User experience designer: Sophia Wiener

Sophia left public relations for user experience (UX) design three years ago and hasn’t looked back. The Juggle sat down with her to find out WTF UX is all about, why she chose it and what the future holds.
Sophia Wiener

Current job title: Senior Experience Strategist at Wondersauce
Old career: Public Relations Executive
Sophia on LinkedIn

Sophia made the leap from public relations to user experience (UX) design three years ago and hasn’t looked back. She’s worked with brands you’ve heard of (mindbodygreen, Tabasco) and others you haven’t, always with a focus on solving business problems through the user experience. I sat down with her to find out WTF UX is all about, why she chose it and what the future holds.

How do you explain your job? Say a family member asks you what you do — what do you say?

I say I’m a designer. If they ask what kind, I say I make websites and apps. If someone asks if I’m a visual designer, then I know they know what I’m talking about, so I can say I’m a UX designer.

On a personal level, I wish I’d just had more confidence in myself because I think everyone is making it up as they go.

You used to work in public relations. How did you get started in UX?

I did a UX bootcamp at General Assembly, two days per week while working full time. I really liked the program.

Then I got lucky — I had a friend at my current company, Wondersauce [an advertising agency]. She is the tech director and had also made a career change. I was able to get a six-month internship there, full time, so I quit my job and I’ve been at Wondersauce ever since.

Now, when I’m interviewing candidates and looking at resumes, I don’t look for a traditional design degree. It would be hypocritical. Besides that, a lot of people in UX have nontraditional backgrounds. It’s a new and emerging field, and it’s still a really good time to move into it.

How old were you when you started the UX bootcamp?

27. I used to feel like I was so old compared to all the kids in my office, who were all fresh out of school. But now everyone else is getting older too, I don’t feel as much like that anymore. It’s still a new field, but there’s more of a career path in it now. Now there are chief experience officers — positions like that exist now. Even just three years ago when I started, I didn’t feel like there were a lot of experienced role models.

What was the biggest benefit of the UX bootcamp?

Understanding what the job would be — what UX was. I don’t think I really knew that before I took the class.

How did you know this was what you wanted to do?

I was sitting at work in PR, thinking, “What other career paths are out there? What exists?” I found General Assembly. And once I felt like I had gotten through enough of the course, I reached out to the friend I mentioned — at the time she was just a friend of a friend — and asked if they had any internships.

The jump from PR to visual designer would have taken a lot more studying, schooling and technical skill development. I’ve had to learn those as I’ve gone, but in a UX role, it’s been more OK to learn them on the job rather than having formal training.

Was it a paid internship?

It was paid, but barely. If I hadn’t had my husband to help support me it would have been a lot more difficult.

After 6 months, my salary was still entry level, but entry level in tech is more than entry level in PR. It was a big pay cut from where I was after five years in PR, but I moved up quickly. In three years doing this, I’ve surpassed what I was making in PR. It’s a field with a lot of opportunity.

Did you submit a portfolio when you applied?

I used the project from my General Assembly class as a portfolio. That was all I had.

I’ve heard people say that when you’re trying to make a switch, you should do personal projects to try to build up a portfolio. I do think that’s true. But you’re not expected to have real experience if you haven’t worked with real clients. I’ve actually seen people take an existing app and present their ideas for a redesign, as a portfolio piece. Sometimes you have to get creative.

What’s your favorite part of your current company?

All my clients are very different from each other, and my role on projects is different. It’s the only agency I’ve worked at so I’m not sure if that’s the same everywhere. I like being part of the strategy and the creative process. It’s so cool to be a part of the team running the creative process. Even if I’m not the one making the final product, it’s still my product. It’s like, here’s this thing I made and now it’s out in the world.

What’s your biggest frustration?

As someone who likes structure, it’s been hard to become someone who can flourish without structure.

And clients are clients, that’s always going to be true. They use the internet so they think they are experts, that they are their own end users. But you’re never your own end user.

That’s why research is so crucial. We do research in my role, too. I get to do user testing and interviews and talk to people about surprising things — like I worked with a video game company and got to talk to hardcore gamer people.

How has your role changed since you started in UX?

When I started, it was mostly executional. Someone would say, here’s the strategy, now go come up with some wireframes. Now, ideally, I’m more involved with the idea from the beginning. The business development person will come to me at the outset and ask me to work setting the terms. They’ll ask how many weeks we need, what steps we need to accomplish. And I’ll work on developing the big picture and plan from the beginning.

Are you a project manager too?

That’s actually a different person’s job, but sometimes I’ll step in to help make sure things get done.

Having a dedicated team member whose sole job is managing the project really surprised me when I started, coming from PR where you oversee your team’s work and your own workload and manage clients’ expectations all day long. I thought, “Wait, you mean I don’t ever really have to communicate with the client?” Even now, I don’t get that many emails, especially compared to before. It’s nice having someone else manage clients and the process.

What skills are the most important for your job?

Well, it depends on the specific area of UX. But on my team, we are looking for people who are more all-around strategic. It sounds a little cheesy, but we’re looking for people who understand the bigger business implications of design solutions.

Research skills are really important, even if researcher is not your day-to-day job. And a strong visual sense. Knowing what the design needs, and being able to provide feedback on visual designs and the creative process. In UX, you’re expected to have some visual skills but it’s not the whole job. As long as I’m able to give creative feedback and make clear wireframes that are presented to clients — that’s what I need to be able to do. We have visual designers we work with as well.

The thing is, most major brands have established brand guidelines [a set of rules, including colors, fonts and other cues, that dictate how the company’s designed materials and online presence should look]. They’re not looking to us just for a pretty design. They’re looking for us to give them the business strategy. To explain why and how what we’re proposing is going to help them make more money. Pretty is secondary. It’s almost irrelevant.

I didn’t know this going in, but my strategic communications background has really helped me. I was able to quickly grasp the strategy side of this business. And I already had the ability to develop presentation decks and write. Actually, the most important skill is being able to communicate your design decisions. Even the best designers I work with — you can be the most amazing designer, but if you can’t communicate why you made your design decisions, then what is a client supposed to do with that?

What did you want to be when you were little?

An artist. Sometimes also a doctor. Everyone in my family is in education. My parents have always been writers and teachers. I’m the bad capitalist daughter.

No one is going to cut me any slack or let me make excuses, so I just need to be confident in myself.

What does the future hold for you?

I enjoy UX and think I’m good at it — especially the “UX as business strategy” part of it. But the fact that I don’t have “designer” in my title anymore bothers me. So it’s up to me to figure out if I want to continue on this path, versus going down the product path and further developing my visual design skills.

What does the product path look like?

Positioning yourself as a product designer is probably the way to go money-wise. Depending on the job descriptions, there’s a strong visual component but UX skills are what they’re really looking for. On a product design team, you might have a UX researcher, but you probably don’t have a UX expert yet. You need that.

What do you wish you had known when you were starting out?

On a personal level, I wish I’d just had more confidence in myself because I think everyone is making it up as they go. It took me a long time to stop — not apologizing, but — using my lack of traditional design background as a crutch. Like, “I’m just a PR girl, but here’s my two cents.” But no one is going to cut me any slack or let me make excuses, so I just need to be confident in myself.

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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