Architecting Your Future: Conquering Imposter Syndrome

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Imagine walking into a packed conference room (or jumping on a zoom call) for a meeting on a pressing topic. As you find your seat, you start to feel like the temperature is rising and your heartbeat quickens, your mind races through the questions that could be thrown your way. The meeting starts and things begin on a good note. The discussion is moving forward and then it happens: someone directs a question at you. It feels like a game of hot potato and all you want to do is get that question out of your hands! You answer quickly, gauging the faces in the room as you respond, wondering who here will expose you as a complete and total fraud. 

As two designers new to the tech and product space, we both have had our fair share of experiences with imposter syndrome. Shara is a high achiever, woman of color who made the switch to tech late in her career. Attending bootcamp with peers 10 years her junior, she often felt insecurity about her decision to transition into product design. Would anyone take her seriously? Madeline spent over 7 years working in documentary film. When she wasn’t filming interviews, she was cleaning camera lenses. Making a complete career shift into UX design not only felt like she was jumping into a deep ocean without any swimming lessons, but that she was up against olympians with established records and achievements.

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People Who Design: Connecting Design Communities

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These days, creating a personal website is easy. You don’t need to know about how to code; the newest platforms can host profile pages with templates you can fill in with photos, links, and text about you and your works. Especially if your content all fits in just one page, you have all you need for a website no matter if you’re a media person, digital professional, creative designer, or a tech expert. Having a website really helps to make you relevant and reliable, establishing yourself as a landmark in anything, and everyone knows this. If you’re a company or organization, private or public, it doesn’t matter, you obviously need an online presence.

The Problem

According to the Hosting Tribunal there are about 2 billion websites but less than 400 million of them are active. By the time you finish reading this article, thousands of new sites will spawn. Looking just at blogs and personal pages, stats reveal great prospects for those as well. Every day, over 500 million blogs and 19 million bloggers spawn a massive amount of new content readily available at your fingertips.

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Moving from Corporate to Contract

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Working as a full time in house employee definitely has its benefits; camaraderie, stability, and the support of a team are alluring aspects for many designers. Yet, it also has many drawbacks. If you’re frustrated with the politics, tired of endless meetings, or you just want creative freedom and increased income, contract work can be an appealing option.

But how do you actually start freelancing?

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So you want to be a UX manager?

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I remember a graduate student once asking me if she should continue on to a PhD program after completing her master’s degree. I asked her what she thought the benefits were to getting a PhD; she responded that having a PhD would put her on a faster track into management.

Her thinking was driven by a common and faulty assumption held by many—that eventually, to progress in your career as a UX professional, you have to become a manager.

The truth is, there are many career paths for UX professionals, including many leadership roles that don’t require managing people. In fact, organizations typically need a balance of managers and high-ranking individual contributors (meaning not managing people) to tackle varying leadership responsibilities that require different skill sets.

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UX Design Careers in 2018 and Beyond: The Future of the UX Designer

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Infographic showing different statistics about UX Careers such as locations, skill sets, and job titles. At the time of this writing, a search for UX design jobs on job finder Glassdoor reveals almost 20,000 open positions in the United States alone. By another source, the number is 24,000, with a 22% projected growth rate in the next ten years.

Salaries vary between USD$60,000 to $127,000 annually, with the median salary for 2017 being $77,000. With a significant spike year-to-year, the median salary in 2018 is $93,000 in the States, with the coasts offering the highest paying positions.

Onward Search provides a useful overview of the UX design job market in infographic format.

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Biased by Design

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Back in the mid-90s, as the personal computer was booming, I was just your fairly average tween with a Skip-It™. I spent my summers in the California sunshine counting: 100, 208, 300, 986, always aching to get to 1,000. While my parents worked long past sunset, I played on the sidewalk of my parents’ company, Design Matters. Before it was a podcast, Design Matters—one of the first agencies in the San Francisco Bay area—was my personal experience with design. My parents were early web designers who rode the dot-com boom back when the area was still ripe with possibility.

