Rowena Leung
Aug 26 · 14 min read
A work in progress of blue, graffiti-style Nepali calligraphy by Imagine, a Nepali artist based in Boston, MA.
A work in progress of blue, graffiti-style Nepali calligraphy by Imagine, a Nepali artist based in Boston, MA.
The beautiful journey of a work as letterforms become art. Source: Imagine via Instagram, internationally renowned artist and expert kombucha brewer

Let’s consider the last object you interacted with, either physically or digitally.

This object was created intentionally, shaped by whomever was involved: a director, an engineer, a product manager, a product designer, a support rep, a customer—just to name a few possibilities of people, all with varying needs and concerns.

Whether your experience with it was good or bad is another story that depends on how well the creators understood and addressed your needs.

As technology continues improving, we’ve come to expect more as consumers and are less tolerant of nuisances like clunky interfaces and frustrating navigation. Companies, in turn, have realized that they lose out to competitors with more usable and enjoyable systems and apps. As a result, human-centered design — in which people’s behaviors and expectations drive the development of technology — has become table stakes even for ‘laggard’ companies, while the old stereotype of software being written by a solitary few sitting in a dark room recede into memory.

Design rising

The 3 lenses & roles represented in product development: desirability (design), viability (business), and feasibility (tech).
The 3 lenses & roles represented in product development: desirability (design), viability (business), and feasibility (tech).
Source: IDEO.org, The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design

The new paradigm of product development is, or at least aspires to be, a cross-functional exercise between business, product management, product/user experience (UX) design, and engineering, in which these different roles collaborate closely, creating shared ownership and understanding of the product so that work can be done both efficiently and effectively.

The designer leads the charge for human-centered design and interacts the most with users out of everyone on the team. So, while UX design has been around as a profession in some form since the 1950s, it’s recently gained increased traction and will only continue to grow as new technologies rise and fall.

Implementing human-centered design means designing for reality — for actual human behavior and interactions that are observed, not just assumed. A well-designed app is more than the sum of its individual features: these features should speak one cohesive language, created intentionally to resonate with users.


Continue on for my take on the following:

  • What does design encompass?
  • Who can be a designer?
  • You may secretly already be a designer if…
  • My personal experiences
  • How to get started as a student

What does design encompass?

“Design” as a field is so broad and tends to be so loosely defined that it’s definitely not one size fits all. Because of this, there are many disciplines involved, leading to many different potential roles and responsibilities. Furthermore, there are generalist roles, in which your responsibilities may encompass all of the below and more, and specialist roles, where you may narrow in on a particular skillset.

Here’s a view of skillsets my team has used:

Icons representing  the UX skillsets described below.
Icons representing  the UX skillsets described below.

Strategy
The ability to understand business needs, recognize big picture opportunities within a product ecosystem, and recommend an appropriate course of action (research/design tasks) for working on these opportunities.

User research
The ability to evaluate, through qualitative and quantitative methods, the thoughts, feelings and contexts that motivate user needs, desires, and behaviors.

Prototyping
The ability to build something for users to test and interact with, using prototyping tools or code. This can include anything from rough sketches to a series of high-fidelity, clickable mockups.

Information architecture
The ability to organize, structure and label content in an effective and sustainable way, to help users find information and complete tasks in an intuitive and cohesive manner.

Interaction design
The ability to design intuitive flows that optimize getting a user from point A to point B, based on knowledge of user behaviors and patterns.

Visual design
The ability to craft polished layouts that use graphic elements like typography, color theory, grid systems, hierarchy, and proximity, to satisfy a defined purpose rather than subjective preferences or personal tastes.

The roles available in a company depend on numerous factors, including size (e.g., you can expect to wear more hats at a tiny startup), level of design maturity, and business impacts/consequences of poor design.

You can find more detailed information about the landscape of roles in this blog post:

Who can be a designer?

To me, it’s simply anyone who wants to make technology work well for people in real life.

