You can be pardoned for feeling confused about all the terminology and job titles floating around in the design world. What is the difference between graphic design, visual design, and user experience design? Do each of the three roles provide a different service? For visual and graphic designers, the difference may lie mainly in the job title and salary expectations. However, a user experience designer has very different end goals and responsibilities from a visual or graphic designer. Below is a breakdown of what each of these designers does within the design industry, to help you decide what type of design is right for you.Continue reading →
“UX” has become a buzzword that UX designers are often asked to define. The discipline of user experience is broad and reaches across many other design disciplines so its meaning can seem elusive. And for UX designers, it can be hard to explain in a few words.
UX Design Focuses on the User
User experience design focuses on designing for how a user interacts with an organization, whether through its services, products, website, or more. This kind of design centers on the user — their needs, goals, frustrations, and motivations.
Who is the user? A person! What type of person? That depends.
Great UX design seeks to understand the person who will be using the product, website, or service. This is really important for a specific reason: Rather than expecting a person to adapt to the specifications laid out in a website, app, or service, a UX designer considers the needs of the person they are designing for, and creates an intuitive interface that adapts to the user.
UX design is human-centered. This type of design is a mindset. It keeps the user at the center of what we do so that the user’s experience can be the best possible.
What’s great about this approach is that users who have a positive experience when interacting with a company or organization are more likely to reward that organization through additional visits, sales, or referrals. A positive user experience can be an economic driver, benefiting everyone.
UX Design’s Origins
We can see some principles of UX design that reach as far back as 4000 BC. Feng Shui is the Chinese philosophy of arranging a physical space to optimize the flow of energy. Much like a UX designer might design an app interface to be intuitive and easy to use, feng shui experts arrange the physical space of a room in the same manner.
We can see other principles of UX design throughout history. When computers entered the scene, human-computer interaction and usability became important disciplines to help people have better experiences.
It wasn’t until the 1990s when Don Norman, a cognitive scientist working at Apple, named this field “UX design.” Norman, who authored The Design of Everyday Things, felt that earlier disciplines of usability and human-computer interaction were too narrow. He wanted a term to describe a role that would encompass a broader range of skills to design human interactions.
Multiple studies from organizations such as McKinsey & Company, the UK Design Council, and others, have found that companies that prioritize design see a financial benefit. This is partly why so many people have taken an interest in UX.
Since user experience design is broad and encompasses several different disciplines, it’s understandable why so many people have questions about what UX design includes and how it relates to graphic design, visual design, product design, user interface design, or marketing.
Common UX Design Myths
Unfortunately, misunderstandings about user experience design have led to assumptions and confusion. You’re likely to run into an employer who believes they understand UX design, but in reality, they only know about one part in reality. Or, you might have a client that says, “I just need some UX.”
It’s the UX designer’s job to figure out how to educate and inform those around us so we can eliminate these misconceptions.
Myth #1: UX is the same as UI design.
This is the most common misconception I run into. Organizations still think of UX as being focused on the user interface design of a website. They don’t always understand that the UI can improve with solid user research, information architecture, and user testing.
User interface design is a small piece of the overall UX puzzle. Before a UX professional even begins to design the interface, they should have solid research and an understanding of what problem they are trying to solve. Designing a user interface before researching user needs can lead to assumptions that confuse or frustrate your users.
Myth #2: UX is just for digital products.
User experience has been embraced in the digital world, but it’s not just for websites and apps. The foundations of user experience design can be applied across a broad range of industries and be useful for a web designer in developing services and physical products.
Myth #3: UX is just usability.
Usability is an essential component of UX design; it uncovers flaws and defects in the product or service. However, it’s just one part of UX design’s seven major sub-disciplines:
User Research A UX designer spends time empathizing with users through interviews and observational research.
Content Strategy Quality content is a core component of a successful design. Designers must audit and create clear content that people find useful and helpful.
Information Architecture Content must be organized so that it’s understandable, findable, and meaningful. Information architecture helps users understand their location within a design and what to expect. It informs many parts of the UX design, including the content, interface, and interactions.
Accessibility By designing for accessibility, a UX designer ensures that all users can access and interact with a service or system regardless of their personal abilities. Accessibility is more than just checking for color contrast. It’s about designing to accommodate a wide range of people.
