Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Some of the the best UX career advice I’ve gathered in my years of design experience.
Starting in the UX world felt confusing most of the time. I had no idea where to start - having a career path planned ahead was a distant dream. Luckily, I had a bunch of senior designers around to guide and give me the necessary push to start my UX journey, be it fuzzy in its early steps.
I now find myself in their position quite often, as last year I created an Instagram community for UX Design (check out UX Goodies on Instagram) with the purpose of helping others and learning together with the community. I’m constantly asked for advice by designers that are just entering the field, and I feel like the advice I give has evolved into being increasingly articulate and consistent: so now it’s time to share it.
The advice is mostly tailored for junior UX designers, but some of it falls into the Universal Career Growth Advice umbrella, so certain parts of this article should be valuable to anyone, regardless of their profession. Here we go!
1. Get Excited about Solving Problems
This is an essential function of design: finding, defining and solving the right problems.If you’re a natural problem-solver, that’s great — you probably already do it instinctively. But even if you’re not, it’s a skill that can easily be educated through exercise. How?Constantly and consciously try to spot problems around you, pay attention to the products, services, people you encounter — create the habit of questioning and understanding what doesn’t work well and why.
Problems should be seen as opportunities, especially in the design world, since solving them is actually our core mission.An important point to be made is that solving any problem starts with understanding it really (really!) well. It may seem common sense, but it’s not that common — often designers fail to explore enough, research thoroughly and deeply understand the challenge. To avoid this, a reflex that I recommend building is what I call the Why Reflex — understanding problems is supported by asking as many questions as possible (in the relevance realm), with a particular focus on Why’s. If the problem definition is not right, then, obviously, the solution can’t be either. This is why too often so many products and services fail - they’re solving wrong problems or no problems at all.
And even when you reach the point where you’ve correctly identified and defined a problem, your job’s not done yet: you need to validate it’s a real problem and uncover the extent to which it affects the people you design for. In this stage you should invest time, attention and effort in doing research (in-depth and well-documented) to make sure you have a valuable and well-defined challenge ahead of you.
2. Care About Users
To create value for your users you‘ll need to care about them.
There’s one definition of love that sees it as conscious, intentional attention. So if you were to fall in love with your users as Dana Chisnell suggests, you’d need to put energy and attention into understanding and getting to know them. And you do that by listening. Your listening skills are of immense importance in your design role. To understand anything, especially people, you have to ask a lot (and the right) questions and then really (but really!) listen to the answers.
Listening can also mean observing, and not always imply a conversation. Observe your users beyond interviews and surveys, watch them in their natural context. Involve them in diary studies. Try to explore the entire universe around them in relation to the problem you’re solving. Use Empathy Maps to map out what they say, do, think and feel, use Personas to really understand their needs, their goals, their frustrations, their minds, their world.
3. Work on your Process
First off, develop a process! UX design is actually quite scientific in this regard, because without structure, goals, a process and a clear destination, there is no UX design. It’s just some chaotic “design” activities thrown in there, to disappointing outcomes most of the time. To create meaningful experiences you need to go through a clear set of stages, but of course every designer can shape and refine their process along some universal lines. Work on continuously defining and refining your own.
Turn every UX project into an opportunity for evolving your process by setting aside the time to look back and reflect on how things unfolded. Look into what went wrong, what went well, what can be improved, which are the lessons and take-aways.
Another great thing about clearly articulating your process is that you can work transparently by sharing it with others involved.Closely inform your collaborators, other stakeholders, anyone that’s relevant, on where you are in the process and what your next steps are, along with how you’d need their help along the way.
4. Sketch. A lot.
Make a habit out of starting conversations with a pen and some paper at hand. Draw your ideas — you’ll structure them better and communicate them more easily. Sketching also favours creativity and connections, thus driving idea generation into new dimensions.
Before choosing a solution, explore as many ideas as possible.Avoid settling for the first solution that comes up, even when it seems perfect and fits all requirements. Always go the extra mile in your exploration, playing around with ideas that seem completely crazy on utterly unrelated to the project. Experience has taught me that touching on weird ideas is an effort you need to make intentionally, it‘s not natural, so exercise this habit until it becomes comfortable.
Another corollary: avoid jumping to solutions early in the project.A mistake I see too often in real life practice is that people start off with a solution and then search for the problem. Of course, the result, most of the times, is a product or service that no one uses.
