How U(X) found me

Many User Experience professionals are T‑shaped individuals who bring diverse backgrounds and a wealth of experience to the profession. Since there isn’t an obvious or natural path into the UX profession, I’m always curious and grateful to hear others' stories. This is my story.

The Atari 2600 Gaming Console

From Gaming to Grunge

I’ve always had an interest in design and technology. I remember from quite a young age admiring buildings and gadgets. I was interested in the aesthetic appeal of these objects. I often thought about the intent behind the design. I cared more about how things made me feel, rather than how they worked. Although I wasn’t dreaming of becoming an architect or a designer when I grew up, I knew at the very least that I wasn’t destined to become an engineer.

I first fell in love with computers after watching my friend’s older brother play his Commodore 64. Having never seen anything like it, the machine fascinated me. I was completely in awe of the command prompt (which is more than I can say for myself these days). As a vicarious spectator, I watched on as my friend’s older brother would type alien instructions, only for the machine to decide if he could proceed, or not. When a game successfully loaded, the experience was epic beyond belief. The graphics. The sound. The intelligence. I was completely engrossed in this 8-bit fantasy world. This sort of relationship and interaction between person and computer had me very curious.

I moaned to my parents until I was allowed to get a gaming system of my own. Because I didn’t know how to operate a computer, the employee at our local department store suggested the Atari console. Sure enough, come christmas 89′ and I woke up to my very own Atari 2600. It was a godsend. Simple. Intuitive. Delightful. I was 5 years old and had no trouble setting it up and playing it. The hardest part was tuning the TV.

Whilst I can’t say that this was the exact point I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, I do truly believe that my young obsession with video games influenced my appreciation for digital things. In particular, the power they have to make people feel something.

As I matured, so did my choice of gaming consoles. I owned everything from the original Nintendo through to the Nintendo 64. However, my obsession didn’t last forever. As soon as I became interested in Grunge music, I bought my first guitar and haven’t touched a computer game since.

Head Vs. Heart

From as early as I can remember my parents have stressed the importance of education. If I wanted to have a successful and comfortable future I was told that I should focus on getting good grades. Because they weren’t so fortunate, I was taught to consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to go to school. I felt indebted to my parents to do well—a case of stereotypical Chinese parenting. My academic achievement would go on to reflect parenting success, so anything short of an A+ wasn’t good enough.

I can tell you right now that I’m definitely not an over-achiever or an A+ student. I don’t consider myself naturally gifted. I’m more the satisfactory type with a potential to do well if I work really hard.

During my High School years I managed to find a few subjects that I liked. I performed well in English, Visual Arts and Music. I was passionate in these areas and worked hard to be good. When I reached my senior years, came the time when I had to decide which subjects I wanted to focus on. What I chose and how well I performed would determine how eligible I was for entry into University.

Like most High school kids I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I wanted to do. Do I pursue maths and science? or arts and humanities? One path seemed completely rational and would most probably lead to a well-paying job. After all, I could do something with computers. The other path would allow me to do something that I enjoyed and was good at. Chasing the rockstar pipe dream sounded so good, but aroused a fear of the unknown. I guess job prospects and my parents influenced my decisions more than I realised.

I made the decision to pursue Computing and dropped the only subjects I loved. Instead, I took on Physics, Electronics Technology and Higher-Level Mathematics. I spent my senior years working my ass off and staying sane by cavorting with my guitar.

A Future with Computing

I attended my local University open day to try and figure out exactly what I wanted to study. The Computing showroom presented me with all the wonderful things that a UNSW Computing degree could offer. Robots that played Soccer, a clarinet that improvised jazz, and an application that predicted and eased traffic congestion. It was a glimpse into a promising future, one that seemed full of innovation and awesome applications of technology.

Robotic dogs on a miniature soccer pitch fighting for the ball.

I went and spoke to a few of the student volunteers that were present. They were happy to discuss some of their major projects with me. It was quite clear how much they loved what they were working on. Little did I know that these projects represented a succession of life’s work in academia and not of the ‘real world’.

Alongside the student volunteers were the Academic advisors. Their job was to help prospective students choose a suitable degree. Instead of discussing what I enjoyed or what I was good at, it was a simple transaction. I handed over my latest High School marks to be examined by one of the faculty professors. He gave it a quick up and down and told me that Computer Science was my best shot. I appreciated his honesty but was annoyed that the biggest decision of my life (up to that point) had been trivialised by a bunch of numbers on a sheet of paper.

Getting in (and then failing)

I was 17 years old and way more excited by University life than studying. On one hand I was surrounded by girls and partying. On the other hand I was dealing with matrix multiplication. Garbage collection. Text to console. Bubble sort. Kano maps. Regular expressions. NAND Gates. These are the first things to come to mind when I reflect on my Comp Sci experiences. All wonderful things I’m sure, just not for me.

To me there seemed to be a disconnect between the value of learning the fundamentals of programming and it’s application in the real-world. It was all too far removed from my reality. I didn’t have a vision, nor was I shown one to believe in. Where were those damn soccer playing robots and what the hell did they have to do with what I was studying? Serious doubts began to plague my mind.

As a result, I completely failed my first and second years at uni. This wasn’t because I wasn’t a capable programmer. No, it was because I had no desire to work towards … well … I didn’t know. Luckily, my Philosophy and Psychology marks were high enough to keep me from getting kicked out.

By third year I felt lost. I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that maybe Computer Science wasn’t for me. The decision seemed clear. I either change my attitude and salvage some sort of career, or I scrape through and if I was lucky I could become an IT support person. My degree seemed to cater for the echelon. For average people like me, there wasn’t much else on offer and I wasn’t prepared to drop-out and waste the last two years.

