A journey from graphic design to UX research

By: Amy Laker
Date: July, 2023
File under: Articles

Moving from graphic design to user research was a major shift of practice. This article looks at what it’s been like to transition from a purely creative space to a role that explores and defines user’s needs.

Working in a graphic design role for over 20 + years, there was a growing desire within me to not be the last step in the design process. From personal experience, I was handed briefs and schedules to deliver concepts based on a style guide or what the client wants. I never had the privilege of knowing what users actually need.

I’d started to see and hear about the growing popularity of User Experience (UX) and how a few of my college friends were beginning to make the switch from graphic design roles. Stumbling upon a social media post from General Assembly – an international training platform – about UX, I signed up to a free lunchtime talk called ‘What is User Experience’, held at their Sydney location.

Coming away from this introduction talk, it was the cliché lightbulb moment of my career is at a crossroads, and this was the road I wanted to take – to become a UX Designer! Enrolling in a course seemed like the most logical next step, and I was soon sitting in a classroom every Saturday for 8 weeks, at General Assembly Sydney, completely immersed in the world of design thinking.

Looking back, learning everything about UX in 8 weeks was challenging – wishing for more time to focus in on each stage of the design thinking process. However, the course gave me the fundamentals to start building out a career in UX.

There was also a false sense of hope that when you finished the course, you would be able to ‘jump’ straight into a UX position. Luckily within my role at the time of completing the course, my team were about to begin a major digital consolidation project. A multi-disciplinary team was set up with a mix of internal and external designers; user research, user interface, content, as well as product owners and front-end developers. I saw this as an opportunity to move across teams to use what I had learned at General Assembly and apply it to a ‘real’ project.

After a couple of months observing what role user researchers play in design thinking, it became apparent that that was where I wanted to be, as this is what I loved the most when studying UX. I transitioned to assisting the user researchers and began working with them. I loved every minute! 12 months later, I moved into a newly appointed Digital Experience Role and began working on small projects as the research lead.

Moving to Melbourne in 2019, I spent time moving between design and research until I joined U1 in 2022, working as a full time User Researcher. I’m exactly where I want to be and working in a space that I am passionate about.

Differences between design and research

Coming from a graphic design background, it has been challenging to switch my brain from being solution focussed to starting each project with no assumptions. However, it’s refreshing to not know what the solution may be. Having the opportunity to actively listen to user’s needs first, before even thinking about what colour the designers should use for a call-to-action button or that the solution is not always interface related, rather more at a product or service level.

I sometimes get asked how I embraced the transition from being solution focussed to insight focussed. For me, if you had asked me in high school what I would like to do with my career, becoming a graphic designer was surprisingly not on the list. However, I’ve always liked the beginnings of something, and I always favoured the conceptual side of design, and that’s what ultimately led me to UX and the researcher’s role – being part of the beginning (when possible) and understanding how that research can drive decisions for how a product/service is delivered. I feel that I’ll always be a designer at heart and want to suggest moving things around on a homepage, however, now those recommendations are based on user’s insights and how it could improve a product or service.

Tips for transitioning to research

The best tip that I could give anyone transitioning into research is to essentially be a sponge. Soak in advice from other researchers because we all arrived at research from different backgrounds, for example, content design, psychology, product design, and those different skillsets and experience can offer you different perspectives and knowledge.

I have quickly learnt that everybody has their own style of engaging with users, synthesising, and reporting the insights and even stakeholder management, however the one thing that you need is the ability to communicate and engage with users to allow for them to feel ‘safe’ to be open and share their insights with you. I have always seen the role of user research as being the voice of the user. There is something empowering about having the privilege to interview people, listening to how they use products and services, in addition to their motivations and expectations to identify opportunities or gaps. We are then able to analyse, and present recommendations based on those insights.

Another tip is to stay inquisitive, and openly seek out feedback from your colleagues as an opportunity to grow. It might pinch your ego sometimes, like when a client tells you they don’t like the colour palette you’ve chosen for a design, however, it’s an amazing opportunity to refine your craft as a researcher.

And most of all, never assume. That’s the best part of this role, you get to squash those assumptions by speaking directly to users.

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