5. Learn to Communicate
Communication skills are essential to a UX designer (introverts shouldn’t worry, as listening skills are actually the most important ;)). Design needs conversation (sometimes the conversation IS the design!). Talk to as many involved in the project as possible. Be mindful of how you communicate your thoughts and ideas, while paying more attention to the answers you receive and how careful you listen to others. Communication is, obviously, a two-way street, and healthy dialogue is essential to UX design.
To make sure you build mutual understanding, you should also look at the vocabulary you use —adapt your language to the person you’re talking to, don’t use design terminology with your users or with the non-designers you work with.Try to speak their language to make sure your message is easy to follow and gets across.
Another valuable point comes in the recommendation to work on your storytelling skills. People love stories, and the ability to convince and get others engaged is a very powerful skill to have.Though it’s something that some are born with, anyone can build by exercising it. Either way, I’d say work on it, as being able to articulate a narrative that others can relate to is a significant advantage as a UX designer.
6. Accept Criticism
While it’s somehow against the way we’re built (we all enjoy praise), it’s something we need to get used to, especially as designers. Without criticism, growth and improvement are slower or, even worse, can’t even happen.
Criticism, while it can feel hurtful at first, is a great opportunity for clarity and a good base for progress. It’s hard to evaluate your own work unbiased, so it’s better to build a habit out of asking for feedback from other designers / co-workers.
Don’t take criticism personally, you are not your work. Don’t let yourself put off by negative feedback, it’s (way) more important than positive feedback when it comes to design.
Also, try to give feedback to others as often as possible, but make sure your critique is kind and constructive.
7. Network with Designers
In my journey so far, the conversations I’ve had with other designers were the most valuable source of learning.Today there are many spaces in which to follow other designers and learn from their experience. Join design communities (Slack workspaces, Facebook groups), exchange stories with other designers, follow design accounts on social media (like, let’s say, UX Goodies on Instagram — shameless plug!:)) and engage in conversations with them. Get yourself inspired by others on a daily basis — it’s a great way to grow.
If you have the opportunity to interact with other designers in real life, then that’s even better! Look up design meet-ups or similar events in your area and attend the next one.
If there are any designers you admire in your town, take them out for a coffee. Most of them would be happy to accept and share their stories to help others grow — this also helps them grow, so it’s a win-win situation.
8. Learn and Grow
Last, but not least (actually, it might be the most important point), is you’ll have to learn and grow continuously. Nowadays there are so many learning resources, it’s just a matter of picking the right medium (see what I did there?), the one in which you absorb information most easily.
If you’re a podcast person there are so many fantastic design podcasts out there, likeDesign Better, Inside Intercom, Let’s Make Mistakes, Design Huddle, XD Podcast, just to name a few.
You can use Youtube to find and watch conference talks by design industry leaders like Jared Spool, Chris Do, Mike Monteiro, Andy Budd and so on. Or you can follow Youtube design channels like AJ & Smart Design or The Futur.
You can (and should) read. Be it books, blogs, anything, there are so many valuable stories and lessons to explore. If you’re just starting out and not sure how to navigate all the content out there, try reading some of the ground design books such as “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman or (the revisited version of) “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug.
You can get university design education (this would actually be highly recommended, plus the best and most consistent way to start a design career), or find a good online course and start learning at home. An online learning platform I always recommend is Interaction Design Foundation — they feature over 30 courses for UX designers (arranged from Beginner, to Intermediate and then Advanced) and they offer a very good suggested learning path to members that are just starting out. Also, the annual membership cost is very accessible and you can even get a 25% percent discount with UX Goodies here.
Whichever channel you choose it’s advised to create a routine you try to stick to — discipline helps you make the most out of the learning effort.
9. Love UX
I would actually extend this to: love your craft. Whatever you do, enjoy it and believe in it. Don’t let it define you completely - as in avoid being too immersed in your profession and neglecting other aspects of your life - but do work with pleasure, passion and dedication. Learn to articulate your love for design and use this to evangelise the importance and power design has in shaping the world around us.
Give back to the design community by helping and guiding others that are in earlier stages in their design journey. Be supportive, reach out to others.
Fall in love with the design craft, trust its beauty and power, and do your best to bring value to the design world.
These are most of the lessons I’ve learned so far in my professional journey. Although some might seem occasionally naive, they come from an honest place — and if there’s a chance they help aspiring designers as they helped me, then they served their best purpose. Sharing all this also stands for something I believe we should all strive for: a safe, caring and supporting community in which other feel encouraged to start and grow as UX professionals.
You’ve made it to the end! Hope it was useful and feel free to start a constructive design conversation in comments. Thanks for reading!