A Guide for the Aspiring UX Professional, Part 2: Having a Successful First Six Months

You did it, you got the job! Nice! Great work! 

Now it’s time to show your employer that you’ve got the chops to be successful in your new role.

The first few months of any job are probably the most difficult, which is unfortunate because you could argue that they are also the most important. There are lots of things going on: new people, technology, logins, forms, processes, calendars – and quick, before we go any further, what is the code to the bathroom again?!

Not to mention, transitioning from university hours to a 40 hour work week is just plain weird. The work-day ends at 5:00 pm? I can get to sleep before midnight? Adjusting to this schedule can be a lot at first.

Because the first full-time job is a big change for everyone, it’s important to keep a few things in mind as efforts to adjust become prominent. We have a small list of tips to help you hit the ground running. Just like our first post in this series: A Guide for the Aspiring UX Professional: Getting your first job, some of them are obvious, but again, classics are classics for a reason. Others may require a little bit of work early on, but I promise they will pay off in the long run.

So, without further ado, Part 2: Having a successful first six months on the job.


Ask how, ask why, and ask for guidance.

Learning is an idiosyncratic process. Meaning each learner will respond differently to instructional approaches depending on factors such as the person teaching, their style(s) of instruction, the topic, and context in which learning takes place.

When you walk into orientation on your first day, it’s common for the HR staff responsible for “orienting you” to have a topic or sequence order that works well for most people, most of the time – a very Benthamian concept, indeed. However, with your background in cognitive science, you know he or she will cover some things that you just don’t understand. It’s not their fault, it’s not your fault, but you still need to figure it out.

The two most powerful questions you can ask in your UX career (regardless of experience) are, “How did you do that?”, and “Why do you do it that way?”. These questions are the cornerstones of learning in an organization, as well as identifying ways to improve the steps taken themselves. On the right team of people, asking these basic questions can help experienced professionals evaluate processes or decisions that have assumed to be “self-evident” for years.

Not only can asking questions build critical thinking skills, it helps to develop a rapport with the people you ask. It encourages communication between colleagues and can boost self-efficacy. According to Stajkovic & Luhans (1998), self-efficacy was highly predictive of work-related performance in a meta-analysis of studies published over a 20 year period. Specifically, they found that higher self-efficacy corresponded to an (average) 28% gain in performance (Hedges d = .82), compared to those with lower self-efficacy.

In addition to incorporating “how” and “why” into your daily vocabulary, understand that some guidance is better than no guidance when it comes to learning. Indeed, Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006) discuss this point in their review of different learning strategies. They say that “controlled experiments almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it”. Kirschner et al. (2006) stresses that guided learning is essential when learners don’t have the foundational knowledge and strategies needed to make sense of the information presented to them. And before you get all huffy and puffy about it, understand that there will be many process-related details about your new job that require guidance, even if your knowledge and skills in UX are strong.

One caveat to this advice is that you need to know when to ask these questions. Brand new employees fall into a type of Pavlovian trap when it comes to questions. Ask a question, get an answer. Ask another question, get an answer. Hear the ding, get a treat. Before you know it, we’re all covered in drool, and little to no work has been completed. They get so used to the pattern of asking for help, that they forget to stop and think whether they need someone else’s help in the first place. In other words, they use their ability to ask for help as a crutch when problem-solving, instead of realizing that their own two legs work just fine.

You will never grow as a thinker, problem solver, or as a professional if you don’t learn to find the balancing point between searching for solutions on your own, and knowing when to ask “how” and “why”. Using Google, books, journals, and the Internet to find the solution is a phenomenal way to lessen the impulse to ask someone else. If you run into a dead-end, consider asking for help on how to find the answer. This will demonstrate to your colleagues that you are taking the initiative to become more independent. 


If you’re still in school, finish your degree.

Companies seeking UX talent look for advantages over other companies to get the best students straight out of school. One increasingly popular strategy is recruiting students before they graduate. In some cases, it may be a few months before they finish. Others, a few semesters. This is especially common in booming UX areas like San Diego and San Francisco, where there are high-dollar companies in the same backyard as universities producing highly capable UX professionals.

If a company has an office near your campus, it’s also common to start working full-time before graduation itself. Because of this uptick in scheduling conflicts, and therefore lack of time during the week, many people choose to put school on the backburner – and, unless you’re their parents, it’s hard to blame them. They’ve busted their butt through school, ate more ramen noodles than is clinically advisable, and are finally able to start putting a dent in the student loans, but I’m going to put on my dad hat here for a moment: finish your freaking degree (then take out the trash).

