From a religious commune to running her own freelance business, we talk to Ashley Porciuncula about how your past doesn’t have to define you and why you don’t need a degree to succeed as a UX designer.
Ashley Porciuncula grew up on the outskirts of San Francisco, but her story isn’t the typical Silicon Valley tale. Raised in a strict fundamentalist Christian sect where the Internet and post secondary education were forbidden, Porciuncula was a rebel who ventured out into the world wide web anyway.
“I’ve been designing websites since before my parents wanted to let me on the Internet,” she said.
She began by creating websites on Geocities that were full of more glitter and dancing gifs than our collective conscience could handle today. In order to find out what else was out there, however, she needed to walk away from everything she had ever known and enter the real world. At 19, she did just that.
“As I became an adult and I decided to leave behind the life that I was raised in and therefore all of the people with that, I said what do I want to do?” she said.
She was 22 when she realized what Silicon Valley represented and the opportunities it could open up for her.
“I do think that growing up at the heart of where all of this was happening knowing that I could go to my local job board and there would be jobs in startups, the first startups that ever really qualified as startups, I think has been a fantastic asset and I’m quite thankful for that,” she said.
Self-Taught, Won’t Stop
Though she feels she entered the field late into the game, Porciuncula hasn’t let her past prevent her from achieving her dreams. To this day she doesn’t have a degree. Her experience comes from a combination of teaching herself HTML, CSS, and various design programs, and learning on the job.
“I’ve always loved the concept of building something from nothing, whatever that is. Taking an idea and turning it into something that people say ‘wow’ about, then taking that idea and turning it into something that changes people’s lifestyles for the better,” she said.
“I just sort of had to dive in and say this is what I want to do, this is the career I feel is right for me and this is what im passionate about, and I’m going to make it happen regardless of the fact I wasn’t given the normal opportunities as everyone else.”
Finding Freedom: From Berkeley to Bristol
Porciuncula spent the early part of her early career working in Berkeley, California in front-end design jobs, but she was always fascinated by the human side of design.
“Now that UI design is taking a rightful backseat to user experience, flows and things like that, I’ve found that that’s the perfect niche for me: right between what’s pretty and what’s functional,” she said. “That’s why I find that UX in particular, out of all the design fields, is where I feel most effective. To be able to look at that stuff and say, let’s get some real results out of it and in the meantime, we’ll make it prettier than it was.”
At 26, she moved to Paris to work as a UX designer at Zoetis Animal Health, the animal division of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. She built applications related to animal healthcare, including one project where she was solely responsible for the UX design of a dog medical application where both pet owners and pets were users, a unique challenge. The app extracted data from a device worn on the dogs’ collar, which functioned similarly to a FitBit. The app was designed in such a way that it would collect data based on the dog’s movement (through the device) and report this data back to its owner in a meaningful way (through the application).
Three years later, she was on the move again, this time playing an instrumental role in relocating her department to London. Last fall, she switched to working freelance full-time and now splits her time between London and Bristol.
“Given my history and my story, you can imagine why freedom is sort of the biggest thing that I strive for in life,” she said. “I think we all have the ability to curate and mold our lives and our existences into what we want them to be if we decide to take the risks associated with that,” she said.
Her Design Process
Porciuncula prefers working with small organizations where her UX skills can make a difference. She takes a “teach a man to fish” approach to her work by offering a hybrid design and consultancy service with the intention of leaving teams off “better than she found them.”
“I find a lot of startups don’t have the budget or probably even the need to bring on a UX designer full-time, so they end up going without because they think, we can’t hire this title,” she said. “When I went freelance, I [ said] I want to find the companies who could really use this kind of work because otherwise, they’re not going to have the opportunity to have this insight.”
In her experience, designers often carry the burden of responsibility when it comes to design theory and user thinking. She tries to provide education for dev teams especially so that the team as a whole understands design concepts more thoroughly.
“I like to make sure that I’m not just going in giving them new ideas and saying this is what you need to do, these are the changes you need to make, but I’m also leaving them with sort of an education about why I made these decisions and how they can continue that thinking when I go,” she said.
Harnessing Her Entrepreneurial Spirit
Porciuncula devotes her spare time to two passion projects in particular. The first is Encode Health, where she serves as CTO alongside co-founder Dr. Costas Fantis, who serves as CEO. They are trying to create a user-friendly “Intelligent Care Passport,” which is a single healthcare system connecting a patient’s medical files from all points of contact no matter where they seek medical help in the world.
“You look at the way that the world is working and somebody is going to make this happen. So the curious question is who’s going to do that and what is it about their plan that sets them apart from everyone that failed in the past?” she said.
The second is a project called Consciously Coupled (yes that’s a Gwyneth pun!). It’s an application that combines psychology and communication tools to help people in long-term relationships strengthen their relationship in a fun, but a science-backed way. It’s an almost antidote to Tinder. Instead of facilitating the meeting of many people, its whole motivation is to enhance the relationship you have with one. She hopes to launch it by Thanksgiving.
Ashley’s Advice: Believe in yourself and in your skills
Porciuncula’s story doesn’t fit the conventional portrait of a successful UX designer, but she now views this as a strength. When asked about how others with unconventional backgrounds can find success in UX, she said people need to first understand and value their worth.
“I think we all have this tendency to say, yeah but I don’t count because I was given this opportunity by this person, or I don’t count because I didn’t go to school and get the degree, or I don’t count because I spent the first three years of my career going to school and getting the degree and I wasn’t working like this other person was.” she said.
“If you can just get past that and say, no, I’m going to believe that I’m worth this, then I think a lot more opportunities open up because you’re not quite so shy to reach out and take them. I find that if you tell people that you’re good at what you do and that they need you, they will often believe you.”
And why shouldn’t you feel as deserving as somebody else? Let Porciuncula’s story be a reminder that being a self-taught UX designer isn’t a disadvantage. With the right attitude, it can be your ticket to success.
“Definitely my best advice is if you want to be a creator, create,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re not getting paid for it right away. If the only thing you have access to create for someone is your aunt’s bake sale, do a flyer for your aunt’s bake sale. Get out there and build your portfolio regardless of whether or not people are ready to give you those opportunities and your portfolio will build itself.”