Melanie’s Spice Site: My Path to UX Design

From a WebTV hobby to the 2020 Pandemic Apocalypse, my personal journey on pursuing a career in design.

It all started in middle school designing a site to my favorite pop group: the Spice Girls

In February of 2020 I sat with my friends in the San Francisco’s Dolores Park. I felt a stressful gnawing: that I’m not in the right place in my life. So many factors brought me here but I began asking around:

Some time after, I experienced a gnawing feeling turned into a migraine. Then an all out sickness. 🤒 An I’m-in-bed-for-three-days-in-a-way-I’m-not-so-cool-with type of sickness. Here I thought, wow I’m done. I can’t do stress like this any longer! In that moment I decided that it was time to finally do something about that gnawing feeling. I told my husband: “I’m done with teaching, I’m changing my life!” He looked at me like…”Wow that’s some fever. No really Mel, are you ok?” 🤷🏿‍♂️

But I wasn’t okay. I had Covid-19!!! I would have it for another full month. I also had twelve years of people work. There is no denying: teachers and social workers don’t get a fair shake at things and it’s in the nature of the work.

Because it isn’t valued, teaching in the US can be a demanding profession. This video shows how the US compares to other places in the world.

Looking back in time, I had a lot of passion for design. Early on, I would sit for hours fiddling on the early 90s versions of computers with the green and black screens. I had fun inputing what I could and sitting around watching older kids crack the codes. Numbers pouring down the screen like waterfalls.

I KNEW I was a designer when I was eleven. It was 1996 and they came out with WebTv. Since my parents couldn’t shell out for a desktop computer, this was the next best thing. I would surf the web and discover all there was to the World Wide Web. So much media that I couldn’t have found otherwise. I picked up the hobby of compiling all my favorite webpages into WebTv’s folders.

Things ramped up when we got a keyboard for Christmas, instead of toggling arrows on a TV remote, I could type! ⌨️ Super big deal. I ended up finding Express Page one of the first made for the public web builders. I would obsess over details, I would scour the web for content. What was my site about?

I don’t know what I liked more; the Spice Girls as artists with their fashion and attitude or obsessing over details and picking up on what my guests wanted to know. I had intensely researched my subject and worked my best to present to them. I had facts, quotes, pictures, rainbow animated borders, a subtle sparkling star background, spinning bullet points, Spice Girl midi music (keyboard synthesizer tunes) would play in background. Each page was slightly different but within the theme. It was my world. Every time a new widget was found or a better version of a guestbook was discovered it was a priority to get it to my site. I had a page counter of thousands, an accomplishment. My guestbook quickly filled, I got my site listed on huge sites. I even had haters: “YOUR NAME ISN’T MELANIE, YOU ARE FAKING IT!” I laughed. 😂

“If You Wannabe My Lover” by the Spice Girls: Mel C, Mel Z, Emma, Victoria, Geri on the steps of St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London

It kinda is my name though. 🤨 But this was the internet. Not much has changed. We just made variations of the same avenues. Creating favorite content, strangers saying all sorts of silly things, building versions of entertainment that keeps us glued. In that time I had mastery of HTML (probably sloppy as all heck), beginnings of Java and tried other platforms like Angelfire and GeoCities. WebTv had a built in playlist of midi files you could play in the background while you worked. 🎶 With hits like “Tasty Wav”, and the “Ragtime Dance” where could a kid go wrong?!

Years later I no longer had a WebTv, I had pen and paper and lots of time to myself, more than I would have liked. ✍️ Life became complicated and confusing. So here I learned to be a story teller to make my own world when things were tough. I wrote a 2-hundred-some page book at age twelve. I still have it in my closet. Most of the story was a varied mish mash of TV sitcoms, memories of playing Tomb Raider with my cousin, and precisely what I would put in my dream home. I was the problem solver now and writing stories was a way to focus my own narrative and retain joy in my childhood.

I still have my story stored away.

Time went on and I landed myself in a rural town for high school. Here I really connected with my computer science teacher. She recognized my passion for design. She is one of three teachers that I can remember advocating and challenging me with multiple opportunities. She let other teachers in on my talents and together they kept handing me more and more things to do. My extracurricular time in high school was where I applied myself to escape my inner reckonings. The opportunities were an escape.

Left: In Ms. Davis’s computer lab in high school, Right: In yearbook room with my classmate Derick who usually was my co-pilot for all things design in Yearbook class.

From here, I made it to regionals in computer fair twice, never making it to states. I can remember both designs. One was a train in my school colors, another was a Union Jack with my favorite British cars and motorcycles. (I was really into collector cars at the time.) Looking back it’s embarrassing how tacky the designs were. 🙈 We even made t-shirts of the train and my teammates and I wore it to the fair. Cheesy nerds laughing at ourselves the whole time. I made it to States for Future Business Leaders of America twice, and the yearbook team lead designer senior year. I had the honors of designing the senior section.

