How to become a UXer

Posted on June 03, 2017

By Jennifer Ng


First, try to be anything else. Programmer. Writer. Journalist. Filmmaker. Psychologist. Lawyer. Accountant. Pathologist. Mortician.

But most of all, observe. Love watching behavior. Be curious about why people do the things that they do. Especially for the purposes of being popular.

You want to figure that out for yourself. Tell everyone at the age of eleven that your favorite hobby is observing. Realize quickly based on adults’ reactions that “observing” is not an appropriate “hobby”. Instead, answer “reading books”, a sophisticated answer that impresses everyone.

Go to the library and carry stacks of books home. Your father surprises the family with a Macintosh Performa. You’re in love with its ability to create things—words, programs, art. Read the Macintosh Bible cover to cover. Explain to your family how the computer works. Play Sim City and Sim Ant. When AOL arrives, the computer is moved up to your room to use a free phone jack. Spend too much time chatting with random people. Call yourself ickis after the primary character in Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. Never use that username again.

In the seventh grade, watch a new girl make friends. She’s Asian American like you. Note that she smiles and talks to people. Realize that asking “how are you” and smiling makes people feel at ease even if it doesn’t reflect how you feel inside. Learn that masks are needed to succeed.

In chat rooms, find the a/s/l question ridiculous so you come with something witty like “3*4 / no, I have a headache / middle of nowhere”. Use over 20 hours on AOL after staying up until 3 am. Lie to your parents about the overages. It wasn’t your fault. AOL doesn’t know how to count the hours. You never lie.

Eventually, your parents upgrade to earthlink with unlimited internet access. A thirty-something man talks to you online. He thinks that you’re in your twenties, because of “your lyrical way of speaking”. You start laughing aloud. You don’t talk to him again.

Meet more people your age online. One is in Vancouver. Another is in Los Angeles. Several live near you in the Bay Area. You like the guy in Los Angeles. He’s nerdy and you want to be nerdy like him.

In middle school and high school, place on the honors track for math. Savor how numbers work together, but don’t understand geometry. Yet excel in algebra and calculus. Believe that you’re destined to be an accountant. During senior year, take a career test. Out of the 10 suggestions for a career, you choose pathologist. You really liked Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need.

Know that you’re not very serious about that.

Incollege, intend to major in computer science, “because all the cool kids are doing it”. That’s a lie, and you know it. But you are driven to please others, which means that you pretend to be something you’re not until you hate it. Because you’re in the College of Letters and Sciences, your major is undeclared until your third year. The computer science major at your school is impacted, which means there are only 200 spots for qualified students. Your Introduction to Computer Science class has over 500 students. Try anyway.

Go to the tutoring center for help. Basic programs don’t make sense to you. In one problem set, solve it in a convoluted way. The tutor points out that three lines of code was as efficient as your twenty lines of code. Study hard and get better. Love the idea of coding into the night. You love the feel of an Unix terminal in the basement lab. But it’s not interesting. Spend most of your late nights chatting on AIM with friends all over the country. Procrastinate and barely pass the assignments. Computer science feels suffocating.

Interestingly, your friends in computer science have switched majors. Economics. Molecular cell biology. Cognitive science. You’re the only hopeful one.

Apply to the internship at the Residential Computing Center, a student-run organization that provides technical support to undergraduate and graduate students in the dorms. Get into the internship. All 12 of you are female. When the internship completes, you apply for the consultant job. You’re the only intern that applied. You’re rejected. The following year, apply again and get in. You’re one of the two female students in the 30+ male staff.

Go to appointments in the dorm rooms to fix computers. Sometimes adware clogs up the drive. Sometimes network drivers break. Sometimes the power is not plugged in. Develop an attitude that some people don’t know how to use their computers. After all, a CD-ROM drawer is not a cupholder.

Develop empathy when you watch your mom try to use a computer. It’s not her fault. It’s the computer’s fault. It’s the fault of whoever put it together.

