From Architect to UX Designer: Stories of the Switch

by Sheena Lyonnais

posted on 09-27-2017

Architecture and user experience design share many parallels, but what does it actually take to transition from designing physical spaces into digital ones?

We asked four former architects turned user experience designers why they decided to make the switch into UX design, what challenges they experienced along the way, and what advice they have for other architects considering a career change into UX.

From veteran UX designers to new recruits, here’s what they had to say.

Jennifer Fraser, Director of User Experience, Macadamiam
Jennifer made the leap from an intern architect to a UX designer almost 20 years ago. She was pursuing a Master’s degree in architecture with a focus on design and technology (a first of its kind program) when she was encouraged to apply for a UI designer job at a local software company. The architect firm where she worked part-time, “practically packed up my desk for me, telling me to take the opportunity,” she said. Who knew she’d end up working there for almost 12 years! At the time, interaction design was completely new, so it was common for architects and industrial designers to be hired for those positions. It was not hard for her to pivot careers into UX design

What do you think being an architect did to help prepare you for a career as a UX designer?

JF: There were two key lessons that I learned in architecture school that I see as critical to being a successful UX designer.

The first is that ideas aren’t precious. They need to be ripped apart, turned upside down, and looked at by others in order for them to improve. The second is that in architecture school, we were criticized if our models looked exactly like our drawings. If they looked the same, then we had stopped thinking. As a design is translated from one medium to another, it should continue to change and adjust as you learn new things about how to improve the design through that translation. Similarly, as a UX designer, when an idea is going from sketches to wireframes to prototypes, it needs to keep evolving and improving as a result of these translations.

Another important lesson I learned from my time on building sites as an intern architect was that nothing ever gets built exactly as designed. Nothing. The same stands for UX design. Nothing will ever get built that precisely matches your initial set of “final” annotated wireframes or annotated comps. To me, it’s during implementation that you truly see the level of “skill” of a UX designer. How well are they able to adapt and change? How well are they able to negotiate and mediate? How well are they able to maintain their original design intent while adapting to new constraints?

What advice do you have for other architects who may be considering a switch into UX?

JF: The time is now! With the proliferation of connected devices being embedded into our physical environment, now is the time for a new profession that holistically considers the digital and the physical user experience.

Rodrigo Tello, Designer, Hopscotch
Rodrigo is a designer from Mexico who is now based out of New York City. After studying architecture, he regularly found himself working on web-based projects and was soon known as “the guy that knows how to make things on the Internet.” He started making websites, web applications, and online marketplaces. He fell in love with the scale and speed of web-based projects and found a voice in design that he didn’t have as an architect. He now wears many hats, working as a software designer, a UI designer and a UX designer.

What steps did you take to make your career change happen?

RT: The first one was making real software. My first startup/internet project was a team of just 3 people, one programmer and two designers. One of my partners and I ended up doing everything around idea, design, mockups, tracing project roadmaps and talking with users. I ended up learning about everything: what is a web-dev framework, what is RoR, the cycle it requires for a developer to do something, how to ask users for feedback (user testing) and the hardest truth of all: what happens when people just don’t use your software. That’s a harsh truth that you need to swallow.

Was it difficult for you to transition into UX design?

RT: It’s hard to start scratching the surface of the world of technologies that you’ll need to use. There are too many parts you need to understand on a superficial and deep level just to even have conversations with developers. The reason why it’s not that hard is because design, at it’s core, is always design. The process is relatively similar. There are a lot of abstract tools (thinking in abstraction, art concepts, user flows, research, ideating, mocking up, mapping users) and concrete tools (paper, drawing, Photoshop, Illustrator, CAD drawing, etc.) that you will end up reusing.

What advice do you have for other architects who may be considering a switch into UX?

RT: Think in big problems. Don’t think about the specificities of the field that you’ll need to learn, like using a specific software or knowing the industry lingo. Instead think of bigger systemic problems: education, health, traffic, politics, gender inequality, economic inequality. The tools you already have in your backpack will show up in the right moment. Try to create solutions for problems you find just by attaching technologies and systems next to each other: could you solve traffic or neighbor-scale security problems with a Twitter account? Could you aggregate information and resources from government institutions on a blog? Could you gather communities online to help minorities that need help? Why? Why not? What do the current tools lack?

This process of building prototypes or even fully formed products with out-of-the-box tools will help you understand what the real problems of the world are and how to solve them. The important part of this is make prototypes. In the architecture world, unbuilt projects have been crucial for renowned architects, like Rem Koolhaas or Tadao Ando. So don’t leave that practice aside. Always draw, always design, always tackle big problems.

From architecture, I learned that every line you draw it’s not just a line on paper. It will become a wall, of brick and matter, built by someone and maintained by someone. It’ll be there for years. Every time you draw something, the ramifications of its impact are exponential. So think every line you draw.

Anna Kolak, Strategy and Design Director, Coach
Anna made the switch to UX 10 years ago, but she wouldn’t call it a transition. “In my experience, being a UX designer and strategist is very similar to being an architect, in terms of design process and approach,” she says. She used to tease a friend of hers who worked as an information architect about not being a “real architect,” but he convinced her to do some freelance work and give it a shot. “Within a few days I realized that ‘UX’ meant I’d be able to do more of what I loved about architecture — designing experiences for people — without the stuff that got in the way. No one would glare at me if I left the office before 6 pm — and I’d be able to repay my grad school debt before retirement.”

