From Auditor to Service Designer — How to become a designer with no design background in Hong Kong

Interview with Anindita Saha — Senior Service Design Lead

I have created a podcast and a Youtube channel called UXwanabe, here is the podcast with the same name. As the name suggested, my goal is to extract wisdom from the minds of senior designers to help wannabe designers with no design background to get into UX and navigate their design career in Hong Kong.

In this first episode, I have invited Anindita Saha to share her experience on how she went from being an auditor at PwC to become a Senior Service Design Lead in HSBC. We talked about:

  • How Anindita discovered UX and the exact steps she took to become a UX designer
  • How to know if is UX right for you
  • Four benefits a UX course provided to help her switch career
  • How to overcome impostor syndrome when you feel like you are a “fake designer”
  • The correct mindset to interview for a UX position as a newbie
  • How to proof to future employers that you are ready for a career in UX without a design degree
  • Startup vs Corporate — where should a UX newbie go?

You can find the full recording here. If you prefer the transcript, read on!

Discovering UX

How did you get into UX?

This is a really funny story, basically, I kind of got into it without me realizing it was UX. My boss at the time asked me to handle a project around building a sales pipeline tool for in-house and they needed someone to spearhead that project. I told her I don’t know how to code and I don’t have the technical background, but she told me that’s okay, we have our engineers and technical specialists, they just need someone to tell them what to build.

I remember at one point when I was trying to do all the specs and wireframes on PowerPoint, I realized I should go and ask the people who are going to use this piece of software: What they want, what they do and what they’re looking for. What type of information that needs to be captured and how they use that information. I had this desire to do it from the end user perspective, and this was my foray into UX.

This was back in 2010, when we first started this project and the whole idea around UX didn’t even exist in Hong Kong. That was how I got into UX without me realizing it was UX.

What was the job market like at the time?

At that time UX was not really well known in Hong Kong. It wasn’t a job that wasn’t really sought after. I remember what it was like to go through all the job boards, it was not easy to try and find a job as a UX designer because it was literally the first year that the idea around.

It was a little bit of a challenge, but at the same time, I think I was also lucky because I was entering this field at its infancy, and I was part of that first cohort of people in Hong Kong that were really embracing what UX was and what the potential of it could be in Hong Kong.

What made you decide to learn more about UX?

When I was done with that project, I went back to my regular day job and thinking “Gosh, that was such a cool project to do! I really enjoy doing that project, I wish this was something that people actually got to, I wish this was a real job!”

At that time, my job wasn’t fulfilling, so I did some time off went traveling and backpacking. When I came back I knew I needed to figure it out what I’m going to do with my life. I just knew I enjoy design. I enjoy the idea of looking at experiences on a digital platform. I always wanted to do something related to art and design. It was always in my back of the mind, I didn’t have these words at the time, but I knew that inside of me and I knew this was something that I was passionate about.

One day I was going through my emails I read an advertisement for General Assembly’s first part-time UX course in Hong Kong. I click on it and as I read through the bullet-points on what is user experience and what does it mean and how does it work, I realized have done in 90% of the bullet points when I worked at PWC! It sounded like exactly what I want to do with my life and what I want to do every day. Then, I went to the information session and listened what they were going to teach us, when we were done with the session, that was the moment I knew this was what I wanted to do.

How did you know UX is right for you?

I took a leap of faith. I guess I’ve always been like that. Our future is going to be around a digital landscape, it’s where many opportunities are going to lie. I remember even well before PwC when I worked in other companies, I was always thinking about: How do I optimize this website? How do I make it better for the customer? How do I make it more delightful or more engaging for them?

If you’re asking yourself those types of questions and it’s very intuitive to you, then UX might be an area of interest for you. For example: Do you have empathy? Do you have a creative mindset? Are you trying to solve problems for somebody else rather than for yourself?

To me, one of the most important distinctions between art and design was that design was about other people and art was an expression of myself. That was really important for me because I realized that when I do mock up, I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it for the person who’s going to use it, and if you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or at least be patient enough and care enough to think about someone else’s life or what they’re doing with it, then it’s a really good sign that you should be at designer.

One of the entry questions you need to ask yourself is: Do you care about other people and helping them to solve their problems? Then the next question is: Are you interested in design and from a digital perspective, are you interested in the digital world? Then you can pair those things together: Are you interested in technology and understanding the technical capabilities on those platforms to help other people solve their problems?

Why did you take a UX course?

I took the course because it helped me with structure and also with confidence. There are two prongs to it: One is a soft and a hard skill. The hard skill is knowing what method, what tool to use. When and how you can use the same thing in different ways, and tips and tricks like stakeholder management and knowing how to facilitate conversations.

