User (Life) Experience

July 23, 2009

I am a User Experience Designer.

So what is this supposed to mean? What does it encompass? What does it involve? These are questions I frequently get when telling people what I do.

I could have had an educated guess 4/5 months ago as to what this would involve, and I was mostly correct. Mostly.

Now, after 4/5 months in my role now as a user experience designer, I’m starting to comprehend everything that it involves.

My usability based academic background has involved various topics, such as user journeys, the UCD process, wireframes, storyboards etc etc. I don’t think in academia you will ever fully 100% understand in what way these things work in the real world, and why they are important and in what order.

I suppose that’s why I decided to forgo the unrelated job offers after my under-grad, and stuck around for something that was low-paid but extremely related to my degree. If I was going to make a career out of my life, I had to sacrifice the job that was quite well paid and easily accessible to me, to something that was 1 hour 30 minutes away from me, and paid less. Relevance was key to me when I eagerly walked out of college with my degree in my hand.

A year in a junior web designer / developer role, with a key focus on usability practices really increased my attractiveness to potential future employers. I gained XHTML, CSS, Javascript skills as well as general layout, usability and design skills in that position without even realising I was learning. I went from thinking that CSS was a music band, to being able to code an entire site using it. My gentle prod for a salary raise went unnoticed, and a two month job hunt yielded nothing of interest or suitability. My main desire was to work in a primarily usability role, with web design / developing as a secondary role, most roles were the opposite way around.

Thus began the UK job hunt.

Seems the UK was further ahead than Ireland for general web design practices and put actual money into making sure websites were usable, some companies hired in-house usability experts to ensure that their website was consistently usable. Some companies existed purely for selling their usability testing services, agencies hired usability experts to work on projects and to provide depth in respond-to-tender briefs.

A couple of flights later, I had secured a job role in Camberley, UK. The interview had gone well, I had ensured I understood all of what the role encompassed and within 6 weeks of me moving across the water, I started my first day. Really, I should have seen the warning signs when they gave me a title of “Design Engineer.” My inexperience showed as I was excited at being titled something which sounded so professional and important, when really it showed they had no idea what my skills were.

The next warning sign was obvious when they asked me to learn everything about Google AdWords in the two weeks before I was to start. Again, being inexperienced and eager, I did it.

When I started, it transpired I was head of all things Google! AdWords, AdSense and Analytics. For in-house, for clients, for the bosses friends. Nothing like the usability role I had been promised during my interview and conversations with the recruiter.

False advertising, but in this case, I couldn’t take it back to the shop to return it.


Instead, I knuckled down, inhaled anything AdWords related that came my way, determined to make the best out of my situation. The designs I did deal with were created using tables, not CSS or web standard XHTML. One website I worked on for 6 weeks, 1 week away from being published the plug was pulled. Three months went by; probation time. Having not put a foot wrong, and having learnt an amazing amount of information in a short time, I was convinced they didn’t have a bad word to say about me. Sitting downstairs in the bosses “Mobile Boardroom” (tatty old camper van), I was informed I had been late to start work too many times over the past three months, and consequently, would not pass my probation this time. My next probation meeting was in another three months time.

Upset, but determined to improve, I soildered on.

A friend in work informed me that in the three months I had been late three times. Two of which I had genuine excuses for. I had worked through my lunch on these days, and during the past three months I had stayed late many a time. In my mind, this is not something worth failing my probation for.

I could now see clearly that the end was indeed nigh, and I needed to look quickly if I was only guaranteed a position for three months. The operations manager began to take a particular disliking to me, being obtuse and argumentative, my reasoning was ignored and overlooked, my work was continuously sent back. There were times I would cry as soon as I got into my car when I left work. Being defensive without wanting to appear as though I was being defensive was hard work. Continuously being knocked back when I would put so much effort into my work, was soul destroying.

Hundreds of sneaky recruiter phone calls later, one seemed to come along that was right up my alley, only this alley was 70 miles away from me.

(Part Two is here)