What steps did you take to make your career change happen?

AK: I was fortunate to know someone in a leadership position in the industry. He happened to believe that architectural design is much more complicated than UX design, that the skills are not only transferable but that someone with an architectural background could bring a more rigorous and innovative approach to UX.

Was it a difficult transition?

AK: The first two months were difficult because it took me two months to realize that I already knew what I didn’t know I knew. After those first few months, I discovered that I had been doing UX design the whole time I was an architect. I had to learn new software and techniques, but the underlying concepts were very similar — from research to documentation to team dynamics and construction. I think my transition was smooth because my approach to architecture was already very grounded in user research and focused on human experience rather than just building an environment.

What do you think your experience as an architect did to help prepare you for a career as a UX designer?

AK: Everything. Software is easy to learn; design and design thinking not so much. I believe that my education and experience as an architect prepared me for a career in UX much more thoroughly than a different specialty would have. I don’t think I’m unique in that, as an architect, I assumed without question that design included everything — buildings and spaces, but also services, businesses, research, experiences, kiosks, websites, brand strategies, experience strategies, sometimes even organizational design. Architects think in terms of systems and details simultaneously. Some architects even think deeply about the experiences of the people who will use the spaces they are designing. These big-picture skills, along with all the technical and detail skills that are part of the profession, prepare architects to excel in careers in many fields, including and especially UX and service design.

What advice do you have for other architects who may be considering a switch into UX?

AK: Talk to an architect who has already made the transition — there are more than a few of us. Take an intro or intensive course about UX design to help you build a portfolio and learn UX’s specific dialect. Use your architecture portfolio as a basis for your UX portfolio — it will be way cooler than almost any UX portfolio out there. Hire a coach to help you navigate the transition strategically and efficiently.

Bethany Morrow, User Experience Designer
Bethany is a new recruit to UX, having made the change in 2015. She took a more formal approach, first researching the profession, then meeting with UX designers to learn more, and finally enrolling in a full-time UX boot camp program at General Assembly, where she now teaches UX fundamentals.

Before enrolling, she asked an acquaintance his thoughts on the program. “He said those programs wouldn’t teach me anything I couldn’t learn on my own, but that I should ask myself, would I actually learn what I needed to learn on my own? Given that I’d been investigating UX for about a year and still didn’t feel ready to work in the field, I decided I would benefit from the structure of a formal program,” she said. “I came out with a solid portfolio and the know-how to land an 18-month UX design contract at Microsoft.”

What was it that made you decide to shift careers?

BM: Three main things.

This is what I’ve always wanted to do: My favorite thing about architecture is how we can use space and materials to enhance people’s experiences. I didn’t know the term “UX” until a few years ago, but I’ve always been a UX designer. Now I design smaller interfaces and work for companies and clients that really value experience design.

Career advancement, job prospects, and benefits: I was at the place in my architecture career where “the next step” would’ve been to get my master’s degree and get licensed. It would’ve taken years and cost tens of thousands of dollars for a career that’s a bit too much at the mercy of the economy. Instead, I decided to spend less money and less time to transition into a field that uses skills I already had, lets me do the work I’ve always wanted to do, and typically offers better pay and benefits.

Variety: UX design is really broad, and that suits my personality. Right now, I design business intelligence software. Next, I might work in healthcare, education, or travel; I might design physical objects, mobile apps, or virtual experiences; I might work on something I haven’t even heard of yet. I can’t imagine ever getting bored with UX.

Was it a difficult transition? What challenges or obstacles did you face along the way?

BM: It was a scary decision to enroll in the UX Design Immersive. The program was expensive and consumed my life for 10 weeks, plus the time I spent job-hunting. I was incredibly lucky to have the support of family and friends, who made sure I had a roof over my head and food on my plate during those months. Finding your first UX design job is challenging, especially in cities where programs like General Assembly have flooded the market with junior UX designers. Coming from architecture definitely gave me a leg-up, but job-hunting was still an emotional rollercoaster.

Learning how to talk about the parallels between architecture and UX made it easy for me to present myself to prospective employers. I was new to the tech industry, but I’d been working at design agencies for five years, using many of the same tools and methodologies as UX designers.

What advice do you have for other architects who may be considering a switch into UX?

BM: Like any good UX designer, start with research. There are so many great blogs, books, and podcasts that will help you learn about the field. Leverage your network; if you have friends who work in tech, odds are they know a UX designer who’d be happy to spend 20 minutes on the phone answering your questions. Go to local UX networking events.

If you decide to make the switch, know that you must have a UX portfolio to get a UX job. Do hackathons, take a class, volunteer your design skills for a good cause, help friends or family with their businesses — whatever you can do to get three or four UX projects in your portfolio. Learn about what makes a good UX portfolio. Test your portfolio with friends and colleagues, then iterate. If you would benefit from more structure and can afford it, consider a full-time program that aims to make you job-ready.

Want to learn more?

Check out these relevant blog posts to learn more about UX design:

What You Should Know About User Experience

Master Your UX Vocabulary with these 50 Must-Know Terms

Drawing Parallels: Architecture and UX Design

Bootcamp or on Campus? Where to Study UX

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