This pure confidence and believing in yourself and knowing “what I’m doing, I’m doing it in the prescribed way and the right way” is what the course gave me, especially if you don’t have a formal degree in UX design, you can have those gaps in your confidence. For me, especially when UX was so new in Hong Kong, I needed that extra confidence.

It also shows your potential employee that you’re serious about UX because you made a significant financial commitment to prepare yourself to be a UX designer.

The other thing is they do is they often give you connections. When I did my course in 2012, they reached out to different industry and different employers, startups, bigger corporations and NGOs. At the end of the course we could apply for roles and showcase our work. They have done the hard part for you, and then you could focus on making your argument of why you’re a good fit for that particular position.

Facing self-doubt

How did you overcome imposer syndrome — the feeling that you not qualified as a UX designer?

I remember I had written my CV…my very short CV at the time, on the top of my CV, I’ve written my name. In the second line, was supposed to say User experience designer. I remember I wrote down “user experience designer”, and then deleting it. Then writing it again, and deleting it. I was going back and forth about writing it. It took me 2 weeks to write down “user experience designer” and save it as a PDF.

This was 2012 in Hong Kong, UX was not a big thing yet. No one really knows what it is but I knew I needed to write it because if I didn’t, people will be very confused as to what I was trying to do. I felt like such a fraud, writing those words — user experience designer — second line of my CV, because I didn’t feel like I had enough experience to write those words down.

When I sent out my first job application, I was terrified. I had the impostor syndrome like “Oh my God, I’m writing this word down and what if I don’t live up to that terminology? What if I’m not embodying this term the way that it’s expected if someone actually interviewed me or even give me a job?”

I was terrified, but I had two minds. I had my terrified side of me and I had the logical side of me. The logical side of it was “if you don’t write this down, no one is going to know that you want this job, and then they can figure out whether you can do the job or not.”

It was really hard because normally what’d you put on your CV, is first you interviewed for that company and if you got the job, you got a title. Then you can put that title in your CV. For us, we have to make up our own title. We haven’t actually worked on a real job as a UX designer, so it was a very terrifying experience because we’re used to somebody else giving us that title, someone else giving us that label. Like you are this rather than us saying to ourselves, I am a [fill in the blank].

I think this is what we need — every individual needs to be able to say “I am this” not because somebody else tells me that I am , but because I know that I am, or at least I believe that I am. I want to be this, and you work towards that. If you want to be that person, you need to say it to yourself. It’s not something that we’re taught to do, we’re told we are something because somebody tells us that we are, and that’s wrong.

On job search

What was your job search strategy at that time?

  1. Do as much work in UX as I possibly could. I worked for free. It doesn’t matter because you just needed the experience. That supplemented my journey of improving myself, so when I had to write down on my CV about my experience, I already had two projects to talk about.
  2. I networked with as many people as possible and telling them I was a UX designer and I’m looking for a new opportunity at the moment. I pretty much went to those events as many nights as I possibly could. Obviously not every single lead gets you something, but it was still good because I got to learn and know about a lot more people in the industry in that way, and also got some of them to review my work to give me pointers. This external validation helps you to know you’re on the right track and doing the right thing.
  3. I went to every UX forum, every page, every something that had anything to do with UX and basically contacted every single person that had posted in the last three months.

Tip: DO NOT discard your previous experience

In my CV, I wrote down that I had been an auditor and had been a financial advisor, but I didn’t write any bullet points underneath those positions because I didn’t think that they were relevant. Actually when I think back on how I do my work now, I realize how important and helpful those experiences were for me. In the moment, I just didn’t know. Being an auditor, as an example, gave me two things.

  1. Being an auditor makes you extremely structured. In some sense, being very structured in UX can actually help you in both the way you do your job, as well as how you look at a problem and how you structure a solution.
  2. There was one particular thing that we had to do as auditors, what I used to call it — controls. So what we would do is that we would interview all the people involved in a particular process end to end to see how it was done, to see if there were any breaks and to see how it could be improved.

I realized later in my career as a UX designer, is that that those skill is actually quite helpful when you’re trying to understand the experiences a customer goes through when they’re trying to finish a task in that structured methodical thinking.

How did you get your first UX job?

For my first proper gig, I did it for free. They were a startup so it’s not like they had a whole lot of budget, so they were making a compromise between high quality versus cost. I was very transparent about it. I said, “Hey look, I’m just learning. We can do it as many times as you want and you can be part of the process as much as you want to be, I’ll do as many screens as you need in order to get you into production, and I will work with your developers.”

So they took me on, we went through the process of designing, going to the developer, changing things, going back…etc. And so when I went into doing more freelance work, I had this very extensive portfolio of work.

What was your mindset for interviewing?

