When UEE launched the User Experience and Customer-Centered Design certificate program in 2011, David Nguyen was one of the first students to sign up. Three years later, the program alum is currently the Director of eCommerce for RED Digital Cinema (they made the cameras used to shoot The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, among other movies) and serves as an Advisory Board Member for the program.
Here he talks about getting a start in user experience, building a UX community in Orange County, and why he loves what he does for a living.
Q: How did you get introduced to the user experience field?
When I first got involved—about three or four years ago—the profession was starting to gain in popularity and many people weren’t even aware of what user experience was.
At the time, I was a Software Engineer wearing multiple hats; developing the architecture of websites including databases, front-end interfaces, graphical design, and gathering requirements.
I would ask for feedback from peers and end-users of the interfaces. At times, I would also observe them and jot down interaction notes— ultimately to update the software based on the feedback and my observations, then test it again. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was part of user-experience design.
Q: What made you want to eventually switch from software engineering to making UX your main focus?
In user-experience design, you get to interact with users. You get out and talk to people, communicate more. When you’re a software engineer you might only work among a group of other software engineers, or stay behind the scenes coding. I really enjoy that interaction with users.
But really, I just want to make great working software, so people can go in and do what they want without even thinking about it. User experience is about making sure people can do what they want without any issues. I like making things better and as simple as possible.
Q: Considering how much UX designers work with people, do they tend to be more social than the average person?
Not necessarily. There’s a lot of diversity in the field: introverts, extroverts; men, women; Mac users, PC users. But despite the differences, UX designers are detail-oriented and structured. They have common sense and a good grasp of how things should work. But they handle things differently to get to the same results. If anyone has passion and puts the right amount of effort into their projects, they can be a great UX designer.
Q: How different are the professional backgrounds of the people in the UX community?
They come from all different walks of life. There’s software engineers, like me. Graphic designers. Project managers. Even people from fields unrelated to digital, looking to change careers so they can make an impact on how users experience a visit on a website or, for example, putting in an address on their car navigation system.
In fact, I would estimate about 60 percent of the students who take the UX certificate program are going through a career change.
Q: Why do you think the UX field has grown so rapidly in the past few years, and seems likely to continue growing?
Look at Apple. Steve Jobs popularized the idea that project design really matters. Interfaces really matter. Amazon is another example of how important having a great UX team is. User experience is part of those companies, it’s not secondary or an afterthought. It’s ingrained in how they do things. Other people saw that and followed suit.
Q: UX also has a vibrant community in Southern California. How has that community changed since you became a user-experience designer?
That community was nonexistent when I first transitioned from a software engineer to a user-experience designer.
Actually, what really got it going here in Orange County was this program. There were about 20 or so in our first class, and there were other Meetups around, but they were mostly in Los Angeles. So we thought, let’s create our own Meetup group down here. There are great topics in L.A., but the drive was just too long. So that’s how it started.
The group now meets every couple of months for discussions and guest speakers. Cal State Fullerton has been really supportive, giving us meeting space and sponsoring our UX SoCal Camp for the past two years. One of the things I do as an advisor to the program is maintain the interactions between the University and the UX community.
Q: How did going through the program help you progress as a user-experience designer?
At the time, as a UX beginner, I was looking to see what I could do to be sure I was applying the best methodologies and tactics to be a great UX designer. Then I found the certificate program at Cal State Fullerton. I think it’s still one of the only schools in Southern California that offers a certificate strictly on user experience. So I signed up.
It was six courses, and each one had different aspects to user experience: Intro to User Experience, user-experience research, design and prototyping classes, and at the end we did a project and presented it.
All the different stages of the curriculum were great. One, it reaffirmed that this was what I wanted to do. It’s a great field. It also gave me the academic structure that I didn’t have before. I learned about the history of user experience and a lot of terminology that I didn’t know before. And now, some of the courses are offered online.
Q: What advice would you give someone who is in a different field and interested in becoming a UX designer?
If you have an interest, start by just taking the intro course at CSUF Extended Ed and that will provide insight on what this field is about. If you like that, you can take the other courses. When you finish the program you will have a completed project you worked on that can be part of the portfolio that helps you land a job. You can also come out and join the various groups who meet about UX such as OCUX to find out more. It’s a great field to be in. Recruiters, companies, they are always looking for talent!
Nguyen welcomes participants to the 2013’s inaugural SoCal Ux Camp last June. For updates on this year’s Camp, or future OCUX Meetups, follow @socaluxcamp on Twitter.
At RED Digital Cinema, Nguyen oversees the eCommerce Department, which consists of four teams: Digital Marketing, Web Development, User Experience and Content.
For the latest information on UX news in Orange County, you can follow Nguyen on Twitter at @ChaoticDomain.