I previously wrote an article about why I decided to leave architecture to become a UX designer. I’ve since received a lot of messages from the community seeking advice, so I decided to compile this personal collection of actionable notes, not only because it may help someone, but because it helps me structure my own thoughts on the matter.
The goal of this article isn’t the minutiae of which course to do. Many people have ranked and opinionated on Bootcamps and courses within UX, and fundamentally each will work, in some way, if you take it seriously and submerge yourself fully in the process. Don’t fret too much. A portfolio with a powerful story is more important than which course you did.
I’ll try my best to formulate a no-nonsense article with a focus on key fundamentals: which knowledge I consider important for a great UX Designer and what you should consider going forward. I mention the word great because there is a gulf between UX and great UX. Hiring a UX Designer isn’t the same as hiring a great UX Designer, and I believe that by helping the host of new UX Designers focus on the right things we strengthen the profession as a whole.
What you do in the future will depend heavily on your role. I don’t have experience in everything, nor will I ever. I’m a freelancer, and I work in small teams, which affords me a lot of responsibilities. I can ‘wear a lot of hats’. If you’re in a bigger team, you will have fewer but deeper roles. If your role is creating and testing new products you will work differently than expanding or testing existing products.
There is nuance, the field isn’t as clearly defined as others, and that’s what makes it so special for me — you can niche yourself into many different roles. To do that, there are core competencies that are, in my opinion, multidisciplinary and can be applied no matter what you do. Bear in mind these are difficult, lifelong competencies that we all have to strive for, and you will struggle with them just as I do. Each section ends with a hint of actions you can take to get started or get better with it.
What I mean by core competencies is what makes you into a good designer no matter which role you end up filling. It sounds banal, but I thoroughly encourage you to be reflective. Reflect on yourself, reflect on your surroundings, reflect on the relationships you lead and the life you live. Reflection is powerful, the more you practice to reflect, the better designer you will be because you’ll start thinking about what it all means from a psychological point of view, what the behaviour represents, how design may affect it. It forces you to think about yourself, accept your weaknesses, acknowledge your strengths, and consider what can be improved. I mention this because design is not a black and white process, there is often no correct answer, and you need to be able to reflect on a design, accept its weaknesses, acknowledge its strengths, and consider what should be improved. Be stoic towards your design, otherwise, you will be blinded to its imperfections.
Actions to take:
• Get started with Mindfulness, to begin clearing your head of noise
• Take more walks in parks: A brief walk in an urban park can induce parasympathetic nerve activity, suppress sympathetic nerve activity, decrease the heart rate, enhance the mood state, and reduce anxiety. In conclusion, walking in urban parks confers physiological and psychological relaxation effects during fall. Source
• Get started with structuring yourself with apps like Notion, which I use for journaling, as well as note-taking, to-do lists, and generally planning my life
This is tough, absolutely. I don’t mean be outgoing, I mean learn the power of the words you use. Communication is absolutely key both within your team and towards your clients. You will be dealing with difficult concepts to grasp, meetings will often get lost in abstraction, and people won’t understand what you mean — all the more-so during the remote lifestyle we’re all currently encouraged to embrace. Thus it’s important to reflect on the words you use and how saying fewer, considered things, is more powerful than lengthy, complicated things. Make your thoughts and ideas stick by simplifying complicated things into delicate analogies; try to learn some anecdotes. Imagine you’re in a meeting with a client who is questioning the validity of spending time on research; strengthen your position with a solid anecdote and they will understand the value: “User research is like Lincoln’s quote: Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe” a blunt axe, like improper research, hinders everything that follows.
