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  • Writer's pictureArika Lawrence

Life as a UX Service Designer

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

Two people having a whiteboarding session

When I get asked, “what do you do for a living?” I usually answer with, “I work in tech.” It is a safe answer without going into too much detail. When you live in the DC area, it’s common to get asked what you do for a living before getting someone’s name. It’s a culture thing here that I’ve never acclimated to – it gives pretentious energy (sigh). I intentionally make it my business not to lead with what I do; I make every effort to form a genuine human connection.

What inspired me to write this post is I often get asked about my life as a user experience (service) designer. I’ve connected with folks from all walks of life, and they are interested in a career change or in the process of transitioning into the UX industry. People are naturally curious, and I welcome the questions because my only hope is that maybe my career story might inspire, educate or help someone. The reality is that breaking into tech is hard, especially the design community. The unglamorous part people don’t want to talk about is the fight to stay in both — a post for another day.

I wrote this post in a frequently asked questions format, so I hope this reads well and organizes my career story more crisply.

Why UX and why tech?

Back in 2019, my company at the time was in the process of re-organizing our team to include the UX division. This piqued my interest for two reasons: 1) I read articles about how UX design influence was on the rise of reimagining the way humans will interact and do business in the future. 2) I also read about the skills and knowledge gap in UX. The war for talent was heating up, and I seeing the need for more designers or design experts to help companies evolve (or create) a proper human-interaction model to support this massive digital transformation.

The more I read, studied, and chatted with peers in or around the industry, it felt like a natural next step to broaden my skill set. I’ve always been fascinated with the tech space (slightly concerned, too), but I knew that if I could make an impact, then this was THE industry.

Career change bigger than me

I knew that this pivot was bigger than me (it felt like a spiritual calling). Everyday, I felt myself taking on a huge responsibility to create a pathway for people like myself to be here. It's about "lifting others while I climb" (shoutout to HerAgenda) and showing them how to continue to take up space. Some showed me how (shoutout to my HBCU alma mater, Clark Atlanta University -- "I'll find a way or make one!"), and I remained committed to doing this work.

Bear in mind, the stereotype of a typical tech worker wasn't me. at. all. This was (and still is) a stark reality I navigate on the daily. I knew everything about me would stick out, which I love. I like being a disruptor, a change leader because I know and have met countless people that look like me (and not) who felt like they didn’t belong or couldn’t take up the space.

Do I still face battles around this area? Yup, but also, this has been part of a career story, in general. Being the first, one of few, or the only Black person is something I’ve battled with most of my professional life – this is not an accomplishment; this means we (society) have work to do. The beauty is I never let this deter me, even if it means digging deep to find ways to keep going. No one said life would be easy, so I even see my peers (non-BIPOC) go through their challenges — it’s part of the journey.

This is a real-world design challenge I’m trying to be part of solving, and I am walking in the truth of being the change I want to see. If you’re at a crossroads about whether or not this industry/space is for you, I leave you with this:

  • If you have a curious mind, then you belong in tech.

  • If you are willing to learn through practice, mistakes and failures, you belong in tech.

  • If you want to be part of shaping the future, you belong in tech.

Most important: If you are waiting for a sign, this is it – let’s go!

So, what is UX Service Design?

The 30,000-foot definition (in my own words) is: UX service design, also known as service design, is focused on all touchpoints/interactions and processes within a business to deliver a user/customer an optimized and seamless experience. Service designers have a unique, niche role of working at the intersection of user interface design (UI), UX, human experience (HX), business goals/KPIs, strategy, and customer experience (CX).

Examples of what this looks like in my real life is:

  • Investigate and frame the root cause of a problem. Recommend and propose ways to solve this issue.

  • Write microcopy for a prototype, long-form copy for support articles, call guides, and training resources.

  • Strategize, audit, and create customer-facing communication plan & material (i.e., emails, SMS, auto-reply emails, etc.)

  • Use quantitative and qualitative research (i.e., user testing, surveys, focus groups, ethnographic mapping) to make informed recommendations on ways to test how to optimize a touchpoint.

  • Partner on designing customer-facing experiments.

As a service designer, the day-to-day workload can vary (there is more I could add to that list, but this is super high level). Striking the right balance of designing with a customer-centric mindset and helping to define the internal experience (like the subject matter experts, tools, and tech) that powers these customer touchpoints are critical. What keeps me grounded as a designer is design principles and industry best practices.

Each day, I challenged myself to look at new ways to become a better designer. It's important for me to build upon my craft to assert leading with an equitable design thinking mindset because users/customers are multidimensional. Human needs change like the wind, and the prevalence of intersectionality continues to evolve the human experience -- this is what is also driving radical changes in our world. The challenge is reducing the linear thinking that sometimes pigeonholes us in being innovative. It’s embracing the unknown and reimagining the experience as a whole.

How did I get into service design?

Honestly, I felt like service design chose me in some ways. I’ve always had a knack for defining business processes/ procedures, experience strategy, experimentation, and being a big picture thinker. I like to make things simple and easy to understand or use. When I was introduced to the UX space, I didn’t know UX service design existed. Because "UX" means something different to everyone, and when people hear the word "design," they instantly think, you have to have drawing skills, and you don't. It's bigger than the visual experience.

