Over the course of the next year, my goal is to become a competent and perhaps even proficient UX researcher and designer able to generate and implement product design ideas that increase both sales and customer retention.

There are degrees in that these days. People go to university for six years to learn to do that. That fact makes it a bit intimidating. But I’ve reinvented myself many times in my career(s) (chef, event planner, teacher, marketer, sales, operations, balloon artist, juggler, project manager, trainer, and more to come) and I know that there’s a huge gap between academia and work.

I’ve worked with two people who were very successful self-taught professionals respected in that field. One is a leading design blogger and the other is a successful product manager. So I know it can be done.

The first step to becoming an X [insert your dream hob here] is to change your job title to X and then start doing X. Learning follows pretty naturally. Take it from an experienced employer, the biggest difference between a good employee and a bad one isn’t skill or experience, it’s the rare ability to do what you say you’re going to do. An inexperienced X who delivers beats a brilliant one who doesn’t any day of the week. So to be X, just do X, and fake it ’till you make it.

That said, the goal should be to learn and develop proficiency through experience as quickly as possible, so let me do a gap analysis here.

I’m going to start with a brief self-assessment.

Front-end development — I know a little HTML and CSS and almost no JavaScript. My skills in CSS predate HTML5 and my last serious work in front-end code was back in the days of table-based design. So I have a lot of catching up to do.

Copywriting — I have a degree in English composition and I used to be a professional journalist. So I can write. However, there’s a lot more to copywriting than being able to write. I need to learn how to choose and use an appropriate voice that makes people feel connected to a brand. I also need to learn how to experiment with copy and learn from my mistakes.

Graphic design — I’ve done a bit of design work with Photoshop and Illustrator many years ago, but this is an aspect of the job I’d prefer to leave to experts. My product already has a good look and feel and the design elements are all in place. It’s easy enough to hire people if I need to for specific jobs, so I won’t be devoting a lot of time to working on my skills in this area.

Sketching — I’m terrible. I get nervous drawing a tree, and the best thing about trees is that as long as there are leaves on top, it looks like a tree. If I’m going to sketch user experiences as part of my toolkit for communicating ideas to users as part of any collaborative design effort, I’ll need to either improve my sketching skills or get more comfortable with working at my current skill level.

Interviewing — My experience as a journalist helps only in so far as I am not scared of talking to people. But the actual techniques used in a journalistic interview are all wrong for user research. The journalist isn’t looking for facts or understanding, but for juicy quotes that sell papers. My more limited experience with ethnographic interviewing will be much more useful. In an ethnographic interview, there are three goals: test hypotheses, discover, and bond. Usually an ethnographer is doing all three in what is called a semi-structured interview. Semi-structured in that it has certain research goals and the interviewer will have certain things they want to learn, but it’s also somewhat exploratory in nature and a bit of off-topic wandering can be very revealing and lead to new research goals. So I can do that, but I’ll need some guidance regarding how to do it in a product development context.

Finally, there are some toolkits or schools of thought that I think will be helpful to learn, including design thinking, customer development, leanUX, and lean startup. I’ve read books in most of these areas recently (I’ll list them below) but there’s a huge divide between reading about a technique and applying it. That’s a divide I’ll be crossing in the coming months, and I hope you’ll join me.