Actions to take:
• Sharpen your vocabulary to reduce your word-clutter, I like apps such as Vocabulary Builder
• Slow down and focus on speaking with confidence
• Learn to give kind criticism
Actions to take:
• It’s easier to be curious about something you enjoy, reflect on if that applies to you. I have a Master’s Degree in Architecture but switched career twice until I discovered UX, which I’m a lot more curious about
• For me, curiosity begins when I discover depth beneath the surface. When something is too easy, my motivation plummets. I read a lot of books which keep showing me that there is so much left to learn about UX that I will have enough content for a lifetime. Recently, I read Made to Stick which I found excellent
It permeates all that we do and distinguishes UX from great UX. Precision is the ability to be meticulous about what you do. To be consistent, clear and reliable. Precision allows me to think clearly about how I approach every task, to reliably deliver work on time and in the manner that I consider to be of high quality. Nobody likes to receive wildly messy files and nobody likes to have to make changes for avoidable dilemmas because key information was imprecisely delivered. Precision allows me to build products with structure, method and intent — so if I pick up a file I worked on a year ago, I still know where what is. Not every post-it needs to be neat, but the dimensions of your designs, the way you present to your teammates and clients, these should be neat and professional. We all get lazy, certainly, but imagine an architect delivered scruffy, inconsistent plans for a building, how would a contractor read and execute it correctly? They wouldn’t, just as developers may build your design incorrectly, which is a hassle for all involved. It’s best to avoid the hassle altogether by being precise in the first place.
Actions to take:
• I was not precise prior to my degree. I had to learn that quality means precision, that precision takes time, and that taking time requires patience. If I wanted to be good, I would have to be patient. It’s been steady practice ever since
• Consider adult colouring books to learn to slow down, be precise and be patient
• Learn about and actually integrate grids and design systems in your working method
• Using collaborative software like Figma where others can see everything I do forces me to be more precise
All of the above are intricately connected to modesty. Reflect modestly, communicate modestly, and be curious, modestly. Ego kills good design because it impedes reflection, collaboration and reiteration. Consider everything others say because it may come from a place that you haven’t considered, and use it to grow and improve all that you do. There is nothing giving designers a worse name than people who act like one-man shows and artists. It’s a team effort, treat it as such.
Awareness of these competencies and a pro-active attempt to incorporate them in my life have made a significant difference in how I am perceived, in how I treat the work I do, and how I feel about myself every day. Reflection has slowed down the passage of time; which in turn has given me more time.
Actions to take:
• See strength in others. I’ve always felt strange complimenting others, but since regularising it, I’ve highlighted a vulnerability in myself that made me feel a little smaller, in a positive way
• Burst your sphere of comfort by trying new and scary things like foreign movies with subtitles, travelling alone, reading complicated books. Accept that we are but a small piece of an unimaginable ecosystem
Concepts you’ll face in a UX environment
Besides the above competencies, there are a host of concepts I’m faced with daily. I’ve tried my hand at outlining these and I’ll try to be as neat and simple as possible. I’ve linked to other resources in each section for further reading.
As a UX Designer, you will hear the word ‘value’ thrown around a lot. You may be the one throwing it. Use it to your advantage. Here’s how I would summarise generating value: let’s say you want to buy some LEGO. You can buy 1000 random pieces of LEGO. Probably you can get this for dirt cheap and you can build anything you want with it. Let’s say these 1000 pieces are a set which comes with instructions on how to build a Death Star. The value of this LEGO set is astronomically higher, despite the pieces being the same. It is more valuable because the Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts.
It’s why a wool sock is worth more than the wool that made it. It is shaped into something more valuable: not only the time and skill it took to make the sock but the fact it keeps you warm and allows you to wear shoes comfortably. Having an app isn’t valuable until what it does has value. Does it help people in some way? Does it save them time? That’s value. Change the location of a button which increases user sign-ups? That’s value. Change the colour of a button from red to blue? That’s not value, but it could be, what do the colours represent?
Actions to take:
• Notice who wants what. Value means different things to different people.
