The fireside chat transcripts: I’m a UX Designer–Ask Me Anything!
Here’s the transcript of the latest Q&A in Academy Xi’s Fireside Chat series. We met with Senior UX UI Designer Sylvia Xu Connor and discussed what it’s like being a UX designer, the current UX industry landscape, the UX interview process, and much, much more.
We also got the chance to answer some of our audience’s burning questions and trust us, whether you’re a seasoned UX Designer or an upcoming junior in the design world, Sylvia delivers the goods, and we had a blast! Enjoy!
Academy Xi (event host): Our guest today took the human-centred and digital design route after 15 years in the fashion industry. She graduated from our UX UI Design Transform course last year and is now helping to deliver cloud communications as a senior UX UI designer at Symbio. In addition to her striking portfolio, she also serves as a speaker and mentor to our emerging designers here at Academy Xi, and recently hired two of our UX design grads to work with her! Please welcome Sylvia Xu Connor.
Sylvia: Hi, everybody!
Academy Xi: To start, can you introduce yourself and take us through the journey that led you to UX and UI Design?
Sylvia: I’ve been a [fashion] designer for many, many years. I have a Bachelor of Design from UTS, but realised that UX UI is such an end-to-end process. Even though it was a relatively new term to me at that stage in my career, I realised that everybody goes through UX UI to some degree, whether you start as a designer and have that massive design background or you don’t.
Because UX is about problem solving and as you get older there are many, many situations – I’m sure everybody will relate to this – that you would need to solve a problem, and how you would solve that problem is the UX process. And UI I suppose, comes hand in hand with how you appreciate visual hierarchy and things like that so there’s a lot of graphic designers who also transition into UI. It’s a very natural progression, I did a lot of graphic design work as well in my design career. So to me, UX UI is something that’s always been within me, in my spirit, but never solidly considered until recently.
Academy Xi: What was your motivation going into this industry?
Sylvia: It’s lovely for me at this stage of my life because I’ve got two young kids and you get a little bit of freedom back when you’re not on the road, going into a physical studio.
Academy Xi: We have a lot of potential students here, and some people who are interested in breaking into the industry. You finished the UX UI design course with us last year. Can you take us through what skills or major takeaways you got from this course?
Sylvia: I think what’s important about the course is that it gives you a really good overview from start to finish of what the whole design process looks like. Many people will come in and reaffirm what they already know. Deep down it’s a venue for them to solidify the idea in their head that they already know what they could do to solve a problem, and then apply that in an end-to-end design process.
You can learn some fresh skills, such as collaborating in a team. A lot of people are really collaborating in teams, whether you are in the design team, or you have been working at a hospital. The course lets you finish a project from end-to-end, so you can have a really good understanding and overview of the design process.
Academy Xi: You mentioned end-to-end projects. Can you tell us a little bit about the projects that you’ve worked on? I hear that you’ve worked with some clients as well during your time with Academy Xi. Can you talk more about that?
Sylvia: Yeah, I was given this wonderful opportunity whereby we worked with EndeavourX who were such a wonderful team of people and really great with feedback. We were given the opportunity to look at their career site, suggest some changes and make improvements. We were able to survey the people looking to move into tech that fit within the client’s age range. It was really good, because we had a problem to solve and we took a step back and looked at how we could solve that problem by getting validation from the target audience. So that was one of the projects.
The other project was also with EndeavourX. We were tasked with looking at their current chatbot and how to make it more engaging.
Academy Xi: Absolutely – it’s so important to build a portfolio especially at the beginning of your career. How long did it actually take you to finish your course and then land that job at Symbio?
Sylvia: It was funny because I started the course during the Sydney lockdown. It was just timing, you know? Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time. I didn’t want to commute into the city every single day, which came with my old design job.
Serendipity wise, I started the course and I did the Transform course which is three months. It was hectic. It was hard work. I expected it to be hard, and it was hard. So the expectation was there versus the reality and I got everything I needed out of it.
I put in the hard yards and learnt new software. Let’s be open minded about software because they are tools. And what a great way to be introduced to tools if you haven’t been using a lot of software, right?
From start to finish, [the course took] three months and I started looking to apply with different companies and I got a couple of job offers pretty much as soon as I finished. Within a week, I had a couple of concrete choices to deep dive into and make a good decision about where I wanted to go.
Academy Xi: How about some of your colleagues who were in the class with you? How are they doing?
