State-of-UX: 2017 Personal Recap

Me (left) & two coworkers — Clearly, we have a lot fun at Best Buy

Me-oh-my, what a year this has been! Save for all of the horrible things that occurred in politics, the environment and human culture, 2017 has a been a year of tremendous & personal growth for me. While I hope the World is making a shift to be more inclusive, sustainable and happy, I am proud of what I’ve accomplished and for the failures I’ve learned from. I’ve divided this into post into 3 main chunks: Accomplishments, Failures, and Random.

tl;dr

  • hated my job as a data analyst (far removed from people)
  • got myself a UX mentor, made a coding group, did some projects to learn about UX research
  • networked like a madman on fire, leveraging my degree in Behavioral Psychology
  • started work as a UX researcher at Best Buy in May
  • excited to learn more next year!

If you want to learn more, read on, dear reader — there are paragraphs aplenty!

Accomplishments — what did I do/learn/appreciate

All of the things that I am happy, proud or appreciative of, that helped me have a productive & successful year.

• Work Ethic

I truly learned the depth of my work ethic. I’ve considered myself driven but I learned how to fully maximize my mindset and apply it to one definite goal: Become a UX researcher. I wrote out personal-growth plans, kept track of milestones and failures in spreadsheets, listened to podcasts, devoured books and practiced this discipline as much as I could. I lost sleep, missed out on social events and got frustrated more times than I wanted… but I always viewed each day as something new to build and to create on.

First MCC coding meeting. Turnout: 3 people…

• Coding Group: MCC

At the outset, I knew that I’d have to learn the ins-and-outs of coding (or at least the basics). I kept hearing that UX’ers need to be able to communicate effectively with developers (as well as users, stakeholders, PMs, etc.) so I made a point of learning HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Python. To do so, I used the FreeCodeCamp website. It was a great tool but I wanted to engage with people instead of just the screen, so I created my own coding group: the Minneapolis Coding Collaborative (MCC). At our highest, we had 15 beginner to experienced coders, working on problems, getting feedback and enjoying the social aspect of learning+failing together. We met once a week and for two hours, we were heads-down in code, or heads-back in laughter (we are a social bunch). Sadly, I stepped back from the group due to some personal issues, but I am thankful for having such a great group of guys & gals who taught me to speak respectfully & knowledgeably to developers.

• Mentor

While reading online books, I quickly realized I was a rocketship-of-enthusiasm without mission control: I needed guidance and advice to help me channel my energy towards goals and results. I connected with a UX designer at Colle McVoy (via a friend of a friend) and we hit it off. She was incredible compassionate, helpful and boy, was she smart! She helped me focus my efforts as well as critique some of my early UX “deliverables.” Without her, I’d be aimlessly Googling “how to get hired as a UX researcher” over and over again…

• Free Software

When learning about UX, software is a big barrier to entry for those new. While I didn’t want to spend dollars every month for design software (I love research more than design), I knew I’d have to be comfortable enough to speak design software. At the time, I was a junior member on the George Latimer’s Innovation Lab committee (where we helped bring more transparency to a maker space within the St. Paul, MN entrepreneurial community). One of the perks was being able to use the free laptops… all which came loaded with a full Adobe suite. I spent Monday nights just dabbling around Illustrator, Photoshop & Lightroom, attempting to learn them. It was a fun process of trial-and-error but I valued those nights!

• Boss

Without a doubt, the most influential person this year (at least in my life!) is current manager. We met as I was networking in April and she took a chance by hiring me. I was a young professional (still am!), graduated a year ago and I didn’t know too much about UX. But she saw some energy and drive and she gave me a shot. She’s been an incredible keystone to my success this year and I will need many lifetimes to pay her back.

Corporate HQ — aka where I do cool UX things

• Best Buy’s Retail UX Team

The Retail UX team I am a part of and work with are passionate group. Everyday, they make me laugh, think and dig deep. The UX designer I work closely with is a wonderful & talented man who never fails to amaze me with his creative design solutions to user/IT problems. The IA who I sit near is magic with flows, critiques and wisdom (plus she has a tub of candy, of which I am frequent visitor). The design manager is efficient at influencing our designs (as well has making my research presentations that much more visual & engaging). Of all the places to launch my UX career, Best Best is nothing short of perfect.

