Q&A: moving from software engineering to user experience

Via email, I received the following question:

I am interested to know how you made the transition from being a software engineer to UX researcher?

My background is a technical one.  I have a BS in mathematics and another in computer science.  I’ve been a developer, including some VAX assembler.  I’m reasonably comfortable in Xcode, even though I don’t really code these days.

I don’t think that moving from a development role to a user experience role is a difficult change to make.  As with any kind of job hunting, it’s about finding the right team that will value the skillset that you have.  Not all teams will find such a background useful, but there are many that will.  I think that there are several unique skills that someone who is currently a developer can bring to the table.

Technical skills are quite useful when you’re considering the user experience and brainstorming potential solutions to issues.  Your potential solutions will consider what’s possible and thus have an increased probability of having an impact on the product.

Having technical skills and user experience skills can help bridge a communication gap.  UX professionals sometimes don’t have a technical background, and developers sometimes don’t have a UX background.  Being able to speak both languages is a positive asset.  I’ve seen several cases where the UX team and the development team were both talking about the same thing, but getting frustrated with each other because they didn’t realise they were doing so.

There are a lot of UX problems to be solved on applications that are complex and deeply technical.  They might not be as sexy as working on the new social media hotness1, but they do have an impact on a lot of people and a lot of multi-billion-dollar corporations.  In my opinion, technical skills help in getting up-to-speed on deeply technical applications.  For example, I worked on DB2.  Understanding databases and knowing SQL helped me immeasurably in that position, and meant that I could hit the ground running.

Another potential positive aspect of being a developer is having experience in shipping applications and continuing to support them after their release.  Understanding the software development lifecycle from deep in the trenches means that you have a great understanding of when various types of research will have the greatest impact on the application.  This helps you formulate the right research plan to answer the right questions at the right time.  A development background isn’t the only way to reach this understanding, but it’s a great way to get there.

It goes without saying that having development skills isn’t sufficient to move to a UX position.  You need to be familiar with UX methodologies, and ideally you would have examples of applying such methodologies in your development work.  You also need to display excellent communications skills, since so much of UX isn’t so much about applying the right methodologies as it is about communicating with the application teams and influencing them to make changes based on your research and recommendations.

As a developer, you can set yourself apart from the competition if you can show product impact, and discuss how your unique skillset of both CS+UX helped you have a significant impact on your product.  Changing roles within the software industry happens frequently; I think it’s to be expected that people in many disciplines within software engineering will want to try out new things.  As I was thinking about this question, I came across an article about moving from engineering to product management; a fair amount of the advice in there is applicable to a move from engineering to UX too.

In other words, if you want to make a change, get out there and find the right position for you.  I don’t think that finding the right position in this case is any harder than finding the right position for anyone who is looking for a software engineering position that is outside the norm.  After all, there are many more web developer jobs than there are UX jobs.  You’ll also find that, within UX, there are more design jobs than researcher jobs.  It’s rewarding once you find the right job, but getting there can be frustrating and time-consuming.

  1. Nothing against social media.  After all, I’m active on twitter!
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One Response to Q&A: moving from software engineering to user experience

  1. Priyanka Godbole says:

    Hey Nadyne

    Just read this post. Thanks for the insightful post!

    Your post about how you became a software engineer from MSDN blog, made me rethink about why I chose to have an education in engineering. At that time, I had absolutely no experience in programming.

    I had my first computer at 16. My first programming language was C and I learnt it at the age of 18.

    Priyanka