As a longtime IT professional, Owen Modamwen knows tech. Managing servers, computers, and networks was no problem for the D.C. native, who’d been in the field for almost six years (and most recently spent time on Capitol Hill setting up new congressional staff with plug-and-play digital systems during the transition between Presidents Obama and Trump). “It’s definitely great being able to provide helpful services for people, but I’d always be sitting at my desk thinking about how I could be more creative.”
This desire for creativity was, in many ways, a desire to return to his roots. He grew up tinkering with electronics and immersed in art thanks to his dad, a sculptor and all-around dynamic talent.
Discovering User Interfaces–And a Secret Weapon to Design Them
Modamwen decided to expand his studies. “I found all these YouTube videos about how people were building user interfaces, and I was fascinated,” he says; but sporadic attempts to master Photoshop and Illustrator as UI design tools left him overwhelmed. “Every time I opened them up, I felt like I was sitting inside the Millennium Falcon, trying to figure out how to make it fly.” When a favorite vlogger introduced Adobe XD, Modamwen figured it could be worth a shot.
“Adobe XD was ridiculously simple to figure out,” he says. “The overall interface was clean and inviting, and the tools were minimized to what I actually needed: rectangles; colors; there you go.” As he continued to experiment and explore, the program became a crucial bridge between his burgeoning roles on the back- and front-end.
“Design and development work in tandem; I believe they’re two halves of a whole,” he says. This inclusive approach that isn’t necessarily common in the industry–the specialties are often separate, though it’s not unheard of for individuals to master both–but was a perfect fit for XD’s streamlined format. Here, he could produce quick, lo-fi wireframes, which he would then build out–and bring to life.
Establishing an IRL Community
Modamwen was going solo on this creative journey until a chance encounter with a fellow coder opened him up to a whole new world of support. “I was sitting behind a guy at IHOP who was talking to his friends about web development; all these tips, ‘do this,’ ‘do that.’ When he was leaving I stopped him to introduce myself, and he invited me to these regular meet-ups he was having with a group of young folks all learning to code.”
The crew would come together weekly at a Korean tea house for feedback on their own projects, for explanations on tricky concepts, and for all-around encouragement that made a massive difference in Modamwen’s own trajectory. “Being surrounded by these other enthusiastic people took my skill level from zero, through the roof,” he says.
Committing to Learn
When an opportunity opened up for a scholarship at General Assembly, Modamwen went for it. His application included a preliminary prototype for an app that redesigned the grocery store experience. “At that point, I didn’t do any research–I just made it for myself,” he says. “But because I designed it in XD, I was able to have the actual prototype on my phone that I could share with friends, or at meet-ups–which was awesome–and I got some solid feedback.”
He was accepted to GA, and the course itself was an intensive ten-week whirlwind. “The most important thing I learned was to start with lo-fi prototypes first,” he says. “You have to get your ideas out quickly. Commit your early time to concepts, because you’ve got to put those through research, testing, implementation, all these steps and processes. Ultimately, you want to make sure that what you’re putting out actually matches the issues that arise when a user has a problem. It’s not just about the way something looks–it’s about functionality.” He and his classmates produced a few hypothetical projects, a few revamps of existing apps, and a few client commissions. When it was all over, Modamwen couldn’t stop thinking about his grocery store app.
Getting Focused on Finishing a Project
“After General Assembly, I decided to see how far I could really push this thing,” Modamwen says. “I had all this new knowledge about user research, design concepts, and different affordances that exist within apps.” Though he already had a high-fidelity mock-up thanks to XD, he put it aside to get going from scratch. “I needed to talk to people who were shopping,” he says–but standing outside the supermarket asking for a bunch of opinions didn’t go over too well. “I changed my approach completely,” he says. The new tactic? Loading up a cart, wandering the aisles, and stopping friendly faces with a single question and follow-up: “What is the number one problem you experience when you go to the grocery? And how would you solve it?”
All of a sudden, people were sharing all kinds of ideas, frustrations, excitement, and solutions. He culled those down into four main categories: identifying the location of items in the store; speeding up check-out; and budgeting. Now he’s busy building it out, and one day hopes to add his app design to the official Apple Store. “It’s all happening–and I cannot wait until it’s a real thing.”
Hey budding UX designers! Are you interested in making a transition into this growing industry? Get a sense of the various job titles and responsibilities; take a crash course in how to break into the field; and nab these top tips on how to ace your first gig. Check out what UX designers work on all day, and have a look at our UX Do This Not That advice for newbies. Or see what the shift has been like for an industrial-designer-turned-UX-designer, and a visual-designer-turned-UX-designer. Lots to learn, and we’re here to help!
**Hey designers: For more insights into the whos, whats, whys, and hows of UX design, sign up for Adobe’s experience design newsletter!