I was so above and beyond sure I was to be a graphic designer.
I got accepted into Penn State University Main Campus unlike most kids that went to satellite campuses first and transferred later. My first and second year were general courses but a social and life experience I craved. Then I began a handful of design and computer science courses. Here the trouble began. ⚡️

Every design oriented course was online. Not an uncommon model for some courses here and there, especially intro courses. Two months into my courses, I began to get impostor syndrome. Badly. I would see submissions and compare myself with others and just freeze. I figured my personal lack and rural education was no match for kids coming from the suburbs. So I started falling behind and doing subpar work instead of working harder or asking for help. It was unlike me.

A fun little comic of some thoughts behind Impostor Syndrome, a rather common issue for most grown adults.

Then the computer science classes came. I saw now my fears validated. While other students breezed through the lines of code again I froze but knew I needed help I couldn’t risk failing. So I ended up in my TA’s office hours. The torture began. He was unprofessional, condescending, and unhelpful. Worst of all I didn’t understand self advocacy. There were dozens of intro classes. Swapping out for a more understanding instructor would have been easy. As a younger person if you feel you don’t fit in, the classmates around you seem better at everything than you, you have no support, and the person supposed to be more mature than you is a jerk, what do you do? Then were other classmates down the line, other instructors down the line even years later. All naysaying my dream.

😱 😱 😱

I can remember the day I brought home my worries. The response was, “Tech is too risky. Teaching is more predictable. You’ll be able to pay your bills.” Thinking about that statement now is hilarious in a laugh before you cry type of way. I also couldn’t help looking back…would those things have ever been done or said to me if I was a man?

I don’t think so.

So I switched majors to art education. I was a creative with not a lot of places to be other than in debt for life. Teaching seemed a solid bet to pay the bills and be creative. A place I could chameleon into. Something I would do to pay off university and make a living. Don’t get me wrong. Some of my greatest joys have been with kids and I have been regarded as a great teacher but it really was my second choice. It certainly saw me through.

Then came the ‘apocalypse’…not really…but, Covid hit San Francisco: the city shut down, wildfire enveloped our fresh air, civil unrest dwelled. 🔥🌁💨

Corona Heights Park in an intense orange haze of wildfire smoke, San Francisco September 10th, 2020: Photo by Patrick Perkins

I looked back at that dream I had and before I understood just how much of the world was changing, I reassessed what led me to quit my dream and career path. 🙇🏻‍♀️

What was assumed?

  • Designers need to code.
  • Design is too financially risky.
  • That a young woman should listen to men that convince them they have no place in tech.
  • That you stay quiet and endure when someone is unprofessional or rude. That bad options are the only options and that if something gets hard to keep to to yourself when it gets difficult.

What was actually true?

  • Designers don’t need to code. It helps but as a requirement to get into the courses not-so-much. I find this to be a super common misconception even as I entered bootcamp.
  • In SF, teaching is financially risky, tech is far more lucrative. This assumption made by people in debt that never left their own hometown where opportunities in design never existed.
  • Patriarchy is systemic and culturally embedded in all aspects of life. In my case it was not intentional of these numerous men to convince me away from a career. However just because the intention isn’t present doesn’t mean it can’t convince someone they aren’t worthy.
  • In the meantime I learned how to stand up for myself by learning how to rollerskate.

Sounds silly. Ridiculous even. However, I got really good at it and into the city’s performance scene. With this, there is no choice but to carve out your own spot lest someone tries to run you off. No really. It’s really like that. People see us all getting along but it’s far from the truth. Learning a performance arts discipline in an alt ‘scene’ attracts attention and this involves serious boundaries and conservation of energy.

I also became well rounded and proficient at street skating. Taking up space on a street while you are doing something less than traditional demands calm assertiveness. Road rage and toxic ego are real and as a woman your athleticism and even your inherent right to take risks, especially independently is highly questioned. To survive you are required to develop control, command, and unwavering confidence in yourself.

So when it came to reassessing who I used to be in college and who I am now. It’s almost unrecognizable. Not only professionally but personally. Learning an extreme sport helped me believe in my capabilities and to keep focus on succeeding and having fun taking risks and living life to the fullest.

Learning an extreme sport helped me believe in my capabilities and to keep focus on succeeding and having fun taking risks and living life to the fullest.

Rollerblading Downtown San Francisco, CA

So I realized to get caught up with where I left off I could use a few courses and a bootcamp. Never looked back! Sure, I feel like I don’t belong sometimes. Sure, I see work better than mine. However my mindset has changed from thinking ‘I’m less than’ 😭, to ‘Eh, so what? I’m still competent!’ 🤷🏻‍♀️ I recently talked to a current UX designer about entering the field. He shared that every designer has their own unique experience and viewpoint and to never ever discount this or where you came from and the background that got you here. That your perspective has a place in the tech world that is needed.

I recently talked to a current UX designer about entering the field. He shared that every designer has their own unique experience and viewpoint and to never ever discount this or where you came from and the background that got you here. That your perspective has a place in the tech world that is needed.

So this has been my journey: I belong in tech, I belong in design. The world needs my experience, my viewpoint, and of course the next iteration of Melanie’s Spice Site. Girl Power!

Mel B aka Crazy Spice giving the peace sign which also was the Spice Girl’s symbol for their signature phrase: Girl Power, a mantra about female empowerment.

User Experience Designer. Part of a long line of Expert Rollerskaters, Artists, and Green Thumbs.