, shared the behind-the-scenes of planning and carrying out improvements at the music streaming giant.
One of the aims of the panel was to confront the problems junior designer face today. Before we dive into the solutions, let’s briefly look at the most shared pain points among design debutants.
A lot has already been said about the idea of a T-shaped designer, an ideal archetype of a polymath that can harbour their specific expertise to work across teams and processes. I must say, as a junior, the idea of being both a jack-of-all-trades and a go-to expert at the same time can be particularly daunting.
Let’s say you cracked the enigma of Figma variants and components. Great, you earned your badge for creating effective design systems. But what’s the real use of this new trophy if you can’t articulate the importance of building a brand new component library to a stakeholder who believes this would only throw a spanner in the project works? Especially at the start of your UX path, I found that knowing how to be your own best cheerleader is as important as mastering the hard skills.
Hearing from tech professionals that represent the breadth of professions in the tech world was a lesson in managing your early career without getting swallowed by a necessity to shape your work choices by any particular letter of the alphabet.
Often your work ethic as a junior can benefit from simply trying to do, instead of overthinking how to do it. Trying to mould your experience to the expectations of the market can inadvertently stop you in your tracks instead of propelling you in the direction you instinctively would blossom in. Admittedly, as a junior, I too suffer from the imposter syndrome that dictates excessive carefulness and diligence in approaching even the most basic design tasks at the expense of much-needed adaptiveness and problem-solving chutzpah.
The panel was a chance to confront some of those widely shared problems head-on. Here are the key takeaways from Charlotte, Paula and Michelle on how to break into the industry without breaking down on your way.
You know more than you think
Over 50% of designers come from non-product backgrounds. The ability to turn your pre-UX story into a convincing catalogue of transferrable skills you can then present to recruiters is key. Don’t think you’re starting from scratch, even as a junior. Paula from Bumble talked us through her days as a journalist and how sharing her lifestyle articles eventually helped secure her first UX copywriter job. The wealth of your experience, if properly presented, can convince others to add you to their team.
Next time you are faced with the “tell me about yourself” question at a job interview, think back to when you had to take leadership when one of your colleagues called in sick, or you needed to think on your feet when confronted with a demanding customer on the other end of the telephone line. Abandon the concept of “menial” jobs or “unrelated” experiences. Don’t forget, a good recruiter will applaud your decision to shift your career and won’t be suspicious of it. Help them build an informed picture of your career trajectory by creating a bridge between where you have been and where you are now.
Be water, my friend
I always found it startling that the martial arts legend renowned for his grit and god-like strength is best known for his advice whereby to achieve greatness, one needs to be shapeless and formless. Wouldn’t it be more fitting to become a rock, hard, solid and resolute? I was reminded of this aphorism when listening to Michelle who manages the product cycle at Spotify’s “search” team (you know, that useful bar at the top).
Michelle underlined the importance of finding your own style of working within your team. How does one define this approach while keeping on top of your daily responsibilities? Perhaps, the key to understanding this problem is to know what Bruce Lee’s words meant.
“If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle.” Product design skills, as opposed to UX skills, require a bird’s-eye view. Before you grapple with research data or open a Figma file, you need to know why your efforts are being aimed to address this and not the other issue. Before you pour your skills into, as it were, a cup or a bottle, your design practice will benefit from knowing what the bigger strategy for the product is. And this is the point at which your collaboration with product managers and developers becomes crucial. Listening to the former will help you understand the direction the product is taking. Talking to the latter will sometimes rein in your ambitions to the sprint timeframe and spare you unnecessary hustle. In an agile team, adaptability and transparency go way further than immutability. So, be water, not a rock.
A bard of your own work
Charlotte from Osmii spoke of her typical day at work. She highlighted how a big chunk of the schedule was spent on receiving feedback on your design decisions. The truth is, none of us likes to be judged. This hits too close to home, especially for designer newbies who second-guess themselves more than they perhaps should.
I have read many articles on how you can dissociate yourself from your work and never ever take criticism personally. The truth is, though noble in theory, such platitudes often go out the window in practice. The first time I was confronted with scathing critiques from a stakeholder on my design was more a lesson in keeping a poker face rather than an opportunity to listen empathetically.
The truth is, as designers we do and always will care about our work. So how do you build the much-needed resistance to negative feedback? Become a bard of your own work. Before you jump on that dreaded Zoom call, prepare an engaging story that explains your design decisions. Don’t bore your colleagues with dry research data. Link the user trends directly to how the product will work. If you weave the threads of your story thoughtfully as a consecutive and logical sequence of events, the chances are it will be very difficult for others to dislike the final chapter, be it a prototype or an idea for a brand-new feature.
Use ignorance to your advantage
Ok, so you found the perfect job opening. You are going through the job description and … your excitement evaporates immediately when one of the listed requirements is a full mastery of design software you didn’t even know existed. Before you throw in the towel or go on a YouTube tutorial marathon, please apply. One thing to realise is that, as much as they are a showcase of your hard skills and expertise, junior openings are often an opportunity to prove your determination to learn.
In the constantly changing world of tech, you need to be able to adapt and absorb the knowledge of new tools and techniques continually, regardless of your seniority. VR, AR, machine learning or iPhone’s Dynamic Island… The speed of change can make your head spin. If you show your willingness to stay on top of the design trends and your thirst for knowledge, the recruiter will read that as a good prognostic. How about you tell them of your decision to apply in spite of your ignorance about a particular tool and how you spent your time learning the basic principles of its use? Yes, you might not be able to create a dazzling prototype using Balsamiq on day 1 but the fact you left your comfort zone and are comfortable talking about this process is a way more valuable skill. Your eagerness to learn is the momentum that will make the clogs of hard skills turn.
A good mentor will appreciate your willingness and enjoy your newbie status. Use the first stage of your career to be a sponge or, if you will, a fly on the office wall. Observe and ask all the questions you find pertinent. One of the biggest fears recruiters have is retention potential. Any employee resignation is a big cost to the company. Dispel their doubts from the start by showcasing your constant will to investigate and invest in your development. You will not be judged on what you don’t know but rather on what you do to improve it.
In short, being a junior in tech can be soul-sucking. But it really doesn’t have to. Building on your strengths, knowing how to turn your weaknesses into growth opportunities and staying constantly curious can help you steer your budding career. Fear makes cowards of us all. That is why it is so important to hear from people who managed to navigate the treacherous waters of an early career and now live to tell the tale.
The article is not sponsored and contains no affiliate links. All opinions are my own.