Anxiety about not knowing the path forward to becoming a UX Designer.
August 3, 2017 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some guidance towards becoming a UX Designer, and I have no experience in a design or IT field. I've just graduated with a BS in Psychology.

I’m trying to learn the skills to become a UX Designer. Let me tell you where I’m coming from: I just graduated with a BS in Psychology, I’ve never had a “career” job, and I have no formal experience in any sort of IT or design field, nor have I ever taken any classes. The most I have done in terms of design is play around on Photoshop and tinkered around in digital drawing. I’m not an artist – I’m more analytical, scientific, and research oriented.

The reason I started on this road to UX Design are multifold. I enjoy research, but more ethnographic, real life research. I’ve been a research assistant and took a research methods class, and they were so damn dry. There was no interaction with people – and an interest in people is why I majored in psychology in the first place. I don’t want to be trapped in the lab all day pouring over numbers, I want to see how people react and interact. I’m more analytical than creative (I’m interested in communication, personality and social psychology), but I still want to have a hands on approach, a role where I aid in CREATING something rather than slowly adding knowledge drip by drip to an old theory. Though I have no substantial experience in design, I do find it an interesting topic when approaching it from a psychological viewpoint.

Finally, I’ve got $50,000 in student debt, I have no other idea about what direction I would take in further psychology education. And I’ve heard that UX Design is an up and coming field that is in demand and pays well, all without the need for further education – I want to start paying off my student debt, not adding to it. And I live in Austin, Texas, which is a hotspot for the IT field.

So those are my motivations and where I’m coming from. Now I’ll talk about where I currently am.

I’m paying to take classes at the online website Interaction Design Foundation. Right now I’m in the early steps of learning about the core principles of User Experience. I’m learning about principles such as visibility, learnability, findability, direct vs indirect mapping, affordances, and so on. I am going to a UX Meetup starting this Monday that’s hosted by Career Foundery to try to see if I can find some mentorship.

But essentially, I’m at the complete bottom of the well. It seems as though EVERYONE else has work in some kind of related field – graphic design, coding, some UX/UI background, SOMETHING. And I feel like I’m learning at about .5 miles per hour, when I need to be going at a much faster rate. After all, I have student debt to pay, and I am still dumbfounded at how I can even go about putting a portfolio together – let alone get an unpaid internship – let alone a paying entry level position. I’ve got fire breathing down my back and I’m in a field where I feel as though I don’t belong due to my utter inexperience and lack of background.

Interaction Design Foundation is very theoretical, whereas I learn more by hands on experience. I’d love to get to the point where I can put together a portfolio, but I feel like this is a thing unlike learning to play the guitar – where you can teach yourself in solo, using some online tutorials. It takes collaboration with another person, and I know nobody who’s trying to develop an app or website to which I can apply my knowledge. It seems as though everyone’s advice boils down to “apply these principles to a website or app you are working on, and put that in a portfolio”. But I’m not a creator or an inventor – I’m an analytical researcher with an interest in ethnography and studying people.

Sometimes I feel as though I’d be better suited to going back and getting a Master’s in Engineering Psychology or Human Factors. I feel like this may be a drastic step made out of desperation though, as it takes so much time and more importantly money.
I know this post is goining on way too long. I’m partly venting, partly getting my anxieties out. Because I do feel very anxious – I have the goal of being a UX Designer in mind, but I have absolutely no clue how to reach that goal. When my girlfriend or parents ask what I’m doing with my life, I don’t know how to answer without saying “I’m just trying to learn how to become a UX Designer”. I can’t layout on a timeline when this will happen, how it will happen, or any steps that I’m taking. More than them though, it’s me that’s scared about not having a map.

Does anyone have any advice who may have experience in this field? Should I get my Master’s?
posted by ggp88 to Work & Money (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds to me like your background and interests fit better in a User researcher role, rather than UX design. Why do you want to be a designer?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:05 PM on August 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've done lots of UX work and you have an awesome background for the field, btw.

To break into the field, more than anything I suggest looking for jobs that are user research-focused and design adjacent. Here's an example of what I mean (that also happens to be an open position in Austin).

That will allow you to focus on your current strengths while still getting experience in the field and learning the fundamentals.

Good luck!
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 7:10 PM on August 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thank you Tiny Bungalow! Thank you so much for providing a real life job opening!

I do have a question. It says that I need to have "3+ years of experience in user research, user interface design, information architecture, usability testing, human factors, and other related disciplines within a consultative or corporate environment."