I went into those interviews with just a really humble notion of I’m doing the best that I can. I may not get this job, but I’ll learn something. I remember I got an interview with the head of an agency in Hong Kong. She had learned about this Accountant who was trying to be a designer and she was very interested to meet me out of curiosity. I thought I am probably not going to get this job, but I’m going to learn a lot out of this one.

As I was showing her my portfolio, she gave me feedback and her perspective on how to do this better. She might’ve been right or she might’ve been wrong, it didn’t matter, but it was so good to hear somebody telling me how I could improve this. I didn’t get that job but that was great because I still learnt something.

When interview for startups, my mindset was: I know that you’re probably not going to be able to hire the most experienced UX designer, but if I show you in sincerity and the genuineness of my intent and the fact that I have tried, and I’ve put so much time into doing UX for other people, whether it’s for free or out of my own interest, hopefully that’s enough to convince you.

Startup vs Corporate — What should UX newbies choose?

If you don’t care about money, benefits, number of holidays and assuming all those other things are the same, I would definitely work at a startup. That’s my personal preference, just simply because of the variety of potential roles and hats that you would need to fulfill.

You can always go into corporate later once you have a better understanding of what those different roles are. If you already know what you love doing, like I only want to do UX or only wanted UI, then go for it, but if you haven’t fully figured it out yet, think startups are a great place to go.

In corporate, they’re a little bit more strict maybe because of HR, whereas in startups they might be a little bit more flexible and understanding of the fact that a person has to fulfill multiple roles and they want to see people who are multi-talented. I always had really good experiences with startups so I would highly suggest them.

Closing thoughts

How do you embrace the unknown and commit to UX?

Once I realized UX was a real job, it was the only thing that I could think about. In the freelance work that I did, there were some days where I worked till three, four o’clock in the morning not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I enjoyed it and it fueled me in believing this path is my future. Something that made me so happy, how could this not be my future? It just drove me more and more. If it had failed miserably, if I was a terrible UX designer and if I was never meant to be a UX designer, I could always go back and be a CPA, but it was the last thing I wanted to do.

You need to commit to it, and if you were always thinking like “oh well I can go back…” which you can if you’re like a CPA as an example, yeah you can eat, but you can’t be happy. You can’t be half out, you got to really go for it and believe in it. Like if you would’ve gotten your degree in design, you would then go into the world and you commit to getting a job in that industry right? You need to make that same commitment in your mind like: I am going to be a designer. I’m going to do what it takes to get there.

Similar to a relationship, you really need to put in the effort to commit to it to see whether it works or not. You can’t just sit on the fence and stalk someone’s Facebook or Instagram and think you would be a good fit. You need to go out with that person and it can be scary because you have to put yourself out there.

Changing your job takes courage and the first thing you have to conjure on yourself, is whether you’re brave enough to do this for real, or if you’re just kind of do this half-ass. Anything that really matters in your life, you can’t do it half-ass, especially with someone who’s trying to hire you, if they think that you’re not really in it, they’re not going to hire you.

You need to prove to them that you are in it, and that’s why doing these extra projects as freelance projects is still important because if you do it for somebody else, it shows that you have a commitment to somebody else. Do it for something that you care about. For example, if you’re interested in charity work, do something for them related to UX . This makes a huge difference.

Any advice for people looking to follow a similar career path with no exposure to UX in their current job?

There’s an assumption that I’m making is if you know what UX is, you can Google it and read some of the fundamental steps of research, defining the problem, design, prototype, test, like basic design thinking 101 and apply it in your own way.

If you say you don’t have a job in UX like you work at the post office, they don’t have a website, I would then argue if it doesn’t have a website, design the website for the post office if it doesn’t exist. There’s no reason why you can’t find something to design for. You can use yourself, your family, the people around you as your inspiration. For design, there’s always something that you can design for. I’m sure if you really believe that you are a designer, you will find a problem in society that you can design for.

If you genuinely care and want to be a UX designer, go on design an app. Go and redesign it and show me why you’ve redesigned it in this way and go through the process. Don’t just tell me that you want to be a UX designer because ultimately it doesn’t matter if someone has paid you to do design or not. I want to know that you have done it and you’ve gone home after work and put in a few hours every couple of days and try to do something and learn how this actually works. I want to see the intention around wanting to solve a problem and testing it with the user, and potentially iterating.

You need to learn the logic behind this and the theory behind it, and then also experiment with a few different application. That’s the kind of thing that I’m looking for in a UX designer. That they’ve gone through the details of it and they’ve made the effort to learn about it.

What’s next?

My goal is to help wannabe designers to get into UX and provide knowledge to help you climb your design career in Hong Kong.

If you enjoy what I am doing here, please feel free to leave a comment and share it to your friends!

UX designer from Hong Kong. Obsessed about Micro-interactions and Product Design.