Alice Lei

Dec 14, 2020

5 min read

Tips for Pivoting into Product Design

My story of how I became a product designer

After graduating from university during an economic recession in 2010, I dreamed of working in tech, enthralled by the possibilities of how this innovative industry can improve the lives of people in countless ways. With this belief, I landed a job as a technical recruiter in the SF Bay Area, sourcing for software engineers and product designers for an e-commerce start up. I recognized early on that I lacked passion as a recruiter, but stuck with it because it paid the bills and I believed that it was a stepping stone to something else that would compliment my creative skills.

I knew I wanted a career that was creative and this gave me some direction. The best part of being a recruiter was interviewing product designers, hearing their stories of solving complex business problems and creating beautiful and practical products for people. Their stories lit a fire in me, inspiring me to learn more about this field by reading books and articles. My studying sessions led to my participation in our company hackathons and those learning experiences helped me validate my new found joy in UX/UI.

When you’re in your twenties, you have a golden opportunity to discover your dharma, your true purpose and the responsibilities you chose to take on. If you believe that a career in product design can fulfill your dharma, here are my recommendations:

1. Assess your current job & validate your career interest

Be very honest with yourself and ask the hard questions. Is my current job fulfilling? Am I good at my job? Am I happy at my job? If your current job is soul sucking, doing nothing to help you grow as a human being or bringing you joy, follow your intuition and get out as soon as possible.

Then, give yourself the time to brainstorm what you might be interested in. Tap into your network of friends and their friends and listen to their stories and career journeys. Whatever sparks interest, take the time to learn more about those fields. If product design sparks your interest, read books, read articles, watch TED Talks, watch YouTube videos, and take product designers out for coffee to hear their experiences to validate your own interest.

2. Immerse yourself into UX/UI Design

Me synthesizing research for a class project at General Assembly
Me synthesizing research for a class project at General Assembly

After you’ve validated your interest in UX/UI Design, go beyond the free resources that you’ve exhausted and take your interest seriously. If you prefer the self taught path, carve out dedicated time daily to learn the principles of design. Then, trust that your self determination, hard work, patience and the quick ability to learn from your failures are key qualities that give you a chance to get your foot in the door.

While there are several master programs in UX/UI Design, I chose to take General Assembly’s UX/UI Design Immersive Program because it was an accelerated program, way more affordable than graduate school and it gave me structure with my time. Through the 12 week program, I spent

  • 40 hours per week in class
  • 35+ hours per week working on projects
  • and 3 hours per week attending networking events.

This immersive program helped me focus my energy intentionally, learning and applying my skills simultaneously across three class projects and one final client project. Currently, there are a range of competitive online programs that teach you the core principles of UX/UI. Whether you decide to self learn, go to graduate school, take part time evening classes or take an immersive program, simply choose a path that best accommodates your needs in this time of your life. There’s no right or wrong way.

Finally during this phase, I highly recommend you find mentors who care about your professional growth. The beauty of this field are the incredibly generous and kind designers who are open to offering a helping hand. They are as reachable as a Linkedin message away.

3. Freelance to build experience and self-esteem

Now that you’ve completed your immersive study in flying colors, it’s time to build your experience! Even though freelance has the word free in it, remember that your work is not for free. Even interns get paid and if it’s not paid, they walk away with school credit and letters of recommendation. My point is, know your worth and honor it. I feel like junior designers, especially those who pivot from another career path, feel the need to offer their free services to gain initial experience. I don’t recommend it. If your clients can’t afford to compensate you, then they don’t deserve your services.

In my experience, the most challenging part of freelancing was believing in my skills and finding honest clients to work with. I certainly had my fair share of imposter syndrome, afraid that my clients would see my own self doubts and worst of all, devalue my work. Whenever you feel this way, just remember to breathe and stick with your design process. Although your main focus in this phase is to build experience and self-esteem, you have total control of who you work with. Take this time to select the opportunities to help you flourish and grow as a human being.

Experience will give you credibility. Credibility will give you confidence. Together, experience, credibility and confidence build a foundation for you to take that leap of faith to go after your dream job when the chance presents itself.

4. Give back to your UX/UI community

When you’ve landed your dream job in product design, you’ll gradually attract aspiring designers who are interested in hearing about your career journey because you’ve now become a — wait for it — trail blazer. There are several ways to give back to your UX/UI community like writing articles to share your experiences, sharing best practice tutorials on YouTube and/or connecting with students to offer mentorship.

I strongly recommend mentoring because not only will you learn a few things about yourself and the ever evolving industry, you’ll also have the chance to contribute to a community that is kind and caring. As product designers, we have the power to shape a generous community and lean on one another to build beautiful products that elevate our humanity.

Following these steps landed me my first full-time product designer role at IMAX. At IMAX, I have the amazing opportunity of working with creative, smart and kind teammates and together, we’ve created IMAX’s first ecosystem of enterprise apps. This ecosystem has become the backbone of IMAX’s daily operations, helping the company fulfill its mission of creating immersive experiences for their users who love the magical movie experience. Once upon a time I was a technical recruiter turned product designer. If I could do it, so can you! The secret is believing in yourself. You got this!