Back in the late fall of 2010, I was midway through my sophomore year in college pursuing a business degree and, like most 20-somethings, didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. After three semesters of Gen Ed classes, weekend parties, and intramural sports, the novelty of college started to wear off, and I couldn’t shake the question what am I doing here?
With the support of my parents, I decided to take an extended leave from college after wrapping up my sophomore year. So, I planned out the next 16 months, slid open the door to an old Dodge minivan, and I was off.
5 states, 16 months, and 2,000 volunteers
That year away completely transfixed and transformed me — immersing me in a life outside of my bubble. Out of the 16 months, I spent the majority of which as an outsider, a Yankee, in the mountains of Appalachia delivering what I hoped to be a transformational experience to more than 2,000 out-of-state volunteers.
Each week on late Sunday, a new group of volunteers would arrive at our headquarters after spending 10, 20, sometimes 30 hours traveling to our location in a flock of rented 15-passenger vans. Months of planning and thousands of dollars go into a single trip, so, to put it lightly, the expectations were high.
From arrival to departure, our team was responsible for every facet of the experience ranging from selecting construction projects to developing educational programming. Beyond just the what, when, and how, our goal was to understand the why — delivering an experience empathetic to the ebbs and flows of an emotionally demanding week.
Investing the time to engage with each person to understand what stage they were at in their journey separated the good weeks from the great — helping us meet people exactly where they were and making them feel cared for, empathized with, and understood.
Although I didn’t know it then, that year-long experience exposed me to so many UX concepts & strategies that I use today, as well as helped develop the soft skills to connect with all types of people.
At the end of the year, I return to college studying entrepreneurship in Nashville where I am today. Before actually having a title that included the words User and Experience, I chased that passion for connecting with people around the world — wearing hats such as English teacher, ballroom dancer, coffee exporter, and brand designer.
Eventually, I stumbled into a UX role at a IoT startup in Nashville when our team decided to outsource our software development and needed someone to spearhead our product management and UX. The rest, as they say, is history.
Sometimes the best experiences in life aren’t designed
The takeaway? It’s okay if your path to becoming a UX designer isn’t, well, designed.
Sometimes I feel self-conscious about never receiving a formal education in design, but, to be honest, the times that I feel most successful as a designer are when I can translate authentic connections with users into usable designs. And that, that I owe to my year off volunteering.
UX lessons come in all shapes and sizes — often appearing in the most unpredictable ways. For me, I learned how to build an empathy map when preparing for a new group of volunteers, was exposed to personas when developing custom educational programming, and learned how to usability test a hypothesis when working on-site with volunteers.
Sure, diving deep and learning about things like Gestalt principles help solidify your UX foundation, but please understand that your unique experiences bring the most value to your UX career. So, take that year off, travel abroad, and spend as much time getting to know people as possible.
Trust me, your users will thank you for it.