One of the most interesting aspects of the product design field is its multi-faceted diversity that makes opportunities accessible for more people. Though diversity adds value to any field, it’s especially critical in a field that creates and impacts everyday products that any number of people could use.

While the field is relatively varied in terms of demographics, practitioners also come from a hodgepodge of backgrounds and work on different types of products.

Diversity in demographics

Below are some demographic highlights from the 2017 US Design Census, conducted by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), a national organization of design professionals. Over 13,000 responses were received.

Gender identity

Bar chart: responses for gender identity. 53.5% female, 44.8% male, 0.77% non-binary or 3rd gender, 0.85% prefer not to say
Bar chart: responses for gender identity. 53.5% female, 44.8% male, 0.77% non-binary or 3rd gender, 0.85% prefer not to say
Source: AIGA, 2017 US Design Census

Women represented more than half of the respondents. In my experience, I’ve worked with more female UXers than male, and my current team is 8/11 women, including our awesome boss. Anecdotally, I think that the use of soft skills and empathy draw more women in general toward the field, and also toward adjacent product-related positions that involve connecting with people.

Race and ethnicity

Bar chart: race. 60.4% Caucasian, 11.3% multiracial, 10.4% Asian, 8.1% Latinx, 3.4% black, 1% Native American, 0.8% Hawaiian
Bar chart: race. 60.4% Caucasian, 11.3% multiracial, 10.4% Asian, 8.1% Latinx, 3.4% black, 1% Native American, 0.8% Hawaiian
Source: AIGA, 2017 US Design Census

In this dimension, it’s clear that racial representation is still lacking. I see this as an opportunity, as it’s only by increasing representation among different groups of people that our profession can create and influence truly inclusive products. Consider that non-white designers identify this as the top issue facing design, while white designers place it second.

Diversity in academic and experiential backgrounds

According to Nielsen Norman Group, a leading information source on UX matters, the field is a kaleidoscope:

There’s no single degree to define the field: design, psychology, and communication were the most common major areas, sharply pursued by English and computer science. All of these fields make some sense as a partial educational background for UX professionals, but together those five disciplines accounted for only 45% of bachelor’s degrees. The majority of UX professionals hold degrees from an immense range of other disciplines, from history to chemistry, most of which don’t have a direct bearing on UX work.

We can see a microcosm of this just from a quick sampling of the UX community at my company, a large enterprise:

Donut chart: backgrounds of 40 current UXers. There were 15 different prior professions, with the top being graphic designer.
Donut chart: backgrounds of 40 current UXers. There were 15 different prior professions, with the top being graphic designer.
Source: Christine Fajardo, esteemed colleague and visualization extraordinaire

Without a straightforward path ahead, how can you tell if you should consider becoming a designer?

You may secretly already be a designer if…

(aka, my perspective on important traits effective designers possess)

You can put yourself in others’ shoes.

“You are not your user” is a common mantra we use, both to remind ourselves and our team members that we operate under assumptions of our users, and that these assumptions should be tested. It can be tempting to try to extrapolate others’ thoughts and feelings based on your own experiences, but the more you’re able to catch yourself, the faster you’ll realize what you still need to learn from your actual users.

This also applies to understanding the needs of business stakeholders and development team members. The more you’re able to understand the different concerns your colleagues have, the better you’ll be able to meet them where they are and communicate in a way that enables everyone to understand the value of your suggestions.

An interesting contrast I’ve observed is that designers tend to be both self-effacing in that they put others’ perspectives first, yet need to cultivate a strong voice to advocate for the user — which is easier to do when you feel more connected to your users and the problems at hand.

You enjoy moving between big picture concepts and minutiae.

Though this can depend on how generalist/specialist your role is, the earlier notion of variety also applies to daily tasks. Sometimes you may be working on feature prioritization with the product manager; other times you may be laboring over the positioning of a button. You can get a better sense of these kinds of differences by reading “day in the life” articles like these two.

