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.
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.
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.
I am an experience design lead for a technology company. Every day, I talk about theories and projections of how other people will experience something, which is ultimately impossible to know. Human behavior is unpredictable and ever-changing, nowhere more rapidly than in tech. Confounding variables affect how individual users might react to a planned experience. The best user experience designers I know are great at guessing educated guesses based on research, which then inform crucial decisions in the technology development process. An experience designer’s job involves predicting how interactions will unfold, and how users will perceive them psychologically and emotionally.
Designers do their jobs by challenging project ideas, providing counsel to stakeholders, and advocating for users’ best interests. Along with the role comes an obligation to serve the user through principled action. Bad interaction design can have consequences ranging from slightly frustrating to severely harmful. The UX design space is rapidly evolving, and designers must take a holistic view of all the various touchpoints, interactions, and environments—real and virtual—that the user navigates on their journey. Design artifacts, such as wireframes, personas, and all the other UX deliverables you commonly find listed, are just expressions of the user journey. They’re all different ways of answering the same question: “What will it be like for the user?”
With so many resources available on UX technical skills, it’s important to direct more attention toward essential human-centric concerns. Every successful UX designer needs to grasp the foundational UX design principles of empathy, clarity, feedback, and inclusivity.
If you’ve spent time with UX teams, you’ve likely broached the subject of empathy. Particularly in tech, with all its innovations and disruptions, project contributors are accountable for the impact of their work. Empathy simply describes the act of considering that impact on people’s feelings, situations, lives, communities, and on society as a whole. It’s about seeing things from someone else’s perspective.
The field of user experience design contains common methodologies for building empathy with users. Based on research, user personas serve to focus project contributors’ attention on realistic user traits, so they can understand whose needs to meet. Those personas play central roles in user journey maps and problem statements, ecologies, blueprints, and storyboards. Design thinking activities and workshops bring subject matter experts together with stakeholders to focus on the user journey. All of the methods primarily serve as empathy-building tools for the contributors to better understand the user. The technology community, through decades of collective trial-and-error has largely conceded that projects tend to fail when they don’t prioritize user needs. Empathy helps to divert the team from complacently executing software requirement specifications to instead focus on doing the right thing from the user’s perspective.
Misunderstanding the design principle of empathy can curtail a design process. Anyone who has ever scuffled with a frustrating product can attest that the creators should have spent more time talking to users. Building empathy isn’t just a box to check off in an early phase; it’s a principle that ensures meaningful impact through the development lifecycle.
User experience design problems often revolve around the clarity of information and instruction. Successful designs make information as intelligible as possible with a clear indication of how to perform the actions you need to take. Designers make sure people can access and understand the interaction as it’s happening and remain sensitive to its effect on the user’s cognitive load. Lack of clarity could have serious repercussions, as in the case of a healthcare application being used by a patient to access their treatment.
Working knowledge of visual communication goes a long way. Design artifacts, even reports, benefit from a clear visual hierarchy. Even if the visual design of a user interface is a separate concern from the UX, in practice, great UX designers have to collaborate with their counterparts in user interface design to ensure that the interface communicates the right effect. To engage effectively on a cross-functional project with multiple team members, UX designers need to at least wield a practical knowledge of typography, color, and composition. Thinking in terms of these visual communication fundamentals allows contributors to establish a shared design language.
Clarity of communication can’t be underestimated. My company, like many global tech organizations, uses English as a primary language for everything from a business discussion to code documentation to design critique. My international colleagues exhibit remarkable communication skills, especially considering English may be a second, third, or even eighth language. In today’s climate of remote work, it’s more important than ever to use video to enhance real-time communication—employing body language, and facial expressions to underscore our words.
UX design is wrapped in written communication. The extent to which hiring managers weigh writing skills when evaluating UX candidates may surprise job seekers. It makes sense that client-facing discussions frequently focus on UX artifacts, and only astute writing can successfully document good design ideas. For UX research specialists, as well as generalists with user research among their responsibilities, UX writing is even more of a daily requirement. They design through the medium of research reports, interview takeaways, and executive summaries. Clear writing permeates the work, all the way down to the microcopy—the small bits of guiding UI text used in forms, prompts, buttons, and messages throughout an application.
