Transferring Your Skills To Become A UX Designer

By Richard Li August 8, 2017

It’s not a secret that technology jobs are hot right now. A report published in 2016 by Brookfield Institute called, “The State of Canada’s Tech Sector”, stated that the tech sector accounted for 7.1%, or $117 billion of Canada’s total GDP. There are 71,000 technology firms in Canada, which employees roughly 864,000 Canadians. According to CBRE’s annual Scoring Tech Talent Report, Toronto is the fastest growing tech market in North America; adding 22,500 tech jobs between 2015 and 2016, which was more than New York and San Francisco combined during the same period. Amid growing concerns that computers will replace millions of jobs in the future, many professionals from other industries are looking to transition into a career in tech. Transitioning into a new career in another industry can often be discouraging, but I want to share some insights on how I was able to transfer my skills learned from architecture and become a UI/UX Designer. Hopefully others in a similar position as I was will find this helpful and take advantage of the skills they currently possess from other industries as they begin their journey to starting a career in UX Design.

Transferring Skills from Architecture to UX Design

Prior to working as a UX/UI designer at a fintech startup, I worked as an architectural technician at an architecture firm. During that time I had an idea for a mobile app that I couldn’t get out of my head. The idea was an app, later named Team’d, that would allow people who were interested in the same sports organize and play pick up games with people in their area. I started sketching and designing the app in my free time, asking friends about the idea and feedback on my solution. While I didn’t have any UX Design experience at the time, I applied the design process I learned in architecture school and was able to design the screens for my app. It was through the experience of designing and launching Team’d that helped me discover, and eventually switch, to a career in UX Design.

The idea of switching careers initially seemed like a huge challenge, however, I discovered that many of the design skills I acquired through architecture school benefitted me in this transition. The design process in architecture begins with research. Identifying the goal of the project, understanding the problem, identifying constraints/limitations (eg. zoning by-laws), and imagining how the occupant will utilize the space in their daily lives. The research phase in UX design is very similar to architecture, with the main difference being the end product; physical building vs. website/app, and how the end user will use the product (occupying vs. interacting). Instead of empathizing and thinking about how occupants move across different rooms, I had to think about how users will navigate across different areas of a website or a mobile app.

Concept sketching and design iteration was another skill that helped in my transition to UX Design. I always start my architecture design with rough concept sketching on paper. These sketches explore various concepts such as the form of the building, programs available in the building, and pathfinding within the building. Once a concept is selected to be pursued in greater fidelity (heightened realism), I would digitize the design with software such as AutoCad, Rhino, or Revit. Each iteration would be more detailed and precise than the previous as I elaborated on what worked in the design and removed parts that didn’t. Bringing the designs to greater fidelity would also allow me to get a better sense of how the shape and space of the building would look/feel, so I could then start to get better feedback on my design. I implement the same concept sketching and design iteration flow when designing for UX. I begin with sketches on paper to explore the layout of a website/screen, as well as how users would navigate between them. Once I am satisfied with a concept, I will bring my wireframes into the computer with software such as Sketch to further develop them in higher fidelity. Once the designs reach a certain point, I will create a clickable prototype to test and get feedback.

Being technical and detail oriented is another skill that helped me transition into UX Design. When I was designing buildings there was a lot of rules, regulations, and other details I had to keep in mind. Some of those details include: the minimum width of a hallway (for both residential and commercial buildings), typical size of a washroom, maximum floor area ratio within a given site, minimum setbacks from property line, and the minimum width of walls (interior, exterior, etc.) to name a few. I found that while UX Design doesn’t have strict regulations like architecture, there are best practices and other details that a UX Designer must consider. These include: screen dimensions for different phones, breakpoints when designing for responsive websites, padding between elements, typical size of buttons and links, size and spacing of fonts, as well as colour contrast ratios for accessibility.

Transferring your previous skills into UX Design

Although my background was already in design, many UX designers began their careers in other fields and found success. UX is still a relatively newer field, so many people working in the field today come from a variety of backgrounds.

According to InVision’s Product Design Industry Report released in 2016, design teams are no longer composed of just traditional designers. Organizations build their teams based on the unique needs of their product and customers. Team composition will vary depending on the type of product and size of the organization. Design teams today can be made up of conceptual designers, developers, experience/interaction designers, industrial designers, information architects (IA), marketing designers, product designers, usability testing/researchers, and visual designers. Since many organizations will not be able to hire specialists to fill all of those jobs, most designers take on a wide range of roles including: idea generation, wireframe/storyboarding, visual design, prototyping, research/validation, project management, development, product support. This means there are plenty of opportunities for you to transfer the skills acquired from your previous career and apply them to your future role as a UX Designer.

Perhaps your background is in psychology or marketing. UX Design starts with research to gain insight to improve, or create, a product that puts the user’s experience first. This is why a career as a Usability Researcher will probably be the smoothest transition for many coming from psychology or marketing. Psychology and marketing both require research into their patient/consumer to empathize and understand their pain-points, goals, behaviours and patterns. You might have previous experience conducting interviews, writing and collecting surveys, running focus group sessions, and creating user personas from ethnographic research. Those skills will allow you to feel right at home when you are asked to conduct user research or usability testing as a UX Designer. Proposing solutions with clear and deliverable metrics will also be familiar to professionals in both psychology and marketing.

Maybe you’re a writer, or majored in English. You will find that your writing skills will be extremely beneficial to you as a UX Designer as a large chunk of what goes on any website or app is copy. Writing is an area in tech that is often overlooked. This is especially true in smaller organizations or startups where there is not a dedicated copywriter, so the responsibilities of ensuring the copy in the product matches with the brand’s tone of voice and effectively communicates the message/information to the user falls onto the UX Designer. Since a lot of UX designers are not great writers (true for me at least), having a background in writing will be a huge asset to a company.

When it comes to getting your foot in the door, start by taking an introspective look at the skills your currently possess, then research different roles within UX that would best utilize them. I’ve only mentioned architecture, psychology, marketing, and writing in my previous examples but there are so many different roles associated with UX Design that many skills from other disciplines and industries will carry over. You just need to learn new skills to supplement the ones you already have and pick the path in UX that makes the most sense for you.

Richard Li graduated BrainStation’s full-time UX Design program in 2016. You can view his portfolio of work at his website, Richard Li Design. Interested in becoming a UX Designer? Apply for our upcoming cohort today.