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How I Became a UX Designer (In 3 Months)

Cong Nguyen 16/01/2021

Early Days and Lightbulbs

So, a bit of backstory. I got my degree in graphic design from Jacksonville State University. Jumped straight into three internships in a row at Disney. And from there, I spent about nine years as a graphic designer. Early on, I was thrilled to get into graphic design. I was excited to make things, hopefully, pretty things. But it really went downhill from there. You know that feeling in your gut when something you used to love doing becomes a chore? That‘s what happened to me. I just did not enjoy graphic design anymore. Which sucked, considering I‘d spent all that time and money on a career I no longer wanted. I thought about going back to school, getting a master‘s degree, and maybe looking for other work. The “normal” path people take when they decide to switch things up. And I did that! I went to Full Sail to study media design and had a 4.0. About three months into a master‘s program, I had my lightbulb moment: I was paying thousands of dollars and committing a considerable chunk of time to something I didn‘t want to be doing. Again. Ten thousand dollars worth of stress and boredom. Yep. I‘m the guy who wasted 10K on the road to figuring out what I wanted. (Still paying for it, by the way.)

What now?

I wasn‘t sure where to turn. Typing “what can ex-graphic designers do” into Google and “user experience design” was a top result. And there were interesting connections between my strengths and what UX design work required. For example, when I was a graphic designer, I‘d ask you why you needed that flyer if you asked me for a flyer. Not to be a smartass, but to see if there was another angle that might be more effective. Because if a flyer was the best choice, great! But I wasn‘t going to blindly follow along if there was a better way. That kind of pushback isn‘t appreciated in graphic design, but UX design is all about asking questions. Boom! A job that would let me ask all the damn questions I want. Another aspect of user experience design that excited me? Not just feel like an impersonal tool in someone else‘s toolbox. In graphic design, you spend a lot of time becoming an expert in color theory, typography, etc. Then you have to sit there with clients without that knowledge tell you they don‘t like that color red, or their daughter wants a playful font like Comic Sans to lighten things up. And no, you‘re not allowed to literally facepalm in those moments. So it always felt disempowering to have all these skills yet have people sit and tell me exactly where to click and how to execute the changes they wanted. Like I was more of a computer mouse than a skilled professional. I was almost ready to move on.

Choosing UX

A few years later, my wife was the one who helped me pull the trigger. I really have to give her credit: she gave me the encouragement I needed to move forward and choose UX design as my new career path. I did some research and signed up for a Bootcamp called Springboard. It combined training, mentorship, and real-world experience (and it didn‘t hurt that it was cheaper than some other options!). All cool stuff, all things I could update my resume and LinkedIn with right away. My wife gave me the okay to quit my job and get started. But I was still doing freelance graphic design on the side. Ironically, that experience confirmed how much I hated my work. “Torture” is the first word that comes to mind! But when you‘re making pretty good money (at that point, about $7,000 in two weeks), it‘s tempting to keep going. So I kept taking contract jobs, even though I was full-on freakin‘ miserable. All the while, I was doing my UX Bootcamp, plus going to networking meetups in Atlanta. At one of those meetups, I met a guy who works for Salesforce. I talked to him about applying to these UX design jobs and how these companies want you to have 5 years of experience for an entry-level position. What he said next really stopped me in my tracks: “There are hundreds of unqualified people applying to these jobs every day. What is stopping you from applying to these jobs?” This question resonated with me so deeply. He was right: many people are applying to jobs that are unqualified. I knew I had to give myself a chance.