Becoming a UX designer when you have no experience may seem like a lofty goal at first. We chat to Cuong Lu who made the transition from physiotherapist to Junior UX Designer and learn about how he did it.
1. You’ve had quite a varied career so far. Can you tell us a bit about some of your previous jobs?
I was fairly sporty and injury prone growing up so that naturally led me down the path to becoming a sports physiotherapist. I worked with athletes getting them back to sports before leaving Australia and settling in the UK.
From there I took various physio roles with the NHS, MOD and private hospitals before settling back into private practice within the large global banks in the city of London.
I constantly wanted to learn new ways of treating my patients so spent 3 years learning more about human movement, Pilates, exercise rehabilitation and strength and condition.
And after 14 years in the profession, I felt my passion for treating injuries waning and it felt like I was simply going through the motions every day. I wanted more mental stimulation and new problems to solve.
I leapt into private chef work as my other passion is food and in particular, Vietnamese cuisine. I grew up in a family that is food obsessed and has churned out several chefs so I had learnt the craft through experience and family teachings.
There were things I loved about being a chef such as the creative side of crafting not only a menu but an enjoyable and memorable experience for customers. I didn’t enjoy the monotony of prepping and cleaning everyday though. I found that the reality of making your passion your job can take away the enthusiasm you have for it.
2. How did you get interested in UX?
Over the last few years of being a physio I was exploring lots of different avenues to see where I would like to go next. I attended evening and weekend courses, went to meetups, talked to lots of people from interesting backgrounds and read some self-help books.
The key thing I took away from this research was that I should base my next career on themes that I enjoyed and my stronger skills.
I was lucky enough to know experienced UX, UI and creative directors that opened me up to the world of user centered design and I found myself naturally drawn to it through my interests in technology, design, problem solving and people.
3. Was it clear what you needed to do to transition into UX?
Again, from guidance of my friends I read bits of UX books, did online courses in the fundamentals of design, coding and human computer interaction I started to get an idea of what it might take to work in the industry and whether I might enjoy it.
However, I felt lots of shortcomings from trying to learn such a people based profession through books and online courses so I signed up for the General Assembly UX design Immersive course. 10 solid weeks of theory and practice, which promised to give me the foundation to land myself a junior role.
10 weeks is a very short time and it was a process of learning where the more I learnt, the more I realised how little I knew and that it would take a long time to truly transition into the discipline.
4. How did you increase your UX knowledge?
Most of my learning came from the UX course, I lived and breathed UX design for 4 months.
My mentors have been instrumental in pushing me forward and giving me confidence in taking on contract work.
They have always been there to listen to anxieties, talk through work and review my designs. Without their help I could not have progressed so quickly. I’m signed up to Medium and read articles every day.
In my early days of self-learning I read some blog posts on here too!
5. Talk us through how you ended up getting your first UX job and how you heard about it
It has been quite a ride so far. GA promised that 90% of their graduates were employed within 3 months of graduating so I was determined to be in full time work in that time. The job hunt was gruelling and slow, I sent out 5 applications a day, met with plenty of recruiters but it seemed the market wasn’t really interested in someone with so little real design experience.
I decided that rather than do more conceptual design work, I would find a way of doing real work to a make myself stand out from the other junior designers.
My first job was working for a small creative technology company, which brought the physical and digital worlds together through conductive ink. It wasn’t a relaxed work experience as the company was so chaotic. They pushed to innovate the next customer experience, which didn’t leave much room to focus on UX design.
It meant that I had to fight for a more user centered design process but had to be flexible with the existing processes and lack of resources.
Being a junior with no previous experience to draw from made it difficult to have the tough stakeholder meetings. But after 6 weeks of fighting for the user and corner I felt that I had made an impact and shifted some of their thinking.
I felt I helped shaped a better user experience for the customer through a improved digital interface which users needed to interact with to set up physical devices.
That lead to several shorter contracts where I helped design an online magazine and a Brexit website for a global law firm. It was only when I had this experience on my portfolio that I was approached by a hiring manager from LexisNexis.
6. How has it been so far?
You know that feeling you have when you start playing a new sport or try to learn a new skill, you fumble, feel like an idiot at times and wonder if you’ll ever get the hang of things? Well, I feel like that regularly at the moment.
I’ve been thrown in the deep end with my own product feature to work on. I am in a multi-disciplinary co-located team, which consists of a tech lead, product manager, product owner, business analysts, UX researcher developers, and editors.
Despite feeling completely out of my depth at times, I have moments where I feel that I am contributing and having an impact on where the team is moving. I decided early on that I would work extra hard to get on top of things.
This meant lots of discussions with team members to draw insights from their experiences and areas of expertise, leaning on my peers for lots of advice, design discussions and knowledge sharing. I have two senior designers working with me to help me with my work, which has been fantastic.
Every day is different and sometimes I get that sinking feeling but I’m enjoying the moments of achievement.
7. What have been your main challenges?
My main challenge has come from joining a team that lost their UX designer quite abruptly and having to on board in the team.
I had to take the initiative and get up to speed through my own research and asking lots of questions of my colleagues.
We’re attempting to build a process for creating and publishing content that meets our users’ needs but also saves the business significant costs and time to publish this content.
This is a complex process and as a junior, I have found it highly challenging. Getting my head into the domain and understanding the design decisions that came before me was the first hurdle – this is an ongoing process.
The other difficulty is understanding all the jargon within each of the other disciplines – but i’m getting there!
8. What have been some of the things you didn’t expect about the job?
It’s not that I didn’t expect this about the job but because I am so new to the world of design I didn’t realise the extent to which design can be constrained through various factors.
The reality of working in a big corporate company is that there are so many ways a team could push and everyone comes from a different approach so it’s difficult to all get aligned and work in a harmonious way.
I didn’t realise the extent at which, to be a great designer and influence the product design, you need to understand your team mates, their roles and needs, then cultivate an open and mindful relationship that will allow them to see the benefits of UX and in turn help steer us in the right direction.
9. Are you glad you made the switch to UX design?
I made the drastic career change to cultivate my love of learning and my enthusiasm for problem solving. I am getting to do that every day now so even though there are lots of moments of discomfort, I am really enjoying this new chapter in my life.
10. Do you have any tips for someone who is looking to become a UX designer?
My best tips would be to find the themes that drive you in life. For me it’s taken years but I understand that I get bored easily and need new challenges to keep me motivated and driven. I love learning new things and problem solving so if these are themes that you also enjoy then UX could be for you.
From there I would recommend, doing lots of reading, online courses and a proper offline course because only working with real people will give you the skills you need to be a UX designer.
Do lots of design work, analyse your experiences, have faith in yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help, I’ve only gotten this far from the support from friends and the kindness of experienced people in the industry taking time out to steer me in the right direction.
Do you have an interesting story to tell? We’d love to hear about it! Tell us in the comments.
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About Chris Mears
Chris is a User Experience Consultant with a focus on multi-channel experiences. He believes in persuasive design – using UX as a medium to drive users to take action against measurable KPIs. Founder of The UX Review.