You may have heard this, and it will be mentioned a lot, so let’s use it to our advantage. User-centred design means just that, setting users at the centre of your design. Involving them in the process, interviewing them, building whatever you build for them. After all, they will be the ones using it. Failing to build for users means you’re either designing for yourself or for your client, which is the same as designing for nobody. I have a degree of certainty that what I design will be accepted by users because by involving them I understood their Needs, their Goals and their Pains. Always remember, even as the client insists they know what’s best, and even as you’ve fallen in love with your design, that if it isn’t what the user wants or needs, it will most likely fail. You can weaponize this to your advantage: empathising with users means you will most likely have to advocate for them.
You’ll be in a position of strength when questioned by the client because ultimately, you can speak on behalf of the user: “that’s not good for the user”. Just remember not to fictionalise what you’re saying because you think it seems right, double-check with users and keep involving them. A word of caution: When I say involve users, I don’t mean ask them what they want. People rarely know what they want. I thought I wanted a Smart TV. Turns out they’re terrible and what I actually wanted was a Chromecast. Find out what they actually do, not what they say they do, by asking clever questions, avoid any leading questions, and then design according to what your understanding is of what they want.
Actions to take:
• Remind yourself on how to involve users at all stages of the process
In my opinion: you need to strategize. At every step of every process, I reflect by asking myself if this is the right thing we should be doing. I can be halfway through a design or a task and I will drop it if I realize it doesn’t make sense. Abandon logical fallacies like sunk cost and keep the Goal of your product in mind; if it means stopping everything you’re doing and starting from zero, that’s life. Remember, I told you not to be emotionally attached. Wasting a week is better than wasting a month. I mention strategy because it’s what elevates the field of UX from designers to decision-makers. Of course, there are dedicated UX strategists, it deserves its own field of expertise, but as a designer, it is your duty to question everything.
If what you’re designing contradicts the intended strategy then it is your duty to communicate this. This isn’t about feelings, it’s about creating value, and if you’ve identified something better or how to avoid a catastrophe, speak now or forever hold your peace. The insight on users coupled with a value-generating attitude places UX Designers in an excellent position to become key decision-makers in any business. I daresay they are amongst the keyest of decision-makers and should behave as such. Speak with gravitas and certitude while offering strategic advice to your client and they will respect you for it, which will make the difference between you being a designer and you being a key UX decision-maker.
Actions to take:
• For me, strategy means keeping an eye on the full picture. It’s easy to get lost in details and to let them affect the project as a whole.
You’ll notice people asking for this. I’m originally an architect, and architects employ Design Thinking without labelling it as such, so I was happily surprised to see it so clearly written down. Design Thinking is most commonly a 5-step process: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. The point is, as mentioned above, to involve the users in this entire process, and thus guarantee an effective, user-approved product. Empathising means getting to know who you’re designing for. Defining means understanding the problem — you can’t solve anything if you don’t know what the problem is. Ideating means coming up with solutions to the problem. Prototyping means actually turning these solutions into functional stuff. Testing means… testing it. At any step in the process, remind your client that this is an iterative process:
Rarely is something right first try. I wish I could say I get it right first time, but I never do. It’s important to iterate because as you actually do something you learn, and what you’ve learned can be used to repeat the process in an improved way. It’s like baking a cake: your first-ever try may not be good, the second may be okay, and the third may be pretty good. The same applies to every discipline of design. It’s rare to get something right the first time because there is usually not a single correct answer, and so by exhausting all other options you gain confidence in what you’re making being the right way to do it.
Actions to take:
• Iteration is easier when you don’t invest too much effort into stages of the work where quality is less important. It’s why UX designers sketch and wireframe before going into detail: because it doesn’t hurt to throw them away and start again.
• Tools like Whimsical take away details, so you can focus on quick, iterative wireframing.
