Meet Michael: From Archaeology to Junior Product Designer at BridgeU

Learn how Michael Donlea made a career switch into UX design with no prior experience in the field.

Team Designlab
Team Designlab
Feb 9, 2022
Min Read

After studying archaeology at university, Michael Donlea spent three years teaching English in China and Spain before moving back to the United Kingdom to work in the travel industry. For over four years, he connected clients with tailor-made trips to Latin America. 

All was slated to go on as planned … until COVID came onto the scene and began to wreak havoc on the travel industry. Realizing that furlough beckoned, Michael spent the next half a year learning new skills. 

“I kept myself busy from a professional viewpoint; I enrolled in an online course in copywriting and I even dabbled in coding (which I learnt quite quickly was not for me).”

But when an unsurprising redundancy arrived, Michael found himself considering his future. 

Michael Donlea in the travel industry

A Sponsored Instagram Ad Introduces Michael to UX Design

“I spent a few months half-heartedly applying for a variety of jobs I had found on LinkedIn. I also briefly considered a career change into PR, as well as looking at the few travel roles advertised. But nothing felt like the right opportunity to me,” Michael shared. 

“Then I came across a sponsored ad on Instagram that was talking about something called UX Design. In this 30-second ad, they illustrated how UX was this fascinating field within tech that required creative thought, and was full of career changers. Up until then, I was only really aware of coding and had tried that already, so I thought that tech = coding and if I can’t code, I won’t be able to work in tech.”

UX design sounded too good to be true, but Michael was fascinated by the ad. He submitted his email, and over the coming weeks not only read the marketing emails, but also signed up for a free 7-day course in UI design. 

chat ux ui design screen by Michael Donlea

Michael read blogs on UX design, watched YouTube videos, and had conversations with recruiters on LinkedIn to ascertain the level of demand for UX Designers within the UK market. 

“I even leveraged my network, and my brother kindly put me in touch with a former colleague of his who worked in UX. Having done all this research, I came to the conclusion that a career in UX Design was not only achievable (I’d read about career changers from graphic designers and architects to sales professionals and ballet dancers!), but that it would offer me more stability than travel, more opportunities for growth, was a more dynamic and fast-paced industry, and offered better pay.”

At this point, Michael’s heart was set on UX and he began looking for UX bootcamps

A Demand for UX/UI Hybrid Jobs Leads Michael to UX Academy

UK-based recruiters had told Michael that their clients were looking for UX/UI hybrid designers. Since he is based in London, he realized “right then, if I want to land a job, an equal balance of UX vs UI is what I have to focus on.” 

“Designlab stood out to me because their course offering looked to me to be the perfect blend of this. 1 point Designlab,” Michael said.

“I was also impressed by the quality and diversity of portfolios that Designlab’s alumni seemed to produce. They looked to me to be less cookie cutter than other bootcamps, and the case studies I read were engaging, thoughtful, and diverse.”

Building a Strong Foundation in UI Design

“I liked the fact that as a newbie to design, I had to enroll in the 4-8 week UX Academy Foundations course. It offered a nice intro into the world of UI Design, and gave me the basic skills I needed to put together effective visuals to go into my case studies later on in the course,” Michael said.

“As for UX Academy, I really enjoyed it. Honestly, it never felt like work to me and I was very happy making my way through the curriculum. The syllabus was varied and the Slack community was really collaborative, with lots of ideas and resources shared which I found to be a great help. There aren’t a great deal of us that are based in the UK, but that made it all the more fun when we had a meet-up in London this past summer!”

A “Practice” UX Design Interview Leads to a Real Job

Michael used LinkedIn to monitor the latest product design jobs in London, and soon came across a vacancy at a company called BridgeU. 

“They intrigued me from the outset, as they were a young company operating in the EdTech sector who had been acquired in 2020, so seemed to have that start-up environment but with some financial security now through the acquisition,” Michael said.

However, the job posting specified a mid/senior with 2+ years of experience.

“These ‘2+ years’ requirements never phased me,” Michael said, “so I spent some time considering how to articulate my soft skills from my time in EFL and travel in my cover letter, and sent in my application.”

Michael went into the interview thinking, “They’re looking for someone with 2+ year experience, so the chances of me landing this job are slim. So let’s look at it as a chance to gain some product design interview experience.”