You can read between the lines.

This is important for putting together user research findings, during which you make sense of patterns in the information you’ve gathered.

It’s also generally helpful for communicating with coworkers. Because you’re executing other people’s ideas for the most part, it’s helpful to know when to take things at face value and when to infer intent.

This attribute is where I’ve found my English degree particularly useful, as I’ve spent much time dissecting intent, uncovering broad themes, finding small pieces of evidence to support these themes, and connecting seemingly disparate ideas.

You consider yourself a lifelong learner.

This is true of tech in general, with how quickly technologies and roles change, but I think it’s especially relevant here, given the diversity of UX disciplines and that you’re always learning about new domains as opposed to being a subject matter expert in one. I like to think of UX as a smoothing agent on the team that works among the other roles to identify and fill in gaps in experience.

You want to make an impact in tech without necessarily coding all day.

I’ll echo what Sarah, aspiring product manager, wrote in “You Are Not a Fraud”:

I was introduced to areas of tech at SheHacks that I didn’t know existed, such as user experience (UX). I was so relieved to learn that I didn’t have to be a software engineer to be a part of tech since I knew that that role wasn’t for me — I love to code, but I didn’t want my entire day focused around it.

It certainly helps to have a technical background so that you understand the limitations and attributes of what you’re working with — but you can use this knowledge to contribute to a product in a different way.

You want to understand people’s underlying motivations and behaviors.

A designer’s goal is to continually uncover more questions — not to be contrarian, but to ensure that a product team isn’t overlooking a consideration from user research, human factors, design principles, etc. Asking appropriate questions is key in problem solving.

“Tech people tend to want to just solve the problem. But the problem with [reductionist thinking of societal issues] is it’s not like previous problems, where you just solve it. You actually have to keep asking the question, ‘Is this even the right question?’ And this is why it’s much more difficult.”

— Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab


My personal experiences

I was initially drawn to the extremely multi-disciplinary nature of the field, because I was interested in a lot of the fields in and around UX, like information architecture, writing, user research, graphic design, accessibility, and front-end development, so it was great to find a field that allowed me to work across all these subjects. I was also excited at the prospect of sweating the little things that most people probably don’t really care about, and a penchant for the mundane that keeps me going every day.

Job satisfaction is pretty high in this field: I’d say it’s because it’s the role tends to allow for both creative and analytical thinking as well as a good mix of collaborative and independent work. Pain points arise more from being unable to do the work rather than from the work itself.

Personally, what I’ve found most rewarding is how practicing UX has made me more intentional in my own life, and made me realize how much I was operating on tightly held assumptions that kept me from achieving goals out of fear of failure. I like to think that I’ve become more willing to step outside my comfort zone as a result of being better able to deal with a fear I hadn’t named before, and I don’t know that I’d be able to say this about many career paths.

With this said, working on an in-house consulting team in a large enterprise with nascent design practices comes with its share of challenges. It’s likely a common story among enterprises transitioning to agile development, or in any other situation in which a mindset shift is needed to change inefficient processes that people may have been following for many years.

These are some things I would have liked to have known when I’d started:

Importance of soft skills

Before I started in my role, most resources I’d read were related to developing hard skills for design, like how to create mockups and prototypes using some tool, or which heuristics and best practices were applicable for different interfaces. But more often than not, even today, including designers in projects represents a new (and potentially uncomfortable) way of working for our partners, and part of our job is ensuring that teams see us as valuable partners as opposed to yet another external team complicating their work.

Thus, collaboration features heavily in my daily work, but is especially crucial for project inception activities like establishing business goals and metrics, facilitating design sprints and prioritizing feature work. There’s definitely overlap here with the product manager role, but my team ends up doing or getting involved in this work a lot of the time due to product management being less established in the company than design, which is something I hadn’t anticipated.

