How to prepare for a first job in the IT industry? What are tips worth hearing at the beginning of a career as a Product Designer?
A 180-degree career change always comes with risk. Preparation and a strong commitment to creating the portfolio were (sadly) never enough.
But now, I work on commercial projects with specialists from a variety of fields. And now I'm sure that I want to continue doing it.
After three months of work on commercial projects, I want to tell you my story, from being a civil engineer to becoming a product designer.
In this text, I will:
- Tell you how to prepare for entering the IT industry.
- Give insights into the process of acquiring new knowledge.
- Share how to ask for feedback and use that feedback in your daily work.
- Finally, I'll give some tips that I wish I heard at the beginning of my path.
How I decided to pivot my career
I have always wanted to do something significant to improve the lives of my loved ones' in the future. In elementary school, I always preferred solving math problems or making technical drawings rather than writing essays.
When I needed to decide on my field of study, I thought of... construction. It intrigued me, and I wanted to try my hand. I thought: "I will start my career as a builder and gradually move into interior design (who doesn't love beautiful things?)".
In mid-2019, after obtaining a master’s degree in civil engineering, I decided to change the direction of my career. I realized that I prefer to design visually rather than technically. My interest in psychology (more specifically, people’s behavior) has also grown.
And so, when one day, my friend from the IT industry told me about what they do when working on UX and UI, I was intrigued right away. I saw a connection with my interests and was intrigued. So I decided... to delve into the world of product design.
My notes from one of the online courses on user flow. Learning about the visual side of developing web & mobile applications was fun, but not as fun, as making colorful, neat notes.
Understanding product design
I started by... learning what Product Design is. I took courses from UX and UI learning platforms. I learned the basic concepts of UX and UI, such as research, tests with users, creating personas, empathy maps or user journey maps, designing interfaces, and developing products for different platforms.
I explored all of the topics, studied plenty of Medium and UX collective articles, and read many books. I highly recommend the book The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, who, along with Jacob Nielsen, is considered the father of UX.
Then I made the first sketches and transferred them to the digital design tool. From a variety of software, I chose Figma. It is a free tool that works via a browser or desktop application. It also has a pleasant and intuitive interface, so taking the first steps was fairly easy.
After gaining basic knowledge, I created my first portfolio. Shortly after that, I started to look for a place that would allow me to gain experience and broaden my knowledge by working on commercial projects.
It seemed impossible at that moment, but I figured I'd try anyway.
How I chose the company for an internship as a product designer
In the beginning, I applied to every company I could find.
After a while, I realized: I want to gain experience, but... shouldn't I be motivated by the product too?
I found Untitled Kingdom through social media channels. I was captivated by their portfolio, and I shared the company's core values. I knew that I wanted to contribute to increasing public awareness of HealthTech, IoT, and FemTech. I had an excellent opportunity to test my abilities and see if the decision to change my career path was right.
When I started my first day of internship, I didn't really know what to expect. I imagined a long introductory day and waiting for the first project that (most likely) will not be put to use.
The reality could not be more different. On my first day, I received an exercise that... was planned to be included in the proposal for one of the company's Partners.
Despite the enormous stress, I was glad to be given such a task. And from there on, the journey continued. Here's 5 lessons I learned along the way.
One of the first projects I designed. An app connecting elderly people in need to volunteers willing to help them.
Funny, hot it led me to a company
Don't just learn the IT jargon. Learn the meaning behind it.
As a person without an IT background, I have encountered plenty of terms that I knew little about, such as exporting application elements for developers or the issue of interfaces intended for programmers.
At first, it was very tough to actively participate in the meetings without knowing technical jargon. It is an inseparable part of our everyday work. It speeds up the whole communication and makes it more precise.
My colleagues told me to ask as many questions as possible. I learned that, in most cases, receiving a brief explanation was sufficient. You can always focus on the details later. This allowed me to establish better communication with my coworkers and to concentrate on my tasks instead.
My advice: if you have friends in the IT industry that talk to each other using concepts that you don't understand - ask them about the meaning of particular terms and try to include yourself in the conversation. This will help you to get used to the jargon much faster.
Learn design, but not necessarily from a designer
From the very beginning, I was surrounded by people from various environments, team members with different experience levels, employees working in diverse roles. All of them pointed out to me areas that they found useful in cooperation with a product designer. It turned out to be a treasure trove. I learned how to be a designer from people who were not designers but simply expressed what they expected from me.
