The way Soren Hamby describes their entry into UX: “Some people aspire to break the internet. I decided that I wanted to fix the internet,” they say.
As a queer nonbinary person who has been disabled since they were 13, Soren has experienced firsthand how confusing it can be to navigate some websites and apps using assistive technology. “I went through so much frustration with name changes to my first name as a trans person,” they say. “I never want anyone to feel that frustration or exclusion.” Their love of digital and experiential art and their passion for inclusive design led them to UX design.
Now, Soren leads product design, accessibility, and DEI at the paint, color, and coating company Benjamin Moore. A big part of their role is working with a team of designers making digital color technology and paint e-commerce products, “with a not-so-secret directive to contribute to a more inclusive and accessible experience for everyone,” they add. Soren, who has a degenerative eye condition and low vision, also does a lot of Accessibility Ops and sits on Benjamin Moore’s DEI Advisory board.
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Here’s how Soren discovered UX design, developed the skill set needed to break into the field, and their tips for fostering cross-functional accessibility standards at your workplace.
What got me interested in the job
“My father is a software engineer, and my mom was a graphic designer and printmaker, so we were one of the first families I knew in Alabama in the early ’90s that had a computer in the house. I grew up on PC gaming and Adobe Photoshop. My dad and I built my computer from parts, and I started doing digital art and coding simple websites in high school. Working in my 20s as a freelance designer, I designed many proposal covers and data visualizations for government contractor clients. As a visual designer, I was often asked to match a ‘vibe,’ which felt subjective and frustrating. UX education drew me in with great SEO emphasizing objectivity and de-centering the decision makers. It felt like my brain’s natural habitat.
I had a tough decision to make, as I didn’t know if I would be as good at UX design. I didn’t know I was neurodivergent the first time at university. I went back to college in 2009 determined to read a UX book or complete an extra class or project a week. The design department at our school was very small, and when a required illustration class conflicted with another class, I eagerly made a case for an independent study in UX. I was lucky to have built strong relationships with my faculty and had their support even though UX was pretty new then. I was the first student to graduate from the BFA program in Design.”
How I got in the door
“I love color and experiential art. I love immersing myself in experiences that give me a break from concentration and allow me to feel something unexpected or novel. When it comes to paint, ordinary places can be transformed through intentional color and style. The opportunity to help people bring the extraordinary into their home, to make it a place of belonging and expression is what made me take the jump to Benjamin Moore.
My ‘getting in the door’ moment was this conversation I had with my boss where we connected on the solutions Benjamin Moore was embarking on building. I think one of my selling points was that I’m committed to building a team that reflects our aspirations of diversity and inclusion, and I had the skill set to assist with the multi-step transformation. In small UX outfits, you have to take a ‘no-job-too-small’ approach, which is another way of saying: be humble enough to do any work you’d assign your team.”
What I actually do all day
“What I love about starting a new UX practice from scratch is that there are no ‘typical days.’ I can show proof of concept, work on design or accessibility operations, coach someone in accessibility best practices, evaluate a new AI API, or even be doing a UXR [user experience research] visit with a retailer. Whatever is most important, my job is to make sure we focus where we need to.
My team works in Figma, but we also use Atlassian’s Jira and Confluence a lot, as well as Stark’s products for Figma and Chrome. Personally, I use an AI calendar and spreadsheets to keep things organized. I love sketching out ideas on Procreate on my iPad; I’d like the notes version of Procreate. I’m particularly excited to be turning my attention to a new design system we are implementing. I’m also going to be looking forward to what’s next for Benjamin Moore and its digital color products. Part of UX is not just delivering the right solution, but evaluating if we’re solving the right problems!
At Benjamin Moore, we have a cross-functional sharing of decision-making when it comes to accessibility. When I started 2 years ago, I brought my past experience with accessibility so I did evaluations, made recommendations, and helped with hiring for roles not reporting to me. In the last year, I’ve spent time writing guidance for our vendors and tech partners, copywriters, developers, product owners, and QA testers. I lean on my front-end web experience to coach our designers and provide updates on noteworthy accessibility advancement.”
Here’s what you need to get started
Fortunately, there are lots of different entry points for UX design, so whether you have a background in research, web development, or visual design, you probably have some transferable skills that can help you break into the field.
A crucial skill for all UX professionals is the ability to comprehend data trends and combine them with an understanding of human behavior and bias, Soren says. “Being able to apply that knowledge to cross-functional relationships as well as observing users makes it truly remarkable,” they say. Getting out of your comfort zone and broadening your perspective so you can learn about other people’s life experiences and cultures is key to understanding your users and the problems they face. This is especially true for historically marginalized communities: “Part of the power of design is the way UX can influence and challenge existing mindsets, but not if you don’t truly understand the problem, including its history,” they say.
As far as learning design principles and UX tools goes, you should “learn however is best for you,” Soren says. “Libraries have a lot of UX books in their ebook library now!” If you like to learn by doing, we have a free interactive course Introduction to UI and UX Design, which will teach you how to build wireframes using Figma, one of the industry-standard tools Soren (and lots of other UX pros) uses. Or if you’re more interested in the research aspect of UX, check out our free course Learn User Research: Generative.
Folks who want to incorporate accessibility practices in their own organizations can start by making accessibility a collective responsibility from the beginning of the product development process. (Check out this blog for an overview of what accessibility is and why it’s important.) And be patient when it comes to tracking and results of this new way of working. “I just remind myself that accessibility is a journey, a ritual, and a practice,” Soren says. “It isn’t supposed to have an endpoint.”