Mycal Elliott, Author at General Assembly Blog

5 Tips for Starting a Career in UX Design

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Are you curious about how to get into UX design? With so many jargon-filled UX designer job descriptions, chatter about software tools, and contrasting perspectives on the future of UX, it can be challenging knowing where to start your career path in UX design

It may be helpful to understand that UX design is a vast field with many opportunities and ultimately benefits from your contributions. In the following article, we’ll help you navigate some of these uncertainties so that you can find your voice amid an ocean of options.

Identify Your Passion

Due to the scale and complexity of what it takes to create successful products and services, becoming a successful UX designer requires perspectives from all walks of life. From research to development to management, UX design is a multifaceted field. 

Because of this, it’s important to start with you and your passions versus responding to what’s outlined in a job description. It’s critical to self-reflect and ask yourself: What inspires me most? What are my strengths? Where would I like to grow?

Another reason you want to start with your passion is that achieving your goal is going to require sustained energy. For example, not everything you try is going to work as you expect. Nor are you going to get everything “right” the first time. This means you need to stay the course as you learn and that drive comes from within you, not from the outside. 

For example, I started in Industrial Design because I had experience making furniture and was passionate about design. I followed popular designers for the time such as Philipe Stark, Philip Johnson, and Jasper Morrison. I saw them as my mentors and did everything I could to emulate some of their thinking.

However, over time, I came to the realization that while I loved their work, they were able to work in a way that was impossible for me. And as I wrestled with this realization, I came to a deeper understanding about myself. What excited me most as a designer was thinking about how people interacted with the product or service. I wanted to understand what was driving people’s behaviors and expectations more than the object itself. The thought of influencing what’s in the world based on people’s feedback became my new interest and has been for the past 15 years. 

OK, so I’ve identified my passion but how do I know where it might fit with user experience design? We can learn a lot by breaking down some of the roles within a typical UX design engagement: 

  • User Research
    • Spends time understanding a product or service user, their needs, and expectations.
    • Creates a foundation of understanding for other teams (e.g. Interaction Design, Front-End Development) to build upon.
  • Interaction Design 
    • Spends time detailing the functionality of a product or service for every user scenario.
    • Creates site maps, user flows, wireframes, prototypes, and navigation paradigms to illustrate a potential solution.
  • UI Design and Visual Design 
    • Spends time organizing and creating visual elements for interfaces, considering the visual details of a UI design such as color, imagery, typography, brand guidelines, and visual hierarchy, similar to graphic design. 
    • Creates illustrations and UI design mockups to illustrate potential solutions.
  • Development 
    • Spends time understanding what it will take, front-end and back-end, to have a product or service built to function the way it’s intended.
    • Creates proof-of-concepts and functioning prototypes making ideas tangible.
  • Product Management 
    • Spends time understanding a specific product, its market, and ways to improve it.
    • Creates product portfolios, roadmaps, return on investment estimates, and continuous improvement plans.
  • Project Management 
    • Spends time aligning teams based on established goals, tracks time and budget.
    • Creates status reports for stakeholders, project timelines, and project wikis.

Stand on Shoulders 

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

– Sir Isaac Newton 

The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” originated from Sir Isaac Newton when asked how he had been so prolific in discovering a wealth of governing laws defining how physical objects interact. The same mentality applies to UX designers as well. You’ll want to soak up as much as you can about how others before you have dealt with and defined their challenges. 

In my case, this meant putting away the glossy design magazines and engrossing myself in the social sciences: sociology, psychology, behavioral economics, etc. Doing so has allowed me to build on the brilliance of many before me in an effort to stay relevant. 

“Stand on shoulders” means coming to the realization there have been many great minds that have impacted the way things are today and by understanding their contributions, you can be effective in how you spend your time building off of their work instead of repeating the same mistakes. 

Keep in mind, this does not relegate you to spending hours in a library. There’s a lot that can be learned from a mentor, for example — a UX designer who’s been working in UX design for some time and is willing to offer their insights based on your needs. This too will help you hit the ground running. 

Get to Know Your Toolbox

Now that you’ve identified your passion and a UX designer to be your mentor, it’s a good idea to begin experimenting with some of the tools you may have been hearing about. Remember, your goal is to become acquainted and perhaps proficient, but not a master. That will come later as you learn further, gain experience, and the tools of your discipline mature. 

When we say tools, that doesn’t necessarily mean software only. There will be many aspects of your practice you’ll need to learn in order to be an effective UX designer. For me, that meant learning different interviewing techniques, fundamentals of body language, practicing active listening, studying storytelling, and presenting to others — all of which have proven to be timeless and fundamental in my career. A short UX design course can provide a good introduction to essential tools, methods, and strategies.

