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Confessions of an Engineer-turned-Designer: A Journey

Hello! I’m Mark from Mozilla Taipei Office. I just became a product manager (PM) a while ago. I was a UX designer previously. In mid-February, I was invited by
CakeResume to be the first speaker of its Career Path Lecture Series, where I talked about some of the lessons I’ve learned so far in my career and the experience I’ve had in transitioning to a new profession. This article summarizes the talk. I hope it would be helpful to people in similar circumstances.

The talk was divided into three parts:
  • Part I: experience and lessons learned in the electrical engineer-to-UX designer transition.
  • Part II: thoughts and observations gained from 4-plus years as a designer at Mozilla.
  • Part III: recent experience in working on Firefox Lite and thoughts about what it means to be a PM.

Selectively read what interests you, and if you’d like to read the whole article, it will take about 15 minutes.

Part I: From Engineer to Designer

Ten years ago, I was an electrical engineering (EE) undergraduate student. Electronics and Circuit Theory took up a big part of my time. Back then, life after school meant getting a job as an engineer in the tech industry, or as a researcher or teacher, and nothing else. Although I worked my socks off at university, I was struggling with finding my place. To get my confidence back, I pushed myself to get involved in many different activities to discover what I liked, and then I had this newfound interests in computer graphics and digital design. During this process, I realized while I liked EE and science, I was more intrigued by the application aspect of technology and science, such as how humans interact with tech, and how tech can be used to make fascinating products/objects.

EE Department→Design School

When I was about to graduate from college, I was not sure if I should pursue further studies in the field of EE, or if I should start afresh and throw myself into interactive design, a world of the unknown and where my heart really was. For the sake of not putting all eggs in one basket, I decided to keep my options open. If my memory serves me right, I applied for 10 design and engineering graduate schools, and got accepted in 2 design schools, California College of the Arts(CCA) and Parsons School of Design. So, with great conviction, I hurled myself into the realm of design. What a lucky turn of events!

At CCA, I began to develop interests in interaction design, ranging from the design of human-machine interactions for digital products to the creation of interactive installation arts (my dissertation was on public art/interactive installation). Just like that, I found a way to apply my EE skills to designing. Transitioning into a new field meant that I had to keep learning like a sponge and thinking about how to leverage my past experience to develop a unique perspective and strengths. I believe that any skill built in the past may prepare you for the future. My habit of finding ways to combine technology and design proves just that.

Engineering Thinking vs. Design Thinking

The biggest change I had to adapt to was the new way of thinking when I stepped into the field of design. I had to switch from convergent thinking into divergent thinking.

Engineering is about optimizing process and identifying best-possible solutions. But a designer has to be good at collecting all kinds of information to make appropriate design decisions, to understand many questions don’t have best answers, and more importantly, to try out every possibility and continue proposing new questions that help improve the work.

I frequently put on my “engineer hat” when I started at the design school. I took the safe road, adopted the approaches I knew would work, and forgot to explore more possibilities and think outside the box. I think even for designers without engineering degrees, they also have the propensity to jump into the problem-solving mode, rushing to find a solution for the problem, rather than exploring what is behind the surface, or ideating ways to address the root cause from a boarder perspective.

One thing to note though: of these two thinking styles, either is better than the other. Designers and engineers both often need to switch between these two modes in order to uncover more possibilities.

Learning #1: Discover Your Strong Suits

A conclusion of Part I: The inspiration that I took away from this period was that it was important to keep looking for my own strong suits: It didn’t matter that I couldn’t keep up with my college classmates in the EE department. I found my confidence through designing. It was okay to start with less designing experience. I could apply what I had learned from EE training to create things uniquely my own. Because of this, I came to the realization that to continue professional development, it was necessary to discover what I was good at, utilize capabilities that I had built and established my footing in the business.

If you know what you are capable of, but not sure about what you’re really good at, this book strength finder 2.0 may be just what you need. I believe it will help you find the work style or career path that suits you.

Part II: The Evolution of Designer’s Role

In 2015, I was fortunate to land a job quickly after returning to Taiwan from San Francisco. I joined Mozilla. As a rookie designer, I was driven to gain a deeper understanding of the role that an interaction designer played in the company. I’ve been with Mozilla for nearly 5 years. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs, including organization reengineering programs that took place almost every year, changes in corporate strategy and project cancellations. It has been an incredible ride.

