How the jobs that didn’t make my CV made me a better UX person

Most of us had some odd jobs as a teenager or as a student. Needless to say, these jobs will never make your CV. No one at your future job is interested to know that 5 years ago you cleaned toilets for a living, right?

I’ve had my share of odd jobs, some for a day only and others for a few years in a row. Almost each and every one of these experiences have taught me something. Off course I could’ve chosen to just get a job done and collect my money but I always preferred to see how and why things work the way they do. Now, when I look back at some of the jobs I had I can actually see how they influenced me for the better and even provided me with great insights that help me today as a UX person. Allow me to give you a few examples:


Waiting tables at a beach restaurant

During the years I studied I had a few jobs, one of them being a waiter at a very crowded beach restaurant. As a waiter I had to listen to the customers’ needs, take orders, and suggest plates from the menu. Then I would order the food from the kitchen, bring it to my customers and make sure they were happy until they had to pay for the meal. Obviously I had to make sure that each customer would leave wanting more so they’d return.

Pretty straight forward, but let’s take a closer look at the responsibilities of a waiter. The people that are entering the diner, spend time and money and expect something in return. As a waiter you need to understand who is sitting down at your table. First-time visitors need to know what kind of establishment you are, you set expectations. You need to listen to your customer’s needs and make sure you make correct suggestions when you’re requested to recommend something from the menu. On the other hand, you should know when a customer doesn’t want your advice. As a waiter you need to time your requests for feedback from the customer carefully, making sure they know you care but without overdoing it because that’s just annoying. When they’re done you want to know if they enjoyed the experience, make sure that bad experiences are turned into positive ones and that positive experiences will be remembered when they leave the establishment.

So in other words you:

  • Offer a good onboarding experience
  • Provide a clear overview to what is being offered
  • Recognize specific needs that require tailored responses
  • Recognize behavioral patterns and make suggestions that increase engagement time
  • Know how to receive and respond to feedback
  • Offer a good closure experience

Sales person and store designer at Tower Records

When working 12 hour shifts at the beach restaurant starting taking their toll, I got a job selling CD’s at Tower Records (you know, those round shiny things that store music). Similar to my waiting job, this involved working closely with people. Tower Records had a no-uniform policy that allowed customers to approach you based on your authentic look. As a music sales person you have a few responsibilities. Know music and stay up to date, listen to your customers, get them as soon as possible to the product they are looking for, understand their taste in music and make relevant suggestions so they buy more music. Sometimes, they don’t know what they want or have partial information forcing you to understand their needs based on a 9 second whistled tune for example.

In short:

  • Truly understand your product and stay up to date
  • Comprehend how the way you look influences the customers you attract
  • Make sure to guide someone from point A to B in a short time
  • Understand your customer’s needs based on little to no information
  • Know how to increase engagement based on the information you receive

I was studying graphic design at that time so when the store-designer position became available, I got the job, making me responsible for the way people get around in a 10,000 square foot store. My day to day job consisted of making signs, posters and other promotional materials. The signs needed to be clear in their message and I needed to make sure they were placed in the best strategic places. When a new CD came out that we wanted to promote, I had to make attractive posters, stand decorations and other promotional material with a clear message convincing people that they had to own that specific piece of music.

This one’s pretty obvious:

  • Guide people and help them find what they need with the help of graphic elements only
  • Write clear messages that explain how and why people should perform certain actions
  • Understand what effect certain visuals and color combinations have on people
  • Attract people to perform specific actions in a space that is filled with distracting elements

Customer representative for the import department of Airborne Express

When I got disillusioned by the whole graphic industry and before the internet arrived and saved my life, I decided to lay down my pencils for a couple of years. Which brings me to my final example: I became a customer rep for Airborne Express. As part of a team of two I was responsible for thousands of packages that arrived daily and needed to be distributed to their eagerly expecting consignees. Needless to say, this was not an easy job. On one end people paid their hard-earned money to get something as soon as possible to the other side of our planet and on the other end you had my customers, the people waiting for these somethings. More accurately, people who didn’t get their ‘somethings’ on time. During my first week, unhappy customers seemed obsessed with my mother and her line of work. I was also told more than once where I should put their shipments (hint: a small and dark place).

It took me a while to really understand the people I was working with. These people had all the right to be angry and I just happened to be the one that had to deal with this anger. So I had to learn how to deal with their anger, make sure to calm them down and more important make sure do decrease the number of reasons for people to get angry in the first place. So the first thing I did was understand what went wrong in most cases, anticipate these issues and make sure to inform the customers before they had time to get angry. I understood that I had to improve the logistics of our department making sure that at all time we were aware of every single shipment that went through our department. People that did get upset needed to know that someone was listening, understanding and doing everything in his power to make the problem go away.

Translated:

  • Find a way to organize a lot of information in a manner that makes it manageable
  • Anticipate weak points in your system, try to improve them and learn how to soften their impact on customers
  • Get to know your customers and understand behavioral patterns
  • Understand and accept that you’re responsible for people’s frustration and know how to provide a good experience no matter what

How about you?

I truly believe that every experience, every job, as simple as they may appear can teach us a lot. In the end it’s a matter of perspective. If you’re open to learn you can and will improve yourself even by the oddest of jobs. I’d love to hear from you. How did small, seemingly unimportant jobs make you more of a professional in your current job?

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