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Imposter Syndrome

Hey there, design reader!

Welcome to week nine of my UX Academy Journey—a weekly series following my experience as a part-time student in Designlab’s UX Academy, Weingart cohort.

Last week we caught up with UXA alumna and current weekend Group Crit Facilitator and general tea-loving awesome person, Robbin Arcega, and waxed philosophical on all things UX design. This week we’re exploring how to overcome one of the most common hurdles facing newbie UX designers, as well as hearing Robbin’s teatime tips and sneaking a peek at her personal UX design reading/listening list.

Let’s dig in!

Robbin and the Battle of Imposter Syndrome

If you’ve ever tackled a creative project, chances are you’re familiar with that pesky beast, Imposter Syndrome, which happily feeds on the insecurities of us creative types.

(Image credit: Dewane Mutunga)

But if you’re one of the lucky few who’ve managed to avoid its clutches, here’s a quick introduction: the term was coined by two American psychologists in 1978 to describe feelings of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

The common denominators: Imposter Syndrome tends to apply to people who “are highly motivated to achieve,” but also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.” Fun stuff, am I right?

If you’ve been following this series, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that I, unfortunately, am not one of the lucky few able to outrun this monster—and I’m also far from alone, which raises the question: maybe a healthy dose of Imposter Syndrome is part and parcel of being a UX designer? As it turns out, it’s a pretty universal experience.

If you’re familiar with Ira Glass, of This American Life fame, you may have heard him speak on “the gap” between having good taste and creating work that meets those (very high) expectations you’ve set for yourself:

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it—and we get into it because we have good taste, but it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough to tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.”

Robbin came into the fold ready to dive into UX Academy—being a practiced online learner from her time at Udemy, she wasn’t so much worried about working her way through the curriculum itself, as she was about applying its lessons to her actual design work. And the variety of “right” answers—a consistent surprise to newbie UX designers—didn’t help.

“It was frustrating,” she said. “Each mentor had their own idea of user flows/task flows, for example. And that makes sense because they've all probably used something similar and don't want to have people confined to something, but... it makes it so hard for someone who is trying to learn the ropes.”

I went through the sitemap/task flow/user flow confusion myself, not too long ago

Robbin did a lot of research before choosing to study with Designlab. She’d heard contradictory reviews about many of the most popular bootcamps out there, and knew friends who had taken demanding and high-priced courses and then struggled to find work after graduating.

She took note of the red flags she saw when watching others completing their courses. She felt her friends were too often encouraged to put their work up on a pedestal—to think of their designs as precious and perfect—and that this limited their ability to make the transition to applying what they’d learned in an actual job afterwards (despite how beautiful their portfolio may have looked).

But, by its nature, UX design is hard to learn—especially for newcomers who are used to working and thriving in more traditional (and competitive) environments.

Where Designlab excels, in her mind, is in its emphasis on teaching process.

“In terms of coursework,” Robbin said, “I found it difficult to marry what I learned in the videos and readings to thinking about my process. This made it difficult for me to think of good questions that would actually help me grow as a designer, because what was I questioning? ‘Am I doing this right’ vs. ‘Why did they have me learn this’?”

Working away

Robbin got in the habit of sleuthing out answers to these questions as she worked through the course curriculum, which only reaffirmed the iterative nature of the work. It also emphasised the importance of identifying a problem first, before beginning any attempt at solving it. It was like building UX designer muscle memory.

“It gives you the tools you need to learn and do the work,” she said. And it’s those tools she spends so much of her time working to pass along to other new designers.

One of the unexpected roadblocks Robbin and I could both commiserate on as we walked along our independent UX design study paths was the dreaded feeling of being an industry imposter—partially due to the ever-evolving definition of what being a UX designer means, both in theory and in practice. The open-endedness of the industry is a source of endless possibilities, as well as a point of anxiety for many—a phenomenon Robbin says she sees especially with newer UX designers.

A little sketch video about what UX design actually is (and why it’s not as intimidating as it seems)

“At the end of the day your title might be UX designer, but what it actually is is critical thinking—it’s a hard thing to feel like you’re doing right,” she said. “If you’re a graphic designer, you have a very specific job and you know you’re good when someone pays you for it. When you talk about UX people say, ‘that doesn’t sound like you’re doing anything,’ and people sort of internalize that.”

