From Mental Health Nurse to UX Design

From Mental Health Nurse to UX Design

Susana Nunes · November 21, 2023

My name is Susana, and I was a nurse for 10 years with a master’s degree and specialization in Mental Health and Psychiatric Nursing. Now, I have been a UX Designer for 1 year at!

One day, I decided I needed a more balanced lifestyle for me and my family and, in October of 2021, I enrolled in the program that would allow me to have my new career as a UX Designer.

Many people are curious about my career path and interested in how it has been working out. They asked me how difficult my career change was and how I changed from a health profession to an IT/design one.

This is my story as a career-changer towards a very different (or not) area. If you are interested in knowing more about my journey, just continue reading.

Understanding My Needs

You may be asking yourself what makes someone decide to leave a career after 10 years and take a leap of faith. There can be a lot of reasons to do it. Although I deeply liked my job and how I was able to help so many people, being a nurse was a huge burden to me and my family, and it got worse with the pandemic. It was hard not to think about work when I was at home and to enjoy my family time, as there was always some part of me thinking and being concerned about someone at the hospital.

The fact that in Portugal we are not valued for our knowledge and expertise, making it very difficult to be promoted, also contributed to becoming increasingly demotivated with my job.

I needed time for myself and to be present for my family. This need became especially loud when I got long-COVID and had a lot of free time to think about my life, my past decisions, and how I wanted to continue in the future: absent from my family or more present and in tune with myself? Despite needing some kind of change, a lot of negative feelings arose and were present during the whole journey. A career change is never easy, and it is a path full of (self)doubt.

There was a person, now a colleague, who helped silence my self-doubt and self-sabotage when I decided I didn’t want 30 more years as a nurse. She recommended reading about the Ikigai model (I recommend it also). This model helped me to focus on what I needed to feel happy and fulfilled with my work and what I was good at (or the skills that I possessed).

Bringing some context about the Nursing profession, it is very demanding and starts on the first day of college. In Portugal, I feel nursing students are very well prepared during our 4 years of study to deal with any kind of situation in diverse health fields. We are trained to respond swiftly and efficiently to our patient’s needs in any context (hospital, within the community, nursing homes, clinics, …). We are also trained to be self-organized (we must be very efficient with our time) and very arduous workers, always looking for innovation and the latest state-of-the-art practices. Our studies don’t finish with college: we are always researching, implementing, evaluating, and researching again and again for the best solution. We are also trained to be fast problem-solvers.

When I was studying for my master’s degree, I learned a theoretical model that resonated a lot with me in the way I faced life, challenges in general, and as a nurse: The Tidal Model from Barker & Barker. This model compares our lives to the tides. We have moments of calmness and moments of tumult where we risk straying from our paths or drowning in the sea. What will we do in a situation where our ship breaks? This mindset allowed me not only to help many people as a nurse but also to deal with my long-COVID recovery and my career change, as there were still two questions I needed to answer: what can I give the world and be paid for?

I Need to Change but to WHAT?

When we struggle to go forward, is when we take more time to think about our actions and our purpose. Every human being needs to have a clear path/journey to their own goals, be it to finish college, to have a job, or to buy something on the internet.

My job as a Mental Health Nurse was to help people understand their tools and strengths (or even to discover new ones) to “rebuild their ship” and continue their journey. Then, when I was struggling with my way forward, I just applied it to myself, figuring out what tools I mastered, what I could do with my skills, and what would make me feel fulfilled. I wanted something that would allow me to use my previous knowledge.

One of the things I did was research the missing answers within my social network. I gathered all the information I could find to decide my next steps. I learned about Scrum Master roles and the Agile Manifesto, but to “just” have a certification on my curriculum didn’t seem to be the right approach to get a first opportunity (again the self-doubt “Why would someone give me a chance if I don’t have any experience in this field?”). I even thought about learning to code or going to college again. However, I had bills to pay, and a family to take care of so there was some time pressure as well!

It was on a social occasion with some friends that I learned about UX/UI Design. I was so curious about that role, that I started looking into it and that’s when I discovered the UX Design program.