This sounds idyllic, but I’m here to tell you from a child’s perspective: It was many long nights for my parents, and there were waves of regular tension. Although their success did come, it was far from certain, and it certainly wasn’t easy. I overheard many unpleasant conversations as my parents grappled with all the messy stuff that comes with building a ragtag team in a field that was neither well understood nor yet defined.

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Are We Taking the “U” Out of UX?

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What is a UX designer?

I recently saw a great ad for a senior UX specialist from MathWorks. Some excerpts:

  • Work with the development team to follow a user-centered design approach as you work collaboratively to brainstorm and design innovative solutions to complex problems.
  • Make recommendations to team members about which usability methods to use to answer their questions about users and design directions based on projects’ needs, goals, and constraints.
  • Work closely with team members to conduct user research, identify pain points, develop user profiles, and create task lists.
  • Collaborate on paper and functional prototypes.
  • Run usability tests, conduct interviews and site visits, organize surveys, and perform other usability assessments you think are appropriate.

It outlines exactly what I would expect in a UX job. We learn everything we can about a project from stakeholders and competitive products, find ways to research what users want and need, evaluate those needs with stakeholders, modify the project plan, and create solutions which are validated with users before finalizing the product.

But when I was looking for a new gig, that was the exception. Many of the job descriptions I saw asked for a wide array of UX skills, with some even asking for more than listed above. But it seemed that they really wanted a visual designer who could prototype.

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Ending the UX Designer Drought

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The first article in this series, “A New Apprenticeship Architecture,” laid out a high-level framework for using the ancient model of apprenticeship to solve the modern problem of the UX talent drought. In this article, I get into details. Specifically, I discuss how to make the business case for apprenticeship and what to look for in potential apprentices. Let’s get started!

Defining the business value of apprenticeship

Apprenticeship is an investment. It requires an outlay of cash upfront for a return at a later date. Apprenticeship requires the support of budget-approving levels of your organization. For you to get that support, you need to clearly show its return by demonstrating how it addresses some of your organization’s pain points. What follows is a discussion of common pain points and how apprenticeship assuages them.

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Mentoring as an Investment

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Have you ever asked for an update on a project you’d invested a great deal of time and energy in, only to hear “they have completely redesigned it since then”?

I did, and it left me with this very empty feeling.

After some wallowing, I realized I needed to discover a new way to think about the way I work and what really matters in my consulting career. My answer: The mark of a truly good consultant is investing in people. Focusing on investing in people will ensure that your work will still continue to see results long after the application is redesigned, and that is change that matters in the long run.

In the following article, I will give three areas in which we can focus our efforts: mentoring, client education, and our own team members. I hope that the reflection will help us all be better consultants and make better investments.

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Grow Your Career without Leaving Your Company

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When I wanted to make a career shift to information architecture, I was reluctant because I loved the team I worked with. So instead of leaving to find the right work, I tried to start doing it where I was.

What follows are my recommendations on how to make similar moves. It’s not rocket science, but it’s always nice to get some reminders. The least rocket science-y part is the first: Set a goal. You can’t get to where you’re going unless you know where that is. But once you have that, you can move on to the real stuff.

Pretend to be good at your job

This is the part where you take your perceived weakness and you pick up somebody else’s strengths. It’s more nuanced than just pretending to be good. You’re pretending to be someone else, who is good at those things.

When I’m acting, I like to have props. I knew there was a joke about UXers being obsessed with post-its, Sharpies, and dry erase markers, so I went to the supply closet and got as many as I could carry. As my friend who owns a tuxedo once said, “If you own a tuxedo, you’ll find a place to wear it.” And he was right. Suddenly, all of my work required huge white-boarding sessions and arrays of colorful post-its.

The unintended consequence was that it took all of my processes out of my head and put them on the walls around me. Without much of a change, I suddenly looked a lot smarter and more engaged with my work. Accidentally, I got a bit smarter, too. Writing things out and staring at them on a wall prevented me from skipping over important details or making huge leaps of logic. It also helped to explain to my co-workers and clients how I was tackling problems. When I was being transparent with my work, it was easier for them to engage with me and participate. Pretending to be good at my job was going so successfully that I decided to try something else.

