Yup, it's my puppeh

My UX Path

Everyone I meet who is a UX-something has had a different road to UX. Some folks started out as programmers, others as graphic designers. I find it extremely interesting to learn how others come to UX and I thought I would share my path as well. My path is long and winding and still evolving.

Back in the nineties when I was in college, I started out as a biology major. I wanted to be an environmental scientist and save the world. Then I got into psychology and got pretty far in that. My best friend at the time was an art major and she encouraged me to take some art classes. I have always been into arts and crafts but never considered them viable career options. I took some classes and found them to be really rewarding. Another friend encouraged me to take a graphic design class-I didn’t even know what graphic design was. I excelled at graphic design and decided to change my major for the third time. I took a computer graphics class and fell in love with Macromedia Director and creating interactive presentations. I got a student gig working on the university website and that is how I got started in the digital realm.

Even though I finished the graphic design program, I have never actually been a graphic designer. Sure, I’ve designed print pieces here and there along with many, many logos, but I have never had the title of graphic designer. I went straight into web design and production and have been an interactive something-or-the-other for 17 years now.

Over the next few years, I taught myself HTML and CSS. I started writing functional specifications filled with wireframes and information architecture diagrams and user flows. I began to lead web development projects from start to finish, all the while doing all of the UI design and front-end production. I learned how to do QA testing. Then I became an expert in SharePoint branding and site collection administration.

I started to get into analytics and search analysis. I did competitive analysis and research and wrote a bunch of reports. I started to create training documentation, then I started to conduct in-class training.

After many years, I became a Creative Director and was responsible for large-scale redesigns of major e-government projects. And now I spend my days as Sr. UX Analyst and Designer at an investment firm. My days are filled with research, wireframes, mocks, sketches, user testing and interviews, and UI design. I don’t do any front end development anymore, at least not at my day job. I also consult on the side doing expert UX reviews.

I have met many UX people who claim it is not possible to be a UX person and also do good UI. I beg to differ, as the dozen or so awards my work has won should prove it is quite possible to be good at more than one thing.

After all these years, it is easy to feel like you have it all figured out, but I feel like I am just getting started. I make a concerted effort to constantly learn new things, new techniques, new ideas. I also believe that a person’s career is in their hands and if your company won’t pay for training, pay for it yourself. Read books, blogs, newsletters, whatever. Teach yourself whatever it is you want to know-I did, that’s how I learned HTML/CSS and pretty much every thing I know that I use on a daily basis. I have subscriptions to Safari online books, Lynda.com, Treehouse, over 30 Udemy courses, and a membership to the Interaction Design Foundation. I got my Certified Usability Analyst certification last year and I will be attending the NNG UX Week that is in Houston in March and will be going for that certification as well.

I’ve worn a lot of hats and have a wide-ranging set of skills. I feel like everything I have learned has helped me to be better at anything I do. I am able to solve problems quickly because chances are, I’ve solved it before (benefits of having a long career and working in different industries). I’ve worked at small agencies, at a death care company, an e-gov agency working with elected officials, and now, an investment firm. I have always done freelance on the side, both for money and for the experience of working with more varied clients and projects. I am looking forward to another year in this industry and another set of skills that I hope to pick up.

Wherever you have started, you can use it as a stepping stone, just keep going and never stop. I sure won’t 😉

NOTE: That pup up there, yup, that’s critter number eight, Princess Buttercup. Adopt the planet!


In Search of One Title to Rule Them All: Being a Web Unicorn in the Age of UX

Years ago, it was fairly easy to answer the question, “what do you do for a living?”. I would say “web designer”, and pretty much everyone would know that I was magical and could make websites appear with a whisk of my wand. Nowadays, it is a little harder. Not just because I have stretched my skillset to the limit over the past 16 years, but also because the web industry has a new “hip” title that everyone wants. I am speaking, of course, of UX, or User Experience, which now comes before “Designer” and “Analyst”, “Researcher”, and even “Developer”.

My first issue with my title is that I do so much more than merely design websites. I have been a web development team lead, managed a corporate intranet, and served as an interactive creative director. I have acted as a product manager, project manager, tester, and trainer. I have designed web sites, intranets, internal and external web applications, and have even designed multiple native mobile apps. I have always built the user interfaces for every site and application that I have designed, so add front-end web developer to the mix. Lastly, I have been involved in creating user task flows, information architecture diagrams, user stories, task analysis, and writing complex functional specifications filled with wireframes and diagrams and detailed interaction designs. Add user research, competitive audits, web site analytics analysis, user testing, and survey creation and you have an idea of just what I can do. So, what am I?

What title best describes what I do? Interactive Creative Director suggests that I sit in a cushy office all day and direct the work of others, safely out of the trenches. Nope. I have always been in the trenches, even when directing the work of others. Interaction Designer suggests I spend my days involved in creating task and user flows. My old standby, Web Designer, now sounds as antiquated as Webmaster. What about my newest title, that of Senior UX Designer? It suggests I spend my days talking to users and running tests. None of these titles accurately expresses the totality of my skills or the various roles that I take on within each position I have held.

I started using Full Stack UXD Practitioner lately because it suggests someone who is involved in all phases of a digital product’s lifecycle-research, design, and development. This too seems incomplete.

When I started out 16 years ago, UX activities were just activities you did to make sure you were designing the right solution. Research, stakeholder interviews, writing functional specs, IA diagrams, task flows, wireframes, prototypes-I have been doing all of these activities long before Jesse James Garret came out The Elements of User Experience. I was a UXer and didn’t even know it. I was just doing my job.

In the past few years, UX has become the newest “discipline” to demand specialization and recognition. It reminds me of the early 2000s when people endlessly tried to explain what Information Architecture was, and how some of these IA specialists wanted so desperately to be considered essential. IA was always a role to me, a set of activities within the whole of creating a digital product, not a singular position to be carried out by one person to the exclusion of all other activities. Now IA has been rolled up into the UX umbrella.

What confuses me about this newfound specialization is how un-special it is, how unspecific. The activities that are currently being pulled into UX are vast, with the consequence that those old school web designers like me, folks who can do research, interaction and visual design, and can do front-end web development, are being reduced to decorators and code monkeys. In many companies, all of the “thought” activities are given to UX Analysts or UX Designers, leaving only graphic design and production activities for everyone else. Everything that added intellectual value to the job of creating has been stripped from so many job titles. The whole “UX as field and title” situation has been plaguing me lately because these are activities, essential activities that help a team understand the users, uncover business needs and goals, and provide the intellectual and user-focused background to a project. Stripping away the activities from the titles that have traditionally performed them have elevated one group of people and lessened the value and input of traditional designers and developers.

My concerns are primarily targeted to the hoards of companies who have heard the term UX and decided that they needed these magic folks, oblivious to the reality that they probably already had UX practitioners on staff, just with different titles. Specialization makes sense sometimes, but there is immense value to being experienced in the whole of a field, and companies should really know what they need, and why, before they go the specialization route. Companies are missing out on old school unicorns like myself, and people like me are being pushed into specialization to the detriment of their intellectual and creative capacities.

As for that final title to rule them all, how about Creative Facilitator of Awesomeness, or maybe just The Facilitator? Yea, I dig it.

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