Take the required electrical engineering class. Things don’t make sense. Partly because you’re not interested in circuits and recursive loops. Nearly fail your midterm. Devastated, you ask for help during office hours. Feel that the major isn’t within your grasp.

Become burnt out by everyone telling you what you should do. Decide that you’re a misanthrope. Inside, you know that’s just an excuse, because you’re afraid of admitting failure.

At your desk, consider your next steps. Heat up frozen dinners. Boil ramen in half-cleaned pots. Sit in front of the computer and chat endlessly with friends all over the world about your plight. Gossip. Post on message boards. Write on your fledging blog, livejournal, xanga.

Cognitive science becomes the answer. Search for classes that overlap the majors of cognitive science and computer science. Take the User Interface Design class, thinking that just maybe…just maybe…you can still get a job in computer science after graduation without said degree. Enjoy the investigation into human behavior and problem solving.

Read a career center booklet that suggest finding research assistant roles. Look up computer science PhD students on the website. Write a form email to beg for to be a research assistant. Forget to change the greeting so six PhD students are called the same name.

Only one PhD student replies. He kindly removes your mistaken opening, but you’re still embarrassed. Research location-based mobile concepts that you find silly. After all, you think that your Nokia 3310 is the best phone in the world.

You think: Why would I want to know where my friends are? Why would I want to receive ads when I walk by a store?

It’s your senior year. The PhD student suggests applying to graduate school in Human Computer Interaction. You never heard of Human Computer Interaction. He writes down a list of 10 schools in your notebook.

Apply to five graduate programs. You write about your mother. In relation to computers, of course. About trading human communication for a computer beep and mouse clicks.

Receive prompt rejections from two programs. No big deal, you think. Only three more to go. Check your email. One email begins with, “Congratulations”.

Head to the East Coast, unsure about where Carnegie Mellon University is located. Maybe you’ll visit the Big Apple frequently. Maybe you’ll ski from your house to campus. California friends are confused. “Why are you going to Pittsburg?” they ask. “There’s nothing there. Isn’t it next to Antioch and Brentwood?”

“It’s in Pennsylvania,” you say, remembering that you visited the Liberty Bell as a child. “It’s Pittsburgh with a H, not Pittsburg in California.”

Never visit Philadelphia while at graduate school.

Arrive in Pittsburgh and decide to live in a party house with someone you met on Orkut. Meet fellow classmates. Many have recently graduated from college like yourself. Decide to reinvent yourself and stop saying no to social activities. For the first time, all your classmates are over the age of 21.

Get a research assistant role with the PhD student who is now a professor to help with tuition. That requires you to stay for 21 months rather than the standard 12 months. Bond with classmates, study, do projects, study, find yourself, study, do projects, don’t sleep, do projects, stress out, don’t sleep, do projects.

In your statistics class, discover that your mathematic rigor cannot match that of the undergraduates. Worry that you’re not good enough. But it’s okay. It turns out that project work in this program is what matters.

Design posters. Work in teams. Go through each method like contextual inquiry and heuristic evaluation with your team. Design a new way to listen to music. Become enamored with stories of poor design—the time that a ship sunk due to a string of unfortunate human errors or how multiple customers suffered when they accidentally ingested industrial strength soap instead of the watermelon-flavored shots. Never order drinks called watermelon balls.

Get assigned to your capstone project, a multimodal solution to support navy technicians, which will be over the spring and summer semesters. Visit a navy base in Virginia and get a first taste of how it’s like work in the real world. Current technology doesn’t quite work for hands-busy and eyes-busy tasks. Learn that gas stations in rural areas close after dark. Study conceptual models and practice service design, loving the project at a local art gallery. Present the final project, a pitch for a faux game concept to investors, in Game Design. Your team decided that you’re the CEO. Realize that your fear of public speaking does not work. Design a roof that opens and closes. Attend CHI in Portland and Montreal. Meet fellow designers and researchers who start the network for your career.

Graduate with a masters degree. For years, it will confuse you which box to check. It’s not a masters of arts nor is it a masters of science. It’s a masters of human computer interaction.