It's natural that the amount of information you need to learn in the IT environment can be overwhelming. It's an industry that is continuously developing.
I dived deeper into the industry articles (like Medium, UX collective, UX planet, UX jargon), watched more conferences of large IT companies (like Apple or Google), and followed the news about the software I use daily.
Fail fast, early, and often
While working on my portfolio, I rarely had the opportunity to present and consult the results of my work with experienced people.
But when I joined Untitled Kingdom I quickly changed my way of thinking. The key to success is presenting (even partial) results.
I have learned to be open to constructive criticism, learn from it, and defend my own opinions. Needless to say, it improved my work.
Untitled Kingdom's motto is Experiment. Fail. Learn. Repeat.
Mistakes are not bad if you draw the right conclusions from them.
Asking for a review at an early stage of the project allows me to fail fast and ensure that my approach to a particular problem is right.
My first task was to design several application screens for the medical industry. After two hours, I presented my final work results, i.e., full screens, copies, buttons, and graphics. Some of my ideas were good, but there were many things I needed to improve, too. But since I presented the final effect, we had to go through the whole process to discuss the individual elements.
After this experience, I started to approach the design process differently:
- firstly, I create low-fidelity wireframes to check whether the chosen approach works.
- then, I move on to high-fidelity wireframes and specific designs.
Sharing my work progress with the rest of my team helped me quickly verify my mistakes, gather opinions, gain valuable information, and get to know a different view on a given topic
Feedback is the best tool to help you grow
It's simple for some and tricky for others, but for me, feedback has become a tremendous problem-solving tool. At Untitled Kingdom we follow the Management 3.0 guidelines, including the feedback wrap.
At the end of each week of my internship, I had a feedback meeting with Greg, our Head of Operations, to summarize my work.
We talked about my work, the results, what went well, and which parts needed improvement. That's when I learned to ask questions and research all kinds of IT-related topics. I also learned about the value of making freehand sketches before starting to design in the program, composition, and the correct implementation of wireframes.
Finally, the time has come to evaluate the entire month of my internship. It was one of my most interesting professional conversations and an experience I will remember for a long time. My internship period allowed me to approach tasks and decisions with greater awareness.
First things first. Understanding users’ needs.
How do I rate my first month in the company?
Each task was a big challenge. Even during the recruitment process, I noticed a lot of emphasis on understanding any given task. I have learned that the most important thing is asking the right questions.
I always ask: what's the problem that the design can solve? Who should it reach? What's the target group's behavior - what are their characteristics, routines, and habits? What are their feelings, needs, and fears towards the issue that the digital solution wants to solve?
I think about this before each new assignment.
It's been three months already, and I love working at Untitled Kingdom. Especially the workshops we go through with every project - cooperating with a whole Project Team to investigate a particular problem. It allows me to look at the product from different perspectives and (by proxy) to understand the target group better and develop more fitting ideas.
A few more tips and a question - was it worth pivoting my career?
It was worth it! Every day at work, I make sure that my decision was a perfect idea. I develop in the field of interest, do what I like, and learn new topics is a pleasure for me. Besides, I have the opportunity to work on my interpersonal skills.
I'll give you a few more tips that I would like to hear a year ago:
- Product design is not only about designing nice screens. It consists of the entire design process - research, understanding the topic, and collecting requirements. These are the essential points without which you won't create a useful product.
- Don't spend too much time selecting an interface design tool. During your path as a Designer, you will recognize that, in many cases, you will only need a sheet of paper and a pencil. 🗒️
- Whatever your academic or professional experience was, use the knowledge you already have. Everything you learned is valuable, and everything you have learned about yourself while studying... even more so.
- Don't worry about not knowing everything. Work is continuous learning. It's good you want to deepen your knowledge!
- And the most crucial piece of advice: There will be overwhelming moments. Times when you will doubt yourself. Projects when you will feel like you have not done enough. Don't let anything break you. Should you need it, take a day off, and come back with new energy.
At last, once again, shout out to the whole Untitled Kingdom family.
From the beginning, I was met with warmth and openness from every person. It was the incredible reception in the company that allowed me to quickly forget about the stress of my first job as a product designer.
I would like to thank Greg, who helped me with my first steps at Untitled Kingdom. The tremendous amount of knowledge and guidance that he gives me all the time is invaluable!