From retail to user experience

So, having graduated from General Assembly about a month ago I found myself on the job hunting circuit. This is a first for me as I’ve been lucky to have been referred for most of my previous jobs.

Having spent 10 weeks with 13 amazing fellow students and the best UX instructors, I recently started feeling doubtful of the chance of getting a job that would value my skills. Why? Firstly most of my classmates have a background in design and/or have agency experience, secondly every other UX job requirement states that they prefer someone with design and/or agency experience. GREAT… I have neither.

Don’t get me wrong, the UX immersive course showed me that there was a designer in me the whole time. In the past I designed my own art work to promote my pop singles, I even put together the visual themes for 4 music videos I produced and sometimes lend my directing skills to photoshoots, however I don’t quite think that this is what some job specs are asking for.

So this got me thinking about my experience in retail and what I have that makes me a great UX designer.

Some background

My first summer job ever was in a factory, yes a factory where I made slippers for M&S. I didn’t really have a choice at the time for three main reasons.

1 — My parents wanted to keep me off the streets (yes I was a rebel child)

2 — As a consequence of choosing to go to a college located over the hill and far away my parents told me I had to pay my own travel fare (somehow this was supposed to teach me something…oh yeah, that sometimes if parents don’t get their own way they act like children)

3 — If I wanted to continue to work while I studied I needed experience (ah that buzz word)

It was hard, waking up at 5:30am getting home at 5pm and being too tired to hang out with my friends. Being 16 wasn’t as fun as I had hoped however I learnt a lot!

Key take away? Teams play a vital role in the process of manufacturing quality products as much as the machines do. I was 16 at the time and some of my co-workers were close to retirement but that was irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. We were a team.

My second job was at McDonalds, where I found I gained a few kilos, had the flexibility to work extra shifts over the holidays to pay for my first Nokia 3210 and I learned that no job was above or below me so if I had to clean the toilets I put my pride aside and got it done and if I had to train someone I put my ego aside and found the best way to suit them.

After that I found myself continuing to work in bars and restaurants throughout central London while I went to university and eventually got a job at Boots Pharmacy where I worked my way up from a sales assistant to a being fully qualified pharmacy dispenser, supporting pharmacists, training healthcare advisers and most importantly helping customers.

So by now you’re all probably wondering how this has anything to do with UX right? Well let me break it down for you into numbered paragraphed bullet points.

1 — Retail staff become experts in almost all products and services the business sells and promotes

Be it a new hair dryer, the latest OTC drug for cholesterol or the newest and best skincare for all different types of skin. They are expected to know it all. And where do these expectations come from? Customers and the business. Products and services are constantly being launched and not knowing about them can easily make a customer change their mind and the business loose money.

As a UX designer who knows what your next project will be about? You have to be willing to learn and end up being an expert on that particular product.

2 — Retail staff are experts at thinking of solutions on the spot

Working in central London I found that most of the customers were time poor. So the opportune moments to shop would be before work, on their lunch break, or on their way home. If they weren’t asking you a question like ‘where do you keep the sanitary towels?’ or ‘what time do you close?’ it was more like…

“I have an operation this week, I have to buy a list of products recommended by my nurse that I can’t seem to find here and I don’t have time to shop around, can you help me? also can you tell me if this list of medication I’m being prescribed is going to interact with the drugs I’m already taking? by the way I have a train to catch in 15 minutes”

… well you have to think smart and find a solution to help that customer and in my experience retail staff will go above and beyond to do that.

In UX we spend time researching and looking for methods and solutions to simplify a customers problem and EMPATHY IS KEY. YOU HAVE TO CARE!

3 — Retail staff know how to read customers and adapt their approach

Yes, they are the UX equivalent to a guerrilla marketing team. Here’s as tip I’m happy to share with you. In my experience there are two situations where you never want annoy a customer; when they’re hungry & when they want their medication so keep all communication informative yet relevant. Retail staff are expected to be approachable, friendly and know how and when to speak to different types of personalities. I have a few categories I place different types of customers under for example;

‘Information & reassurance seekers’,

‘Fully informed grab it and go’ shoppers,

‘I think I know better than you so I want you to prove me wrong’ shopper (yes these people do exist)

Part of the UX process involves interviewing people. And not all participants answer question in the same way. It’s up to a UX designer to work out how to ask the right questions based on that participant.

Creating personas can sometimes be a key tool to testing and developing a design idea.

4 — Retail staff deal with seagulls sorry clients and business owners on a daily basis

If it wasn’t the pharmacy super intendant, it was the area manager, if not, it was the regional manager and sometimes even representatives from the NHS. There was always a scheduled visit to see how the team where delivering services. Unlike the management team who often script what they want to discuss (note pads in hand) it is usually the retail staff who get put on the spot and are expected to answer some tough questions while trying to do their job (often things to do with targets and sales which, to be frank you have analytics for) My point is that most retail staff know how to deal with them diplomatically.

In UX we sometimes have situations when clients think they know what users need but actually don’t have a clue. It is our job to educate them with insights from research in a non patronizing and professional way.

5 — In retail everything revolves around feedback

It was probably the one thing I truly disliked doing. So I’ve served a customer or a patient and gone that extra mile to help them and while I’m ringing through a transaction a random ‘customer care survey’ prints out and I have to almost sell my soul to convince them to take 10 minutes out of their lives to tell me how well (or not) I served them. I disliked it because I didn’t want my customers to feel that I faked our interaction just for feedback, however when and if they did the survey the entire company had access to, and could read that feedback. Whether the feedback was good or bad you had to learn to acknowledge it, improve on it or celebrate it. Retail staff are always encouraged to ask for feedback from each other too and that for me is how to improve team building; learning to give and take feedback.

6— Retail staff don’t sell you products, they sell you an experience

There were so many occasions that I didn’t sell medications or products to customers if I didn’t feel they needed it. Instead, I gave them advice on what they could do for themselves and if that didn’t work they were welcome to come back to me. I sold them trust in my knowledge, expertise and most importantly my desire to help which for me is what bought them back (sometimes with treats).

So what’s my point? I suppose I just want to remind people that UX is as much about soft skills as it is about software. Design is only part of the UX process and that empathy is key when trying to find a solution or develop an idea.

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