Designing at Mozilla

At Mozilla, I have been involved in various kinds of projects. I have found that the role of a designer evolves with the nature of projects. For example:

  • In IoT (Internet of Things) projects, a designer’s job is to ideate ways to translate the technology into scenarios that can be easily understood by users, which often is done by telling stories with videos or storyboards.
  • When designing for function updates of Firefox for Desktop, a designer needs to spend some time trying to understand the functions thoroughly to make any design decisions, and collaborate seamlessly with the PM and engineers in other countries. Process-wise, it is more like a waterfall model, with the PM assigning work to the designer, who then passes the design on to the engineer.
  • Firefox Screenshot Go, a screenshot app originated from user research in Indonesia, was a design-oriented project that serves as a good example here. The design team played the leading role throughout the ideation, prototyping and user testing process.
  • Designers also played a special role in the development of Firefox Lite 2.0,a lightweight mobile browser. The role was two-fold — project manager and UX designer. I’ll come back to this later.

Prototyper / UX Engineer Role

When it comes to design, I’m best at the execution aspect, of which, I’m pretty skilled in and fond of prototyping and user testing. I often designed for one project while supporting the prototyping of another at the same time, like being a prototyper or UX engineer on the side.

In one of the projects, I had the opportunity to become a full-time prototyper and experience what it was like to be in that position. Originally, I thought it was nice to take part in several projects and do what I was good at, since I was interested in learning new design tools and applying them to work. But because of that decision, I hit some roadblocks…

As a prototyper, I got involved in a small part of every project, sometimes during the ideation process or in the middle of the project, and I had no idea about what happened in the subsequent development phase after prototype testing finished. I ended up having only very fragmented pictures of the projects and little sense of ownership.

I realized I was interested in the entire development process, from the initial research through execution and iteration. To me, the design and development process — the continuum of identifying a problem, hypothesizing, designing experiments, validating the hypothesis and seeking to solve the problem — was so scientific and what made it most rewarding. So, I became even more focused on learning various kinds of design software. I pushed myself to get familiar with the methods and concepts of different design processes. Little by little, I started to pay more attention to the contexts of products and the roles of other functions in product development.

The Growth of UX Designers

I think the growth phase of a UX designer can be broken down into several stages:

  • In the initial stage, you learn as many design tools as possible, and focus on building your skills by putting the tools you’re familiar with to use in projects.
  • Then, you may have increasing knowledge about which method fits best with each design phase, and be able to clearly explain the contexts of your designs as well as efficiently working with other designers.
  • In the next stage, you start to focus less on completing the design process, but more on being the catalyst that helps your team achieve the goals set for the products.

This was purely my own experience. If you are a user researcher or visual designer, you may have different experiences. The 7 stages of the design craft is a great article. The author gives a detailed account of the type of skills and mindsets required, and how to contribute to the team’s success in each stage that designers through as they progress in their career.

Learning #2: Refreshing Your Personal Image

A conclusion of Part II: In this period, I learned that everyone needs to change their personal image and fresh it from time to time. In other words, you need to ponder how you want to be perceived by others (external image) and by yourself (personal identity).

  • How others perceive you is important because it determines the kind of work you’re delegated. If people perceive you as someone good at making beautiful interfaces or churning out prototypes quickly, then most likely you will be assigned to tasks associated with interface or prototype development. That is to say, if you want to take up new challenges, for example, conducting hands-on user research, you have to make sure others see and know your commitment in order to secure an opportunity.
  • Meanwhile, it is also essential how you perceive yourself because that is where you get the drive to grow and transform. I made mistakes by defining myself as a designer skilled in coding and prototyping, and forgetting that as a designer, I needed to change my image and explore new growth opportunities. To pursue professional development, you must relentlessly reshape and identify with a more advanced version of you, while pushing yourself to evolve into that identity.

If you’re interested in the subject of identity, read the book “Atomic Habits”. It will help you understand the importance of creating a new identity through building lasting habits.

Part III: Embracing New Superpowers

Starting from 2017, Mozilla Taipei Office has placed more focus on building insights on the Southeast Asia market and committed ourselves to make mobile products that meet the needs of users in the region. I have been engaged in some projects of user research and product concept proposals, including flying to Indonesia and Thailand for user interviews and tests.