Into the UX Design World

Just as I mentioned before, Nursing professionals are very methodical. We need to identify a problem (or a potential problem), plan actions, execute the plan, and evaluate... And I was in a moment where I just couldn't take the wrong turn! I found a program that allowed me to balance my health condition with my studies, as it was self-paced. It offered a small free course that allowed me to taste UX design and see if I saw myself doing it. This was definitely a game-changer for me. I loved that experience!

In October 2021, I started the UX program and after the first enchantment of starting something new faded away, the doubts and the uncomfortable feeling of letting go of my previous knowledge and skills appeared again, threatening my determination to change. Furthermore, it was strange for me that I didn’t feel the program was too difficult or demanding, and I was receiving good feedback from my tutors and mentors: it didn’t make any sense to me as “how could I be doing good without any previous knowledge about this?” (yes... imposter syndrome made its entrance!)

The solution I found was to identify/create bridges between the two areas, which also helped me at the end of the program to look for my first job and sometimes to explain my design solutions!

Building Bridges

To feel more comfortable in my decision, I needed to find common ground between the two careers: to feel that I was making use of my previous skills and to understand how my previous career was helping with my new one.

I was able to create three bridges.

Bridge 1: The Same Focus

As a UX designer, my job changed from helping patients prevent disease and recover quickly and efficiently their health and quality of life, to helping users achieve their goals and to have the most intuitive journey without “thinking too much” about the steps.

So, despite my career change, my focus was still on the person (or the user), and therefore I was still in a “human-centered” profession.

Bridge 2: The Same Thinking Process

To illustrate our way of thinking in nursing and to help the comparison with UX, I just used a Design Thinking illustration and changed the text to the wording used in nursing. The changes are minimal and related to the naming of each step, but they are in their essence the same.

Figure 1 - Nursing Process vs Design Thinking
(Retrieved and adapted from

One of the core skills that I developed in all my years as a nursing student and professional was empathy.

Some time ago I read “Empathy as the heart of design”, but I would say that empathy is the HEART of great human connections, and therefore essential to both UX Designers and Nursing professionals, as it allows us to connect with other people and unlocks the deeper understanding of their needs and goals.

My studies and experience as a mental health nurse helped me develop my empathy and communication skills, allowing me to succeed through many communication challenges. Not all people were that keen to speak up about their problems and sometimes the job was to help them understand the core problem.

Looking at both, after empathizing and connecting with people/users, we can clearly identify the problem they are struggling with and ideate/plan potential solutions, which we are going to implement, test and evaluate.

Bridge 3: The Same Working Ways

As a nurse, I worked inside a multidisciplinary team with more nurses. Between nurses, we were always aware of each other’s work, as every shift started and finished with a meeting (like a Daily in Agile working methods) where we received/handed over the information about the patients we were going to care/cared for (as a UX I also need to handover my designs to developers). In these daily meetings, we also got updates about the results of our solutions and sometimes we discussed them to understand why they were implemented, why they did or didn’t work and what we should do after (kind of a mix of planning, with ideation and ideas presentation). We always knew everything that was going on with every single patient in the psychiatric ward, for example, and needed to be always coordinated so we wouldn’t repeat the treatments.

After one year...

Understanding these connections makes me feel more confident about myself as a designer, and I must highlight how the identification of my transferable skills was fundamental to helping me jump into UX Design.

But are these enough?

Of course not, I am talking about a new area that I didn’t have any clue about in the beginning. However, just as I mentioned before, one of the requirements to be a good nurse is to be curious and to look for information and ways to improve/develop oneself. This curiosity and eagerness to learn helped me a lot to fill the gaps related to design.

So, this is what I keep doing daily:

  • Keep studying and researching for new ways of solving problems, look for the best solution;
  • Reflect on my performance every day and try to do better in the next one;
  • Listen very closely to the feedback from others to evaluate my solutions and discuss them, so I can develop my critical thinking;
  • Be curious, reach out, and ask questions to other colleagues/peers;
  • Observe my colleagues/peers whenever possible to learn how they do their jobs and understand how they think and solve problems.

I am proud of what I achieved, and I am happy with the decisions I made, I feel fulfilled, I got the time I wanted for me and my family and I feel very grounded (as a nurse I felt that I was all over the place, trying to reach everything at the same time).

One year has passed and it is just the beginning of my new journey.

Susana Nunes

Susana Nunes

Experience Designer @ Lisbon