This is the crux of the problem Robbin is really hoping to solve.

“I hope to help people get more comfortable with where they are and getting where they want to go,” she said. “It’s not just a means to get a job; for me, it’s like this is an incredible way to live your life. I can be so thoughtful in everything.”

Robbin is so passionate about helping others transition into the industry, that she’s launching a podcast all about the realities of breaking into the UX design game this May. She’s aptly named the series, “Starting Point.”

“I think that’s what we’re missing in UX design: realistic expectations,” she said. “A lot of podcasts are trying to attract people to UX design and it’s already attractive—you don’t have to dress it up.”

Building a community around the pursuit of a UX design life, however—that’s her bread and butter.

“I love talking to people and I love helping them decide if this is right for them, and if it is, how to help them develop those skills,” Robbin said. “I did this all by accident, and now I’m doing it!”

The hardest part is taking the dive—but once you jump, the fall itself can be invigorating.

And with that, here are some of Robbin’s top teatime tips distilled from her first year of work post-UXA.

Robbin’s Teatime Tips—Excelling as a UX Design Student and Professional:

  • Avoid free meet-ups: “They’re usually filled with other junior designers, like you, who are looking to make connections,” Robbin said. Instead, she suggests shelling out a few bucks for events with senior level attendees or seeking out more seasoned designers both at work and outside of it. “I follow the people who leave in the middle, start up a conversation in the elevator,” she said. “Big players are way more likely to have senior designers who can coach and teach you.”
  • Be deliberate in your intentions: This applies to both the coursework, if you’re a student, and paid work, if you’re not. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re just going to waffle around,” she said. “The more you know about what you want to do, the more you can do about it.”
  • Show, don’t tell: Your portfolio can’t just look pretty—it has to be backed up with insight into you and your particular methodology. “It has to tell a story,” she said. “All designers are going to have the same general background. What distinguishes your process?”
  • Be your own career advocate: UX design is a highly disruptive industry, and this affords many advantages to up-and-coming designers. “I hate that word,” Robbin said, “Everything is disruptive these days—but you can advocate for the job you want.” If you’re already working in the tech space—even in a different capacity—see if you can parlay the UX design skills you’ve stacked up into a side project that could turn into a new role down the line. Or if you’re new to the industry, look for creative ways to carve out a niche for yourself. Robbin knows quite a few newbie UX designers who have turned a design-minded social media channel into an actionable job lead, and eventual new career. Just look at Stacy Taylor, a former UXA student who turned her Instagram account into a platform to share her coursework and discuss UX design topics and processes—@thatstacytaylor so impressed the stakeholders at Intel that they interviewed her and offered her a job!
  • Throw a survey on it: Surveys aren’t just strictly for user research, oh, no. Robbin suggests reaching into your UX designer cap and pulling out a survey from time to time as a way to get valuable input from reluctant or gunshy team members. “When you’re in a room asking for feedback, people don’t always raise their hands,” she said. “But I’ve sent a few surveys and I’ve gotten quite a lot of actionable responses right away.”

Robbin’s UX Design Reading (and Listening) List:

  • Sidebar: With only five links a day, Robbin says the newsletter provides just the right amount of daily perusal. “It’s usually the reason I always have an article on hand to pass on in the Group Crits,” she said.
  • UX Design Weekly: This newsletter is more academically focused, and provides ongoing education for new students, junior designers, and industry professionals alike.
  • UXBeginning.com: A great resource specifically catering to UX design beginners, curated by successful transitioner Oz Chen.
  • Mixed Methods: The only UX design focused podcast Robbin listens to regularly.
  • Today, Explained by Vox: This is not a design podcast, but rather a daily news program that Robbin swears by. “It gives you snippets of “here is the problem,” she said. “It becomes a great exercise to use to talk to someone else about issues in your sphere.”

UX design is a continuous path, according to Robbin, not a destination—it’s best served by those who take the approach of lifelong learning.

“When you think you’re done, you’re still not done,” she said.

That’s what makes it fun, and oh so interesting.

Looking for a change of careers?

Designlab’s UX Academy program offers rigorous curriculum, personalized mentor support, and a thriving, global student community. Ready to launch your new career as a UX designer? Get all the details here

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