Making the leap from ESL to UX

Nov 22, 2016 · 6 min read

I wanted to write this article for all others that are making a similar transition, going from teaching English abroad to becoming a UX designer back home. Although I scoured the internet looking for others who blazed this path, only a few entries on reddit and a blog entry were found. I hope for this entry to encourage others interested in making the transition to take the first step.

You may currently be teaching abroad; or perhaps you slightly quenched your cultural curiosity, made heaps of international friends, traveled the world, inspired and connected with numerous students, and finally decided it was time to return. Perhaps you also discovered your professional calling was in UX Design. Moving back and changing gears can be stressful (reverse culture shock is real), but also immensely rewarding once you start progressing towards your goals.

If you are anything like me, you always enjoyed drawing, art, design, and psychology. You may have already taken classes in Adobe Suite. You may have majored in marketing at a business school while taking classes at the journalism school for P.R. and advertising. But it wasn’t until recently that you realized that all these interests and skills intersect at UX Design.

Image for post
Image for post
Image from Jotfom

After doing research and speaking to numerous designers, it became apparent that there is no one right way to break into the field. One of the most pleasant things I discovered was that teaching English abroad develops many transferable skills, as you can read about here and here. Successful ESL instructors and UX designers share some vital soft skills: curiosity, empathy, flexibility, communication, and active listening.

  1. Curiosity

“Curiosity means that we are open to the possibility that we may not know everything about a certain situation. It’s the willingness to remain open to the unknown, regardless of how smart we are.” — Tobias van Schneider

Curiosity is the greatest driving force for ESL instructors. Curiosity is why many instructors eagerly make the ultimate sacrifice of giving up many comforts of familiarity to move across the world. It is the curiosity to understand other people and cultures, and to explore possibilities that proves to be more rewarding than financial and material comforts. The desire to see, find out, understand, and explore is a key driver for many who become teachers abroad.

The same curiosity that drives many abroad also drives us to UX design. This deep desire to understand the user and find out the ‘why’s and ‘how’s is innate to designers. This curiosity drives UX designers to take chances, dig deeper into research, and explore new avenues that will ensure a user centered design.

2. Empathy

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing — building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.” — David Kelley, Founder of IDEO

To make a solid connection, empathy is crucial. It is a foundation for any genuine interaction. Successful instructors test and make sure to gain a clear understanding of the student current level, learning ability, learning style, and interest before developing and assigning a lesson plan. Even after the lesson plan is created, a competent instructor will continue to revise materials to ensure student satisfaction and skill growth.

For a UX designer, empathy is a key step to understanding who you are designing for. Empathy tools like User Centered Design and empathy maps are widely recognized and used by designers today. By doing research before starting the project, the design team allows for the user to be understood and heard. Much like a competent ESL instructor, a designer will test and reiterate their design numerous times to ensure the final product matches the user needs.

3. Flexibility

“Software design is a dynamic process demanding instant flexibility, adaptability and openness to change.” — Alan Cooper

If you ever had to adjust a class on the fly after noticing your student was too advanced or not as advanced as the class they enrolled in, or had to navigate the giant maze-like Shinjuku station alone, or figure out how to set up a bank account in Seoul, you probably learned quickly to think on your feet and adjust to the situation. You learned to think outside of the box because you were in an environment that didn’t give you a box to start off with. Working and living abroad is a true test of flexibility because no matter how much you plan in advance there will be unforeseen situations that will force you to quickly reassess and adjust your plans.

As the famous Alan Cooper mentioned in his quote, the global competitive market is evolving very quickly and designers must keep up with the pace. To ensure companies maintain a competitive edge, they have to invest their limited resources wisely. This means that designers need to quickly familiarize themselves with new tools and client needs. In the era of change, flexibility is the lifeline of business.

4. Communication

“Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” — Don Norman

A successful ESL teacher is a master of how to efficiently create lesson plans and generate results with limited speech and body language. Communication is already complex enough without language barriers — yet the best and most popular ESL teachers I met have all been able to help their students with simple, clear, and tailored communication.

The best designers are experts at communication. It is a common misconception to think of good design on a purely visual level. A strong design will not only be aesthetically pleasing but will also clearly convey a message with the intended tone. Designers are often avid story tellers using personas and storyboards to convey their ideas. Visual and verbal communication skills are the primary foundation for designers.

5. Active Listening

“The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathize, empathize, synthesize, and glean insights that enable him or her to ‘make the invisible visible.” — Hillman Curtis

I wanted to focus on listening which I found to be the most valuable and underrated skill in ESL and now in UX. The main difference between a new and experienced ESL teacher can be seen by the ratio of speaking to listening. New teachers usually spend 80% of their class time lecturing and 20% listening. Experienced teachers have the opposite ratio, spending 20% of the time instructing and 80% of the time listening and helping students formulate and reiterate ideas. Great instructors understand the delicate balance of saying just enough, actively listening, and following up with appropriate questions to help students fix mistakes and elaborate.

This skill is dually important in UX. No matter how much you think you know about your stakeholders or users, it is important to cast aside your assumptions. By listening and observing, you will always learn something new. Following up with the right questions, you will gain a deeper insight and gain greater empathy. These insights will be key to creating a successful and sustainable design.

Image for post
Image for post
Image from

In conclusion, the skills mentioned above are just the very tip of the iceberg. UX Design, much like any profession, is much more intricate, complex, and fluid. However, I hope this article was encouraging enough for you to take the first step towards a new goal and a new path.

Thank you again for reading this article. If you like this article please click the heart below. If you have any comments or suggestions, please let me know.


Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store