• World IA Day 2017

I was literally so excited to attend my first UX event. While it was only a day and not a full conference, getting the chance to bump elbows with some of the local UX & product people in Minnesota was fantastic. I walked away with a lot of ideas, energy, business cards and motivation. UX’ers (in my personal experience) are incredibly easy to talk to, network with and learn from. Also, it got me jazzed up about going to an out-of-state UX conference. Hopefully, get to do that in 2018!

• 2 Big Projects

While I was studying behavioral psychology at the University of Minnesota, a core foundation was applying theory to practice. Get out and apply some of the psychology principles we were learning about. So, I wanted to apply all of the little things I had learned to practice and did two projects:

  1. Pandora: I’ve always disliked how Pandora looked (preferring Spotify for its clean design and functionality) so I wanted to re-design it. It was way too big of a task, so with the help of my mentor, we focused exclusively on the music controls. I learned a ton about UX design as well as performing guerrilla usability testing. (See it here: helloimvarun.com/pandora)
  2. Landmark: I did all of the qualitative analysis & IA work to help validate a skill-based camping app. I worked with the founder of a Minneapolis design firm, The Smallest Ant, to validate some of their design work. (See it here: helloimvarun.com/landmark)

• The Smallest Ant

When I had finished up work with The Smallest Ant (thesmallestant.com/), I was asked by the founder to join their team as an Experience Researcher. I was thrilled at the offer and came on as a freelancer. Currently, we are in the midst of helping a Norwegian client rebrand their company’s identity as well as creating a usable + delightful product website. We are set to be done early next year, so stay tuned!

Hello, I’m Varun — the homepage of my UX research portfolio website (helloimvarun.com/)

• helloimvarun.com

A big accomplishment was creating my UX research portfolio site, www.helloimvarun.com. It took about a month, to write (and then re-write, and then re-re-write) the copy, “design” it and use Wix.com to make it come to life. I am proud of what it is but I already have many ideas for how to update it to reflect the growth I’ve had since it was “done” in late September. (For example, it is not mobile-friendly…. argh.)

shown: Lots of UX conversations over coffee (not shown: my IA friend, Josh)

• UX Coffee Chats

Throughout this year, I sat down with almost 20 UX’ers for “coffee chats”. I’ve learned so much about how to navigate office politics, plot my UX career and how to be a successful UX researcher. Below are some of my favorite UX’ers — as well as the topics we talked about for 60-ish minutes conversations over coffee:

  1. a Senior User Researcher at UnitedHealth Group — How to break into the UX field
  2. Chief User Experience Officer at Modern Climate — How to design a UX portfolio
  3. UX researcher at Animoto — How to effectively communicate research findings
  4. UX research lead the The New York Times — How to do well on a UX research case interview
  5. UX design & research consultant (with 10+ years in the industry) — How to be an accomplished & effective independent consultant (as well as how to be a badass UX researcher!)
  6. an incoming Senior Product Insights researcher at Target — How to navigate stakeholder’s perceptions of UX research
  7. Information Architect & Designer at JAMF software — How to display information properly (and bad UX jokes!)

• Insights Design

One the things I am most proud of is crafting research presentations after conducting research. With permission from my boss — as well as ample help from my team & online — I started creating & presenting research insights that were focused on being visually-interesting + informative, depicting users in a story narrative, and driving deeper conversations with stakeholders. One of the key stakeholders I work with said about one slide: “This is the best slide I’ve seen in all my time here. It has all of the information that we’ve been talking about and it uses emojis!” (Yes… I wrote that compliment down…It meant a lot after putting work into the presentation!). While I still spend a little too much on a report, I am developing my own template of showcasing usability tests, or customer quotes or emotional responses to new features. The more work I put in now, the easier it’ll be to quickly create vivid and impactful research insights deliverables. (See pictures below for how I actually do research!)

