How I got started in UX, Sarah Doody, UX Designer - Sarah Doody
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Getting Started In UX

Getting Started In User Experience Design: How I Got Started

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On 05, Jul 2013 | 17 Comments | In Getting Started In UX | By Sarah Doody

The number one thing people ask me is how they can get started in UX.

I’m always surprised at the volume of requests I get because I thought that there were a lot of resources already out there about getting started in UX. But when I commented about this to a friend, she just laughed and said there really aren’t enough resources because it’s all about voice and approachability. I guess it makes sense, sometimes five people can tell you the same thing and it isn’t until the fifth one that things make sense and you actually “get” it.

I do my best to respond to every request with either some useful links or more personal thoughts. But with requests becoming a daily occurrence, I thought I’d just compile my advice and my story.

I’m sure some of it will seem repetitive, but hopefully it will connect with some people and help them have that “ah-ha” moment they’re looking for.

So I’m starting a new series on my blog called Getting Started In User Experience. Every Friday, I’ll share stories and offer advice to people just starting out. Of course, I would love it if you’d leave comments and tell me what topics you’re interested in me covering.

To start off, here’s the story of how I ended up in user experience design.


How I Got Started In User Experience Design

The truth is, discovering the field of user experience was a complete accident that only now in hindsight makes total sense. I didn’t even know the field existed let alone what it was called!

I originally was going to study neuroscience in Canada (where I’m from). Why neuroscience? Honestly, I wanted to be in medicine but I wasn’t sure about all the blood and gross stuff. During my last year of high school we had to do a big research project for a biology class. So, I did mine on biofeedback and somehow convinced a medical equipment company to give me a biofeedback machine for my project. This, is how I fell in love with the field of neuroscience (and also when I realized it would be probably be a good fit for me as it seemed like the least gory part of medicine).

But, after being accepted to the top school in Canada for neuroscience, I did what every 18 year old with dual citizenship does. I left Canada and came to the United States for the main reason that I just could.

During my first year of college, I got an internship at a small web design shop (because I had decided to study marketing of all things). On my first day there, someone gave me a copy of Dreamweaver 2 and Photoshop and told me to make a website about something I was interested in. So I made a little website about a fictitious ski area (sadly, I don’t have it anymore!!!). I know I completed the site within my first day because I remember the shock on the people’s faces when I told them I was done. I think they thought it was going to take me days to make that site.

To make a long story short, I focused on web and graphic design for a while. Then one day, I started to get into front end web development. I can’t remember how it came about, but I think it probably happened with the realization that if I knew how to code it, then I would be more informed as a designer. Also, if I could code, I would be able to maintain the integrity of what I designed. In other words, if I was coding it, no detail would be lost in translation from design to code.

For example, we were working on a travel website and I wanted the design to have many circular components. The problem was, HTML is based on tables that don’t lend themselves to circles very well (note, this was over a decade ago). So, when I showed my colleagues this design, they looked at my like was insane. But I thought they were the crazy ones. Obviously we could do circles, we’d just cut up the circle into graphics that we’d assemble in table, just like putting a complex puzzle together. Pretty simple to me. For some reason, that moment is engrained in my brain. I think’s because it was probably when I realized that design was the best opportunity to use both the left and right sides of my brain every single day.

In hindsight, I can say that I am so, so, so thankful for the opportunity to learn to code. I am pretty sure it’s the single best thing that ever happened in my career. Although I would never tell a client I could code anything for them, what’s important is that I am technically literate. Being technically literate has also made it much easier to foster important relationships with developers which is critical if you are working on a project or in an environment where you have access and opportunity to collaborate with the technical team.

After doing design and coding for a while (and studying marketing), I realized that there must be someone who came before design — someone who helped shape the vision and the story of the user.

Around the same time, someone gave me a copy of a book on Information Architecture and said they thought I should read it. So I read it in a weekend and then I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be at the intersection of business, technology, and design.

I wanted to help define design, I didn’t just want to execute the design.


