From HR to UX: Leveraging Past Experiences for Design Success

When someone asks me ‘my background’, it’s never a short answer. I’ve explored various fields, including art, business administration, finance & economics, campaign management, and human resources. Most of these paths were results of going where the wind blew. However, I finally took a deliberate decision to switch to UX Design in my mid-thirties, and that has turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

I had heard that UX has a low entry barrier, meaning that one did not necessarily need a design degree or prior design experience to start. However, this did not give me the confidence I needed until my interview at ZEUX with co-founder, Saurabh Gupta. While I was rambling disclaimers about my lack of UX experience but promising to put in my best effort, he said, “I think HR is already very close to UX. You can always learn the tools; you already have the soft skills and that’s more important in any career.” As he drew parallels between the mindset required for a Human Resource professional and a UX Designer, the pieces of the puzzle began to fit.

I don’t want to undermine the challenges of truly being a designer.

A field with a low entry barrier often sounds like anyone can get in and do well. Only the former is correct.

The latter, like any other field, requires hard work, creativity, and more than anything else, people skills.

Today, after four years of being a UX designer, I know that while much of how I think is shaped by my design career, an equal or greater amount has been influenced by my HR career. This realization makes me ponder the concept of transferable skills. Career switches are daunting and rightly so, but it also means a chance to bring your existing skills to a new field. My move from HR to UX design wasn’t just about learning new tools—it was about harnessing the invaluable soft skills I had already picked up.

If you are considering a career switch but fear that your experiences until now will be wasted… remember that nothing is completely useless – even a broken clock shows the right time twice a day.

Here are seven valuable skills that got transferred seamlessly from HR to UX and continue to hold me in good stead.

1. Empathy FTW: Being a People Person

Sometimes, the term “people person” gets a bad rap. It is often confused with people pleaser or an intolerable extrovert. It’s actually neither. I believe that being a people person is just a synonym for being truly empathetic.

In HR, empathy is supposed to be your middle name, and it involves a tightrope walk. You’ll be disliked if you enforce regulations (even though you’re just the messenger) and you’ll be walked over if you don’t. You need to dish out empathy to everything and everyone in your path. It can get exhausting but is at the core of being a good HR professional, and likewise, a great UX Designer.

In UX, empathy must extend beyond your users to everyone in the ecosystem – stakeholders, business, sales, marketing, product teams, your UX team, and so on.

Empathy is not valued enough. The rapport built through empathy brings out the best in everyone.

This applies to whether it is forging partnerships with clients, getting more honest and profound responses from your users, or pushing your team to excel as they navigate the stratosphere of UX.

2. Stealth Mode: Be So Good They Can’t See You

You’ve probably heard of HR being a thankless job. Nobody notices when everything is going well, but one wrong move, and everyone is gunning for you. I was once tasked with managing the transfers for around 200 employees. The going was smooth until I had to diffuse a situation where someone got very mad at HR for recommending a packers & movers to use for their transfer to another city. He said nothing about the perfect arrangements we had made for his furnished accommodation and children’s school admissions, but we never heard the end of 3 flowerpots that had broken during transit.

In design too, there is very little room for errors. One broken link and your users will leave stinking reviews and abandon your product for the next one before you can say “Excuse me, but…”. This is where perfectionism comes in handy.

Attention to detail is worth a million bucks and is often the singular factor that makes good design invisible.

The ability to foresee potential issues and address them before they become problems is a skill that translates well from HR to UX.

3. Objection, Your Honor: Practice Dual Advocacy

Just like an HR professional is called to be the guardian for the company’s employees, a UX Designer is the advocate for the user, but don’t confuse these roles with lawyers.

At least lawyers get to pick a side. In HR or UX, you must fight for both sides at the same time.

You may see merit in working from home but also have to emphasize the company culture of in-person collaboration. You might want the user to get straight to the task, but you know that banners in the first fold have the potential to lead to more customer acquisition. You’ll be torn, and often.

I think it’s important to understand that happy users are a means to an end, not the end itself, just like happy employees are what leads to success and profits of the company. Whether HR or UX, it’s crucial to believe in this and be able to convince all parties involved about the same.

4. Party Planning Perfection: Creating Unreasonable Delight

The effort put into organizing events, such as the much-mocked Rangoli competition, is usually undermined. These events, often the butt of HR jokes, actually require significant planning and thoughtfulness. In my previous organization, we wanted to break out of the rigmarole of sending automated generic birthday wishes. Instead, we decided to execute a new theme of gifting every year with a single mission – make them feel special. One year we got hand-drawn caricatures for each of our 300+ employees. Another year, we got managers to hand-write personal messages for each of their team members, that were then printed on to a coffee mug. Of course, we also planned out a roster for 2 HR persons to go together and hand deliver the gifts. It was endearing to see people gather around the second that HR walked onto the floor, and then react to the unpredictable contents of the gift.

Going the extra mile takes effort, but working in HR helps build the muscle for getting hyper-personalized. User-centered design in essence means design that considers the objectives and pain points of all your users; designing in a way that makes them feel that this was done especially for them.

Paying attention to the little things is what brings forth extraordinary delight.

5. Emotional X-Ray: Checking the pulse

A true HR person has a pulse on how people around them are feeling, even without direct communication. This skill comes from listening, observation, and being hyper-responsive to environmental stimuli. The ability to read unsaid words, facial expressions, and the seasons of a person’s life is invaluable.

Everyone has their winter and spring, and noticing these changes is half the distance covered in reaching them.

Like HR, a UX Designer with these super-powers can go a long way. Users are not always the best at articulating their needs or arriving at solutions by themselves. You have to be able to look at and through user motivations, blocks, hacks and behaviour to design what’s best for them. It all starts and ends with cultivating a genuine interest in the user.

6. Clear as Day: Communicating with Clarity

An organization is made up of all kinds of minds. There are those who may ‘get it’ without needing elaborate explanations and then there are those who need communication broken down for them to understand. Crafting messages that reach the broadest audience without oversimplifying is an art – like when HR has to communicate company rules clearly to everyone, from the most experienced employees to the newest hires.

In UXD we must always design for the lowest common denominator.

UX writing copy that is accessible and easy to understand is crucial. While it’s easier to design for the most proficient, you cannot call your design user-centered if half your users feel alienated or confused while engaging with your content.

7. Deadline Diva: Beating the Clock

My father always tells me, “If you cannot be on time, be early.”

There is beauty in doing what you said you would do without needing someone to remind you.

In HR, deadlines are non-negotiable. Whether it’s sending out that birthday emailer or processing appraisals, timeliness is crucial. Being tardy leads to immediate erosion of the trust that your employee base places in you, not to mention the resentment it causes. When people look up to you as their custodian, they do not expect that you will keep them waiting.

In UXD too, meeting deadlines builds trust. Clients value on-time delivery, as it reflects your reliability and respect for their timelines. This demonstrates commitment and professionalism that earns you a lot of equity. Just like how your timeliness has a positive impact in keeping the gears turning, your delay can have a domino effect on bringing business to a grinding halt.

Wrapping Up: The Power of Transferrable Skills

Because understanding and wanting to solve problems for a better world is at the heart of UX, skills can be borrowed from other career paths that share the sentiment. Come to think of it, every domain has the same intent in varying degrees. I have been fortunate to be able to transfer so much from my HR experience to my UX career.

As Aldous Huxley wisely put it, “Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” This underscores the essence of transferable skills and the significance of leveraging past experiences. As you navigate your career path, remember that every experience adds to your skillset, shaping you into a more versatile and capable professional. Embrace your journey, and trust that every step has contributed to your growth.

Good luck with the transfer!

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