Mapping out the flow for a research findings report
Trusty notebook for all my research notes
Color-coded analysis, post-research

Failure — what did I fudge-up/ignore/neglect

The learning moments, the assumptions and the blatantly, idiotic things that I did or didn’t do.

• Post-Graduation Job Hate

When I graduated, I jumped into one of the first jobs that I got offered: a consultant at a pharmaceuticals benefits manager (PBM), Prime Therapeutics, working in their clinical communications depart, dealing with fraud, waste and abuse (FWA). While it was a fun, social team, I did not enjoy the nature of the work. Then I jumped over to UnitedHealth Group (UHG) as a data analyst, working to help improve an AI-algorithm, shifting through mounds of biometric data. Needless-to-say, I hated this work: I was removed from people, staring at a screen all day, surrounded by lackluster coworkers and a boss who was an absolute nightmare to work for. Even despite the pay-increase between jobs, I dreaded work and counted down the minutes till I left the office. I started meditating to help deal with immense stress of such a uninspiring and hostile work environment.

• Framing Failure Through Donald J. Trump

One of the best conversations I’ve had with my mother happened at the outset of my decision to doggedly pursue UX. I was only thinking about the success of finding a job — no, a career! — that I truly love. I had big, grandiose plans of working at Spotify, or AirBnB, or Google or creating my own firm. However, when discussing the 2016 election results with my mom, she said something very poignant: “Why are people so shocked that Trump won? There were two candidates. They each had a 50–50% chance of winning.” Now, by no means is my mother a Trump-supporter. But she did raise a point that I hadn’t considered: I was obsessed with my success in getting into the UX field, but I did not pay any attention to the other 50% — failure. What if I worked as hard as I could, networked like a spitfire, read voraciously and practiced everyday, and I still couldn’t break into the UX field? It was a humbling moment and I took a step to frame failure as this: “If I work 365 days, to become a UX researcher, and I don’t get into this field, then I will have built a work ethic, a skillset, a professional / personal network and a mental perspective that will make it that much easier to make it happen in the next 365 days.” Failure is a beautiful part of a journey and I felt more ready for it, than ever before.

• Assuming “UX” was easy to get into

Given my academic background in behavioral psychology, I — very foolishly — assumed that getting into the UX research space would a piece-o’-cake. I was dead wrong. I networked as much as I could, and would only occasionally get a response to maybe find a time to sit down and chat with a UX’er. I was frustrated because all I needed was a chance to showcase my skills, my personality and my background. Eventually, I started grabbing 30 minute coffees with local MN UX’ers but it still didn’t pave a clear road into a full-time, paid UX research position. To be frank, I was crestfallen. I heard feedback about my doing all the right things and how my background is suited for this field but no one seemed to want to talk employment, only advice. I have eternal respect for those that view young professionals as the soil in which to raise successful, driven and creative leaders.

• Submitting long research deliverables

In psychology research, longer papers are “better”. They have more citations, they dig “deeper” into research design or the results. It's generally viewed that the longer the paper, the more professional the results & authors. However, in the work place, people shuttle between meetings, eating leftovers in Tupperware, sending emails during a presentation. Long papers don’t have a place and they’re definitely not viewed as professional. Early on, I produced a massive presentation after some research, excited that it was chock-full of citations, notes, annotations. It was quickly shot down because no one would read it. Stakeholders don’t want to hear the setup— they want the damn punchline. They are focused on making decisions that are research-backed, rather learning what a usability test can and can’t do. Quickly, I switched over to short & sweet deliverables, and I found stakeholders having more conversations about the results, instead of attempting to read each slide’s dense text.

