“Curiouser and Curiouser”: My Journey down the UX Rabbit Hole
Two weeks ago, I changed my life and took my first steps toward a new career in user experience design (UX). After seven years in book publishing, beginning this journey was disorienting — a little like flying and a little like falling. So it was entirely fitting that, all of last week, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book, Alice in Wonderland.
I had some idea of what a ten-week User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) program at General Assembly (GA) might look like, thanks to the “orientation” session. Choice quotes from alumni: “Say goodbye to your friends and family.” and “Don’t sleep here.” At the time, this was funny and mildly terrifying, kind of like someone yelling: “OFF WITH HER HEAD!”
Then the program started, and it kept going, and I started to understand fully what GA means by “Immersive.” Still, the alums at orientation had also said, “Trust the process.” A few days ago, I finally understood that too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should do what the King of Hearts says: “Begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
“WHO ARE YOU?”
I’m Amy, and I’m a former book publishing person. I worked a number of jobs in publishing, but children’s books were always first in my heart.
Children’s books are kind, brave, experimental, and funny. They are beautiful design objects and incredibly practical tools. Their end result, I believe, is creating more empathetic human beings.
The obsession with empathy is not the only place children’s books and UX intersect, but to move forward, it was enough for me. I fell down the rabbit hole and began Week 1 of UXDI.
FOLLOW THE WHITE RABBIT
I landed with a thump, immediately dropped into a space where everyone was speaking words I didn’t wholly understand and following a rhythm I couldn’t hear. I met my 24 classmates, and with barely a how-do-you-do, we had a full day of lectures. That night, we were given our first assignment:
“Create a mobile app that supports the GA student social experience”
I hit the ground running and scheduled my user interviews that night.
UX (and GA itself) is an extrovert’s paradise, and I especially loved the research phase of this project. I spoke with five UXDI students from cohorts who were further along in their programs, taking the opportunity to learn about them, their habits, their likes/dislikes, and GA itself. Piecing together the details of my fellow students’ lives, and perhaps getting a glimpse of what was ahead for me, was exhilarating. I wanted to know everything.
I didn’t have a lot of time to revel in this stage of the project, because reality set in: I had to transcribe my interviews. It was a hard lesson in scope to transcribe five 25-minute interviews in less than 48 hours.
I, like the White Rabbit, am a little obsessed with time. (You might say “Type A.”) I also have a stage/project management background, and I really love to schedule. The transcriptions threw my task projections way off, and nothing else could get done until they were. I went off on my own, away from my cohort — working constantly, anxious that I was running so late. I knew exactly how the poor White Rabbit felt: “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”
THE POOL OF TEARS
The deadlines on the first project loomed, and I was drowning. Affinity mapping was sinking me. I’d asked for too much information, and alone in my non-whiteboard-walled apartment, it was hard to synthesize.
In my sleep-deprived haze, I tried stay positive by putting together a persona that made me laugh and resolving to do better. I was drowning, but I knew I could pull myself out. To get the most of the experience, I had to pay attention to the lessons the course was teaching me. I had to UX my experience of UXDI.
“TAKE SOME MORE TEA”
Looking before I leaped, I poured over the briefs for upcoming projects. Our instructors wanted us to succeed, and they gave us all the guidance we needed, if we looked and listened for it. There was a method to their madness. I focused more on learning the UX process and practicing the tools than perfecting a final product, adjusting my own metrics for success.
I did stay very conscious of my time management, as time is the most precious resource at GA, but I also tried to be gentle with myself. I slept and ate. I listened to music that made me happy, counted dogs on my way from the subway, bought glitter unicorn stickers, and brought in loose leaf tea from home. I prioritized finding moments of joy in an incredibly intense experience, and I set myself up for success by taking time to think things through thoroughly.
The last piece of the puzzle was looking out, past my own experience. To complete this project, our cohort had to interact with people who had been where we were. So, I learned what to do by watching them. They stuck together in groups, generously supported each other, and asked for help when they needed it.
I started to lean on and learn from my own classmates. We all came to the course with incredibly diverse skills, backgrounds, and personalities, and we had so much to teach each other. (We still do!) My cohort became my best resource, and I gratefully wanted to give back as much as I got from them.
With a clearer head, more time to think, and more support, I started making work I was proud of. I redid my affinity map, and I cemented the high-level opportunity spaces around the “GA student social experience”:
Users spoke the most about having a good time off campus, with 4/5 users stating off-campus drinks with their cohort were their favorite events during UXDI. But organizing these cohort drinks were not without their difficulties:
Through my users’ words, I found the heart of my story:
With this in mind, I put the finishing touches on my persona, Bizzy Lerner:
Trying to solve Bizzy’s pain points, I arrived at my mobile app: GA Recs, which curates recommendations of where to go around campus from GA students.
Many (many, many) iterations of wireframes came next. After spending so much of my professional life on the computer, putting pen to paper made me feel like a kid again. This sense of play carried over to my paper prototype, where I cut out tiny Xs for filtering checkboxes and left a hollow window in a screen to allow my “map” to move.
When it was time to usability test, I picked a task that would directly address the main frustrations of my users and my persona:
Based on my users’ feedback (and some delight), I clarified the design before creating mid-fi wireframes in Sketch and a working prototype in InVision.
By the time I put together my final presentation, everything had clicked. I trusted the process, and it saw me through.
“WE’RE ALL MAD HERE”
Not all of my stories end so neatly, and I know there will be more twists and turns to this one before “THE END.” (We have eight weeks to go, after all!)
I do feel much luckier than Alice, who had to travel through Wonderland alone. I have 24 classmates who are journeying alongside me, plus a growing network of mentors and friends. For my cohort, this is just the beginning, and I can’t wait to see where our adventures will take us next.