Sylvia: I’m still really good friends with all of them. There were six of us who finished the transform course and from start to finish, we’re just such good mates. I think that the key ingredient to having a good design team is to actually really value and trust each other.
Everyone’s going to be good at different things, and so it’s really important to build that relationship whereby you trust that the other person is going to do their job. Obviously, there’s a healthy amount of discussion. They’re all doing really well, I believe most of them have landed jobs.
Academy Xi: Lots of prospective students ask us “How do I pivot or transition into a career, such as UX UI design, if I don’t come from a design background? What skills or mindset do I need to have as a junior UX designer?”.
Sylvia: That’s a very common question and I think something that could potentially put a lot of people off transitioning into a design career. UX Design is primarily about problem solving and about validation and, as I mentioned earlier, anyone could have those skills. From the day you’re born, you’re problem solving. Believe it or not, even though you might not think you’re a good problem solver, you really are!
You’ve got lots of problems and you have to find different routes into thinking – “how am I going to solve this problem?”. Normally it’s by trial and error.
So trial and error would be your testing. You trial something to see if the idea that you’ve got to solve a problem works. And you should be able to get validation very quickly, if you test it with the right people.
Academy Xi: So it’s about having that open mindset and always being empathetic?
Sylvia: Empathy is so important. There’s not going to be many UX designers who are not empathetic because it’s so fundamental to being a good UX designer.
If you are an empathetic person, you’re going to look at a product and say “what are the pain points that are currently in this product?”.
You’re going to ask the people who are using a product and really try to understand where they’re coming from. As soon as you understand that there is a problem to solve and you really try and get into the mindset of what it is that they’re struggling with, then you’re going to be able to offer a better solution.
Academy Xi: That’s right – it’s all about putting yourself in the user’s shoes. Let’s shift gears a little bit – what’s happening in the Australian market right now in terms of UX? Can you paint us a picture of the big and small challenges of the industry?
Sylvia: I think we’re probably not as mature as overseas in terms of the understanding of what UX can bring to the table. I know that UX arrived early in the States and in Europe. And a lot of companies in Australia because of COVID they’ve been pushed into thinking more about “how do I get my product that already exists into the digital world and then into the hands of people who are always on their phones, their laptops, their tablets?”.
Academy Xi: And how does that relate to the number of jobs that are out there in the market for UX designers?
I think there’s going to be a snowball effect. The more UX designers get into the job market, the more that they will be able to stay at the top of the hill. They’ll add value to a business and that business will show another business that, “Oh hey, I’ve got ‘UX’ on my side and we’re growing really well and very healthily”. More companies will be inspired to hire UX UI designers. In that way, I believe it will have a snowball effect.
To answer your first question on how and what the job prospects are, they’re good. It’s certainly better than it was even 12 months ago, but the challenge is still there because businesses don’t know what they don’t know. If they don’t know anything about UX, then they don’t think they need UX. It would be like a constant education piece.
Academy Xi: We often have people ask us what’s a typical day in the life of a UX designer. Can you give us an example of your work day from start to finish?
Sylvia : Oh gosh! Lots and lots of meetings, because you’re always collaborating, and not just with other UX designers. If you’re lucky enough to work in a design team then you would collaborate a lot with other designers that specialise in different stages of the UX UI cycle.
But if you are not as lucky to work in a design team and you are a one-man band, you’re doing end-to-end design work–that’s also good because you get to experience the whole lot. But it doesn’t mean you’re not collaborating. You’ll be collaborating with your product manager, product owner, the back-end engineers, front-end engineers.
Academy Xi: For sure – it’s all about collaborating and making sure that everything works together, because then you’re balancing user needs with business needs and seeing what’s feasible, right?
Sylvia: And what is possible with technology – can you build what you and the business want to build for the client? If you imagine the venn diagram, you’d be sitting in the middle as a UX designer – designing a product that the business needs, the user wants, and what is possible technology-wise to deliver.
Below are questions from our audience ranging from career, salary, software, skills, and more.
Audience question: I am considering a career change, at 38 years old. I am currently a learning designer, writing assessments and curriculum for Universities. I am a photographer, so I seek creative jobs. What advice would you give me to calm the fears I have about starting anew with really no background/ experience, but hopefully some transferable skills? My plan is to start the Transform course with Academy Xi and I’m just doing some research to build my confidence. I’m also studying a short course in Figma but I’m nervous.