Fast forward a few years: Now, all I see are articles about how more and more companies are recognizing the value of having a service design team. It’s one thing to design an intuitive experience for users/customers to consume, but it’s another thing to understand how these touchpoints/interactions need to connect to make that desired outcome possible. Service design is all about teasing out early value to the user/customer (“what's in it for me?”), which translates into early wins for the company (“happy customer = boost business profitability and brand”).

Service designers rely on the relationships within their internal teams; these are partners, subject matter experts, key stakeholders, and fellow design peers to pull this work off. It’s impossible to execute alone! More importantly, service design requires getting to the root of customer insights: understanding who your customers are, what they want, and learning how to translate this info into a meaningful and well-designed experience. Is this hard to pull off? Yes. Do you make design tradeoffs? All the time. The beauty about design work is it’s iterative, and testing as you design along is the best way to get early intel to see if you’ve grasped what your users/customers are looking for.

What’s been your biggest challenge (so far) as a service designer?

Being misunderstood! Most people don’t understand what we do, the value we bring, how we do it, or why. Some of the challenge is meeting people where they’re, and striking the right balance between thoughtfully using storytelling and persuasive language to convey focal points -- knowing your audience is key. I try to push myself to present info in different visual formats to see if I get a different reaction or level of engagement from folks. Also, metrics/data don't lie and add impact to your designs. You must be prepared to defend your work, answer lots of questions and be able to handle constructive (and not-so-constructive) criticism. From my perspective, service design is kind of a “new kid” on the block. While the discipline has been around for some time now, the industry name is still “new” to some people (it also has several aliases).

What’s your favorite design tool?

These days, I’d have to say, Miro. It’s growing on me! Most of my work requires deep exploration/collaboration with cross-functional partners and peers. I find this tool approachable and easy to use for both audiences. An honorable mention is Figma.

Boot camp or no boot camp?

Ok, so this answer might garner mixed opinions but I did go to a UX boot camp, called Skillcrush. Since I was making a career switch, I thought it would be great to get some fundamental knowledge about the UX space. I was in a place where I couldn’t decide what lane of UX I wanted to go into. In the end, I branded myself as a UX generalist. As a generalist, I dabble in a bit of everything, but my favorite focus areas are design strategy, research and content (it’s an honorable mention).

Was it worth it?

I believe it was! I had low expectations going into boot camp (because I have read and heard about boot camp horror stories). I knew the bulk of my success was dependent on showing up for class, doing the work, and taking advantage of opportunities outside of class. My course was self-paced, so it’s on you to show up and get it done. The other half of what I did outside of class was on my own time. Whether it's building my portfolio, going to networking events, hackathons, conferences, talks/workshops, etc. – you'll never land a job by being a wallflower; you’ve got to get out there and work the room. Since I was in the process of rebranding myself as a UX professional, I knew I couldn't lean on boot camp knowledge and class projects as my only means to prove my ability to do this work. The proof is in showing for yourself and getting out there.

Thoughts on dealing with job rejection? Dealing with UX roles being competitive?

My general philosophy about rejection is that I see every rejection as a blessing. Sometimes the reason is revealed to me right away, other times the revelation comes later, or sometimes it doesn't come at all because I forgot about it lol. I’ve learned not to (personally) internalize rejection as a bad thing; it’s part of the circle of life. It’s not easy, but you have to learn how to accept it, respect it and move on. If you feel like some sketchy rejection stuff is going on, that’s a different story.

Dealing with UX roles being highly competitive: I agree they are, but I also have a few theories about this, too. The Great Reset and Great Resignation has more people re-examining their work/life needs and priorities. With this wake up call, people are making swift career changes and just going for it — and as they should. On the other hand, from a recruitment perspective, it’s difficult to recruit creative roles, in general. UX is considered a niche role, and depending on what the company is looking for and how they recruit can make or break the hiring experience. Sometimes the good apples make it, and sometimes good apples get overlooked. It's rough out here y'all, and I sincerely hope more companies re-examine the invisible barriers (they should never be there in the first place but if you know, then you know) that tend to keep historically marginalized groups left out of the talent pipeline.

How to hack this is going to UX job fairs and meeting with recruiters to understand what they’re looking for talent-wise. Attend UX-specific resume and portfolio review workshops to get feedback. Getting feedback on how you present yourself and your work is essential. Practice makes you better than you were before! I’m thankful my boot camp has a strong student and alumni community that actively works toward giving you the support you need to flourish in tech/UX.

Any advice for someone trying to break into UX or tech?

  1. Be open! There are so many lanes of UX.

  2. Narrow down which industries within tech pique your interest. If you still don’t know, then I encourage you to seek out workshops, hackathons, experts, conferences, talks, etc. (most stuff is still free) to help you decipher where you grow from here.

  3. Practice your presentation and storytelling skills – this never gets old.

  4. Learning & networking are essential. Continue to brush up on your skills, stay on top of trends, and put yourself and your portfolio out there.

  5. Believe in yourself — you’ve got this! Confidence is everything.

  6. Many designers also get hung up on breaking in, which is hard (not going to lie). The truth is: I believe staying IN is harder. The burnout is real for any creative, so make sure you know your limits and take time to prioritize yourself (self-care).

  7. Most important tip: Don’t give up! Your role is on the way, and there is room for you.

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