My Human-Computer Interaction

Amongst the courses I chose in my final year was COMP3511: Human-Computer Interaction. I chose HCI because it involved no programming and sounded radically different from anything else I had come across. By that point, all I cared about was finishing my degree. So I chose accordingly.

The course was run by Dr. Daniel Woo, an inspiring lecturer who would eventually become my mentor. Amongst a bunch of introverted academics, Daniel’s enthusiasm, passion and teaching methods were a breath of fresh air.

In our very first lecture, Daniel told us that we were required to step away from the computer. We would not code. Instead, we would mind map. We would not develop software for ourselves, we would talk to the people that would be using it. We would not write requirements specifications, we would write short stories. All these methods were so in-tune with how I liked to think. My brain’s right hemisphere ignited and I was captivated from day one.

Imagine the skepticism and bewilderment amongst the students. These were some of the brightest people in the country and they were being told that everything they had learnt so far would be ultimately useless. Their optimal algorithms would go to waste because they would most probably power unusable software that no one would care for.

Believe it or not, this was the first time any subject had even mentioned the idea of a Graphical User Interface (GUI). Every piece of code we had written up until that moment had felt like an intelligence test. The problems were the least bit inspiring. I didn’t understand when we would get the chance to create something that a person would actually interact with.

HCI produced the goods. For the first time in 3 years I was tasked with an assignment that was related to a real problem. What I was doing felt meaningful (the assignment came about at the height of Australia’s drought disaster from 2003). Our objective was to design and prototype a system that aimed to minimise water wastage. The system would help households track their usage with the goals of saving people money and saving the environment. We weren’t thinking in 1’s and 0’s to solve a miniature problem. We were thinking holistically. We were thinking big. We were thinking about people.

I was thrilled to receive my first Distinction in a computing course. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment (and relief). I had finally found something I could be passionate about. Naturally, the next semester I pursued the follow-on course Comp4511: User Interface Design and Construction.

Connecting the Bits

The UI Design course was made up of a design stream and a programming stream. I excelled at both. It was the first subject that involved programming where I performed very well.

Simon Pan usability testing and taking notes for his software in lab with participant

I attribute my success to being able to see the fruits of my labour. Rather than suffer punishment at the hands (or should I say bits) of the course auto-marker, I received real feedback from real people. I had a compelling reason to want to make the code functional and reliable. Not only did it have to do this, but I also needed to design an interface that was intuitive. I could see how the changes I made either under the hood or to the user interface impacted the user’s experience. This made me all the more determined to get my software perfect. I wanted to make people happy.

Needless to say I went on to do well in this course and am forever grateful because it completely changed my career outlook and motivation to succeed.

An Honourable Year

After becoming eligible to graduate, I decided to stay on at UNSW and pursue an honours degree. I also had an opportunity to tutor the following year’s students, which was a rewarding experience in its own right.

My honours topic explored the area of designing software interfaces for creative thinking. I researched, designed and built a desktop sketching application that provided support for annotations and handwriting recognition. A tonne of work, it was my first opportunity to execute a full user-centered design process.

After completing my honours degree I decided that I wanted more. I applied for a Masters degree and was flatly denied entry. Despite the fact that my Master’s topic was within the HCI discipline (which I had more than proven myself with a distinction average), my first year’s marks came back to bite me. This was the second time I would feel misrepresented and wrongly judged by a bunch of numbers on paper.

Beyond Usability

Although I was let down, I didn’t let the masters application stop me from doing more work in HCI. I decided to join Daniel and began working in the Usability labs.

I spent my time conducting usability tests for internal and commercial clients. The work involved designing the tests, facilitating the tests, analysing the results and making design recommendations. This was great experience and I learnt a tonne about usability, eye-tracking and User Interface Design.

More often than not, I found that the usability issues across different projects stemmed from problems far beyond the interface. With rarely any control over what recommendations actually get implemented, I soon became tired of trying to fix broken things. Instead, I wanted to be able to influence design at a deeper level. Instead of taking on more usability work, Daniel and I sought to engage in meatier work where we could have complete control over the user experience—making good stuff from the outset, instead of making broken stuff good. Following on from this realisation, we landed what was to become our biggest job for the not-for-profit government organisation called the Independent Living Centre NSW (ILC NSW).

Influencing Real Change at the ILC NSW

The ILC NSW project allowed me to witness first‑hand the pain that someone could experience when using an interface. This was different to what I saw in my Usability Testing work. Not because of the types of issues, but because of the real‑world impact. I could see the interface impairing people’s ability to work effectively and efficiently. I then could see how this would impact the ILC NSW’s capacity to provide it’s service to clients.

Working so closely with the ILC NSW staff allowed me to develop a deep sense of empathy for the users I was designing for. I was hungry to learn anything that was required that allowed me to create a better outcome for my users. Every little thing that could be done to improve the User Experience, I aimed to own and learn it. If I couldn’t, I aimed to leverage people that could.

With this deep caring and determination I soon began to see my work in a new light—not as a job, but as a responsibility and a privilege. Each small improvement I made to the user experience improved somebody’s day tenfold. I observed all these moments summing up to a person’s week. People’s moods changed. People’s attitudes changed. People’s behaviour changed. People’s potential changed. The experience I was designing for began to empower the ILC NSW staff, which in turn allowed them to provide a better service to their clients and enrich the lives of others. This was my ‘aha’ moment, where I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Headshot of Simon Pan

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