Usability Nielsen Norman Group defines usability as “a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use.” It also refers to using testing to improve the user’s experience as they interact with your product or service.
Visual Design Users are more likely to have a positive experience with a design that they enjoy using; designs that are aesthetically pleasing and consistent. UX designers often also need to ensure that the interfaces they design are beautiful and visually clear.
Interaction Design UX designers who work on a product or system must also consider how that system behaves. Interaction design considers how the system behaves when the user interacts with it to understand what to do.
As you can see, good UX design covers more than usability alone. Depending on the specific role or organization, UX designers may need to have other skills as well.
UX Design Process
A UX designer often manages all of these sub-disciplines as part of the total UX design process. This process is not linear. In fact, it can feel quite messy. It typically looks very similar to a design thinking approach and has five key phases:
In this phase, a UX strategist seeks to understand the people they are designing for. By developing empathy with the user base, the design team can learn about frustrations and motivations that will help them create better solutions later on.
UX designers use these tools as part of the empathy phase:
During the definition phase, the design team figures out the problem they are trying to solve. Armed with a solid understanding of the user, the design team creates insights from that data to address their core needs. The design team should try to spend as much time as possible in this phase, because it’s a key step before ideation begins.
UX designers use these tools as part of the definition phase:
Customer Journey Maps
Once the problem has been identified, the UX design team can start developing ideas to solve that problem. Ideation is all about generating lots of ideas. It’s important to start by thinking of all the ideas you can before narrowing them down to those that are feasible.
UX designers use these tools as part of the ideation phase:
User Flow Diagrams
The UX design team then decides which of the ideas generated in the previous step to prototype. Prototyping allows the team to communicate the idea, advocate for ideas, and test feasibility. A prototype can be simple or complex. It should be created rapidly so that the idea can be tested.
In the testing phase, a UX design team is trying to find out whether their prototype works or not. This is a time for evaluation, and a time to go back to the users to see how the prototype meets their needs.
UX designers use these tools as part of the testing phase:
Testing Recommendations & Report
Because this approach is non-linear, sometimes a UX designer will loop back and forth between phases. A UX designer doesn’t always use every tool within all of the phases, but they’ll typically use at least one or two.
What does a UX designer do every day?
A UX designer’s job will vary depending on the role or company. Some companies look for generalists who have experience across all or most of the sub-disciplines described above. Other roles will be more specialized. A UX designer may focus on research or just on prototyping if needed, depending on the position.
Typically, a UX designer works with a team. Sometimes the team will have other UX designers, a product manager, and developers. This team may be responsible for designing products used by customers or internally within the company. Sometimes a designer will work on a single project for months at a time, or they might juggle multiple projects, especially if they work for an agency.
A UX designer is responsible for creating the deliverables of the phase they are working on, keeping their work on time according to the project schedule, and presenting their work. They may need to present to the rest of the design team, internal stakeholders, or clients.
Deliverables created for these audiences can vary. According to a 2015 article from Nielsen Norman Group, UX designers were most likely to create static wireframes and interactive prototypes, followed by flow charts, site maps, and usability reports. When presenting work, interactive prototypes were most common. These deliverables are the most accurate representation of the final product.
In addition to creating wireframes and prototypes, a UX designer may:
Plan user research
Identify the target audience
Interview and survey users
Analyze qualitative and quantitative user research
Create a content inventory
Design a style guide or add to a design library
Conduct usability testing
Analyze usability testing results
UX design is like an umbrella that covers multiple areas, and a UX designer is expected to be familiar with all areas. Because UX design is so broad, and because the term itself has become popular relatively recently, it’s often misunderstood.
At its foundation, good UX design is about putting the user first. By empathizing with the user, a UX designer can create products and services that anticipate and meet users’ needs. The UX process isn’t linear; great UX design is an iterative process that continues to loop back with the user to test and improve the design team’s ideas.
The UX portfolio website has superseded the business card as a UX designer’s most essential professional networking tool. Especially these days, as the UX design industry pivots abruptly to a predominantly remote profession, UX designers communicate their professional identities virtually through their online presence to navigate the constricted job market successfully.
