The very first step — Edition 1 w/ Ross Chapman.
Every month I’ll be chatting with one of many talented designers — discovering more about their first steps into design, the successes, the pitfalls, and what they wish they’d known starting out.
With a background in user experience design, Ross Chapman has worked in a wide range of industries, from eCommerce to education. Living in Southampton, UK, he’s currently product design lead at Etch, a user experience design agency. There, Ross helps shape the UX and strategy, collaborates with partners to deliver outcomes (through design sprints) and plays a major role in business development. He’s also a senior mentor at online UX school CareerFoundry.
Hey Ross — Thanks for taking the time to chat! Could you start by telling us a little more about where you are now?
Thanks! I’m product design lead at Etch, a user experience design agency. We love what we do, and what we do is create meaningful, human-centred digital products that push businesses further.
Previously, I was part of a small UX and design team at Wiggle, the online sports store and in total, I have been working as a UX designer for the past decade or so.
What did your journey into design look like?
It started as a hobby for me. My parents bought our first computer and I think it came with Microsoft Frontpage, so I started creating websites that way. I then picked up Adobe Dreamweaver, and over time, moved on to designing and coding up WordPress themes.
Later, I was working in London as a video editor and started doing web projects in the evenings. One project landed on my lap that was too big to do in my spare time, so I tendered my resignation (or rather, called in and said I’m not coming back to work) and spent the summer on my laptop in the garden completing that project (incidentally, it was a website for these folks). From then on, I was a professional web designer.
Did you go to school for design, or are you self taught? How necessary do you feel a formal education is?
At the time of completing college, I didn’t know what my future career would be. I equally enjoyed video production and web design, so in 2002, I embarked on a Media with Cultural Studies degree, which covered both.
User experience and digital product design is a growing field and attracting new people every year. I’ve largely self taught. For people wishing to become UX designers today, I’d suggest starting by reading a tonne of articles, some books and attend an event or two. If you’re sure it’s a profession you want to get into, consider investing in a short-course such as Becoming a UX designeror find one on General Assembly. On completion, if you can, use that knowledge in your current role to transition to a better UX design role.
You don’t necessarily have to go to design school for UX. You just have to be fired up about what you’re learning about. That’s a really good indication to me of whether this is the right career for you — if you’re fired up about designing for real people, quickly and iteratively.
How did you land your first design job? Can you share any top-tips, or things you look for when hiring?
In my early career, I was a video editor. I was okay at it and joined it at the point when video distribution was switching more to online. After University, I moved to London to find my first role. My first job was at a mobile marketing agency called Que Pasa Communications, which had started making short video clips for mobile phone operator Virgin Mobile and broadcaster Channel 4. This was at the time where we had to make 2G, 3G, Realmedia clips, before the Apple iPhone came about.
I remember at the interview for the job, that the one thing they liked hearing was my solution to everything: “If I don’t know how to do it, I’ll find out.” Google Search has been a lifesaver for me and I probably wouldn’t be the designer I am without it!
Fast forward to today, and I look for a number of key things in candidates applying to UX/product design roles we may have open:
- Do they practice UX and product design now, or are they generalist web designers at small marketing agencies? I’m looking for jack and jills of all, but masters of some. That’s typically mastering at UX design, but can do content design and UI design at a good standard too
- Do they do that extra reading or make interacting with the community a part of their lives? I’m not looking for people that ‘sit’ in a role. They have to work, challenge each other and become better. I can usually judge this solely off a Twitter profile!
- Do they get ‘fired up’ about UX and product design. Have they read books like Hacking Growth and Sprint? Do they have strong opinions about things such as user-centered, design thinking and the usefulness of personas or wireframes?
- While a CV and Portfolio are useful, a LinkedIn profile and a few Medium case studies demonstrate a minimal viable product approach — bonus points if you practice what you preach!
Tell us about your first design job — did you enjoy it, what lessons did you learn there?
I moved from designing websites as a hobby to doing it professionally first as a freelancer. They were all pretty small-scale and I wanted to solve bigger problems with design, so surrendered as a freelancer and worked at Hult International Business School as a digital designer. After a year of experimenting with different exercises and ways to solve problems, such as guerrilla user testing, focus groups (never again!), and html prototypes, in my annual review I said I wanted to become a UX designer and they agreed!
You may notice something about my CV to date. I generally stay in a role 1.5 years. Why? After eight or so months, I start finding issues with leadership, management or something else. Maybe I learn all I need to and look for my next challenge?
One thing that unites most jobs I’ve had is that you have to be a self-starter. I’ve rarely had anyone to learn from, and I’m not sure I necessarily need to. What I do need however is the ability and confidence to try things out. Lucky for me, Etch give me that in spades!
Why did you end up leaving, and how did that affect your future career moves?
I could have stayed at Hult as it was a great job with a super diverse group of amazing people. However, at the time, I had a young family back at home and the four hours of commuting every day was taking its toll.
Since that role, I’ve stayed as a UX designer and only in the last couple of years started learning and moving more into product design. To me, that’s taking what I’ve learnt and adding:
- Product strategy
I’m constantly learning and it’s relatively easy for me to pick up because I’m fired up by it and now have ample opportunity to try new things.
Where did you move to next?
I moved from working in London to working just up the road in Southampton. It was a pure engineering company who often took two or so years to produce a new product. The UX needed was light-touch and I’m not convinced they valued it as much as they said they did. We were a UX team of two, but we were never granted access to users. One thing we were called upon to do were to make proof-of-concepts that the marketing team could show at trade shows. I guess this was a way of gaining feedback, but really the business was too slow to react to change and this was the only way to show progress.
What I did do there was continue reading and trying new exercises. Paper-prototyping, creating some prototypes in PowerPoint and building and verifying personas.
What was your biggest career or job role mistake? How did you recover, and learn from it?
Mistakes happen. It’s how you react to it that is important. Looking back, I’m not sure there is anything that I would do differently — it’s all part of growing up. However, I do remember going to Belfast off my own back to attend a two-day iOS developer training course. I kidded myself that I could do it all — design and develop. The course taught me that I should work with good iOS developers rather than become one myself!
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
That’s really hard. Coming into the world of work, it’s hard to understand what you should do with your career and it can take a few years to find what fires you up. If you can find out what that is, or know what you want to become eventually, you can reverse-engineer how to get there, but just accept that it might take a few years. Look at me — I didn’t start as a designer!
Some people reading this might be in the early stages of their career, in college, or just considering a career in design. What advice would you give them?
Work out what fires you up. That might mean trying a few things. That might mean doing a few internships or attending conferences for example. Level-up with a workshop. More importantly, if you’re excited by what you’re doing (and I mean visibly smiling when working), I think you’ll know you’re on to a good thing. You’re at work most of your life, so ensure it’s giving you what you need and to understand that, you really need to first understand yourself.
Ross runs Design Sprints with businesses of all types. Learn more about the process here: http://designsprint.etchuk.com