Experiment and Reflect

“Everything is an experiment.” 

– Tibor Kalman

When it comes to creating impactful products and services, it’s critical to keep in mind that we learn by trying things out and reflecting on what happened. In fact, the process of experimentation and reflection is a core tenet of UX design. 

Remember: Words and actions are not the same. You need to put in the work. 

As a UX designer, the more you can demonstrate your thinking by creating concepts and putting them in front of others, the more you will capture the interest of a potential employer. Consider taking a UX design course that helps you create projects for a professional UX portfolio. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Seeing the evidence of your thought process not only helps them see your strengths, but also your potential. 

So, be bold! Try things out. Experiment.

Rinse and Repeat

As the saying goes, the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t. The same is true here. UX design is a vast field with many roads. The more you keep at it, the better you’ll get, and becoming an expert UX designer will take time. 

Stay curious, experiment, and have fun!

Remember: 

  • UX design is a vast and multi-faceted field, not to mention ever-changing.
  • Don’t let current titles, tools, and job descriptions intimidate you from taking the first step.
  • Careers require an internal commitment in order to hone your experience and perspective.
  • Embrace the soft skills of your practice because tools are not limited to screens. 
  • Demonstrating your thought process increases your chances of landing your first UX job, and a project-based UX design course can help.
  • Since it is impossible to know what’s going to happen, it’s important to take the first step.
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5 Essential Steps in the UX Design Process

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While experience design is not an exact science with predictable outcomes, there are steps you can follow that help push you in the direction of making great products and services. 

To help illustrate, I’d like to tell you a story about Doug Dietz, an Industrial Designer for General Electric. Doug was faced with the harsh reality that a product he was responsible for designing was evoking anxiety and dread in the people who interacted with it. The product? An MRI scanner. The user? A family with young children.

Doug had just finished a two-year project designing an MRI scanner and was eager to see it installed in a hospital’s scanning suite. He was proud of his accomplishment and was informed his design had been submitted for an International Design Excellence Award, the Oscar for design. 

As Doug was speaking with a technician about the design, a patient needed to get scanned so he stepped into the hallway for a moment. And as he did, he observed the patient and her family approach the room and noted their trepidation as they got closer. The parents looked worried and the little girl was scared. As the family passed him, he could hear the father tell his daughter, “We’ve talked about this. You can be brave…” 

As Doug continued to watch, he saw tears rolling down the little girl’s cheek while the hospital technician called for an anesthesiologist. This is when Doug learned that hospitals routinely sedate pediatric patients for their scans because they are so scared that they can’t lie still long enough. 

Doug was devastated. The very product he had been designing for close to 20 years was the very product that was striking fear in the hearts of its users. Once he took a step back and considered what that little girl was going through, it became clear his device with its black and yellow caution tape, hazard stickers, beige monotone color palette, dark lighting and cold flickering fluorescents was not helping. As Doug stated in his TED talk, “The machine I designed looked like a brick with a hole in it.”

Determined to make his experience design better for pediatric patients, Doug sought advice on a new approach and attended a Design Thinking workshop where they discussed the need to have empathy for users, the value of cross functional teams, and the importance of iterating as you learn. 

Doug observed pediatric patients at daycare. He talked to life specialists to understand what pediatric patients went through during treatment. He gathered a group of volunteers from GE who were willing to help provide other perspectives including experts from a local museum, and doctors and staff from two hospitals. From this new foundation of understanding, he created a prototype. He then observed how interactions with the machine had changed, which allowed him to see which parts of his design were working or not. 

Ultimately, this approach led to the “Adventure Series” where pediatric patients were transported into new worlds. Whether the theme was camping, a pirate ship, a safari, or a spaceship, the team worked hard on bringing these spaces to life through details like scents, disco balls, koi ponds, paddle trails, waterfalls that cascade onto the floor, and even scripts for machine operators to use as they guide patients along their adventures.

The outcome? 

  • Only two patients were sedated in over a year vs. 80% of all pediatric patients previously.
  • Productivity increased because of a decreased need for an anesthesiologist.
  • The hospital saw a 90% increase in patient satisfaction scores.
  • Overall, it offered a much better experience for pediatric patients. 

As one 6 year old put it, “Mommy, can we come back tomorrow?”