In my middling work experience as a UX designer over the years, I’ve been involved in countless UX designer portfolio reviews on both sides of the hiring process. Having personally benefited from industry mentorship in my own career, I’m excited to share what inside intelligence I can back with the design community, to encourage emerging UX designers to represent themselves more effectively to hiring managers and potential clients.
As with any other good user experience, a UX portfolio website should consider the user’s mindset during a visit. Bear in mind, companies typically automate their hiring processes using HR software, with workflows designed to evaluate as many qualified applicants as quickly as possible. Conciseness is merciful to reviewers digging through a pile of applications. The reviewer expects immediate access to all the information they need within the online portfolio to accomplish their evaluation. Within twenty seconds, the UX recruiter should understand your pitch, get a sense for your work, and have your contact information at their fingertips, ready to take the next step in their hiring workflow.
For full disclosure, I’ve pulled all of these examples from my own personal orbit, and included friends and colleagues who I respect and want to uplift. Let’s explore my thought process when looking at how each designer’s site uniquely succeeds and looking for patterns to model a great UX design portfolio.
1. Total class: Liya Xu
Liya Xu is an accomplished UX designer and Amazon alum, now returning to graduate school to study design management at Pratt. She leverages her technical know-how combined with her visual sensibility to craft excellent applications. Really, check out her work.
This online portfolio example has the character of a fashion spread, with well-selected attributes and succinctly written content. She allows the viewer plenty of breathing room in the empty space of the layout, to process the impact of her UX portfolio content. The case studies fall in reverse chronological order, most recent and impressive work at the top. A visitor gains immediate access to an example of work “above the fold,” peeking up from the bottom of the home screen. The experience conveys an overall modern, professional effect.
2. Authenticity: Seka Sekanwagi
Seka Sekanwagi works at Cash App as a UX researcher and has a well-rounded background in product design, interaction design, UX, and UI. His degree is actually in industrial design, crafting objects and tools, and bringing that same human-centered mindset to his design work. A genuine empathetic interest in other people drives his user research, questioning the meaning behind core user needs and translating them into tangible quality improvements.
The imagery and copywriting of Seka’s design portfolio establish his credibility while expressing his individuality. Selectively-edited messaging demonstrates the level of thoughtfulness that goes into his work output. He formats his work qualifications in simple typesetting, reducing the cognitive load on the visitor, and inviting them to review his qualifications at their leisure.
3. Perfect Pitch: Roochita Chachra
Roochita Chachra is an Austin-based UX designer and recent General Assembly immersive graduate who is highly active in the local creative community. Roochita enters UX design from the adjacent worlds of graphic design and digital marketing and is transitioning her career focus to allow her more opportunities to conduct user research, prototype, and problem-solve.
Whenever repositioning for a new avenue of design work, it takes self-restraint to hide old projects and work samples that don’t reflect your updated professional image. A UX design portfolio needs to represent the type of work you’re looking for, not just what you’ve done. Roochita focuses hers on the UX design process, and supports it with plenty of explanations and artifacts to show the output.
4. Pure Enthusiasm: Ljupcho Sulev
Ljupcho Sulev approaches his UX projects with a passion and a positive attitude. Originally from Macedonia, he works for SoftServe out of Sofia, Bulgaria. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Ljupcho on a project, conducting user interviews and analyzing research side-by-side for weeks. His sunny disposition brightens the spirits of his team members and elevates the work.
Ljupcho’s profile is sparse and direct. He highlights his career achievements by pairing photography with bold infographics, letting his enthusiasm pop off the screen. The minimal digital portfolio design aesthetic allows the content to take priority over the visuals.
5. Scannability: Aimen Awan
Aimen Awan is a UX designer with a background in software engineering and information experience design. Aimen optimizes her case studies for the viewer to scan quickly, with summaries at the top denoting her role and responsibilities on the project. Scrolling down the page, project artifacts illustrate the design process, increasing the fidelity successively up to the final product.
When developing a UX portfolio for a job search, take a lean approach like Aimen — gather feedback and iterate on your design. We designers are all susceptible to over-designing our work, nitpicking well past diminishing returns.
The most useful digital portfolio feedback comes from submitting actual job applications and gauging the response, so the earlier you have something ready to share, the better. Think of it as a user test — submitting a batch of applications and fishing for feedback from hiring leads or a potential client. Every response is a valuable piece of data and should help you refine your messaging and presentation.