Sylvia: Hi there! I think that’s a valid question and certainly it warrants the amount of research that you have already been doing, because research is your best friend. I think you definitely have a lot of transferable skills. Don’t forget a lot of UX skills are actually soft skills. You seem like you have a lot of those.
As a learning designer you need to talk to the people that you are designing the learning material for, so you already have the right background, believe it or not.
And then also you’re upskilling in Figma and any software that certainly helps because if you are going to be into design, you need to obviously solve a problem. But how you show the solution would be down to how well you’ve grasped the tools, so I think it’s definitely a really good move to try and upskill in Figma and any other software, because when you use one software, you’re more adaptable to using any other software that comes along.
Audience question: What could I develop further which is not covered in the Academy Xi course, which could help for transitioning from a student to UX UI designer?
Sylvia: So I think a lot of the time, it’s very valuable to be able to grasp the tools, because that is something very concrete and you can demonstrate your capabilities straight away. For example, your portfolio is going to look amazing. And also, you might be given a design challenge when you first go into a lot of job interviews. If you grasp the tools really well, that would definitely be an advantage.
[Academy Xi: What tools specifically?]
Sylvia: Figma, definitely. Miro would be another one that is used industry-wide. Figjam and Miro are whiteboarding tools. They would be the ones that I’d be looking for specifically and then the other added bonus would be Adobe Creative suite. A lot of graphic designers are whizzes in Adobe Creative Suite. I am because I come from that sort of background, but I think it just really helps top-up your software skills. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but if you’re looking for something extra that would be what I would look at.
Audience question: Is it reasonable to expect resistance to human-centred design as opposed to business or process centred? Also, given the niche market of UX right now, is it expected that you will do everything with the end-to-end process including UI?
Sylvia: I think it depends on the business and how mature the UX function is. While you’re studying it is probably really important to look at UX UI as a holistic design process, whereby you should try to do it all. And then I think, as you mature as a designer you’re probably going to realise and really understand yourself a little bit better what you excel in and then focus on that.
It’s really, really important that you understand that you can’t do everything, and that you really need to try and get knowledge from other experts that might have better insights. For example, if you are a UX-heavy designer, you are really great at research and problem solving and not so good at tools, try and really feed off your colleagues who might be better at tools and don’t think “I can do it all”, because maybe someone else has got better ideas than you.
[Academy Xi: Absolutely, it is all about teamwork.]
Audience question: Do you have any advice/tips for what to include in a portfolio and also what to avoid putting into a portfolio?
Sylvia: I think it depends on what it is that you’re looking for. So if you are thinking you are going to go heavy on UX because that’s what you really want to do as opposed to UI, then you really need to show your thinking process in your portfolio. It might not be as pretty or polished as a UI portfolio but it doesn’t certainly doesn’t stop you from making your portfolio, top to tail, design process plus extremely polished-looking, look good.
You really need to understand what your strengths are and how you want to sell yourself in this end-to-end process, so, as I said, if you think that you are going to be quite a UX-focused designer, and this is the type of roles that you want to go for, really show how you approach a problem and show all the data or the insights that you get from looking at a problem and then try to show that in your portfolio.
Audience question: How many case studies do you recommend to have in my portfolio as a beginner who is looking for a job in the UX industry?
Sylvia: Probably no more than six. Mainly because a lot of hiring managers are really busy, and they’re looking at a lot of portfolios. As well as reading CVs as well as doing their jobs. So I would say, quality over quantity for sure.
Audience question: How much did your website and case studies help you land your current role?
Sylvia: That’s a good question! I don’t know because I didn’t hire myself (laughs), but what I think happened was that I certainly had what I thought was going to get me an interview, and I think it’s only a springboard to how well you’re going to do in an interview. The portfolio is not your be all and end all, because you would still need to do well in the interviews. And it’s during the interviews you need to get across how well you can explain your design process and what you could bring to the business.
Audience question: I see a number of people on LinkedIn saying that they have been looking for jobs for months and starting to get deflated. What do you think could be the reason? Is there anything as a soon-to-be UX designer that I could do to avoid this long wait for my first gig?
Sylvia: I would say, keep at it, but maybe try something different so don’t keep doing the same thing. In the way that you know if you never refresh your portfolio, then perhaps if it’s not going to get you noticed six months ago, it’s not going to get you noticed now, so try different things and see if any of them stick.
Keep doing the projects, I know that there is some volunteer work around UX in Australia and I think from what I hear these volunteer work can help you basically bump up your skills.