I know that sometimes you need to fluff up your experience and do some white lying sometimes in your resume and interviews. But I have 0 years of any of this within a consultive or corporate environment. If someone were to ask me to do these kinds of tasks, I would feel completely inadequate at my current skill level.

How does one get this kind of experience? It's sounds like the age ol chicken in the egg of "you need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience".
posted by ggp88 at 7:38 PM on August 3, 2017

If you're not an artist, but you feel drawn to the field of user experience, I would suggest you look into information architecture or usability instead of design. It's a related field, in that you would do well to at least be conversant in good design, but quite frankly, there are a lot more designers than good IAs. One field isn't "easier" than the other, but if you aren't an artist and aren't naturally drawn to the idea of creating graphics, then the actual process of design might bore the shit out of you in a way that information architecture wouldn't.

I feel like I have to drop some reality here, which is that, at least from what you have said, I gather that you have virtually no background in art and no real interest in art. Do you draw or paint? Have you ever taken any art classes? Because UX design is a creative field with a heavy artistic component. You must have artistic talent and you must have a solid foundation in art education, formal or not. You should already have been working on your artistic development for years. Ideally you would have majored in a fine arts field in college. And then you need to learn how to design for the web.

So yeah, I think you should really just not plan on being a designer. Or, to put it another way, plan on being a designer in about 6 more years, after you've gone to art school, majored in interactive design, and managed to get that internship.

The field of user experience is larger than design, and there is plenty of room for you to dive in without having to catch up on a decade of art classes. Usability sounds like it would be far more relevant to your background and your own preferences, and you would not be essentially starting your education over from the ground up in order to be a competitive candidate.
posted by Autumnheart at 8:46 PM on August 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

You could also probably get relevant experience in positions such as market research. It occurs to me that one could get plenty of demographic research opportunities by volunteering for one's local political organization. Politics is heavily oriented toward researching demographics, particularly at the grassroots level.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:24 PM on August 3, 2017

Minimum experience isn't always a hard and fast barrier. You could very well get the job if you can explain, in a thoughtful way, how the experience you do have has prepared you for the position responsibilities.

If that doesn't feel comfortable to you, try looking at assistant/associate/junior user research jobs where you work under a lead/senior researcher. Here's an example for comparison, though it's not in Austin.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 9:31 PM on August 3, 2017

I am a UX designer working in finance. Before that I was a UX designer and content dude for a digital agency (five and a half years). Before that I was a communications consultant (writing communications strategy documents). Before that I was on a graduate scheme for a big IT consultancy (mostly running training courses). Before that I was an English literature grad with no idea what to do with my life and my skills.

Pretty much everyone I know who does this job stumbled into it because they were into internet-type things, started farting around with their own website, built things for friends and gradually turned it into a job. There's a lot of courses out there, but I always look at what people have actually done when I'm recruiting - real enthusiasm for the field and the work it involves, plus a willingness to learn and adapt your ideas and thinking over time is way more important than credentials. If what you're interested in is UX research/testing work, you can create a 'portfolio' of sample research work - identify sites or products you like and write up how you might A/B test their checkout flow, for example. Everyone's portfolio is full of speculative stuff they've done themselves and/or personal projects at first.

There's also UX meetups all over the place - check out and look for one near you, then go along and get to know people. And feel free to MeMail me any additional questions.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:24 AM on August 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your background and attitude remind me strongly of great UX researchers I've worked with, and I think you'll have a lot of success in the field once you land that first job.

My recommendation would to be to focus on the research side of UX, at least for now. It sounds like that's what you're most interested in, and it's what your educational background has prepared you for. Don't sweat the visual design side of things. Instead, focus on testing for usability, developing research-validated personas, constructing mental models, etc.

As a would-be researcher I'm not sure you even really need a portfolio, but it would be helpful for you to have concrete proof of the following:
  • You're ready and willing to go out into the world and talk to people about how they work, problems they experience, whether an interface is easy to use and meets their needs
  • That you can construct smart and non-leading interview scripts and can conduct interviews that are pleasant, ethical, and effective
  • That you can aggregate and present your findings in a manner that's compelling and rigorous
Apart from that, it sounds like you're doing a lot of the right things already, such as learning more about the field and attending relevant meet-ups. Getting past that initial "3+ years experience" requirement can be tough -- honestly, I went back to school to get a Master's in Human-Computer Interaction partly for that reason -- but I know several very capable UX researchers that only have an undergraduate degree in psychology or anthropology. It can be done!
posted by Kilter at 8:15 AM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

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