Refer to your work as IA

This wasn’t anything elaborate. I would just look at something and say, “From an information architecture perspective, this is a great design.” I was planting the seed for the discipline. This is a good step for those who aren’t very good at self-promotion, because it takes the focus off of you and puts it onto the discipline and how that will help your company.

Build alliances

After I had been acting good at my job for a while, I realized my plan might actually work. But I knew I needed to be a little more strategic about things to make it happen. I had to build alliances. But I’m not on Survivor, so I didn’t want to be a creep about it. Instead, I made friends.

This was a pretty easy step because I already had friends. And as you do with friends, I looked around to see who I could help. I saw that the designers were way overworked.

They were our unicorns. They handled the IA, UX, and visual design, and I wanted to get in on the action. They would sit in meetings and be working on things for another client. That would be frustrating for the people in the meeting because we couldn’t get their full attention and frustrating for them because they just needed to get things done.

So, I struck a deal with them that I’d go to the upfront meetings–the really tedious ones where you’re just trying to get the stakeholder to say the same thing twice. Then, I’d compile everything I’d learned and hand it off to them. This was an obvious win-win because they had more time to do work, and I got to try out some new things I wanted to learn.

Take on side projects

There were more skills I wanted to pick up, so I decided to take on a side project. If you’re looking to do something extra but are having trouble deciding what type of side project to take on, think about the things you and your friends snark about at lunch. What’s the thing that drives you nuts?

For me, it was the fact that we didn’t have an interface messaging voice and tone guide. To turn this into an actual project, I had to find other people who were interested in consistent messaging. I identified some likely allies (marketing, sales, technical writers) and some less likely ones (developers, translations manager). Together, we started to chip away at the style guide and tackle the worst messaging.

Have the right people on your side

Whenever you’re trying to do any corporate maneuvering, it’s always important to have the right people on your side. And in this case, I was just lucky.

So, that’s my tip: Be lucky.

For me, that luck came in the form of a new boss who couldn’t believe we didn’t have an information architect on staff. Her boss, who allowed her to make me that IA, knew me as someone knowledgeable about the internet from the previous summer…when I taught him to use Twitter.

Don’t be mysterious, be helpful

So, success! I became an information architect. Now the problem was that I had to convince people I was worth keeping. I had seen other people try to do that by silo-ing off their responsibilities and trying to make their work seem really mysterious, and therefore extra important. That never worked because everyone saw right through it. I wanted to take a more transparent approach, so I spent a lot of time explaining to people what I did.

Educate your team

Since my company had never had an information architect, I had to educate everyone about why this new role existed and how it would help them achieve their goals more effectively.

Early on, I showed a stakeholder a wireframe, and she asked why the interface was black and white now. This was adorable but also totally my fault. She never should have seen that without knowing what it was. So I added a few upfront stakeholder meetings so everyone knew what I was doing and presenting.

One mistake I made was not paying attention to the corporate comings and goings around me. When new people joined the team, I had to quickly explain to them why this role was important, and I wasn’t always good at that. After being closed out of a number of meetings and big decisions, I realized I wasn’t convincing some people of my value. Since then, I make a point of keeping a few examples of the things I bring to a project that wouldn’t have been there without an IA in my back pocket. And if I can’t identify anything, I know I’m not contributing enough to that project.

Never stop pretending to be good

When I started my ruse to pretend to be good at my job, I didn’t realize that I could never stop pretending to be good. In fact, now that I had the title I wanted, I had to be MORE good at my job. Outwardly, this meant bigger white-boarding sessions and more post-it notes. But behind the scenes, it meant more strategic twitter follows, local meetups, and reading to make sure I was up on what our industry leaders were saying.

Live happily ever after

This might not be your exact story, so this won’t all be the same for you. The part that’s universal is the importance of figuring out what someone else needs, putting that together with what you want, and identifying a path to meet both goals.

What my company needed was someone to provide continuity to a range of projects, help out the designers who never had time to do the work they wanted to, and have everyone write from a common style guide. What I wanted was to be an information architect.

When I put these together I had an opportunity to help my team and try out some things I thought would be interesting. Keep the focus on helping others, getting smarter and being a good human being.