Great user experience designers are still wrong all the time; they just use more feedback. Everything is a prototype, even early notes, and doodles, that can evoke enough reaction from helpful sources such as usability test participants to inform improvements. All design fields solve problems through making things, actively creating new ideas to fill an existing void, and ample helpful feedback guides the solution in the right direction. Seasoned UX designers learn to apply this principle throughout their process, always scanning for meaningful feedback on everything they contribute.
Everywhere you look, there are products with design flaws that could have been improved through more user testing, not just apps and websites, but also physical experiences like vehicles, household items, or specialty equipment. Whenever a project is fast-tracked past user testing too hastily, the consumer has to deal with the resulting deficiencies. Successful projects take a structured approach, testing prototypes methodically to identify problem areas. Product teams establish a feedback loop by observing user reactions, hypothesizing improvements based on those reactions, and rebuilding prototypes with new ideas to introduce into the testing cycle.
Accepting product design feedback and applying its learnings to a prototype may be a skill that takes time to develop; it’s easy to get emotionally attached to work we create as if it were some precious thing to defend. When we ignore valid design criticism, it’s the user who loses. Designers learn to separate themselves from their ideas, gathering feedback early and often, and become skilled in objectively discerning how to improve the work to make it even more clear and useful for others.
People often base their first understandings of users on the lowest common denominator—mapping out an ideal “happy path” experience for a generic user. That ideal rarely reflects the multifaceted reality of human life, and that generic user is too often a reflection of the designer’s own personal traits or their company’s business goals. To design excellent user experiences, we need to step outside our own biases and recognize the diversity of human experience.
Including a broad radius of users in the design process isn’t only the right thing to do; it also makes good business sense. When a service makes the effort to consider its customers with special needs, it tends to benefit a wider swath of customers. Wheelchair-accessible spaces provide a great example of this principle: the same rampways and automatic door openers which allow people in wheelchairs to navigate also make it easier for people pushing strollers, carrying armloads, and with other momentary physical restrictions.
Website design similarly recognizes the range of users navigating the virtual space. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a standard for designing interfaces that can be understood and used effectively by people with disabilities. Web and app designers rely on that guidance to ensure the display can be understood by users with a spectrum of visual impairments and blindness and who may access the information using screen reader programs to synthesize speech or output to a braille display. Users with motoric impairments benefit from various assistive technologies such as a trackball mouse or voice recognition software. Across both physical and digital spaces, there are ample opportunities to design a better, more inclusive user experience that considers all possible customer scenarios.
The aim of inclusive design is to demonstrate respect for users by allowing them a dignified interaction with your service. Project teams would do better by incorporating the principle of inclusivity throughout their process. Upfront research and cooperative design with target users will help to avoid the pitfalls that lead to inaccessible products. Designers, engineers, and managers are all responsible for adhering to accessibility guidelines in the creation of usefultools, displays, and controls. Rigorous usability testing and user testing continuously refine the experience and helps produce genuinely positive, inclusive interactions.
The practice of user experience design challenges abstract notions and raises important ethical concerns. As UX designers, we essentially design actions, and all actions have consequences. Multiply that by the masses of users touched by scaling technology, and our design decisions become exponentially magnified. All designers should consider that gravity whenever approaching their work and take conscientious actions based on human-centered design principles.
Many people have heard the term “user experience” but not everyone knows what this means. User experience (UX) is rapidly growing and revolutionizing how people interact with the world around them. UX is why Google is so easy to use and how Facebook knows what article to suggest to you next. It’s why the internet evolved from Geocities homepages with blinking “Under Construction” signs to the sophisticated interfaces we use every day. User experience is practiced by UX designers — but also product managers, product designers, entrepreneurs, startups, and forward-thinking organizations.
But what does UX actually mean? Let’s break it down.
For starters, if you have ever purchased a product or benefitted from a service, you are a user. When you interact with a product, service, or company, you are having an experience. Ultimately, most companies want you to have a good experience using their product or services. In order to understand what makes an experience good, we need to define what that means from the perspective of the user.