• Lack of Early Stakeholder Involvement

When I first started at Best Buy, I saw stakeholders as titans who held project funds in tight fists, viewing UX research as a check-box (as in “Yay, we did some research. We can check it off and move onto more important things.”). I shied away from them for a solid month after starting, worried they’d not see the value of good research. Talking with my manager, with coworkers and listening to the Mixed Methods podcast, I knew I’d have to “confront” them. I set-up 30 minutes on all of the major stakeholders calendars and got to know them, their background, what their function is, how they define success and man, oh man, did it help! They were kind and smart and so, so helpful. They were also so very curious, asking questions about the research, methods, things we should focus on. Moving forward, I view stakeholders not as enemies or best friends, but as an incredibly deep well of business knowledge, champions amongst office politics and efficient players in creating a positive user experience.

I lost track of who I was: a curious, energetic and strange individual

• Lack of Belief in Myself

Of all the failures I had this year, the biggest was losing track of who I was. I forgot what I brought to the table, and more than once, did I doubt myself. I forget that I had coordinated national schizophrenic drug-abuse research for 2.5 years. I forgot that I have a Bachelors of Science in Behavioral Psychology from the school that B.F. Skinner taught at. I forgot that I value good questions more than quick answers. I forgot how curious I am in nearly all aspects of my life. I didn’t think that stakeholders would view me as a credible source of information, being only 23 and fresh out of school. Many times, after I started as a professional UX researcher — the goal I so relentlessly chased and wanted — I had severe doubts in my ability to perform, be valuable and to be seen as a credible. It was tough but I am glad I lost sight. It helped me appreciate my schooling, leverage my previous research experience and help me pave my own brand of research. Sure, next year, I’ll doubt myself at times. But I know that doubt will only be chipped away in time.


Random — all the little things

Tidbits from this year that I am fond of.

My coworker and I after landing at McCarran International Airport

• First Work Trip: Las Vegas

During the interview process, I was told that roughly 25% of this job is traveling: meeting users, engaging with store leaders and pulling insights from various US markets. I was excited then (I am a traveler at heart, but had to put it aside when I started college) and I was incredibly excited when I learned that I would be heading to Las Vegas to conduct some usability testing. Now, I had never been to Las Vegas and I had never traveled for work, but here I was, being sent to the City of Sin for a week, being paid to conduct research! Talk about a whirlwind of positive emotions! I went with one of the IAs and she and I had a blast. I learned about gambling (fun fact: I am very good at losing money); I saw the sites (lots of miniatures, such as a smaller but respectable Eiffel Tower); and, I got to help improve a employee system that the team had spent months on. (see some pictures below!)

Our lovely hotel, Hilton Grand Vacations (and coffee!)
Seeing the sights!
I like how New York looks & feels

• Second Work Trip: New York

Two months later, I was heading to NYC for a week to do evaluative research via observations. I had been to New York before but it was still incredibly exciting to map out the most efficient subway trips, what coffee shops to hit in-between store observations, as well as heading to Bleecker Street for a good ol’ fashioned slice. I even managed to connect with 3 UX researchers (see above, 3,4,5 on my list of UX Coffee Chats) for dinner or early coffees. Even the weather was a beautiful 70 degrees! Sadly, when I came back home, Minnesota was 15 degrees out and lightly snowing and heavily windy. (see pictures below!)

Can’t show work screens cause of confidentiality, so how about an artsy shot instead.
That Bleecker Street goodness

• First Week On-the-Job:

My first week consisted of meeting all of the Retail UX team, sitting in as many meetings as I could, learning about some of the ongoing / upcoming projects, learning what types of research was conducted at large companies, and alternating my internal thoughts, between “This is happening! You did it!” and “Aw geez, you’re gonna mess this up.” Luckily, my first research activity was do to some local, in-store observations and to learn. That was a great way for me to get my feet wet and set myself on a successful research path.

• XD Summit 2017

In November, all of the Experience Design teams at Best Buy came together for the Experience Design (XD) Summit, to talk about our industry, our successes and challenges, our goals and just to interact. It was over a 100 people in a room, talking, laughing and getting to know one another. Obviously, I was beyond excited to meet so many like-minded people. We got to know all of the individual design teams recent projects, did some design challenges, talked about the mission statements and snacked on donuts and coffee. I am more than excited for next year’s Summit!

