If you’ve spent time studying any form of literature, mythology, film or theater, you have heard of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (aka The Hero’s Journey). Actually, anyone who has seen Star Wars or The Matrix has seen it in action.
When I look back on how I started in design, and as I mentor professionals newer to the disciplines of design, I see some interesting similarities to The Hero’s Journey. Sure, it’s not lightsabers and quirky droids, but there are similarities nonetheless.
I am often asked by new or aspiring designers “How do I become an established user experience designer? What was your path?” My goal here is to help those aspiring designers, or designers who are new to the field, avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered. Some were external, but many were self-inflicted.
Since this is about my particular journey, it will be filled with personal examples. The names of the companies and innocent bystanders have been omitted.
Departure from the Ordinary World
Every hero starts out in what to them is the “Ordinary World”. For me that world was theater and improvisation. My day job was just a job to me. It was the late 1990s and I was a print designer, graphic designer and all around gofer for a special effects studio in North Hollywood, CA. It paid the bills (barely) and gave me time to explore the world of the entertainment industry.
Of course, that world was cutthroat and vicious and full of people willing to step on you not just to get ahead, but for their own amusement. But that is another story entirely…
The Call to Adventure and Refusal of the Call
Which freaked me right the heck out. Who was I to think that I could learn these things? I have a Master’s degree in theater, not computer science. In fact, I was practically a technophobe at that point. My brother was the brainiac computer person in the family. I was always “the creative one”.
But I also have a huge stubborn streak that doesn’t let me back down from a challenge. I overcame my reluctance, told my insecurities to shut it, and started HTML tutorials. I left the relatively safe world of regular office work to explore the special world of web design.
I went home that Friday evening determined to learn what I could about creating web pages. I started researching HTML on W3C, and taking online tutorials. From that Friday evening until Sunday morning, I didn’t sleep.
It turned out that I was good at HTML, I enjoyed CSS. And I was fascinated by the fact that markup was a language I could understand. I was building a foundation for a future and even that early in the process, I could see a career developing out of this special world.
Discovering a Mentor
The job at the special effects company was relatively short-lived. One major budgeting snafu and a third of the staff were let go. Just another in a long list of good reasons to get out of “the business”.
So, I started taking on web design jobs for nearly every mom-and-pop knick knack shop and Thai restaurant within walking distance on Ventura Blvd. In the beginning I would trade design services for goods. And that worked out well.
Eventually, though, I needed a real, full-time web design job. You know, so I could eat. After a few creepy/painfully awkward entertainment industry web designer job interviews, I applied at a dotcom on Wilshire Blvd., and was hired by a woman who would become my first mentor.
In the year that I worked at the dotcom, I learned more about design and professional interactions than I ever could have hoped. Kristen Yolas, my mentor, was not only a gifted designer, but an amazing artist as well.
Looking back, she was the first person I encountered who modeled empathy for the end user. She was the first designer I worked with who challenged me to use my acting skills to put myself in the role of the people who would be using the sites I was designing. She had a very holistic approach to life, and that translated into her art and design.
Working with Kristen ignited my desire to not just do good design, but to do design for good.
Kristen also helped me separate my ego from my designs. A big pitfall in every designer’s career is believing their design is their “baby”, and letting their feathers get ruffled if someone calls their baby ugly.
Crossing the Threshold
Kristen also encouraged me to try bigger and better things. In fact, she sent me the job listing that would become my next career move. This was literally a few months before the official dotcom bust and she had a sixth sense about what was coming down the road. She’s good that way.
I applied for, and landed, a job as the sole web designer for a national healthcare corporation. Suddenly I was on my own. Sink or swim, the entire website and company intranet was my responsibility.
My first obstacle was that I was reporting to a person who many business owners had an uneasy relationship with. The content on the site was not what the business owners (who were directors and VPs) wanted, and they felt their needs had not been met.
I thought about what I would want if I was a business owner. I would want someone to ask me exactly what I needed, not make assumptions. So one by one, I invited the directors and VPs out to lunch to talk about their needs.
This was really daunting because there were some strong personalities involved. Add to that the fact that I was much younger than everyone I was meeting with. But as soon as I set the context by asking them what I could do to make the website work for their needs and the members’ needs, people relaxed and began to trust me.
I let them know that we were all on the same team and that the member was my priority. Since it’s a membership based organization, this went a long way to healing any animosity or misunderstandings that came before my tenure there.
I had my share of trials and successes there, but by the time I left the company, I had built a robust website as well as a new Intranet that communicated documentation that would have otherwise been printed thousands of times over for employees.
Now I know everything! Right?
At some point in this journey, I met and married my husband, and started a family. After several years with the healthcare company, it was time to move on. We decided to move to Phoenix to be closer to his family.