6. Approachability: Ke Wang
Ke Wang writes his UX portfolio with a tone of casual levity (with bonus points for rhyming) while his About section reads like a social media status update. He pulls it off because his case studies scroll through examples of his overwhelming talent and work.
Website design covers some crucially important goals which require some entirely human skills. Relating to the website visitor in an approachable way is the hallmark of intuitive user experience and a good heuristic of success.
7. Clear Storytelling: Phill Abraham
Phill Abraham is a graduate of General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive course. Like many other UX designers, Phill arrived through a circuitous career path, with a background in psychology and experience in documentary film. He is actively involved in the local design scene, building out his book of projects.
Each case study shapes a compelling narrative of Phill’s design process. A project from his experience as a documentary filmmaker bolsters his UX portfolio and speaks to his capability to perform as a professional. Documentary is, after all, a quintessential form of user research. Phill applies his storytelling sensibility in presenting the case studies, outlining his thorough process step-by-step. As the website visitor scrolls down the page, they experience a neat narrative arch outlining the scenario, the design process, and the final product.
8. The Resume Homepage: Samantha Li
Samantha is a design manager at Capital One and an all-around UX champion. An active organizer within the design community, she mentors students and early-career UX designers working to break into the industry. Her own UX portfolio website outlines her career journey in the form of an extended resume and is as dense as a novel. An evaluator doesn’t even have to click to find all of the relevant information.
The resume homepage is a great design pattern for more established professionals with a long list of accomplishments. As a best practice, scrutinize what you publish diligently. Password-protecting case studies helps avoid any disputes over showing sensitive client work, and you may need to censor any personal data that may appear in your photographs and artifacts.
Job hunting poses challenges even for design professionals with advanced experience. Candidates need to squeeze their credentials into a digestible size to communicate their entire work history to reviewers in a short window of attention. The importance of every element of the online UX design portfolio becomes amplified, and dialing in the nuances of messaging makes a difference in getting noticed. Emerging UX designers face an uphill challenge as they’re fleshing out their portfolio projects. UX professionals in the job market are judged by their list of accomplished projects, which is frustrating for early-career UX designers who may be struggling to get their foot in the door with shorter resumes. The only course of action is bootstrapping through some initial projects — side projects, student projects, volunteer work, and ultimately paid UX design jobs — to demonstrate applied skills. A great UX portfolio effectively communicates your ability and value to potential clients.
If you have ever done a quick job search for “user experience design,” chances are you’ve seen a number of titles and descriptions that aren’t always as simple as “UX designer.”
User experience has a variety of specializations, and as a job seeker and practitioner, you should know the skills and applications that come with each. Understanding these differences will help you decide your UX career path and and help you find the appropriate job to fit your interests and skill set.
Why are UX skills continually in demand by top companies? Spend half an hour with expert GA instructor Javi Calderon to learn why and see if it’s right for your career. He’ll give you an overview of:
What the world of UX design encompasses and why it matters.
Fundamental tools and techniques used by professional designers.
Resources to continue learning about UX.
If you’re ready to go further, explore our upcoming User Experience Design course to cement a foundation in creating digital experiences that power revenue, loyalty, and product success.Or learn how to become a job-ready UX designer with our 12-week, full-time User Experience Design Immersive program.
Every graduate of our User Experience Design Immersive career accelerator gets the opportunity to work with a real-world client that’s looking to solve a particular consumer problem. The experience gives students a chance to apply the UX design process to real life, as well as invaluable insights and impactful results that they can use to stand out in their job searches.
The challenge: San Francisco’s Community Ambassadors are the bridge between city individuals and city services. In addition to the great things that they do for the city and its people, they have to log every single thing they do. The city teamed up with UXDI students to enhance the Ambassadors’ day-to-day mobile experience and improve data collection.
The client: Pandia Health, a startup that provides a convenient, affordable way to get birth control.
The challenge: The client came to GA students with three areas to work on: a new homepage, a design for a forum-like question and answer page, and their onboarding process, which includes an online form for prescriptions.
The client:nēdl, an app that lets radio listeners search live broadcasts as easily as they search the internet — by keywords.