What makes an experience “good” hinges on whether it was successful at solving a real problem or provided users with actual value. This is the core distinction between art and design: Whereas art can be aesthetically pleasing, good design must have utility. Beauty alone isn’t enough. Thus, a good user experience is one that enables the user’s interaction to be effective.
For example, let’s say you wanted to find a restaurant for dinner with friends. You know that several people in the group are vegetarians, so you’d like to find a convenient location where everyone has options. In this situation, you might use a restaurant recommendation platform to narrow down options, identify some potential locations, and share them with friends. The conditions for success in this situation would be an app that enables you to do exactly that. Anything more is considered “delight” and anything less is problematic.
The Four Key Elements of the UX DESIGN Process
User experience is often referred to as “the science behind design.” What is meant by “science” here is the rigorous methods that comprise the UX process and provide the human insights and hard data to support and validate product design decisions.
It’s important to know that the UX process can be used as both a path (go from start to finish) or as a toolkit (select the tool you need), depending on the project goals and timeline. Regardless of how you apply the process, there are a few critical UX design basics that create the foundation for a successful user experience. We’ll outline these UX fundamentals below, along with specific tools or methods that can be used for prototyping.
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: People are complex creatures. When designing for people, it’s important to understand how they think and what behaviors they’re engaging in to satisfy their current needs or solve their existing problem. Before there was Yelp to find restaurants, what did people do? They asked their friends for recommendations or used an online search engine (or something else entirely — let’s not forget that there was life before the internet).
UX designers work with people by learning about their habits and goals, identifying needs and constraints, and aligning with existing behaviors to create solutions that are easy to use (efficient) and solve a real problem (effective).
Some UX methods and tools used to learn about user behaviors:
User interviews are one of the most important ways that UX designers uncover information. User interviews are usually focused on the qualitative data, which is information that can’t be measured but that is rich in emotional detail.
A customer journey map is a visual document that details a user’s interactions with a company or product and how they feel about each interaction. This map tells a story about user’s end-to-end experience and how successful the product design was from the user’s perspective.
A task analysis is used to analyze how users perform tasks in order to achieve a goal. Through observation, designers learn about the user’s current process (and work-arounds if no solution exists). For instance, observing a user file their taxes using analog methods (paper, mail) can inform a UX designer how they might go about that same task online. This is a great way to learn about existing pain points that could be improved.
Designers are always documenting, analyzing, and communicating user insights and data with their team to keep everyone on the same page. Designers might document a user interview using a screen-sharing tool that captures how a user moves through a website to complete a task. Then, they might analyze that information by creating an affinity map with their team to identify common trends or patterns in the collected data. Finally, they might create a user persona to bring this user data to life and communicate findings with their team.
User experience is a human-centered process, which means that designers don’t prioritize business goals over people. The best design solution should ultimately align both the business and customer goals to create an effective and usable solution to a real problem. Strategy in UX is also about understanding where an existing product or process can be improved and communicating this effectively to internal teams and external users through responsive design. Fundamentally, UX is about design empathy, which means translating user needs into actionable solutions.
One of the first steps in UX design thinking is user research. In order to solve a problem, a designer first needs to observe and understand what’s happening from the user’s perspective. Asking questions is a great way to uncover a lot of information about user needs and frustrations. These user insights can then be translated into design solutions that solve the user’s problem efficiently and effectively.
Some great questions to ask when strategizing:
Who is our user?
What is the user’s motivation or goal?
How does this make them feel?
Is the process clear?
What do they expect when they click this?
Are you assuming something about users? How could you test this assumption?
Are you thinking of the user’s wants and needs, or your own?
What do we want users to do? How are we helping them do it?
Strategy is then translated into interaction design through artifacts such as user flows (how a user moves through a system to achieve a goal), wireframes (schematics that show how a digital interface will look and function), and high-fidelity prototypes (a working model of a design) that can be tested with users.