Firefox Lite

One of the products the Taipei Office launched during 2017~2018 was Firefox Lite, a lightweight and fast mobile browser. Firefox Lite 2.0, released in the end of 2019, is augmented with new content services. Like the previous version, it targets emerging market users, but with the increased focus on creating a platform to offer one-stop service that makes the browser also the portal to news, online games, travel deals and online shopping. Without having to download additional applications, Firefox Lite 2.0 users can access various kinds of services they need in everyday life.

The Designer’s New Skills

To make Firefox Lite 2.0 both a browser and content platform, each of the UX designers, including me, was responsible for one content category, such as tourism, shopping, news and games. That is to say, our role was two-faceted — UX design and PM — as we worked on product planning and design for each category. This allowed us to carry out tasks outside of the regular UX design sphere. For example:

  • Using GitHub for project management, tracking product creation process, prioritizing tasks, weighing trade-offs, and solving issues raised by engineers every now and then.
  • Discussing product details and collaboration with customers, and engaging legal professionals to ensure a new function’s compliance with other contracts.
  • Studying data to analyze product efficacy from different aspects, setting feasible goals and assisting with A/B testing for further improvement.

If you are a designer at a start-up, you may be somewhat familiar with these tasks. But if you are with a large company with a very specific division of responsibilities, these are not typically within your comfort zone. So this was a very valuable experience for me. Experience like this allows us to understand user needs more holistically, and to consider a product’s development potential in its entirety, rather than centering only on bits and pieces of user experience.

UX Designer→ Product Manager

After the release of Firefox Lite 2.0, every UX designer on the team was given a choice to choose between becoming a PM officially, or staying on in the role of UX designer. I took the opportunity to shift to the role of PM, which, frankly speaking, had never been on my bucket list of careers up until that point. Why the transition, then? During the stint as UX designer/PM, I became fascinated by what it took to be a PM. Besides being able to organize and manage a myriad of information, a PM’s repertoire of competencies also includes leadership skills and knowledge of business, design and technology. I gathered, since these were skills that I aspired to, but had not had the opportunity to develop, why not take the challenge? But if I am really honest with myself, I am still learning the ropes now. After all, being a PM is no walk in the park…

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a PM who was previously a UX designer?

  1. With UX training, you have better instincts about what makes good user experience, and can communicate with designers more efficiently.
  2. You care deeply about user needs, and are innately wired to understand your user profiles.
  3. You can have effective communication with other team members. Being a designer is about persuading and communicating with people via story-telling.
  1. A PM deals with many more stakeholders, from the big boss, customers, head of the engineering team, and marketing staff. Designers don’t often work directly with these people. That’s why it will take you some time to learn to manage your relationships with the stakeholders.
  2. PM oversees each and every aspect of a product. In addition to the design, you also need to consider other dimensions, such as how the product works, who’s in charge of what, and who to consult for what. I’m still learning the operational knowledge and skills myself.
  3. As a UX designer-turned-PM, you’re less familiar with the technical aspect. You will find yourself constantly being questioned by engineers, or having to spend more time understanding the challenges your engineers face and the reasons behind their decisions. The only advice I can offer is to develop a thick skin. Keep asking questions. Build relationships with the engineers.
Learning #3: Take Ownership of Your Career

A conclusion of Part III: Last but not least, I’d like to leave you with one thought: own your career. Take control of your professional development.

To me, career development is a series of choices — choices that you, and only you, can make. You don’t make the decisions to meet others’ expectations, to get anyone’s approval, or to compare yourself with someone. As designers, we are used to pushing ourselves to be better by looking at what other people have achieved. We attend many meetups for UI designs. We believe it’s pivotal to have many followers on Dribbble or Instagram, to write as many articles as possible on Medium, or to become a lecturer of some sort. These may give you a glimpse of what good designers are capable of, but what really counts is how you define your own success and take full responsibility for your own decisions, good or bad.

So, this is what I shared in the seminar. Most of it was about my own stories and experience. I think there are still many things worth exploring, so feel free to leave a comment and join the discussion if you have any questions!

If you’re interested in knowing more about my personal journey, tune in to episode#2 of CakeResume’s Podcast ”Career in Tech”, where I talked more about my stories, including my school life and how I felt when I made the shift to become a designer, experience in working at AKQA in San Francisco, and life at Mozilla Taipei Office!

Liking what you’ve read so far? Come follow my account to encourage me to write more. Help me share this article, or press the Clap button. Thanks! (The drawings in the article were created using Open Peeps, an awesome design tool!)

This article was originally appeared on Mark Liang Medium Blog.