The challenge: Nadav Markel, a UXDI graduate in Los Angeles, worked to helpnēdl grow its user base, as it was missing out on a large segment of the radio listening market: car drivers. He also set out to help make nēdl more safe to use while driving.
If you search on Amazon for books using the key phrase “UX design”, more than 1,000 titles will appear. That’s a lot of titles to wade through if you’re looking to read about user experience! One of the most difficult parts of making a list of the best UX books is that there are so many awesome ones out there. I could write a must-read list that goes on forever.
I chose the following UX titles either because they have played a significant role in the way I view my place as a UX designer or because they address foundational design topics that every UX designer should understand. I’m leaving out a fair number that have been published in all aspects of design, from usability and research to interaction design and how to present and speak to your design decisions. This reading list is intended for you to use as a starting point.
1. Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra
Kathy Sierra’s book is all about the strategy for creating successful products and services. Badass: Making Users Awesome looks at how to look at a product or service from the user’s perspective.
So instead of relying on marketing tactics that might be unethical, we can create products that lead users to champion them with their friends and family. A win for everyone!
The design and layout of the book is unlike that of most — it lays out the argument with a lot of visuals. And it’s an easy read. This has led to some negative reviews complaining that the book is just a PowerPoint PDF. Lay that aside, and the message is strong. It’s a great look at the point-of-view statement and how a well-written one can be influential in creating awesome products that users love.
When you read this book, it will start to make sense why some products do really well in the market and why others don’t. It will help show you how to shift your design strategy so that it can be successful too.
This slim how-to manual, published by A Book Apart, walks the reader through the basics of user research, from talking to stakeholders in an organization through analysis and reporting. Hall’s writing style makes the topic — which can be dry in other books — fun and approachable.
She’s also realistic in her advice to readers. She recognizes the constraints in time and budget that all UX designers face in their day to day jobs, so she proposes how best to navigate these situations and what alternative methods to employ.
Just Enough Research’s current edition was updated with a new chapter on surveys and why designers must be very careful about using these often-abused metrics in their research.
Even if you aren’t a UX researcher, this book explains how you can implement research in your process and spot your own biases so you can design a better user experience.
3. The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
The Design of Everyday Things is a standard on most design-reading lists for a reason. This book was originally published in 1988 with the title “The Psychology of Everyday Things”. It was revised in 2013 with a major update to some of the examples to make it more relevant to today.
Norman’s book lays the landscape for usability in human-centered design. In it, Norman lays out how human psychology affects everyday actions, why it’s natural for humans to make mistakes, and how technology can help rather than cause errors. Norman also explains human-centered design and proposes principles for good design.
I listened to this book on Audible, and a PDF accompanied the audio book so I could view the examples, which are especially helpful in understanding affordances and signifiers.
Vox produced a great video about one of the examples in the book — how doors are designed well, and how they are designed badly. If you’ve ever struggled with figuring out a door, sink, stove, switches, or other interface — the problem isn’t you. It’s the design.
Norman’s classic book explains why bad design happens, what good design is, and the constraints designers face when designing.
4. Designing with the Mind in Mind by Jeff Johnson
Sometimes designers follow a set of rules for designing user interfaces without understanding why certain patterns and methods work. This book changes that.
For example, how does human perception work? How is the eye structured and how do we read? What can we do as designers to ensure that people can see the information we design?
Johnson walks through an explanation of human vision, attention, memory, and decision-making for a deep-dive into why we perceive the way we perceive. After reading this book, UX designers will have a better idea of why we have design rules so they can make educated decisions about tradeoffs between budget, time, and competing design rules.
5. About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design 4th Edition by Alan Cooper, Robert Reiman, David Cronin, and Christopher Noessel
About Face completely changed the way I think about interaction design. Admittedly, I’ve only read sections of the book, due to its length. Still, it’s a reference when I have questions about how to approach interaction design and UI design.
This book is broken into three parts. It starts with introducing goal-directed design and how to approach digital projects. Then it moves through designing for behavior and form. Lastly, it looks at the differences in designing for desktop, mobile, and web applications.