Everything around you is designed — but what does that mean? Design is about planning things with aesthetic sensibility and usability in mind — it’s the difference between a beautiful artwork and the beautiful frame in which it rests. I don’t consider myself an artist despite originally being an architect and doing a lot of artistic things, because unlike art I seek to make my artistry useful. I’ve been a designer all of my life and cannot imagine doing anything without first designing it — I can guarantee that if you try to build a house without a plan it will not work. You must familiarise yourself with proportion, structure, symmetry and asymmetry, and numerous other guidelines that make great design. Every line I draw on digital software I consider how it stands in relation to the things around it. The more you learn about it, the more you can choose to break the conventions. It’s important to become skilful with the rules before attempting to break them, just as cubic art may seem simple, but the artists responsible are tremendously skilled and do such art with intent.
Actions to take:
• Not everything out there is high-quality work. Identify designers who know what they’re doing and learn to emulate their work. Everything everywhere is based on centuries of foundational work that preceded it. In my opinion, original design is a misnomer, since design is always a reformulation of all impulses, rules, and images a designer has internalised during their life.
• Make aesthetics your lifestyle. Design trends change quickly, but an eye for design does not
You’ll work with a lot of people. Don’t be difficult because everyone is trying to do their best. Don’t monologue about users. Just like any relationship, be willing to compromise, but use your keen intellect to make the best of it. Maybe a compromise is an improvement in disguise. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the developers and understand their Needs just like the Needs of the users. It will feel like juggling, mostly, between keeping your client, product owners, developers and other designers happy. Ultimately, however, each endeavour is a collaborative endeavour and a strong relationship with every other member means a more effective and beautiful output at the end.
Actions to take:
• Teambuilding exercises work, don’t neglect them. Strengthening relationships casualises communication, which allows for more open discussion.
• I fully believe a team of 2 UX designers is the best number. Bouncing ideas off another professional often leads to a better outcome and helps both to grow.
This will be the key bit that gets your foot in the door, anywhere. This is where your communication skill will be put to the test, and why storytelling is such an important skill. Portfolios focused on user experience must tell a story. I would rather have a single project with a powerful story than multiple weak ones. Stories have protagonists, challenges to overcome, and satisfying conclusions. Who are you, how did you work on this, what challenges did you face and how did you overcome them, what insight was gained and what was the outcome? Did you create value and in what way? What role did users play? What clever methods did you use to find out what wasn’t working? Combine that with beautifully crafted, aesthetic designs, and you will have the key piece that gets you an interview.
Actions to take:
• Don’t overthink the medium of your portfolio. I use Adobe Portfolio for my website www.dmnc.eu — it’s simple and allows me to focus on displaying content instead of fighting the platform or spending time coding.
• Document everything. Once a week I recap my work, save key graphics to my hard-drive, and describe thoughts in the process. You will thank yourself when the time comes to compile the work for your portfolio.
• Craft a wonderfully told story
Agile, Lean, Affinity Diagrams, User Flows, Wireframes, Prototypes, User Testing, User Research, Ideation Workshops, and thousands of other words are all important, certainly. I encourage you to google each one and to be curious. That being said — they are steps and tools that are employed to structure, generate and evaluate. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, I know I did at the beginning. There are so many possibilities that it feels important to know everything straight away, but it’s just not possible. You don’t need every tool to get good insight, you don’t need every method to solve a problem, so focus on getting the basics right and expanding your toolkit over time.
There are extremely valuable books that you will remember, quote, and use to your advantage in every scenario you encounter in your life. The list below is ordered in the way I think they should be read, from more theoretical to more practical, each of which shaped me in some way:
The Design of Everyday Things, Dan Norman
Don’t make me think, Steve Krug
Made to Stick, Chip & Dan Heath
The Mom Test, Rob Fitzpatrick
UX Strategy, Jaime Levy
Hooked, Nir Eyal
The User Experience Team of One, Leah Buley
The Age of Agile, Steve Denning
I hope this gave you some insight. I don’t want to pretend this is an answer to everything, but it’s an outline of what I’ve identified as important during my journey and I wanted to chronicle it here for others to extract something that may be valuable to them. I wish you good fortune, whatever you end up doing, and remember: stay curious, stay modest.