From Visual Designer to UX Leader: Leslie Yang on Her Big Career Shift
Leslie Yang is a senior product designer at Pivotal Labs and a leader in UX design, but it wasn’t always this way. Just a few years ago she was a visual designer looking for a change. She was seeking a different approach to product design and soon feel in love with the idea of UX. So, what to do next…
We asked Leslie Yang to share her story and any advice she has for others looking to break into UX design.
Why did you decide to leave behind a career in visual design?
I began to feel burnt out. I noticed the majority of the design feedback I received was based on aesthetic preference. When I first learned about user-centered design, something clicked for me. I could see the potential of having a more objective discussion on what we should built and for what kinds of users.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to practice UX where I worked so I began to work on my portfolio. I hustled my friends for work. I emailed every friend who worked in tech or owned a business and said that I wanted to work in UX and asked if they needed any design work. I slowly filled up my portfolio.
What was it like making the move? Were you scared?
Goodness, yes. I remember feeling scared, but I was also really determined to move on. I knew I couldn’t do the same work or work in the same ways anymore.
One night, at a friend’s potluck, I was talking to friends and I said that I wanted to do more UX work. The person standing next to me introduced himself as the head of a UX agency and offered to have lunch with me.
We got lunch later that week and I showed him my portfolio. At the end of the conversation, I asked, “Do you need an intern?” He said, “Actually, yeah I do,” and we ironed out the internship details later that week.
What happened after your internship ended?
I wound up getting hired on as a full-time associate experience designer pretty soon after I started working at the agency. I learned so much from my fellow designers, and then moved onto product design at Pivotal Labs, a software consultancy that enables startups to Fortune 50 companies design and build software using lean and agile practices. I’ve been leading design for client engagements for the past two years.
My job hunt was helped by referrals from friends, and friends of friends, working in tech. I haven’t found meetups to be that helpful in getting to know fellow designers, but I have found getting coffee and meeting new people at friends’ homes to be a more casual and lightweight way of meeting people and having thoughtful conversations.
What matters most to me is that I’m constantly learning and I can collaborate with smart people to create the best possible user experience. I think my best work comes out of smart collaborations and that’s how I decide which opportunities are worth my time and energy.
What is it like working in UX now?
Working in UX depends on the type of company you work for and who is on your team. Are you a UX designer at a startup? You’ll do everything, from user research to visual design and branding. You’ll have more experience across different design disciplines, but little mentorship.
Are you a designer working at a large company? Your work will be more specialized, you’ll have less opportunities to experiment with different disciplines, and your influence on the product will be less than if you worked at a startup.
Or are you working for a UX agency? You’ll work on a wide range of projects, have influence over the product direction, but you won’t see much of the product lifecycle.
What advice do you have for anyone considering a big career shift?
For anyone wanting to switch careers, I’d first ask ‘what are your goals and why do you want to make this shift?’ Get clear on what you want and then tell people what you want to do. The more people know your goals, the more people there are listening for opportunities for you.
Also, be prepared to eat a little crow. It doesn’t matter what job title you held before, what matters is what you need to learn to get the experience you want. Be creative and proactive about how to get that experience.
And when in doubt, invest in yourself. Does a coding or UX class make sense if you know you’ll learn faster in a structured environment? Then find ways to pay for it.
If you want to move into UX, if possible, find opportunities to join teams with representation from product, design, and engineering. Your design work will be much better with a balance of these people providing product guidance.
Follow Leslie on Twitter @feistyelle.