Zoe Sinner learned the foundations of UX/UI Design at Designation (now Flatiron School) in 2014, and has only continued to skyrocket as a designer since graduating. After freelancing and working at TaskRabbit, Zoe recently landed a coveted job as a Product Designer at Facebook. Zoe explains why great design is a journey, how to go beyond the foundations you’ll learn at a bootcamp like Flatiron's UX/UI Design program to perfect your craft, and why an alumni network can help you battle imposter syndrome as a new designer.
What were you up to before Designation?
I graduated college with a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and Communications and worked for two years in marketing for a medical association. I found that I was drawn to creating and knew I wanted to pivot to a creative role, but didn't really know how to get there.
I thought about pursuing a master’s degree in graphic or web design but they just didn't feel like the right kind of design for me. I felt like there was a lot of learning materials online in which I could teach myself at a fraction of the cost. This was in 2013, and “UX Designer” was not in my vocabulary nor did I know what that kind of design entailed.
How did you teach yourself?
I started looking for ways that I could get the experience or skills to go into a design role. I started with a little bit of Codecademy and thought that front end design was cool, but I also took some self-paced, online Photoshop courses. I watched so many YouTube videos about how to use Photoshop and Illustrator. Once I started thinking about how to get to a design role, I considered going back to school to get my masters degree. But after all the learning I had done online it just didn’t make sense in my mind to spend 2 more years plus thousands of dollars on a masters degree when I had made some progress. I was ready to make this change now.
Why did you choose Designation?
I discovered Designation in 2013, and at that time, there weren’t any other Design Bootcamps in Chicago. What really attracted me to Designation was that I would be able to immerse myself in design and knock out the course in a few months. I knew I was passionate about this career, and I could put in 100% to pivot my career in a shortened timeline. In college, you spend a few hours per week on a subject, but I wanted to learn foundational design skills, plus get the experience of building a portfolio. To me, Designation was the perfect combination of skills and experience that I needed.
Were you able to carry the skills from your degree in Art and Communications into Designation?
I did take a little bit of what I learned in college into Designation. If you're starting from scratch, there's definitely a lot of basic foundational material you should learn before you go to a bootcamp. Because I had taken classes in college and was doing some creative work in my marketing job, I knew I would enjoy a career in design. Some of that background just naturally carried over into UX Design. Later, I learned that some of what I did in my first job was actually UX, but I just didn't even know it.
I think it does help to have a little bit of a foundation, if only to validate to yourself that you understand the concepts and want to pursue it as a career.
What hard skills did you learn at Designation?
You get to choose your weapon of choice: Sketch, Illustrator, or Photoshop. In UX Design, there are certain deliverables like “journey maps” that you use on the job, so we learned how to structure those. You also learn UX/UI methodologies, like product thinking, research, hypotheses, and layout for UI. I also took away soft skills like collaborating and presenting, especially during the client work phase.
Designation also has pre-coursework, where you’ll get to know how to use a tool before your first day.
Do you suggest that people get familiar with tools like Photoshop before they even get to the bootcamp?
Absolutely, because it’s going to be much harder to learn a software program while also trying to learn the principles of design. On top of that, by playing around and getting to know the software, you’ll get a feel for the job. Learning your tools as much as you can before you start at Designation is really going to help you in the long run; you'll set yourself up for more success.
Could you tell us about your client work project at Designation?
The most successful project I worked on was with WeDeliver. We worked on their marketing landing pages to fix usability issues and make the brand more clear. We actually needed to do user research to understand the pain points of the current site, and then we redesigned it so that it better communicated their mission.
How did Designation prepare you for the job search?
Designation helps you build a great portfolio and they teach you the tools and tricks of interviewing well. They also have a great alumni network, and a support network that you can reach out to.
They’re not telling you to apply for certain jobs, but they really help you figure out jobs that you want to go after, what kind of company you want to work for, how to network, how to prepare for interviews, and how to structure your portfolio. But when it comes to actually getting the job, that's still on you.
Tell us about your career progression after Designation; how did you land a job at Facebook?
The first job after graduating is the hardest job to get, but after that, it becomes much easier. Designation actually connected me with a recruiter, which is how I got my first job. I worked with that recruiter to apply and find roles that were right for me. The first company I interviewed with was originally looking for a Senior UX Designer, but it was such a good interview that they decided to bring me on as a freelancer, which then turned into a full-time UX Design role.
One of the things that Designation emphasizes is the power of networking. After getting some experience in my first job, I was able to get my resume passed around, and made a connection with the Design Director at TaskRabbit. That's how I got my second job as a Product Designer at TaskRabbit. And from there, I was approached by a design manager at Facebook and went through the recruiting process.