Move back home with your parents, because you can’t find a job in Boston or New York. Start as an user experience designer and decide to transition to a design researcher role later. Find a job. Get laid off. Find another job. November 2008 arrives. Get laid off again. Find another job. Redefine that job. Get another job. Volunteer for a layoff. Freelance. Find another job.

Before leaving any role, write thank you cards to those who supported you in your role. You learned this from your high school economics / government teacher. Your handwritten letters always fill up two sides of the card.

Speak very little in meetings of more than three people. You’re annoyed at yourself when you defend your design after the meeting. A manager pushes you to become better and work on public speaking. You’re embarrassed and scared. You blame her initially for being pushy. Refuse to do Toastmasters. Instead, take improv classes and love it. Years later, you learn that she gave you the best advice and made you a better UXer than you ever were.

Stop hesitating and start believing in the “yes and…” After all, what’s the worst that could happen if you’re just adding ideas?

Also take her advice to keep interviewing. Not because you’re dissatisfied with your job, but so that you know the industry and sharpen what you want in your career.

Oversleep an important interview and a recruiter yells at you endlessly for 15 minutes over the phone. It is a well-respected company. She’s embarrassed, but you are now deeply ashamed. Send the recruiter a holiday card with an apology. For years, you wonder if you’re black-listed. Friends tell you that the staff has likely turned over. They won’t remember you.

Sneak in design research whenever possible including browsing Twitter for feedback and asking design directors to interview their friends for low-cost research. Lead some pro bono design strategy and research work on the side.

Have lunch with people you meet at UX events, because you learned that you should “never eat alone”. Build relationships that last. Connect with past alum. Realize that the value of graduate school are the people that you meet. Ask for help. Hone your design and facilitation skills. Learn from a former researcher from IDEO and start to model all your work after hers.

At parties, get asked what you do. Sometimes describe a microwave and buttons. Sometimes describe a restaurant. Sometimes ask “have you ever thought about how your phone knows exactly what you need?” and regret stroking fear. Watch for eyes glazing over. Babble about making the world a better place.

Realize that you’re jaded. You’re unsure about what domain interests you. You’re unsure where you want to live. You’re unsure where you want your life to go.

You need a break. But you don’t want to travel the world like your friends have done during this kind of impasse. Instead, pursue childhood dream of writing. When you traveled in the past, you always go out of your way to find a local ice cream shop, because it delighted you with its local flavors. Plus you love talking to the customers. Design a project that takes advantage of your interviewing skills and writing aspirations. Launch a kickstarter. Start a marketing campaign. Interview 60+ ice cream shops across 7 countries. Have lots of ice cream and learn that artificial flavors don’t settle well in your stomach. Participate in many writing classes and writing workshops. Join a weekly writing group that you’re still with today. Compile a book with sweat and tears over 3 years. Launch the book.

In the meantime, decide that you do love living where you are. Facilitate design sprints. Build up a client base. Sell your work well. Ask about solving the right problem, instead of creating the solution right. Work with people you know. Enjoy account management just enough, but not too much—writing project proposals and invoicing shouldn’t be the core of your work. Refine portfolio to emphasize the work in design strategy and research. Find that writing about UX is hard, but talking about it is easier. You can see its direct impact on the audience. Give talks at local UX events. Give a talk in Minneapolis. Stand on a large stage of 500+ in Helsinki and speak about your thoughts of design in healthcare. Wear that funny headset thing.

Always say thank you.

Design your own role. Design strategy + product design + design research. Get pickier about the type of work you want to do.

Occasionally recent graduates ask you about how to get into UX. One asks about your success. Say that graduate school helps. Say that sometimes it doesn’t. Say that it’s like navigating an overgrown maze. There’s no right way. Falter. Hesitate. You don’t think that you’re successful. You’re just lucky.

“Interesting,” she says, gripping her coffee cup and pressing her lips like you once did.

My thanks to Lorrie Moore.

Thanks to Joe Tullio.

Originally published at