UXPA Program “You Majored in What? Paths into the UX Professions” Gives Insights for Future Practitioners

The many paths into user experience (UX) professions were the focus of a recent panel discussion hosted by the New Jersey chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association UXPA). The group’s most recent free monthly virtual meeting was held on March 29.

The event, titled “You Majored in What? Paths into the UX Professions” hosted 50 attendees, and was sponsored by Rutgers University, represented by Rupa Misra, a Rutgers professor who coordinates the UXD concentration, part of the university’s Master of Business and Science  program.

The lively event started with brief biographical introductions by the three panelists — Laurah Mwirichia,  Lauren Dillard and Lubina Bogoeva — followed by an interactive moderated discussion.

Mwirichia, senior product writer at Square (San Francisco), believes that when it comes to creating digital products, writing is designing. A self-taught UX writer, she started out as an anthropology and pre-med student. 

Dillard, lead product designer at MassMutual (New York), started college as a biochemistry major at Oregon State University. She eventually switch majors after falling in love with journalism and becoming editor of her college newspaper. 

Bogoeva, senior UX designer at Fiserv (Brookfield, Wis.), initially worked as a makeup artist, and started one of the first skincare and makeup blogs. Her growing interest in web design led her to major in art. 

During the event, the attendees were provided with a link to a Miro collaborative whiteboard, where they could post questions. The Miro board was coordinated by Gloria Julien, project team lead at the Naval Air Systems Command (Patuxent River, Md.) and co-organizer of the UXPA New Jersey chapter, and the panel was facilitated by Josephine M. Giaimo.

Giaimo is lead UX researcher at ChaiOne, a Houston boutique IT services firm providing behavioral science-based research and design services. She holds a Master of Science degree from NJIT, where she specialized in human–computer interaction and emerging technologies.

There was a lively question and answer session along with the panel discussion. | Courtesy Josephine M. Giaimo

When it comes to starting a new project, the attendees were encouraged to make sure that everyone was on the same page, and were aligned, even if the information seemed repetitive. Spending time getting to know people and building trust is valuable. Understanding the project in depth, as well as the business goals, is also important, as is learning how to manage the pressure that may come from the stakeholders.

Look for Niche Opportunities

For those transitioning into UX, the panelists suggested that they use their natural curiosity to educate themselves. Lean into what you like, they suggested, rather than becoming a generalist. Soft skills and social skills are important for those entering the UX professions, they said. While it’s great to network, people can get a UX position without networking; but the panelists also agreed that networking was still worthwhile, as relationships last longer than any particular job.

A question posed by the moderator was, “Do particular companies hire UX professionals who have non-UX backgrounds?” The answer was “yes.” A couple of the panelists began their careers by working at a startup, such as a financial or fintech company. Digital skills can be very “nichey” and, in general, it’s easier to start with a smaller company, a panelist told the audience. Having marketing experience with a biotech company, for example, could be to your advantage.

Panelists encouraged UX newcomers to consider staying in a specific vertical industry, for example, financial services. “Going niche” was strongly encouraged when seeking one’s first UX job.

To re-enter the UX field after a multiyear break, panelists suggested that candidates get some small freelance jobs to build their portfolios, and to leverage their experience and references. Perhaps consider getting a certificate from the Nielsen Norman Group or completing coursework from MIT on human-computer interaction, one panelist said. Another panelist, Dillard, who moved from Oregon to New York City in 2013, recalled how she had to build a network and obtain a number of freelance opportunities as part of her transition.

‘Soft Skills Cannot Be Overemphasized’

The particular UX skills that the panelists encouraged were active listening skills, communication, giving and receiving feedback, and building trust in project teams and among stakeholders. Soft skills cannot be overemphasized. One panelist frequently uses Canva to make great slides for her team. Communication, especially visual communication, is important. The book “Articulating Design Decisions,” by Tom Greever, was referred to during this discussion.

“How do those considering the UX professions know if they will thrive in this part of the business?” Giaimo asked. If you dislike communication, UX may not be right for you, the panelists suggested. One panelist referred the audience to a Medium.com article that stressed the importance of self-care for designers — and for everyone else. A lot of emotional energy is required for success in the profession. Some UXers have reported experiencing “imposter syndrome,” and suggest that even self-care can include a learning curve. Starting any new job is super exhausting. It’s important to give yourself time before questioning the validity and importance of your work, they said.

On Monday, April 26, the UXPA New Jersey chapter will feature a presentation by Aniruddha Kadam called “Five UX Portfolio Best Practices.” This senior product design manager at LinkedIn spends most of his working hours hiring product designers, UX designers, visual designers and interaction designers. Learn what hiring managers are looking for in a portfolio, view some examples that illustrate best practices and hear about the experience of reviewing portfolios from a UX manager’s perspective. Membership in the UXPA New Jersey chapter is free, as are their monthly virtual meetings on Zoom. You can join the chapter and register for their upcoming April event here: https://www.meetup.com/User-Experience-Professionals-Association-UXPA-NJ-chapter/events/277534066/.

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