Throughout her career, Kristen Carter has navigated research, design and development at all stages of the product lifecycle—tackling complex and challenging projects with curiosity, an open mind, and desire for discovering meaningful insights that drive innovative solutions.
For our latest instalment of Futureheads Five Stories series, we spoke to the Content Editor turned UX specialist about how she successfully switched careers, and the lessons she learned along the way.
FFS is a regular interview series where tech professionals and industry leaders share their insights and personal experience. Other articles in the series can be found here.
1. What’s the story of your career so far?
I started out as a Content Editor for a website that listed vacation properties for let. At the time, it wasn’t a straight forward role, but one with many responsibilities from web producer and designer to merchandiser and marketing manager. It was pretty exciting because there was so much to do and to learn.
Because of this, I was able to develop in both my expertise and responsibilities reasonably quickly. Within a couple of years, I became a technology-focused Program Manager supporting the international growth of one of the world’s biggest travel brands.
I continued to take on technical and business challenges to learn and grow as a technology and product professional. Still, I always felt like my career trajectory was unclear. When I had a realisation that my true passion was more aligned with user experience, I was eager to embrace it, learn, and change my role.
At the time, I was at Amazon, and I was fortunate enough to have support to study and apply this to my work. I knew I needed to go further to make the switch, so I made a decision to do a radical reset and dive into learning. So I quit, sold everything and moved 10K miles to study HCID full time here in London.
Fast forward 4 years and I have completed one master’s degree, one very intensive UX transformation role and several exciting UX projects for NGOs and small businesses (B2B and B2C) across the globe. I am currently looking for my next challenge where I can continue to deliver impactful user insights and creative, innovative user-centred solutions.
2. Why did you decide to change your career, and how have you gone about the switch?
I have always been a user-first advocate and have applied usability and research activities to project and programs for years, so in a sense, I have gravitated toward it. But when I decided to refocus on a role in UX, it wasn’t an easy or quick switch.
After a particularly intense product launch, I took a short break to reset and evaluate what I wanted my next challenge to look like.
At the time UX was emerging as not only UI design and usability, but as a multifaceted professional practice. I thought I could self-learn and apply to my work to slowly drive toward a more UX focused product role, but it wasn’t enough. It literally took a couple of conversations with a leader in my organisation, and with an HCI professor at my local uni to focus in on what I needed to do—take a sabbatical and go back to school.
And despite my friends and family telling me I was crazy, I did it.
Taking a professional break to become a student again was hard. There were many points where I had to remind myself why I was doing this, but I never questioned my love for the work. I knew that I needed to stay on my new and steep “s-curve of learning” because it would be worth it when I could look back and say “I did it. I became the UXer I wanted to be.
3. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt over the course of your career?
I think it’s two-fold—Never underestimate the power of networking, or the impact impostor syndrome. You must understand how to navigate both as they can serve as bumpers that help keep you on track.
Networking has helped me seek out opportunities that I didn’t initially consider myself ready for with confidence and a feeling that I was supported. I am not a natural networker, so I have to work at it, keep myself out of my comfort zone and keep putting myself into situations where I can meet other professionals and leaders in our industry. This is hard but essential and rewarding.
Impostor syndrome definitely makes this challenging as well. For our field, this is very common as we are sometimes painfully self-aware, always looking to improve and sometimes forgetting what we’ve accomplished along the way. In my case, I have to be careful not to question my credentials when I shouldn’t or shied away from opportunities.
4. What advice would you give to others in your position considering a career change at the moment?
This is such a strange time for so many reasons. In one sense, it is the best time to commit to learning and adding to your skillset. Because we have more time than we usually would, you can focus and really dig in. There are so many resources to get you into self or online learning as well as support groups, meetups and virtual conferences where you can quickly become part of a cohort who are doing the same thing. However, the market for UX roles is very competitive for those at all stages of their career, so you have to be very committed and focused.
I would not recommend it for people who think that they can do a short course and become fully qualified to join the workforce as a UXers.
As a field, we are all about learning and supporting each other, but we can be very particular when it comes to hiring. Be prepared to immerse yourself—read, learn, do—and to hustle.
5. What’s going to be the biggest challenge in the industry over the next 12 months?
Stay focused on the long game of having and keeping a UX seat at the table for strategy and leadership. It is very easy to slide into practical, task-oriented functions when that appears to be required at a given time. We can be great firefighters and superheroes, but if that’s all we do, we will lose the progress we have made to change business thinking into user-centred thinking.
Press forward with strategy, and scalability and refocusing business thinking around the user. Continue to build measurable insights that help product teams understand that what we do really has an impact on ROI. And continue to use our design skills for good–the world depends on it!
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