My read of the book focused on designing for behavior, and my biggest “ah-ha” moment came when reading about optimizing for intermediate users. Much of the struggle designers have is in how to manage the different needs between beginners and experts. This chapter explains that we should focus on intermediates. We should guide beginning users to become intermediates as soon as possible, and aim to provide opportunities for advanced users to use our products without holding them back.
This book includes a number of other useful concepts to consider when designing user interfaces. At 659 pages, it might be a little too much to read in one sitting, but it should be in the designer library.
It’s short, easy to read, and a great manual for designers just getting started in usability testing. Krug wrote it based on his 30 years as a usability consultant for organizations including Apple, NPR, and the International Monetary Fund. Even if you already understand why you should do usability testing, chances are you work with people who don’t understand. This book is a great gift for those people. It explains why you should test, how to keep it simple, and how to keep it from being a budget suck. The newest edition has a new chapter about usability for mobile websites and apps, and all of the examples are updated.
IDEO CEO Tim Brown explains design thinking and how it should be used at every level of a business. This isn’t a manual for designers. It’s geared towards people outside of the industry, but I included it on this list because of the examples.
IDEO is a well-known human-centered design firm, and the examples Brown provides are straight from IDEO’s project list. While sometimes it feels more like a sales pitch, the case studies are interesting examples of how design thinking is applied.
UX designers who read this book can look at design thinking from a perspective outside the industry and use the examples to explain how design thinking can be used in every industry and in every discipline — it’s not just for designers.
I couldn’t include all of my favorite user experience books on this list. There are just too many amazing titles, and I already have about three times as many on my “to-read” list. These must-read UX design books are a great place to get started if you’re looking for some summer reading to help you advance your design career.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
UX design is a vast and multi-faceted field, not to mention ever-changing.
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.
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?”
Ideate: Find new ways to solve for what’s essential.
Test: Try things out to see what works.
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:
Audit of tools or belongings
Remote moderated interviews
Subject matter expert consultations
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:
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:
Participatory design groups
Mock ups (physical and digital)
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:
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.
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.”
A career in UX design stands out as a forward-thinking prospect. The role’s compatibility with remote work has enabled many designers to sustain their practice in a world maintaining its distance. We are seeing demand for UX skills persist even through our current sluggish global economy, due to accelerated digital transformation in response to unforeseen challenges across every industry. The tech workforce is coming out ahead overall — though many businesses and startups are faltering, companies that survive are leaning on tech innovations to adapt intelligently to the new normal, with experience design leading the charge.
Forecasting into the upcoming decade, the nature of UX design work will likely continue to evolve along with technological advancements. The experiences we design for will also change, from today’s ubiquitous smartphone apps and websites to more hybrid touchscreen and voice interactions, video inputs, and augmented reality.
As exciting as the UX design field can be at its best, I encourage anyone serious about becoming a UX designer to also consider potentially negative aspects of a UX career path. Working conditions vary wildly in tech; research common complaints from tech industry workers by checking out online employee reviews of some prominent tech companies, and judge for yourself if it’s for you. In real-world situations, people in UX roles in particular may encounter ethical issues related to their profession, in terms of driving user behavior to meet business goals. As you learn more about entering into a design practice, consider what principles you believe should guide good UX design.
So, still curious how to become a UX designer? Start by finding and immersing yourself in example designs that inspire you. Diving into a new subject matter is, in many ways, what UX designers do best. When you’re beginning to research an unfamiliar domain, it’s best to cast a wide net and gather all the resources you can. A bit of light reading and video viewing will go a long way, and designers are notorious content producers — don’t take my word for it, just browse by topic on Medium or YouTube. When you’re just starting out, a steady stream of design inspiration can capture your imagination in a way that will sustain you through the hard work to come. Discover the amazing work of user experience designers in the community, the tinkering and creative hacking, the impactful research, beautiful UI design, and the world-changing achievements in the field.
Committing to a new career path requires a leap of faith. As you consider your options, the quickest way to get a realistic sense for what it will be like for you to be a UX designer is to ask some real UX designers. Get out there and network, if not in a physical space, then virtually. With so many active design nerds in the community, a quick search will reveal plenty of results for design events, meetups, and knowledge shares to attend. In my own personal journey, I’ve found industry seniors quite welcoming to early-stage UX designers, and generous with their willingness to mentor — remember, these are professional empathizers we’re talking about. For your unanswered questions, online communities often have Slack channels or message boards to crowd-source answers and support. Find one in your local region, look into groups that share your interests, and be sure to connect with UX practitioners globally to follow trends and innovations.