UX Design Process

We can learn a lot from Doug’s example. In their product design journey that shifted their users’ experience from fear to excitement, Doug and his team showed us that making good products and services takes:

  1. Empathy: Keep the needs of your users in mind. 
  2. (Re)frame: Figure out what’s essential to them. 
  3. Ideate: Find new ways to solve for what’s essential. 
  4. Test: Try things out to see what works. 
  5. Iterate: Stay flexible in your thinking as you learn. 

Let’s unpack each step a bit further.

1. Empathy: Keep the needs of your users in mind.  

Once Doug saw his design from the perspective of a pediatric patient, he immediately realized something needed to change. He knew he needed to walk in the shoes of his user and challenge some of the assumptions he’d made before when designing these devices.

Things to consider:

  • Who are we designing for? 
  • What do they need?
  • What is their experience?
  • What’s working or not? 

Methods to use: 

  • Contextual inquiries
  • Fly-on-the-wall observations
  • Audit of tools or belongings
  • Day-in-the-life studies
  • Remote moderated interviews
  • Diary studies
  • Subject matter expert consultations
  • Stakeholder interviews

2. (Re)frame: Figure out what’s essential to them. 

As a UX designer, the power in reframing what matters to your user comes from your ability to prioritize their needs above others. This matters because it helps you and your teams not only identify what’s important but focus your energy toward solving the problem that will have the greatest impact. In Doug’s case, he was able to see that while his designs fit standard hospital protocols, these same protocols fell short of what was needed to help encourage positive interactions with the device. 

Things to consider: 

  • What are our blindspots? 
  • What is causing the most pain? 
  • What’s the most important thing to get right?
  • What are the potential benefits? 

Methods to use:

  • Affinity diagramming
  • Data clustering
  • Criteria matrix
  • Dot voting
  • Opportunity mapping
  • Experience frameworks
  • Journey maps
  • Heuristic evaluation
  • Competitive audit

3. Ideate: Find new ways to solve for what’s essential. 

Now that you and your team have conducted upfront research to define your users, align on their needs, and discuss the core problem to solve, now it’s time to explore! Iteration is all about exploring the “what ifs” of your experience design concepts. The more perspectives you include in this step the better, since it’s your goal as a UX designer to invite nontraditional solutions that will serve your users’ needs and even excite them. 

Things to consider: 

  • What about the current experience needs to be improved? 
  • What can we learn from others who have solved a similar issue? 
  • What if we did ______ instead?

Methods to use:

  • Future scenarios
  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Workshops
  • Provocation cards
  • Participatory design groups
  • Mock ups (physical and digital)
  • Storyboarding
  • Wireframes
  • Storytelling
  • Mood boards

4. Test: Try things out to see what works

Usability testing matters because even the most experienced UX designer never knows how others will interpret their ideas or wireframes. In order to make sure our intentions are being communicated successfully, we need to build things and put them in front of our intended users. It’s our job to observe how they interact with our ideas. Listen to their comments and feedback. Remain flexible when things don’t go according to our plan. And ultimately, make informed decisions about how we can make our ideas more effective to our (re)frame.

Things to consider:  

  • What is the best way to represent our idea to our user? 
  • What is a situation that will help anchor them when interacting with our concept or wireframes? 
  • What should we ask them to do?
  • What did they find confusing about the interaction, user interface, visual design elements, or anything else? 
  • How will we know if we’ve been successful?

Methods to use:

  • Usability testing
  • Surveys
  • Rank ordering
  • Conjoint analysis
  • Focus groups
  • Concept validation

5. Iterate: Stay flexible in your thinking as you learn.

Staying flexible and adapting to what you learn is the secret sauce to success because we never know what will work or not until we try it out. In Doug’s case, this meant going back to the drawing board when something he and his team created did not resonate with their user. One strategy for staying flexible is to hold meetings with your cross-functional team at moments when critical decisions are made. Whether it’s processing potential impact to your design based on feedback from a user, or deciding you need to better (re)frame your objective, flexibility is key to success. 

Conclusion

Keep in mind, the steps Doug and his team performed are not new to the UX industry. By attending a Design Thinking workshop, he was introduced to the ideas of many great thinkers before him, all of which have proven the value in empathizing with your user, (re)framing the problem based on their needs, ideating on many ideas before deciding on a direction, usability testing with users, incorporating insights from their feedback, and iterating based on what you learn. 

The more you do it, the better you will get. As Carissa Carter from the Stanford School points out, there’s a difference between cooking and being a chef: “The order and process of a recipe helps new cooks get started, but it’s only with practice, inventiveness, experimentation, and constraints that you might begin to call yourself a chef.”

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