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Alissa Marr: from Bootcamp Grad to the UX Team of One

Alissa Marr: from Bootcamp Grad to the UX Team of One
Daria Krasovskaya
•  31.10.2023
“I went from feeling nervous to be the only designer, to feeling they are lucky to have me! I am ambitious and dedicated to making high-quality usable experiences, even with little research, under tight deadlines and pressure.” - Alissa

Alissa is an ex Graphic Designer and bootcamp grad who graduated into a very tight job market. She used LinkedIn to find a job and get attention when she began posting there to share her insights with other people in the industry. Alissa became a UX Designer, a UX team of one at trender.ai, a very early-stage startup in the Sales Intelligence software industry.

She is now also a mentor on ADP List where she helps others build their personal brands as UX Designers and advocates for the importance of self-care during your job search.

Early in my job search, I thought employers wanted me to be a certain way, I tried to be extra professional. Through my search, I uncovered that wasn’t true.

I stood out more as myself; I am quirky, silly, and a joy to be around, those factors helped my interviews and my entire career. Striking the balance between being yourself and showing up professionally on a network where you never know which opportunity is watching you.

Alissa Marr, UX Designer @trender.io
Alissa Marr, UX Designer @trender.io

Continue reading to discover:

💥 Alissa’s journey from finishing the bootcamp to landing her first UX design job

⚖ The importance of self-care during a job search

✅ Tips for those looking for their first UX job

🧠 Challenges that come with being a UX team of One

🔍 How research is conducted at an early-stage startup

…and so much more! Let’s get started 👇

From Finishing a Bootcamp to Landing a First Job✨

alissa marr, ux team of 1

There are so many UX bootcamps out there, how did you choose the one that was right for you at the moment? What were the deciding factors? 

When I began looking at Bootcamps Fall 2019, the tough decision wasn’t about which to choose, it was – can I actually do this?! I took much longer to decide whether I could quit my full-time Graphic Design job and bet on myself.

My choices were General Assembly Boston (in-person) and Springboard. I chose GA ultimately because I am a more engaged in-person learner. Taking a huge pivot risk, I wanted to be in the best place for my brain to immerse in the curriculum. 

Many are skeptical about the effectiveness of bootcamps. How do you feel your bootcamp prepared you for the real-world challenges of UX, and what were some gaps you had to fill on your own? 

It was probably a good thing I didn’t know about the skepticism of Bootcamps beforehand! With a Graphic Design background I assumed I’d have a leg up, and initially did. GA set me up nicely with a diverse portfolio of projects; e-commerce site, mobile productivity app, and capstone for a real Boston startup.

I graduated with “the world is my oyster” hopes! With inflated confidence in the beginning of my job search I excluded Fintech and Insurance, aiming at “cool” tech companies (but later I sort of regretted that). 

Reality set in and my job search was much longer than expected. I filled in curriculum gaps by working with teams on hackathons and joining projects I found via LinkedIn. My second hackathon, led by General Assembly, gave me experience with hand-off to developers. Hand-off experience was by far the biggest deficit I faced when interviewing for product teams! 

UX career coaches who told me to leverage my background experience during my transition were not kidding. – A year into my job search I needed a fresh take, and decided to lean into my background as a trend researcher! This was a game-changing turning point for me. Informed by UX/UI trend reports, I took a passion and focus on AI.

I crammed, studied, and versed myself in AI for UX becoming obsessed and well-versed in design patterns and how machine learning models work. It wasn’t long before I landed my first UX role at an AI focused design agency. 

You mention the importance of self care during your job search. Could you tell us a bit more about why you think it’s so important and how you practiced it during your own search? 

Job searching is so stressful on our bodies. We may not realize tightening our shoulders, clenching jaws, or simply prolonged need of a snack. After enforcing a self-care routine, I noticed more enthusiasm and happiness in my interviews. The way you treat your body directly impacts what you put out into the world; everything is connected.

My own routine included yoga, walk breaks, better hydration, and meditation. Let’s not forget mental health, which is in quite a vulnerable state during a job search. Boosting our mental health is personal but a few things I’d recommend are listening to uplifting podcasts, journal reflections and setting goals for the next day, celebrating small wins, and enjoying expressive outlets such as art or music.

In a glass half full view, job searching can be a freeing time in life! New hobbies, reading books you didn’t have time for, cheap travel perhaps? I took the opportunity to road trip locally; visiting friends and family enjoying longer stays and new experiences.

I’d have been so miserable if I hadn’t taken time away. I believe it is the spaces in between that allow you to fully reflect and get inspired for the next round of applications or portfolio revisions. – A job search doesn’t mean you are glued to the computer! 

What made you realize that being uniquely yourself works better than being overly professional in your job search? Why do you think it’s the case?

It feels like I can trace this back to meeting my first mentor, Joe. He was unapologetically himself; wore a flat brimmed hat, fun t-shirts, tons of enthusiasm, bold personality! I noticed from some interviews that “I” did very well; meaning people liked me as a person.

My experience was lacking in areas and hands were tied often on hiring. – But my personality and enthusiasm stuck out to people! If you can make the interviewer laugh, or talk about something they might relate to other than small talk, I believe it creates more likability. 

