5 Non-design Jobs that Helped me Become a Better Designer

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As I reflected on my life this past week, I realized my path to becoming a designer was quite interesting. In fact, my path was not a steady growing line — it’s a bit messy and all over the place like my crazy mind. It is definitely not appealing on a résumé for a designer in the Silicon Valley. But as I look back on it, everything was just right.

From age 16–21, I had 5 different jobs:

  1. At 16, I was an Assistant Instructor at the Kumon Learning Center
  2. At 17, I was a Server at the Golden Corral Buffet
  3. At 18, I was a Car Assembler at NUMMI, the car factory
  4. At 19, I was a Resident Advisor at San José State University
  5. At 20, I was the Director of Communication at San José State University

These 5 places have tremendously helped me empathize with people. It allowed me to understand what people want, what people need, and what motivates them — all to designed better user experiences as a designer.

Here’s what each job has taught me about people…

1. Users are like distracted preschoolers

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Right when I turned 16, I started working at the Kumon Learning Center as an Assistant Instructor for preschoolers. When I first started, my biggest challenge was getting these adorable pumpkins to focus on their math and reading activity. They were always distracted and found it difficult to complete their activities.

I started taking things away from them. I would hide unnecessary books, worksheets, pencils away so that the only thing they could see is their current activity. Like toddlers, your users are easily distracted from all the things around them (on and off their devices). If you want your user to focus, then strip everything away. Take out everything unnecessary and only show elements that are meaningful and thoughtful to complete the task.

Other ways to help your users focus on the tasks:

  • Have clear call to actions on your screens so your users know what to do.
  • Have the specific task take up the whole screen to help your users stay focused.
  • Make certain elements more prominent that way your users know what more important to do.

2. Users are like impatient diners

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When I was 17, a Golden Corral opened up in town with a huge red “we’re hiring” banner. I decided to take the job at this so-called “legendary, endless buffet” to earn a bit of cash in the summer before college. I waited on a lot of people — several of them carried a similar trait: they were unbelievably demanding and impatient. Before I was even able to introduce myself as their server, the customers are already asking for their dinner rolls. Sheesh! Talk about impatient.

From then on, my first interaction with every customer was to greet them with a basket of dinner rolls. Immediately, the experience of serving them was even better! They were less hangry, less demanding and less impatient. Like diners, your users are impatient; they want to be fed as soon as possible. To satisfy them, we need to give people what they want before they even ask.

Some ways you could surprise your impatient users:

  • Complete their search entry for them so they don’t have to type the rest
  • Recommend something they might like so they don’t have to do much hunting
  • Create starter sentences for them so they don’t have to type much.

3. Users are like habitual factory workers

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When I was 18, my father said “I want you to work at my company for the summer. I want you to understand the importance of education.” And so I did. I joined him at the NUMMI factory, assembling Toyota Camry’s and Pontiac Vibes. The factory was a dump. It was dark, smelly, loud and dirty. Despite the fact it wasn’t meant for this princess, the factory was amazing. It was amazing how 6,000 vehicles were produced each week.

This number was only possible because the factory had a systematic process — a consistent one. Consistency creates habits and people love habits — it removes all the confusion and chaos and creates efficiency. Like a factory, your product should maintain consistency to help your users flow through different tasks quickly, easily, and efficiently.

To create consistent experiences for your habitual users:

  • Maintain interaction consistency so users can navigate throughout the product easily and seamlessly
  • Make sure your UI elements and components are consistent so that it is recognizable and refined. Top it all off with copy consistency, which will also help build trust and credibility.

4. Users are like timid college freshmen

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At 19, I became a resident advisor in San José State University. Besides the fact it gave me a roof over my head, meals in my belly, and priority registration, being an RA allowed me to be “Mama Phan” to many college freshmen. This is the first time many have lived away from home, many of them are timid and scared. They don’t know what to expect, thus where they live could make or break their college experiences.

Like college freshmen, your users are filled with mixed emotions when they hop onto your product. They could be excited, they could be scared, and they could be skeptical. Our job as designers is to make them feel at home and give them a sense of belongingness.

To give your users a sense of belongingness:

  • Welcome and greet them when they hop on your product
  • Make them feel special by giving them something like a coupon, an exclusive invitation or a few points here and there.

Check up on your users every now and then and ask them how they are doing and how you could help.

5. Users are like Clueless Students

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When I was 20, I was elected Director of Communications at San José State. Despite how horrible my English was (since it’s my second language), I loved communicating and was excited to get into the design by working with the campus’ marketing and branding team. My goal was to create a culture of transparency and educate the students about all the events and programs we provided. Surprisingly, many students weren’t aware of them and didn’t know they had all these goodies.

A product is very similar. You can have all the neat and slick features you like, but if your users don’t know about them, it is wasted. You have to educate and inform them about your features and you should to do it at the right time, otherwise, it will be spam to them.

To educate your unaware users:

  • Add in tool tips throughout the first experience so your users can learn more about what your features.
  • Add in a bot into your product to communicate all the “did you know’s”
  • Blog more about the features and communicate why you create it.


Steve Jobs said, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” As I look back, my 5 non-design dots all connected to help me become a better designer today.

It helped me to understand the users better, and users are simply people. As designers, we just need to understand people better. We need to understand what they want, what they need, and what motivates them.

“We need to learn to observe and listen to people more to get to know them.” Corey Johnson

Of course, there are other lessons I’ve also learned from my path. I’ve learned that:

  1. You don’t need to go to a prestigious design school to learn how to design, but you do need a passion for design.
  2. You don’t need to immediately jump into design roles to be a designer, but you do need to stack up experiences.
  3. You don’t need all the data to design for people but you need to understand and empathize with people.
  4.  100 Tips to Make 100K
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