Deconstructing my First Year as a UX Designer at Microsoft

How learning from customers, teammates, and mentors taught me a few things about myself

I recently completed my first year in my very first job. What a year it has been! It certainly feels great looking back. It started with a starstruck me joining Microsoft as a UX designer in our R&D India office. My first day was filled with welcoming speeches by inspiring leaders. They all talked about how it was a great time to work at Microsoft, which was undergoing cultural, technological, and philosophical shifts under the able leadership of Satya Nadella.

I started my first year focused on user research with a manager who was deeply experienced in design research. My very first project included understanding and defining opportunities for productivity applications for emerging markets like India & China. This began my training in understanding and empathizing with the true needs of users, and establishing them as guiding principles for products. My first realization was about how easily and often we said “the user will like to do this” in order to make a point. Little did we know the responsibility we held when we spoke on behalf of our users. It quickly became more complex when we considered the Chinese market, which is really not a single market at all. The associated language and translation challenges required us to rethink our stages of design research.

We can never ever guess with absolute certainty, how the user will use our product unless he/she actually uses it.

While learning from users was my responsibility, I also had to sensitize others on how important it is to gauge real customer needs. Raising team awareness became a step we adopted in our design process. At times I would lose my patience when repeating the same stories time and again to convince my colleagues what I had learned. It seems obvious now, but I came to realize that the best way to empathize with users is to talk to them and get their experiences firsthand. As a design researcher, it’s equally important to be able to relay clear stories to your teammates. This helps the team focus on the user’s context without requiring them to be in the field.

It is the responsibility of the user researcher to convey the user story in its purest form, maintaining the context such that everyone can relate to your insights.

We designers take pride in going deep in our work, working tirelessly to create the best experiences for our users. What we forget is that evangelizing our designs is also a part of the process. We held a workshop that encouraged product teams to ask the basic questions of ‘why’ and ‘when’ in the design journey. Sometimes we forget how vital user stories are when conceiving and designing products. The best product teams understand the narrative and use it to work towards a united goal. Their conviction comes from their firm belief in the story, the idea, and solving the problem at hand.

Before selling your product to your users, you must be able to sell your idea within your team.

After spending time working in the user research domain, I had a chance to change course and work more hands-on in creating user experiences. I have always felt that solving users’ problems gave me highest satisfaction as a user experience designer. As a student we were taught the entire UCD process but it was hard to predict where our interests truly lie. Dabbling in sketching and creating user journeys gave me a different type of satisfaction than my experience as a user researcher, which afforded me the unique opportunity to understand the value of user inputs in this journey.

Always be on the lookout for your true passion in your job. There will always be a lot of things you would like to do, but only a few things you will love.

My first year also allowed me to work in a range of teams. Unlike school, rarely do we succeed on our own. Every step of our journey is full of people and experiences that help us progress. I believe one must always be in a perpetual state of learning. Observe people around you — how they think, how they communicate, how they contribute to the team, and what you can learn from them. Sometimes you need more guided learning. In those cases, reach out to someone who can help, be they a colleague or a manager. I get the best results when I am open and assertive. In my experience, a manager plays a critical role in pushing you to your creative limits while providing support when you need it.

My journey has just begun but I am excited about the principles I’ve discovered. I believe you can learn something from every person you meet. In some cases an advisor may become a mentor. I feel it’s invaluable to have a mentor who really knows you and can help you realize your goals.

Find yourself a mentor. Reach out to your manager, an experienced colleague or your peers for their opinions and thoughts. Never stop learning.

One of our talks on my first day was about work/life balance. I discovered as a design researcher, that the more I am out experiencing the world, the better designer I can ultimately become. I have met people of varied creative interests: cartoonists, dancers, trekkers, sports enthusiasts and avid readers. Explore your other passions as well, and make sure you take time out. Sometimes inspiration comes in those in-between times. Sometimes these little things pave the way for something better and unexpected. My final piece of first-year-wisdom is to take time for yourself : ).

Take time out for yourself. Do things that interest you outside of work.

I want to thank everyone who has made my first year worthwhile. Of course, I will be there when you need me!