While there is no industry-wide definitive education background requirement for UX design, employers do often expect an undergraduate degree in design or a “related field”. Since so many fields are related to UX design, hiring evaluations often weigh professional experience more than education credentials. Schools have only started to offer programs focused explicitly on user experience design in recent years. Related fields might include human-computer interaction, communication design, information architecture, and product design. I’ve seen successful designers that come from backgrounds in anthropology, psychology, language arts, engineering, business, or even music.
If you’re new to the field, look for the right timing in your development to enroll in an actual UX design course. Everyone’s career journey is unique, and a course load can be a big investment of time and energy. To test the waters, you can find a lot of free intro classes, and plenty of remote learning options. An instructor-led class provides the opportunity to interact with a knowledgeable professional to answer your questions in a safe setting. The (virtual) classroom environment also exposes you to other learners who may be experiencing similar struggles. If your strategy is to learn and practice as much as possible in a condensed timeframe, a UX design bootcamp will guide you through the fundamental skills and knowledge, and help outline next steps for expanding that foundation.
If you’re already in a role related to UX design, see if your employer will sponsor coursework fees. If you’re an employer, make sure your employees have an education budget to apply toward new skills and career growth. The job market may be daunting for nascent design applicants, but the first few years of experience can really open up the doors to a more senior tier of opportunities.
Is UX design for you? Try to articulate what it is about UX design that attracts you the most. For some people, it’s the joy of crafting things. For others, it’s a passion for empathizing with human needs. For others still, it’s a fascination with complex systems.
Find the right role that matches your interests. Within the field of UX design, there are multiple areas of specialization including user research, strategy, interaction design, UI design, product design, service design, and usability testing. While considering the best fit for your aptitude, be sure to also consider all the other fields related to UX design that are perhaps less well known but just as cool. Look into roles like Product Manager, Business Analyst, Prototype Engineer, Copywriter, Visual or UI Designer, and Data Scientist, to name a few.
Building a Portfolio
The designer’s UX portfolio is their passport to navigating job applications. When creating your portfolio, be sure to follow best practices and let inspiring examples guide you.If you’re just starting out, you might think about achievable starter projects to take on that will turn into featured case studies. Many designers build their first portfolio projects with independent work, unsolicited redesigns, and favors for friends. Set clear design challenges for yourself, and document the experience of solving them. For a bit more structure, enrolling in a project-based course will help you produce a tangible portfolio piece that follows a typical design process.
There’s a natural life cycle to any design project, from its germination to fruition. The job of a UX design professional is inherently project-based, and a designer’s portfolio is living documentation of the best of their accomplishments.
Learning on the Job
Budding UX designers reach a real milestone when they land their first professional UX job. This could take the form of an entry-level or internship position, and the work might not exactly resemble the glamourous, world-impacting projects that inspired you to become a designer in the first place. While still standing up for your principles, use early job opportunities to study the UX design process in action, to study how the entire creative process works, and understand how organizational roles relate to each other.
You may also find more early success, and potentially long-term fulfillment, working as a UX consultant or freelancer. Part-time self-employment may be the right choice for someone holding down an existing job while building their portfolio of work. As with any applied field, only so much can be learned in an academic context; real-world experience completes the UX designer’s professional development. Today’s aspiring UX designers must gain a business sense to guide their career moves. Invest energy in the areas you need to cultivate most. Listen for credible feedback from the people you work with, and target those areas to improve.
As a UX designer, resign yourself to a lifetime of study. The technology we design for will continue to advance, along with design tools, methodology, and theory. As designers and technologists we have to hustle to keep up — learning periodically, staying up-to-date with relevant professional skills and new concepts. It may help to define clear education goals that relate directly to your professional aspirations, and track regular progress.
As you cover more ground in your career, continually demand more for yourself as you work toward your long-term professional goals. When negotiating or renegotiating contracts, research employment statistics on fair compensation and benefits, and reach out with your burning questions to other professionals who you respect. Knowing your worth is leverage for achieving the conditions you deserve.