I probably wouldn't have been able to land a job as a Product Designer at Facebook right after graduating from Designation, but because of the foundation and skills I learned, combined with the real-life experience of working at two companies, I had a successful recruiting process with Facebook!
What is the difference between a Product Designer and UX Designer?
In this world, the terms are so generalized. At Designation, I majored in UI, but my first role was a UX Designer. Actually, when I was interviewing for my first UX role, I realized it was really a hybrid of UX and UI. The takeaway there is that job titles are just job titles. You have to dig in to find out what the actual role entails.
To me, a UX Designer thinks about user needs and the correct user experience, whereas a Product Designer takes into consideration the visual side and more of the business side as well. I don't think there is a hard line to differentiate those two roles; as with all design roles, they all exist in an overlapping Venn diagram.
What is a UX Design job interview like?
There were some commonalities between each interview process I went through. First, you need to know how to tell your story and how you got to this point. You should also be able to talk about your past work. In every interview, I had to go through my work, and I think the trick here is telling a story and conveying intentionality.
Secondly, this is not a requirement for all interviews, but you should expect some type of problem-solving or design challenge. That may be a take-home design challenge where you need to create a visual interface or an in-person work session.
My Facebook interview involved all of the above, app critiques, plus a whiteboarding session where I actually worked with my interviewer through a problem on the board.
What are you working on now at Facebook as a Product Designer?
I'm part of the Growth Infrastructure Team at Facebook; I essentially work on internal tools that affect the end user as well. That could mean anything from a visual update to pushing a new feature, to researching current users, to cross-functional work. Day-to-day, my job is a combination of all different types of skills. I could be pixel pushing more one day and brainstorming the next day.
On my team, I'm the one Product Designer supporting seven Engineers, a Product Manager, and an Engineering Manager.
Did you learn everything that you needed to know for your job at Designation, or have you had to learn on the job?
This is a great question. I tell everyone that Designation will give you the foundations, but it's up to you to really foster those skills. For example, at Designation, I learned about the methodology of how to build a page with good UI and how to lay things out, but it was only after I graduated that I’ve become more confident in those skills. Likewise, you start to learn and practice the product thinking methodology at Designation, but in the real world, you’re getting better at that thinking and fostering those skills.
For me personally, my advice to bootcamp grads is to never stop learning. After Designation, my whole world has become reading design books, going to design meetups, reading blog posts, and understanding trends.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned as your design career has evolved over the last 3 years?
On the job, I would say owning my own personal process and improving that and tailoring it for the job. Another thing I had to learn on the job was how a tech company actually works and how to work with other roles as a designer. At Designation, you learn in a perfect world where design is highly valued, but in the real-world, it's very rare to find a company that really values design the way you value design. You need to learn how to work with other roles that don't have an understanding of design.
One common theme I find myself talking about with other designers and Designation alumni is, "How do you evangelize the value of design in different companies?” It's certainly been a challenge to realize that there isn’t this perfect way to apply design in every company. Getting frustrated about that fact will only stress you out, so you have to really own your own design, and then get buy-in from the right stakeholders at the right time.
What has been your biggest challenge in terms of your journey coming into your role as a UX designer for the last couple of years?
Imposter syndrome! To combat this, you have to find other designers either inside or outside of your company (even your bootcamp alumni network). For me, the Facebook design team is huge, and are all so very different. Finding designers or product managers who I can confide in and express that too is so important. You have to find a design mentor or buddy that you can lean on and get support from. And learn to be okay with being vulnerable and asking questions. You're new to design and you don’t want to seem too junior, but find the right balance between being vulnerable and asking the right questions.
Are there a lot of alumni in San Francisco that you keep in touch with?
Not at first, but now there's a healthy alumni network. We actually still communicate through the Designation Slack channel, and sometimes meet up in person too. In my previous role, I was on a design team of only four people, so I relied on my alumni group a lot more to chat about design trends and questions. I try to meet up regularly with the alumni group in San Francisco to talk about our issues and our challenges. It's good to vent to each other and talk about how we’re dealing with certain things.
Looking back on the last few years, could you have kept self-teaching, working in marketing and gotten to where you are now three years later?
It's very unlikely that I would have been able to get to where I am today without Designation. That’s mainly because it gave me the foundations I needed in design, networking and taught me design methodologies, all of which I've continued to build upon as I've grown throughout these jobs. And that would have been really hard to do on my own.
Any final advice to future designers who are considering a coding bootcamp?
There's something to be said about perfecting your craft. I didn't graduate from Designation magically able to produce beautiful designs. It's been a work in progress. Learning a craft like design is like playing the piano – you have to continue to work at it to get better. Once you graduate from a bootcamp, take the foundations that you've learned and continue to practice it to get to the next level or perfect your craft and feel confident. I'm passionate about helping people get into UX/UI Design because I went through it and I know what it's like. It’s a journey.