Even if you have one semester to go, there are plenty of ways to get more out of your program. Not to mention, this may be your last time to focus on “your research”. It’s pretty unlikely that a company is going to pluck you up, pay you a decent salary, and say, “you know what, just keep doing exactly what you’re doing.” Chances are good they will want you to do something similar to what you were doing, but with their products, systems, or teams. 

There is always something valuable left to learn, even if that makes your new job more difficult. Make time to attend class. Finish that thesis. Do whatever you can to get that degree you paid a lot of money for!

On top of that, it’s likely the company brought you on with the expectation that you would finish your degree.  If for whatever reason you don’t, it puts your managers in a really awkward position, and let’s face it, down the line, not having the degree may be the difference between you and someone else who does have those letters after their name. You don’t want school responsibilities to drag on and affect you later.  


Have patience and enthusiasm.

No matter how much preparation you’ve done, you are going to mess up, and things are going to go wrong. They may be small slips or big mistakes, but that’s just part of growing in your career. What really matters is how you handle those mistakes; do so with poise. Understand what happened, learn from it, and move on.  Even if frustration presents itself, have the patience to just keep moving forward.

You may also have to be patient with the opportunities you get. When we enter a new job, it’s easy to expect big, rewarding, and complex tasks all day, everyday. We want to move quickly and we want to make a difference! While some people are tossed to the wolves from the get-go, most will have some grunt-work to take care of, and some of that grunt-work will literally have nothing to do with UX. Like, restocking the refrigerator after a grocery run, organizing a lunch order for the team, or choosing between pastel yellow and highlighter yellow sticky notes. So my advice is this: Approach every task with patience and enthusiasm. If you expect to get nothing from an experience, you won’t look for opportunities to challenge your expectations.

Remember that each project you are tasked with is an opportunity to learn and contribute. As young professionals fresh from the university, it’s our job to learn from every experience we can and improve every day. Don’t be discouraged if you are asked to help with what seems to be a mindless or boring task. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, senior employees are likely to see your dedication over time. It will pay off in the long-haul, and you will be trusted with tasks that carry more responsibility.


Work really hard, but take care of yourself.

As you’ve learned, talent is only part of the equation when it comes to success. Showing up to work on time (or early) requires no talent whatsoever, it requires a skill that can be developed: planning. People notice that stuff. Likewise, effort and straight-up grit is a function of how much you want to succeed. Work hard to develop the cognitive muscles required for productivity over a long period of time. Anyone can get to a higher level with practice.  

Offer your help to teammates. Come in early. Stay late. Ask for more opportunities; not necessarily to take the lead on projects, but to gain more experience and exposure. Display drive so that your managers can see how much you want to be successful in your role.

Side note: sometimes just asking to be on a project is all it takes. Managers focus on balancing resources with demand. Who is available for this next project? Does their skill set and experience match the project needs? What contingencies are there? Your manager is not necessarily thinking who would experience the most enjoyment by working on this project. Simply saying that you have a personal interest in a particular client, project, or product is sometimes all you need to get on the team. Smart managers understand that if he/she has a motivated person on that project, things are likely going to go a lot smoother.

Having said all that, it’s essential that you take care of yourself. Adjusting to the 40-hour work week is not as easy as it sounds. While students can flexibly orient their working schedules around class and leisure activity, it can be difficult to start working eight or more hours in one solid chunk. Work hard, but you’ve got to have a life, too. You won’t do anyone any good if you’re burnt out and exhausted after four months. Use weekends to rest and to have fun. Get plenty of exercise. Eat right. Health always comes first and it will always relate back to productivity.


Once again, good luck!

You have the tools to succeed; you know it and your employer sees it. Now it’s time to execute!  You can use small tips like these to make yourself a better employee, one who is enthusiastic, efficient, and productive.

So, we offer you our best wishes as you pursue bigger and better things in your career.  Ask questions, work hard, be patient, but remain enthusiastic in all that you do! The opportunities afforded to you will only improve if you keep trying your best.

References:

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Stajkovic, A. D., & Luthans, F. (1998). Self-efficacy and work-related performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 124(2), 240.


About the Authors

Anders Orn | Human Factors Scientist | Research Collective
Team Anders Orn Headshot

As a Human Factors Scientist, Anders Orn plans for and conducts observational research at Research Collective. While he is involved in many aspects of research, Anders enjoys usability testing in the healthcare and automotive industries as they are a unique opportunity to examine human behavior. You can find Anders on LinkedIn here.

Joe O’Brian | Senior Human Factors Scientist | Research Collective
Team Joe O'Brian Headshot

Joe O’Brian is a Senior Human Factors Scientist at Research Collective. He has co-authored articles on topics ranging from judgment and decision making to education and healthcare technologies. At Research Collective, his contributions include project planning, observational and biometric research, and advanced statistical analysis for major automotive and healthcare organizations. You can find Joe on LinkedIn here.

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