Going Corporate

Early in my career, I was offered a full time job at a Fortune 500 software company. So I enrolled in online classes so I could take the job and still finish my degree. I had my own office with a window and great view. I had access to a conference budget. There was a snack cart that a lady wheeled around at about 2pm every day. At the time, I thought it was such a great opportunity (it was) because it was what I thought was a “real” job.

I will never forget my first day, I had to design an animated gif banner ad for some type of printed circuit board (don’t ask!). Designing banner ads was news to me and I was not excited about it at all. In fact, I had never created an animated gif before in my life. I remember hearing “that voice” in my head and thinking “oh no, this is what I’m doing”. But, it was only my first day and quitting wasn’t an option, so I figured out how to make an animated gif banner ad (and many more in the future), ignored that voice, and ended up staying at the job for nearly 4 years.

I learned so much in my time at that big adult corporate job while I was in my very early twenties. Seeing how a Fortune 500 company operated and being exposed to such big projects, process, and personalities was so foundational to learning how to manage clients and projects.

I also very much learned what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to be at the same company for 20 years. I didn’t want to just have people send me emails asking me to “spiff up” the design. I didn’t want to be a part of a conveyor belt. I wanted to have more influence. I wanted to create.

One of my first managers had this saying he’d always tell us, it went like this: “Know your tool. Know your tool as well as you can. Know your tool as fast as you can.”

I’ve always remembered that, and as someone starting their career, I guess I really internalized it because looking back, that’s exactly what I did. As I moved through this natural progression from design, to coding, to user experience I made a choice to become as good as I could be at each discipline.

Anyone who worked with my during those early years would tell you that I had two famous things I’d always say …. “I have an idea” or “I have a question”. I was always staying curious, trying to understand, and trying to become the best at what I was doing.

So if you’re just starting out, I’ll leave you with these two ideas:

Look beyond the immediate. At times, you’ll end up doing things that don’t make sense, things that seem pointless, and a waste of your amazing talent. But the truth is, in 2 years you’ll probably look back and see how all your experiences built upon each other to get you to where you want to be.

Be your best. I know its cliche. But it’s true. If you really want to build a career, figure out how to be the best and do it as fast as you can. Also, remember that being the best doesn’t mean being perfect.

Managing Input & The Art Of Pushback

  • Matt Lenning

    “I wanted to help define design, I didn’t just want to execute the design.”

    That spoke to me, that’s how i’ve been feeling in my search for what i want to do. I find myself interested in User Experience Design and am finding it somewhat difficult to nail down what it is exactly they do. But knowing the problems they solve and the solutions they create for businesses and clients is what has me interested.

    Awesome post, thank you.

  • Florence

    Thank you Sarah for all your advice in this post! You wrote the saying of your manager: “Know your tool. Know your tool as well as you can. Know your tool as fast as you can.”
    I agree, but my question is: In 2013, when you want to learn by yourself to become a good UX designer, what are the tools you recommand to learn fisrt ?
    Indeed, I’m already 34 years old, Master in Sociology and working as IT helpdesk analyst in Montreal … and passionnate by technology, Marketing and people!
    Thank you in advance for your advice.

    • Great question Florence. I was planning to write about that in a few weeks. Look for a post about key tools to learn as you get started in user experience design!

  • aseoconnor

    Thanks for sharing, Sarah. Looking forward to the next post!

    I graduated from Uni with a degree in finance, taught english for a year, and now am working on the UI/UX of an edtech startup. I’ve been working quite a bit in photoshop, but looking to take that next step to code. Any advice?

    • I guess my main question for you would be are you looking to pursue user experience or front end coding? Or, is your role and the state of your startup such that they are asking you to try and perform both roles?

      • aseoconnor

        Thanks, Sarah.

        My role is still forming. I’ll probably be pursuing more UX than front end coding.

        • Since you’re currently already in a startup and doing UX / UI I would really try to learn as much as possible. I would also try to spend time getting somewhat literate when it comes to tech. I can’t tell you how valuable my technical knowledge has been when it comes to doing UX. Specifically things like basic understanding of databases as well as front end coding. It’s so critical to understand concepts like “modular code”, “templates”, and like I said, basic database concepts. As well, some simple HTML & CSS knowledge goes a long way! Good luck and thanks so much for reading!!!

