What I do and how I got here – an unconventional career in digital and UX
A rough transcript of a talk I gave to the BCS Young Professionals group at Sheffield Hallam University in February 2017. Get in touch if you’d like me to give a similar talk at your meetup or event.
What I do now
I lead user-centred design projects and teams. I help organisations make sure they are building products and services that people actually want, and that those products or services are simple and easy for people to use.
You’ll see this referred to as user experience, UX, user-centred design, or even more old-fashioned terms like human computer interaction or HCI.
I’m currently at NHS digital. I’ve ended up doing a lot of public sector work recently, because there is a big focus in government on working in user-centred agile ways, which is what I specialise in. I’ve worked with organisations like DWP, Land Registry, Bristol City Council, and Office for National Statistics.
I lead teams and do strategic stuff around product development, more than hands on design work — though I like to keep my hand in with the practical stuff where I can. I think it helps to still know what your team has to do day-to-day.
How I got from there to here
Mostly I work directly for companies — what’s called “client side” — but most of my career I’ve worked “agency side”. I spent 2 years as a User Experience Director at a specialist UX agency in Bristol called cxpartners, and I ran a web design and build agency with my husband for over 10 years from the late nineties.
These days I work as a contractor which means I do short term 6–12 month contracts, paid by the day, rather than being a permanent employee. A bit like freelancing, only doing regular work with one client rather than lots of bitty things for lots of clients.
In fact I haven’t had a ‘proper job’ in 20 years. My last proper job was as a junior secretary at BBC drama, right out of university.
I studied English at Newcastle and then did an MA at York. At York I decided I didn’t want to be an academic, and joined the student TV station. That’s how I got a job in TV. That’s still true for media jobs and digital ones. It’s the experience you get outside your course, whether that’s societies you’re in or personal projects you do, that helps you stand out from the crowd when job hunting.
From the BBC I got a freelance job editing a kind of rough guide to universities. This was 1997. People were still thinking the internet was a fad that would never really catch on. I volunteered to rope my boyfriend in to help make them a website. We got paid £250 and a stack of programming book.
That’s how we started our own web agency. I did design and he did development. Running your own business is a lot of fun but also really hard and really stressful. After we decided we’d had enough of doing that I moved into doing consulting and contract work which is how I got where I am today.
How I get work
People always ask me how I get work. I get all my work through word of mouth. It’s always been about doing good work, and the people I work with then recommending me to other people. Not in a creepy business networking way. Not business cards at twenty paces. Just organically.
And Twitter. Seriously, people I’ve got to know through Twitter.
Someone said it’s not who you know but who knows you and there’s a lot of truth in that. It’s not for everyone. It only works if you’re both good at what you do and people like working with you. Digital is still quite a small world so those things matter. Word does get around if you’re not up to snuff or are a bit of an arsehole.
What I do now didn’t exist when I was at University
I never set out to be a ‘web designer’. When I started at university the web had only just been invented. No one was a web designer. Let alone doing ‘user-centred digital strategy’. The job I have now simply didn’t exist.
Maybe the job you’ll have in 20 years doesn’t exist. That’s what makes this field exciting.
I did English Literature. Not design. Not computer science. It doesn’t matter so much what you study. It matters what you can show you can do.
Often what you do outside your course is at least as important as what you do on it. I wanted to work in TV. Most people I know who do that now didn’t do media studies. They wrote for the student paper, or did student radio. This was before the internet was really a thing. The barriers to doing that are even lower now your phone is an HD video camera.
Digital designers of my generation were all self-taught. We started as web masters, back when <p> tags and animated gifs and notepad were about all you needed to know. The barriers to entry are higher now, but it’s still a field where you can learn a lot of this stuff off your own back.
There’s no excuse for not having a portfolio — it’s really easy to make a website, prototype some IoT stuff, join a hack day or design jam event and learn more about UX design. Build something that works, even if it’s quite small and boring. People who can get something straightforward finished and working are more attractive than the people who’ve started something interesting but can’t quite get it to work.
When we stopped running the agency and I was trying to get into consulting or contract work, one thing that really helped me was going to a couple of hack days. I got to try different activities and find out what I was good at, especially in a bigger team. You meet people and they see what you’re really like to work with. I recommend it.
What does the future hold?
The last 30 years of human computer interaction have all been about point and click graphical user interfaces, ever since the first Apple Macs. That’s not going away but a lot of what interaction design is going to be about in the next 30 years is going to be very different.
Things like conversational user interfaces. Stuff that’s just getting started with chatbots and the Amazon Echo. We’ll be working with increasingly sophisticated AI to interpret natural language and design meaningful responses — think Star Trek rather than Siri. Or wearable devices where the interface is a tiny screen or just a few buttons. Relying on sound, lights and vibrations for feedback. These are the new challenges.
But there’s also still so much crappy unusable software out there. We’ll be pointing and clicking for a while yet. User-centred design isn’t going to become redundant as a field anytime soon.
I rather glossed over the bit in the middle about how I went from running my own web design agency to being a successful user-centred design lead.
Here’s a bit more on that if you’re interested:
What I learned running my own business, and how and why I made the sideways step into consultancy and contracting, is covered in my talk from Dare Conference 2013: How I Redefined Success By Writing My Own Rules (video).
Video of Sophie Dennis's presentation at Dare Conference, 24-25 Sept 2013, London.2013.dareconf.com
Making the change wasn’t easy, and I never expected it to work out as well as it has. I guess that’s the point. It’s OK to take a bit of a funny route through life. It’s often tough and you may feel like you’re being left behind and have gone in a completely wrong direction and will never get anywhere. But it can work out OK — and even sometimes rather brilliantly — in the end.
Two pieces of writing from successful artists who’ve followed their own slightly unconventional paths, which inspired and comforted me on that journey (and which I reference in my Dare Conf talk) were:
- Neil Gaiman, and his 2012 keynote address to the University of the Arts — “I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work” and so much other wisdom.
- Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, whose graduation speech at Kenyon College in 1990 is brilliantly recreated in this cartoon by Zen Pencils — “To invent your own life’s meaning isn’t easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble”
The other side of the story
My husband and partner-in-crime in a lot of this, Andy Robinson, has also written several articles about the experience from his perspective:
Everyone gets ill from time-to-time. But sometimes that starts as the sniffles turns out to be something more serious…medium.com