“To my surprise, they invited me back for a 2nd interview where I presented a slide deck I had made from my case study on Nifty Gifty. After a number of questions from the 2 senior designers which I answered comfortably, I was invited back for a final 3rd-round interview.”

Nifty Gifty UX case study from Michael Donlea Portfolio
Case Study on Nifty Gifty

Whiteboarding Challenge

The final interview consisted of a whiteboard challenge. 

“I had never done one of these before, but knew they were commonplace in the design industry, so I spent a couple of days reading Artiom Dashinsky’s Solving Product Design Exercises. I cannot stress how helpful this was,” Michael said.

Despite having not practised a whiteboarding challenge before, the book gave Michael the framework to approach his task with ease. Since he assumed that the company would end up hiring another candidate with more experience, he went into the final task with the mindset that he would be gaining valuable experience. It paid off. 

“I was completely at ease and I think that helped me to tackle the task with confidence and ease. You can understand how delighted I was then when they offered me the role!”

A Meaningful Career in UX Design Takes Off

“This job felt (and still feels like) the perfect place to learn from more experienced designers whilst working in a sector that I had a real personal interest in,” Michael said. “What’s not to like?”

One of the aspects of the job position that caught Michael’s interest early on was the fact that the design team was comprised of just four people (including himself). 

“As one member of a 4-person design team, I hoped that I would get the opportunity to have more responsibility here than I would in a larger, more corporate company,” Michael said. 

His hunch was correct. After only 3 months at the company, Michael found himself leading the designs for iterations on several areas of the company’s platform, alongside input from a senior coworker and helpful weekly design critique sessions with the rest of the design team. 

“I’ve been working extensively with both marketing and product on multiple projects, whilst being given autonomy on my side to approach these projects in a way that makes most sense to me. I’ve already been involved in several exciting workshops in FigJam and am genuinely enjoying the collaboration I’ve witnessed between multiple departments across the company. We’re all chasing a common goal and it’s inspiring to see the passion that everyone across the business has for education.”

What a UX/UI Career Looks Like

I’ve done more visual work so far than I thought I might do, I’m actually quite pleased about this as I was keen last year to improve my UI skills. I’ve also had ample opportunities to prototype, and in the coming weeks and months we’ll be doing quite a bit of user interviews and usability testing as well. I definitely feel that from this, a product design role is varied and certainly inline with what Designlab teaches,” Michael said.

Michael’s Advice to Anyone Pursuing a Career in UX/UI Design

Michael landed his job in UX/UI design just two and a half months after graduating from UX Academy, without any prior experience in the field. We asked him to share some of the insights that he’s gained with others who are pursuing the same track.

Here’s what he had to say:

Know Your Expertise

“It’s important to understand the soft skills that are in the greatest demand in UX Design,” Michael said. “Identify these, then figure out where you have experience of these in your previous career(s) or studies, and how you can specifically apply these to the UX field. When you figure this out, selling yourself in cover letters and interviews becomes far easier.”

Take Networking Opportunities Seriously

“Utilise resources like the good folks over at ADPList. I spoke with many great mentors over there and they helped me to navigate the job hunting process and provide valued feedback on my portfolio outside of a bootcamp setting.”

Every Interview Presents an Opportunity for Growth

“You’ll get knock backs on the job hunt and you may flunk the odd interview. When it happens, don’t take it personally or beat yourself up. With every interview you attend, you’ll have the opportunity to refine your story and polish that portfolio review. Whether or not you come out with an offer, you’ll have learnt something from the application and interview process and will be a stronger designer for it.”

Michael’s Life Outside of Work

Outside of work, I love to cook and bake. Mostly curries, stir fries, soups and stews, as well as bread, cookies etc. It provides a welcome release from the screen and I find it really satisfying to make something from scratch that ends up tasting good.

I also enjoy working up a sweat at spin classes in my local gym, and unwinding with a good book. History, travel writing, biographies and investigative journalism are my main loves at the moment!

See Michael’s work on his portfolio and connect with him on LinkedIn

If you’re inspired by Michael’s story and are ready to make your own career switch into UI/UX design, take a look at our UX Academy program.

Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.

Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.