My set-up for customer research (viewed from behind the 2–way mirror)

• Customer Research

A smaller version of Microsoft’s Desirability exercise

In December, I planned, scoped, conducted, and presented my own customer research study. I wrote my interview script (with ample topical help from stakeholders!) and set-up the lay-out for the customer participant and myself. We were in a private research facility and it involved multiple recording cameras, audio-capture and even a two-way mirror (one side was the participant and myself; the other side had rotating product stakeholders). I valued how useful it is to have stakeholders view our work, instead of just being told results. We had 15 minute debriefs in-between the 90 minute sessions and they were fantastic, with feedback, more questions and just general excitement.

• Favorite UX Books:

Below are some of the books I read this past year, that I found incredibly useful for my UX start.

  1. Just Enough Research — Ericka Hall
  2. Don’t Make Me Think — Steve Krug
  3. Lean UX — Jeff Gothelf, Josh Seiden
  4. Prototyping — Todd Zaki Warfel
  5. The UX Book — Pardha Pyla, Rex Hartson

• Favorite UX Podcasts:

Below are some of my favorite UX podcasts. I used these to learn about all of the little things that make a UX’er successful.

  1. Don’t Make Me Think — Laura Klein, Kate Rutter
  2. The UX Intern — Wesley Noble
  3. Ideo’s Creative Confidence Series
  4. Mixed Methods — Aryel Cianflone

• Favorite UX Articles:

Below are some of the articles that got me A) more excited/interested in User Experience or B) helped me be a better UX researcher.

  1. Embracing Uncertainty in UX Research — Matt Gallivan, AirBnB
  2. Learn UX Research Methods with GIFS — Ksenia Sternina, Mail.Ru Group
  3. The Researcher’s Journey — Dave Hora, PlanGrid
  4. No One Care’s About Research — Ruth Tupe
  5. Moderating the Back Room — Natalie Tulsiani, AirBnB

• Biggest Lessons of 2017

These are the biggest, personal take-aways from this year — UX or not:

  1. Questions > Answers
  2. Never stop being intentional with your career
  3. You will always have to earn respect, no matter who you are
  4. Make bold claims, but back them up with bold data
  5. Stakeholders are another type of user
  6. Research should validate or invalidate a hypothesis, not solution features

“Thank You’s!”

• Mentor: Kezra

Without my mentor, I am not sure where I’d be as I write this. She definitely gave me advice, motivation and enough confidence to help me get started in this marvelous field.

• IA + Friend: Josh

I met one of my good friends at World IA Day 2017 and he’s the one that got me connected to my current boss. He has been a wonderful resource — as a fellow UX’er, as a professional connection and as a general, all-around good dude.

• Boss: Brigitte

Another Thank You for my current boss. She has pushed me to become a better researcher but given me the freedom to try new things. I am glad to have her in my corner and beyond grateful to be a part of her growing team!

• Coding Club Partner: Mike

One of the key players in my coding group, Mike was an amazingly patient teacher, explaining plug-ins, responsive design and how to effectively utilize CSS sheets. I view web design and development in a much more humble light now.


…I tied my bowtie by myself… that's all.

Final Thoughts

It has been a transformative year for me. I’ve had so many ups and downs, formed relationships with amazing people and learned what UX research truly is. Next year, I want to update my personal site (making it mobile-friendly is a must!), try more psychology-tested research methods and push for greater UX research visibility.

Also, I have moved on to the next phase for a User Research Internship with S****** in New York for Summer 2018. I am happy to even make it past the first phase as I had cold-applied. My boss plans to help me prep for the interview but I am nervously excited! We shall see what happens… cause if there’s one moral from my 2017 year…. it’s that you never know what’ll happen if you work hard, smile and ask a bunch of questions.

Till next year, V


Go to www.helloimvarun.com (desktop-only) or www.linkedin.com/in/varunsmurugesan/ to learn more about me, see my work and dive around my mind.

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