Good design is ultimately determined by usability. If a particular design element does not help the user solve a problem, or makes solving a problem extremely challenging, it is not a good design. If the user is confused or doesn’t know where to go, or you designed it for you? Also not a good design. Because design is about functionality, usability is more important than aesthetics. While designers talk a lot about designing for “delight,” the best designs are usable. Designers can add delight through sophisticated animations, friendly language, and unexpected surprises that anticipate users’ needs. However, if the design is not usable, all these delightful details don’t matter. This may seem like a simple practice in theory, but that’s not always the case.
Humans are complex, and usability is deeply connected with psychology and behavior. Digital product design inherited a lot of its behaviors from things we used in our analog life, such as buttons and sliders. Thus, people come to expect things to behave a certain way, even if there aren’t the same physical or technical constraints.
Usability is about creating products that anyone can use, especially if they have a disability or impairment. Usability is also about accessibility, which means that physical constraints or disabilities don’t prohibit or impede someone’s use of a product or service. Good design is about helping humans.
How can you determine whether something’s usable and accessible? There are a ton of resources dedicated to creating accessible and inclusive designs from the ground up. Some of the best include:
Finally, validation is a critical piece of the UX process. Ideally products need to be tested with users before they are deployed to the public. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with companies that are eager to launch their products out into the world. The UX process emphasizes testing with real users early and often in order to ensure that the design solves the right problem.
Solving the right problem is the most important task that UX designers face. However, testing often throughout the process also means that you’ll catch mistakes sooner and be able to adjust without losing users. When things don’t work or are difficult to use, most people give up.
Investing in UX design is one way companies can stay competitive in the market while making the most of their time and resources. Validation is proof that you have successfully solved a problem for your user. Another way to think about testing is as an experiment. When making decisions, it’s important to ask: What are my assumptions about the user? About this solution? How might we test these assumptions?
There are many ways to validate an idea or assumption, depending on the amount of time and money you can invest in the project. The important thing to remember with validation is that it removes the guesswork from the design process. Here are some of the most common strategies used to validate ideas through user research:
Ideas can be tested very early in the process by putting out a smokescreen test. A smokescreen could be a landing page with a call to action (e.g., Sign up for my newsletter!) to test whether users want your product.
If you’re already in the design stage, you can validate your design by A/B testing two versions of the same page. This would allow you to see if one way of solving a problem is more successful than another.
Finally, you might want to create a clickable or coded prototype to see how users would navigate the system as you get closer to launch.
What happens once a product goes live? UX designers are constantly iterating, which is the process of continuously testing throughout a product’s life cycle. In fact, the UX process of learning about user behavior through research, translating insights into actionable strategies, and testing new products and features is designed to be repeated as often as needed. Building accessible, usable, and beautiful products is an ongoing evolution.
UX DESIGN BASICS at General Assembly
There are many ways to learn UX fundamentals at General Assembly. For the most in-depth experience, our User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) introduces students to every step of the process while providing opportunities to apply skills directly through project-based learning with real clients. The 10-week-long Immersive is best for career-changers who want to transform their professional life. Our part-time User Experience Design (UXD) program, available on campus or online, is a great way to gain exposure to UX tools, techniques, and industry trends, and the eight-week Visual Design course covers a high-level overview of the practice and how it relates to visual design. You’ll also learn how UX impacts the product life cycle in the part-time Product Management course. If you’re just looking to learn more about UX and opportunities in the field, there are many workshops and events (such as the UX 101 Bootcamp) that can introduce you to the core concepts and best practices.
Katharine Hargreaves is a UX strategist, educator, and facilitator working at the intersection of social impact design and education. She teaches the User Experience Design Immersive at GA’s Los Angeles campus. Katharine believes that human-centered design heals the world, and she’s dedicated to building tools and systems that empower people everywhere to be problem-solvers.
“UX is the toolkit of the future. It’s more than a field — it’s a critical skill set everyone should have access to. Successful designers are able to extend their learnings to others while keeping users front and center.”
User experience (UX) design is one of the tech industry’s core disciplines: Considering users’ potential actions is a key component of designing a website, application, or other products. UX is a skill that just about every type of company needs in order to grow — and demand for it is only increasing.
But what is UX design, really? To get to the heart of it, we talked to design experts from The New York Times, PayPal, Zola, and more.