Another reason I leaned into my personality is I got the feeling the tech field had been notoriously introverted for years. That seems to be changing, and for good reasons! Companies want to hire a variety; I wholeheartedly believe your authentic personality could be an edge that helps you land the role.

A UX Team of One 💻

ux team of one

How do you handle the responsibility of being the sole decision-maker for UX design in a UX team of One? Are there any frameworks or processes you’ve found particularly helpful?

I had to overcome imposter syndrome early, that is for sure! Luckily I have a supportive Manager. As I got to be an expert in the product, I was given more autonomy in design decision making. At an early stage startup user research isn’t often readily available, that is where analogous or competitive research comes in handy!

Collecting inspiration from popular apps like Spotify, Gmail, Slack, and sometimes Notion or Zoom has given me certainty in times where I needed to bet independently on a solution.

A powerful framework for complexity I learned several months into my role is coined a Systems Model. By charting and further breaking down a complex feature I end up with properties, attributes, inputs, and outputs and start to get a clear vision down. My PM and I use the chart to align, clear up any questions or gaps, and plan our timeline. Storyboarding is my other favorite for relaying solutions efficiently for complex flows.

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What are some challenges of being the only UX designer in the startup? And what do you like most about it?

The first challenge I can think of is structure; autonomy is potentially difficult for some people. Working as a UX team of one can feel isolating but there are opportunities to collaborate or attend optional meetings. For instance, I made good friends with the Engineering team and got myself included in their weekly virtual hangout meetup, which makes me feel like a special part of their team.

As a UX team of one you are steering the ship; a voice respected and trusted as you are essentially the entire department in a person, LOL. It’s empowering to work the way that best fits my (and the company’s) needs and shift as I see fit. If I find a new framework or organizational structure I want to use, I don’t have to run it by several people. I tell everyone I am doing it, often with a simple video shared in Slack. 

As a result my skills and experience have grown extremely fast. I had the rare opportunity to design from a bare bones app into a multi-functional, multi feature software and still expanding… YAY!! So yea, UX team of one is a scrappy role but can be rewarding for the right person.

It takes curiosity and willingness to constantly learn, invent, (fail at times), and test new frameworks; if you are down for it, you’ll thrive!

Without a team to bounce ideas off of, how do you gather diverse perspectives, where do you look for feedback? 

Fridays are demo days with the whole company so I can share prototypes plus see coded in-progress UI and give feedback. Everyone is pretty close knit in the company and our feedback is taken into consideration when possible. I meet with my PM weekly, and hit up Software Engineers when I need a second perspective on a concept. 

For user research I utilize customer pain points, sales call recordings, and user stories. Independently I learn where our customers are, what software they’re already using, and find the patterns and interactions within those apps. At the end of the day, our product has to fit within our user’s tech stack.

Would I love more perspective directly from users? Absolutely! I can proudly say all the methods I have done are working; we get very high remarks for our design and usability! Users say that our app looks further along than a typical early-stage product. That right there is a validation that my scrappy research methods are making an impact, and as we grow I’m excited to strengthen the diversity of our research methods.

💡Pro Tip

Learn more about the different user research methods you can use in your design process

Are there specific tools or resources that have become indispensable for you as a UX Team of One?

Hands down it is rudimentary and basic; pen and paper! Sketching allows me to get ideas out very quickly and I can iterate fast. I use a free mobile app called Scannable. With a background as an artist my brain solves faster and more creatively on paper. I get 90% of the complexity done before hitting Figma. By the time I design screens it all comes together like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

What’s a piece of advice you wish you had received earlier in your career?

Find a group of Junior UX Designers and Software Engineers immediately after completing your UX program to collaborate on a project with. There are troves of people; LinkedIn, Slack channels, Design talks.. You don’t have to know what you are doing, find people and just start. There are a ton of problems to solve and the work doesn’t have to be FOR anyone or sponsored by an organization.

Take these opportunities to learn scrum, lead standup, practice the UX process, and hand-off and work considering realistic technical constraints with engineers. Doing projects like these make great portfolio pieces and talking points for interview questions.

Women in UX💛

ux team of one

What do you think is the best part of being a woman in the UX/tech industry?

Honestly I feel cool, and soooo smart working in tech! When people ask what I do for a living they are always impressed, and you know what? I am also impressed with my successful career pivot! I was always very strategic as a Graphic Designer but my “low on the totem pole” status kept me from making an impact.

Working in tech I learned to be more assertive, advocate for myself, and know that I am right with the research to back it up. These skills which felt encompassed in my career path entering tech were not skills that came naturally to me as a woman earlier in my career. 

What is your message to other people in the UX industry?

Find your niche and immerse yourself! Consider a talent you can harness or a passion in the field. Learn everything you can, and share your learning process with your network. Share articles with key takeaways, struggles with funny memes, share resources, learnings and tips!

Writing on LinkedIn was unnatural for me at first but after a while I enjoyed it. You absolutely never know who is reading (not to sound creepy). The commitment I held to sharing my UX voice on LinkedIn since I graduated from bootcamp is invaluable.

Get pumped, be passionate, express your authenticity. There is room for every diverse perspective and personality in tech. Owning who you are is your superpower.

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