Many projects ago, I learned the hard way what happens when business stakeholder alignment isn’t built from the start. Fortunately, the only lasting impact of this was making me more cognizant of keeping stakeholders, product managers and/or development teams apprised of what I’m currently doing and getting input before proceeding on upcoming activities.

What it means to advocate for the user

I was brought up to work hard, keep my head down and not challenge authority, so you can imagine it was difficult for me to get comfortable with speaking up, especially when I felt I didn’t have enough information to back up my statements and was usually a more junior person on the team. It was especially tough being the only person on a team representing a fairly new role to the company, and being questioned by others when I myself was already doing enough of that for the entire team.

Through recent acknowledged successes, I’ve been able to build confidence in my ability to enact change for the users I serve. This has strengthened my comfort in asking for what I need, knowing it’s ultimately for the user, and in vocalizing research findings to drive my own conviction and to better arm my statements. I’ve also found that I’ve naturally gotten comfortable with speaking up more by working on the same product suite for a while, as it enabled me to feel satisfied that I understood the products to a level such that my recommendations weren’t totally off base.

Basically obligatory impostor syndrome

I felt like I had a multi-layered experience of this: firstly, that I didn’t belong in the industry without a technical background, even though I didn’t have a particularly technical role. (I had double majored in business and English, then became a software QA tester and systems analyst before transitioning to product design.)

But secondly, and maybe more strangely, I also felt that I couldn’t count myself as a ‘woman in tech’ because of my lack of technical knowledge, though this was not due to anyone’s attitude toward my presence, nor my own attitude toward other women in tech from similar backgrounds.

Thirdly, it was troubling to be in a position where I felt that my soft skills (see above) and my technical skills were underdeveloped. I actually would have liked to cultivate more technical skills, but didn’t believe I could learn it — leading to cyclically getting discouraged every time I tried to learn and got stuck somewhere. I would wonder whether I was cut out for any of this at all.

Truthfully, I’m not sure I’ll ever fully get rid of this feeling — I suspect it’ll just morph as I gain more experience — but I have gotten better at pushing it aside and not letting it stop me from participating in things I want to learn and do.

There’s a lot to learn — and that’s okay

As I forge on, I continue to see how much I have yet to learn. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by it, as I have in the past, I try to think now about the possibilities of what I could learn instead of feeling like I’ll never learn enough.

You don’t have to know everything to try something, or even to get a job. It’s important to show your willingness to work hard, humility, ability to work with others and listen to their feedback, and show that you’ve taken initiative to learn about the industry and explore your interests on your own, especially if you’re new.


Getting started as a student

If you’ve read this far and are still interested, cheers to your potential future as a designer! 🎉 Here are some suggestions for getting started:

  • Take a class or two in human-computer interaction/user experience design/usability at your college to see if it’s right for you.
  • Be proactive in taking advantage of career resources: go to career fairs and other events, and get acquainted with available resources and networks.
  • Have coffee/casual chats with practitioners at different types of companies, in different roles. You might find them at events or by reaching out online.
  • Last but not least: just give it a shot! Carry out research and design for an issue you feel personally motivated to improve. Nothing is too small!
    A perfect place to do this would be a hackathon like HackHer413, where all levels and all ideas are welcome. Creating something is also a great way to start a portfolio, which would help you apply to internships/co-ops.

Resources

Sites & blogs

Books (try the library first!)

Podcasts


The world of product design can get maddeningly vast once you wade in, and I hope this has been helpful to ease you into the waters. Feel free to reach out if you have questions or comments, and check out my blog if you’re interested in reading more.

HackHer413

A hackathon for women (cis and trans) and non-binary students hosted at the University of Massachusettes, Amherst to encourage, empower, and motivate students to become involved in tech-related fields and explore a new spark of interest in innovation.

Rowena Leung

Written by

digital ephemera on ux & design

HackHer413

A hackathon for women (cis and trans) and non-binary students hosted at the University of Massachusettes, Amherst to encourage, empower, and motivate students to become involved in tech-related fields and explore a new spark of interest in innovation.

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