The job market was tough at that time and user experience design was not in very high demand (something that blows my mind given today’s job market), but I found a good position at a mid-sized, family owned fundraising company.
I had a great mentor in the Marketing manager there. She further enforced the message of not letting ego dictate design, and helped me see the design as a digital representation of the business owner’s product. So if anyone could call the experience their baby, it was the business owner, and I needed to treat it with care.
Where I ran into big challenges was in my side work. Like pretty much every designer in the early aughts, my day job paid o.k., but the side work really helped.
And it was in that side work that I had some of my most humbling moments. See, there’s this point in my designer’s journey where I went from knowing nothing to knowing everything. Or at least that’s what I thought. I thought “I so have this. I am a pro!”
One little pink, white, black, polka-dotted and striped boutique website later, I realized I knew nothing and that I really needed to listen to the business owner.
It sounds awful, right? Polka dots and stripes? And that color scheme, seriously?! Which was pretty much the attitude I gave to my client. She was a 25-year-old entrepreneur, and there was no way she knew more about her customer base or good design than I did.
If hubris had a color, it would be pink and black with polka dots and stripes.
After trying to bend her stylistic requirements to suit what I thought was a good color scheme, I did this little thing called competitive research. I was going to prove to her that what she wanted was not the way to go.
After looking at all of her competitors’ websites, I realized I owed her a big apology. The type of boutique site she was running and the products she was selling were represented perfectly by her desired style.
It was at this point in my journey that I realized that designs don’t need to be clever or a personal work of art that please me or “impress” other designers; they need to be usable, fulfill the business needs and the end user’s needs, and need to fit or exceed the expectations of what the site is for.
A New Hope
When I moved my family to Texas to be closer to my relatives, I took on a new job at the largest company I’d ever worked for. The ‘little fish in a big pond’ culture shift was the first challenge. I was excited about the opportunity, but felt a little overwhelmed at the scope of work that a truly large corporation could generate. There were many, many, many lines of business and products to learn about. And there was a lot of process. And it was ever-evolving.
I went from always being the person with the ability to push things into production at my discretion to being a part of a much larger design and development ecosystem.
Knowing that I was out of my depth at this point, I sought out people who could mentor me, not necessarily just in design, but in learning the ropes of this large corporate culture and all of the processes involved.
It was with this company that I began attending various UX and IA conferences and found a new level of depth and understanding in the work I was doing. After the first two years there, I truly found my stride and began mentoring other designers.
What do you know? I really do know what I’m doing.
When designers started asking me to mentor them, I thought “Why would they ask me? I’ve only been doing this for…” Then I realized that I was over a decade into this career. And then something wonderful happened. The people I mentored would ask me questions, and I had good answers for them.
I remembered the ‘golden rule’ of theater that my undergrad teachers would lecture us about. They’d say, “Pass it on.” It’s a simple phrase, really. What they meant was you don’t truly know something until you can teach someone else about it. And if you don’t share with anyone else what you’ve learned, you leave nothing behind you.
The Journey Continues
As I continue my work, I’ve started writing articles for various UX publications. I’m applying to speak at conferences, and getting to know some amazing UX professionals along the way.
I work in an amazing team of over-achievers that keep me on my toes. I am confident in the work I do, but know that I have opportunities to learn every day. And not just from more experienced professionals. Some of the people I’ve learned the most from recently have been very new to the workforce. It’s amazing to see what designers can achieve when they aren’t just thinking “outside the box”, but when they have no box as a frame of reference.
- Try something new every day. Even if it terrifies you, the worst that can happen is that you find out it’s not something you enjoy doing.
- Look for mentors. If there are people you admire, talk to them, observe them, learn from them. And if someone volunteers to mentor you, be happy. It means they see something in you they’d like to nurture.
- Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions. You will never look dumb asking a business owner or stakeholder what you can do to help them achieve their goals. But if you assume you know what you can do, you may meet a great deal of resistance.
- Be prepared to talk about the value you bring to the table. Don’t be cocky, but don’t undervalue yourself. Confidence and arrogance are two very different things. Learn the difference.
- Do competitive research. Always. And that doesn’t necessarily mean research the same types of businesses. If someone asks you to help their healthcare site increase policy sales, don’t just focus on other healthcare sites. Look at businesses that excel at sales.
- Design for your customers. Not for your own ego. And customers means business owners as well as end users. If you make the end users a fantastic flow that doesn’t meet the business’ requirements, you have some adjusting to do.
- Be willing to admit when you are wrong. Own up to a bad decision and collaborate with the project team or business owner to correct it.
- Always be open to learning. Some day you may think you have all the answers. You don’t. Listen to people around you. Consider their input and ideas carefully before responding.