While you’re looking for a job, I know it sometimes can be really difficult to work for free, but I think as a designer who’s been working for many years, I have done my fair share of free work as well, because I know that, eventually, it would lead to something but also look at it as a way to practice your skills and perhaps once you get hired, it would all be worth it.
Audience question: The full-time course recommends 25-30 hours per week. You mentioned the more you put into it, the better the outcomes. Would you recommend allocating more time than that recommendation to get the most out of the course? If so, how much more? I am balancing part-time study and work.
Sylvia: That’s like seven hours a day which is a full day of office work. I would say, I did more than that. Yeah so serendipity, as I said. What happened was it was during the entire Sydney lockdown, I really had nothing else to do except to just be in my house and do my projects.
So I suppose, maybe, it’s not fair to compare but I also have young kids and personal responsibilities but I am also very goal-orientated. So I knew that if I just put in the hard work now, three months down the end is what makes it all worth it.
So I would probably say it’s fair to say that I stopped my life for about three months, and I just went really hard in the course. Any skill that you pick up is good, it’s going to be beneficial to you.
Having said that it’s not required, you know, like it’s not something that someone is going to look over your shoulder and say you haven’t put in enough work, but I think the quality of work speaks for itself after the course, because whatever it is that you put in your portfolio or or at the interview process, you might just be able to explain your process a little bit better–if you actually might be a fit or like, went above and beyond, during the course.
Audience question: I’m 24 years old, wanting to change my career from medicine/sports science to UX UI Design, so I essentially have limited experience. My greatest concern is getting a job after completing a UX UI Transform course as someone with less experience in design. What are the key skills (both technical and soft) that you think employers search for?
Sylvia: Great question. The junior designer that I’ve got on board comes from a podiatry background.
I would say he’s brilliant at his job because from day to day, while being a podiatrist, he was diagnosing problems, you know, he was talking to people about how they were feeling. What hurts, what we could do to make it better, those are kind of all the things that you do as a UX designer anyway! So obviously having the people skills really helps.
It just gives you that extra level of being able to ask someone openly about what are the pain points, for example. Do not be discouraged, because you definitely have something to bring to the table.
Also, work on Figma! Because it’s tangible. You can look online and look on YouTube and learn, it’s something that you can actually do. Whereas you know if I say to someone who’s perhaps not the biggest extrovert, improve your people skills–it’s harder to grasp how that could help (or how to even do that). But anyone can learn to work on software.
Audience question: What job titles are you able to apply for as soon as you finish a UX course and what’s the range of pay for beginners? I would also like to ask about the range of pay from beginner to a seasoned UX design and how fast or slow is the progression.
Sylvia: I think it’s not a one-size-fits-all question and it’s a very case-by-case basis. I would think that if you have no design background and you come out, you might be a little bit more handicapped to look for a senior position, a UX position, rather than starting at a junior mid-level.
However, having said that, I’ve heard people coming out with no design background and then going straight into a senior job because they could explain the design thinking process and they’re at the right place at the right time, with the company looking for something very specific that they could give.
I think it’s really a case by case basis and really hard to answer! So I’m sorry if I kind of skirted around that question.
In terms of pay, again, case by case basis, but if you’re starting as a junior UX designer, I would say the benchmark of a junior UX designer would be more than what you would get as a graphic designer, that is an industry benchmark.
Audience question: As a UX designer how much work do you do remotely at home in comparison to in person?
Sylvia: I would say, as a UX designer you probably would be able to do all your work remotely. However, it would be up to the company to implement any sort of mandate to come to the office normally during team days. Sometimes you do get a little bit more out of a collaborative space if you’re all together socialising and doing a bit of work as well.
Audience question: Are there any tips, advice or insight, you can give regarding the interview process for UX design role and what can we do to prepare?
Sylvia: Make sure you are as approachable as possible and as empathetic as possible, because they’re going to ask you whatever they want to ask. Aim yourself with the knowledge of how you solve a problem and how you approach your testing. How you solve a problem is possibly what they’re really interested in.
Academy Xi: Thank you so much Sylvia, you shared your story with us today, and I think you’ve shared a lot of really interesting insights about the industry and how to break into it, especially for anyone who is a novice in UX and UI.
We’ve all learned a lot, I learned a lot today, and I hope that all of you here on the call as well have been able to take something away from Sylvia’s story.