Hi I’m Ashlea! I’m 27 years old and I live in Canberra Australia with my husband Kris and my cat Wednesday.
My UX story started over ten years ago when I was living a very different life and heading in a very different direction with my career. It was a series of unconscious choices that led to me where I am now – working as a UX Designer for a large government department. I didn’t plan it – it just sort of happened. My story is a tangled web of happy accidents, second and third chances, determination and sheer luck. It’s a long story, but it’s worth it I promise!
When I was 17, I was in Year 12 graduating with a double major in music. Yep, music.
I was an alto saxophonist and I practised 4 hours a day. I started playing the clarinet in the school band when I was 13 and when I reached year 11 (we go to a different school for years 11 and 12 in Canberra) there was no band and definitely no clarinets. There was however an alto saxophone stashed in a cupboard somewhere that the world had forgotten about. I claimed it and my life revolved around it.
My parents weren’t too impressed and kept asking what I was planning on doing with it after school. They wanted me to get a secure job – it wasn’t relevant whether I enjoyed it or not. I know they meant well and wanted the best for me but I wanted a job I loved. Work shouldn’t feel like work. The teachers weren’t convinced I was university material, even though my UAI was well above the minimum required, so I looked at TAFE courses.I found a music industry based business course and I got in. A few weeks before I was due to start, I received an offer to switch to a bridging program into the School of Music at ANU so I did. I told my parents I’d use it to get into a Bachelor of Music and become a teacher. They still weren’t too impressed, apparently thinking I could be a music teacher was ridiculous and I should become a ‘normal’ teacher who ‘dabbles’ in music – like with a tambourine…
First year was easy. I had 5 classes at the TAFE and I enjoyed them. Second year was not so easy. I had 5 classes at the TAFE and 3 classes at university plus travel times between the two! It was tough and frankly not sustainable. I’d also started to see into the ugly side of the music industry and it wasn’t for me. At the time I was working at a department store in women’s fashion and the only time I experienced any joy was unpacking new clothes that had come in. This sparked an interest in fashion design and the following year I was enrolled in a fashion design course.
While it was fun making dresses out of non-traditional materials (clean garbage bags were my favourite) fashion honestly wasn’t much better than music. Same ugly dark side dripping in bitterness and resentment and I wasn’t alone in this assessment. I don’t mean to sound so negative, but the environment in that studio was toxic. In my first week, the girl sitting next to me turned to me and said “I wish I’d done Industrial Design instead”. I responded with “What’s Industrial Design?!” and she said “It’s. REALLY. Cool”.
I left fashion in mid 2007 without finishing the course and started working in retail. I was so lost it wasn’t funny; I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing with myself. I still really wanted to study design, but I wanted a course that wasn’t hazardous for my health and wellbeing.I looked into Industrial Design and found that the University of Canberra was offering it for 2009. I told my family and they laughed at me. Their response was “What, so you’ll be 25 when you finally graduate!?” and “Why don’t you just give up and get a job?” So I did. I gave up and I got a job with an electrical appliance retailer. I was working as an administration assistant but my curiosity for the products that surrounded me was too great and I moved out onto the selling floor.
In September 2008, two days before UAC applications were due to close, I happened to mention to a co-worker that I’d once considered enrolling in Industrial Design. His response was “Well, why haven’t you?” and he opened up the UAC site on the computer in front of him and started filling my application out for me! I got in and started in February 2009.
First year was great. Learning to draw and making things in the workshop was fun, but I didn’t really have that “ah-hah” moment until User Centred Design 2.2 in second year. Learning about manufacturing and was boring but observing user behaviour and designing an experience rather than a thing was captivating. Some of my classmates wanted to work in transport design or appliances but I was all about sticking things on walls and people watching. I loved doing contextual inquiries and mapping out the user experience on A0 sized paper.
In second year I was sitting in the studio one day when I happened to come across a pamphlet about the design graduate program with my now employer. I thought it would fun, but I needed time to think about it and during third year I contemplated doing a master’s degree. I decided against it and tried to apply for the graduate program only to find that recruitment occurs early in the year and I’d missed the closing date by 7 months. Oops.
I completed my degree at the end of 2011, and found myself with a gap year of sorts. I had no idea what to do and I decided I needed to up skill myself and branch out a little. I cold called the HR advisor at a company I knew people at and I asked her if they might be recruiting designers in their sales and marketing team in the future. I was offered a paid internship opportunity for three months and it ended up being extended to five. During this time I interviewed for the graduate program and when my 5 month internship ended I still hadn’t heard back. I found out that the organisation was recruiting call centre staff for one of their online products. I saw this as an opportunity learn about the product from the user’s perspective to prepare myself if I was successful at getting into the graduate program. A few weeks later I received an email from this organisation saying that while I was suitable, there weren’t enough places in the program. I had been placed on a merit list. I was sad but I kept pushing on and four weeks later the call came.
I started as a grad in February 2013 and during that year I learnt so much! I had two work rotations involving; information design, scenarios, user interface design, usability evaluation activities and detailed design. In my second rotation I had the opportunity to work on and user test paper prototypes of the organisation’s mobile app with external users. When the program finished, I was very lucky and was given the opportunity to remain with my rotation 2 team for my permanent placement.
6 months on, I’m still there and I love it - work does not feel like work at all. My director is a fantastic mentor with a UX background and is teaching me everything she knows. As for the the time I spent in the call centre - my team calls it my secret weapon. My parents are pleased now that I have a secure job and slowly, but surely, they’re starting to understand what I do for a living. Baby steps
If you’re still with me, thanks for reading my story!