Diving Into User Experience
How I changed careers and became a UX Researcher.
I wanted a new career. I’d been working as an editor for a start-up in Chicago for four years and it was time to move on. Churning out edits on marketing copy was no longer satisfying or challenging. But with a degree in history, and an eclectic job experience that included research for a consulting firm and a stint teaching English abroad, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I did know I wanted to be more thoughtful in my approach — I’d fallen into my previous jobs, and I wanted to choose my next one.
So I started taking online classes with Women’s Coding Collective and in-person classes with Girl Develop It, thinking I might become a front-end developer. I quickly learned that I wasn’t interested in being a developer, but I also learned about the growing field of User Experience. User Experience (UX) or User-Centered Design is a design approach that uses research — work with actual people — to understand how someone uses a website or app. Then UX designers improve the site or app so users can do whatever they need (buy jeans, pay a bill, find information) more easily and efficiently.
After a two-night introductory course, I was hooked. I knew this was the career for me. The discipline advocated research and an empathetic approach. It was creative and fun. People with diverse or weird job backgrounds like me would fit in.
The problem, of course, was how to break into this field—especially with no experience in design. I could go back to school and get a Master’s in a related field, Human Computer Interaction (HCI). There were also a growing number of online and in-person courses with various price points and time commitments, including UX bootcamps. Like coding bootcamps, UX bootcamps claim that in a short, focused period of time, a student will learn enough to find a job in the new field. The definition of “short period of time” varies: General Assembly offers part-time and weekend classes in UX, and a full-time program that runs for ten weeks, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Chicago-based Designation’s bootcamp is also full time, but is eighteen weeks long, with twelve weeks in-person and six virtual.
The bootcamp idea appealed to me. I didn’t want the time commitment or cost of a master’s program, but I needed something more rigorous than an online course, which I imagined would be easy to zone out of or put off entirely. I also needed a portfolio to show potential employers I understood UX principles and could actually do the work, and these full-time bootcamp programs were structured around creating projects for the portfolio. I knew what I had to do; it was just a matter of doing it.
In the spring of 2015 I quit my job to start the full time bootcamp with General Assembly. Though I had to take out a loan to pay for the $9,500 course (which, as of this writing, now costs $13,500), it was worth it because I would earn more in UX than I could if I stayed at my old job. I was also really enthusiastic about this new field. I wanted to learn and to plunge ahead. If I kept my old job, I’d be stuck.
I had the luxury of a partner with a stable, well-paying job who shouldered most of the living expenses (groceries, rent, utilities, etc). I was also on his health insurance plan. Everything else came from my savings: $200 per month to contribute to our shared expenses and another few hundred for my bus pass, post-class drinks, and whatever else I needed. Other classmates had relatives or spouses to help pay for classes; one enterprising student got a third of the tuition cost from an Indiegogo campaign. My sole extravagance was a wine club membership where I got two high quality bottles of wine for $50 per month. Date Night with my partner was Netflix and one of those bottles of wine.
I was one of fourteen students in my cohort and, in my 30s, was one of the older ones. Many of my classmates were in their 20s; one was just out of college. A couple had kids. We all had different backgrounds: finance, business, merchandising, education. Most of us had no formal training in design besides two students who had print and package design experience. Many of them, like me, wanted a career transition.
“I saw the bootcamp as a way to educate myself quickly so I could jump into the field with only a relatively short break in my employment,” a former classmate of mine told me via email.
To introduce all these newbies to the various aspects of UX, the course began with formal instruction (think lectures, PowerPoint presentations, videos) then divided us into groups to design websites and apps, and trained us to the point at which we were skilled enough to work on a client project. Throughout the course we practiced different research methodologies, created wireframes, and were introduced to the disciplines that comprise UX such as Information Architecture and User Interface Design.
After the course ended, there was a job fair. The new UX designers showed off their portfolios to recruiters and hiring managers.
Though this was good practice talking to professionals about UX, the career fair only led to one interview for me. Some of my classmates had better luck; one even got a job offer. The whole class had lofty hopes of getting hired immediately; one classmate who had early success landing interviews recalled how devastating it was to be rejected.
The summer of 2015, while I was job hunting, was a tough summer. Not only because of the tight household budget, but also because of the stress of finding a job. I tweaked my portfolio, checked LinkedIn and the job boards, wrote cover letters and sent in my resume. I followed design firms on Twitter. I awkwardly networked at a couple of meet-ups. I wrote a UX blog to show all those employers that though I was new to the field, I was also a thoughtful, curious person who would be a great fit for their team.
The experience was exhausting and demoralizing. I was in a constant state of low-level anxiety, especially since many of my classmates continued to get interviews. I wondered what I was doing wrong.
But within six weeks my scatter-method approach started to pay off: I was getting phone and in-person interviews. Less than three months after finishing the bootcamp, I accepted an offer to be a UX Researcher.
Having been a UX Researcher for over a year now, I can say the bootcamp experience was right for me. The collaborative projects helped hands-on learners like myself work with and begin to understand new concepts. Since I wanted a new job, diving-in head first via a bootcamp was just what I needed to help make that happen. It gave me the toolbox I needed, so when UX lingo like “usability” came up in interviews, I could speak to that concept with confidence. But my learning wasn’t done; I still had to figure out how to use most of the tools in real life.
“The information was very valuable and I will use it for the rest of my life,” said one classmate who is now using her UX skills and marketing expertise to help a local business owner grow her business.
She had this advice: “Be ready for an emotional and mentally taxing three months!”
A former package designer had a different response. He took the bootcamp to transition into UX and to fill in the gaps of his own knowledge, but looking back, he said he knew about 80 percent of what newbies like me were clueless about. He didn’t need to be taught how to do stuff like wireframe.
Though he didn’t feel challenged, he was quick to add that the course did introduce him to research methodologies, UX terminology, and helped him understand the user-centered design approach, things that had been missing from his own design toolbox.
“It got me where I needed to go,” he told me. He is now a Product Designer.
But he also warns potential students: “It’s not a quick fix.” It will take months of effort to find that new job. If you can put in the time and effort it takes to learn a bunch of new things in a short period of time, and then continue putting in that level of effort to find that new job, a bootcamp might be the right place for you. As my classmate told me: it’s important to understand yourself before you start.
I agree. Before taking a big emotional, mental, and financial plunge, it’s important to figure out what you want and why, and whether now is the right time to do the work to achieve your dreams. Then, go for it.
Christina Brandon works as a User Experience Researcher in Chicago, where she also scribbles a memoir about teaching English in China and a TinyLetter, Humdrum, on weird everyday things.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Change Series.
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