          • aseoconnor

            Thanks, Sarah!

  • Diba

    It sounds like you had been very fortunate! you are brilliant, you got accepted to best school, out of no where and accidentally someone gave you the best guided resources and opportunities to enter this field. Your first job was a dream job!!! I really respect and honor your journey, but to be very honest your lucky journey is a-typical. The question for people who want to know how to enter or transition to this field is not about your good fortune, but is about how to find the opportunities and where are they? how can they become as brilliant as you are (myself included)?

    • Hi @diba, thanks for your comments! You bring up a good point. I should definitely write more about how people can seek out opportunities to explore UX where they are at or potentially transition from their current position into UX. Stay tuned, I’ll work on a post about that in the coming weeks! Thanks again for following along and reading my blog!

  • Roy

    I have truly enjoyed all of your posts about getting into UX Design. I have been fortunate enough to be the only person, usually, that cares about the User Experience for projects I have been attached to. Because of that I learned a ton of things on my own and blogs like this really help. Please keep dropping all the knowledge bombs. I am loving it.

    • Thanks for your kind words and for continuing to read !!! Feel free to let me know what topics you’d like me to write about. Always curious to hear what people want more insight on!

  • slee11211

    Inspiring! Thanks for your thoughts….maybe you’ll feel generous for a moment with me! (I’m going to take a shot here, as I love how your brain works): I had a similar story entering web design back in ’98 (designing at a big ad agency, then got scooped up in the .com frenzy, it was fast and furious, freelanced at many iconic agencies in NYC). So my lead into web and branding was from the visual design side. Had an amazing 10 yr run, huge clients and small, was awarded/published, everyone knew my work for a window of time. But it was the wild west back then, more free and open ended still (UX only existed in the “style” in which we worked, and I’ve been told by colleagues who are now UX pros in NYC that I was actually doing it long before it had a title). But I had to take time off for a baby and then was forced into more time off for health…and did not keep up with my tools or knowledge (yes, I tend to zero in!). But now, I want to go back, and do it smart to really make the next 20 years forward thinking. When I left web and branding, I was more into the interaction with the client, most inspired by figuring out their needs overall…I like the big picture of that (as opposed to hours sitting doing logos, but even in that process, my mind worked in a very “ux” way). So I think that more of a bend towards UX might hold some keys for me…but I’m intimidated by the more structured and tech part of it (as I was more of a visual creator). So how would you imagine I go about integrating UX into my old skill set (which, actually, is pretty outdated) to create something entirely new to offer people? I want to streamline process of getting back to work…and trying to ‘relearn’ the design tools and sitting in front of a computer all day doing design seems like it would only get me closer to sitting and designing all day again (I could sit and do tutorials with Illustrator, photoshop, sketch, etc – but that feels like a very slow and clunky use of my time right now). Any ideas for you that this story pulls up? A super talented designer, but technically lacking due to time off, with a great brain for branding and seeing trends and understanding needs… How do I streamline this process of jumping back in? Start with tools or head right into UX (which has me nervous, as it feels so technical and foreign to me)? :) Told you, shot in the dark, but hey!

  • Thanks for Sharing Sarah… i enjoyed it this is very inspirational especially this sentence I “wanted to help define design, I didn’t just want to execute the design.” this tells a lot so deep.. every designer just need to have that kind of passion same as your’s to be successful! .. im looking forward to the next post..

  • siva krishna abburi

    Your journey was pretty good and your hard work had brought you many tasty fruits into your bucket. Your journey inspires me to get into filed of UX. I am 22 now and seriously wants to be an UX designer. I am reading many blogs/Ux related content from many websites. But still in dilemma where to start.

    There are many components which are associated with UX like visual Design, prototyping, Wireframing , Informationn Architecture, USer research and many.. As i am new to this I dont know where to start race.. I just want you help me in this Sarah..