User Journeys feat. Joe Holland

Meet Joe Holland, Head of Design at the University of Exeter and a seasoned professional with a diverse background spanning agencies and production companies. In this blog, Joe shares his journey into UX and gives his top three tips for aspiring UX professionals, offering valuable insights and top tips for aspiring professionals looking to break into this exciting field.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your current role with the university?

I’m Joe Holland, Head of Design at the University of Exeter. I joined the university a year ago after spending the rest of my career working across agencies and production companies. I joined when the team was just three people, and over the past year it has grown to a team of 10, including User Researchers, Content Designers, UX Designers and Visual Designers. It’s been great building out a multidisciplinary team, as I’ve always worked in environments where I’ve had to cover the end-to-end process from research right through to high level experience design, and journey mapping down into detailed wireframes.

My role at the university has involved building and managing that team, embedding design processes, and evangelising around design internally. It’s also involved a lot of strategy work to put all the pieces in place to make us a well-functioning design team.

When did you first discover your interest in UX?

I started off my career working as a Web Designer for Warner Brothers – a role which ended up being quite multifaceted. It involved designing collateral for Films, DVDs, TV programmes, for web and physical media, which was exciting at the time! After a while though, I ended up moving into a more creative environment doing less creative work as a producer at a design agency. It was in this role that I first came across UX right as it started to evolve as a discipline. Working with one of our clients, a pensions and life assurance company, we took on a UX project, doing work that I had never really experienced before. Seeing our team work with user researchers and strategists, doing information architecture and taxonomy, and producing creative outputs was really exciting to me – I had never seen design work that involved so much interesting process behind it.

Moving into my next role at AKQA as a programme director, I was inspired to get more involved in this kind of work and contribute to a lot of UX-focused projects. I ended up contributing to UX strategy, journey mapping, and other related work, and found myself really enjoying getting back into design. I took a really meandering route from an early role as a designer to get back into the world of design and UX, but it built up a depth of understanding of the creative process that I might not have gained otherwise.

What’s your journey been so far and how did you develop your skills in UX?

After my role at AKQA, I moved from London to Devon for another position in production and, knowing that I wanted to move back into design, retrained in UX. I managed to convince my new company that they needed UX and positioned myself as the person to help make this happen because of my experience with coding, design, and production. My production experience was especially useful for this, as it meant I knew how to set up a team in a digital agency, and to shape strategy for this team going forward.

UX tends to be a discipline that you join from different areas. I haven’t met many people in my career who had a direct path into UX – who initially trained in it and went straight into that career. Because it’s a newer discipline that didn’t really exist 20 years ago, it tends to draw in people who have had careers in other areas, like graphic design, or production, or web development, and I was lucky enough to be one of the people who could make that transition.

Once I made this change, there was a lot of learning to do on the job – reading books and articles, expanding my network, and learning by doing on each project. Luckily, I was in an environment that was aware of where I needed to develop, and so was willing to build in time for me to make sure that I could do. I was able to take my time and educate myself during projects, which was super important because everything is a learning curve, and I’m still learning on projects to this day.

What would be your top 3 tips for people looking to secure a UX role?

  1. Build a good portfolio. This doesn’t have to be made up of live projects. You can always take an existing app or website and improve it as a personal project, demonstrate your process, and represent that on an online portfolio. Part of building a good portfolio also involves putting your portfolio through the UX process. Think about what your goals are, who your audience is, what they would want to see from it, and maybe do some basic user research – speaking to recruiters or mentors to get their feedback. From here, adjust and iterate your portfolio based on conversations and research.
  2. Show your workings. Rather than just showing off the final screens, make sure you show your process and tell a good story. It’s important not to just demonstrate the ‘what?’, but also the ‘why?’ and the ‘how?’.  Not just what you designed, but why you designed it, why it’s important, and how you got from A to B.
  3. Be pragmatic. UX is a weird discipline – because it’s so new, there’s not much consistency across the board. It’s full of different terms for the same thing, or the same terms used for lots of different things. You could talk to 100 different companies and they’ll each have a different version of what UX is, where it starts and where it ends, what tools to use, and what a UX practitioner’s responsibility is. Because of this, it’s really important to be pragmatic. Adapt your working to your environment, don’t be fixed to a particular way of doing things, and try to build up experience with different parts of the UX process.


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User Experience & Design

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Chris Nasrawi