Advice on how to become a UX Designer

“Violin crafting”, by Raul Lieberwirth. CC2.0

The first thing is wanting it. Is that why you’re here? You’ve used an app, you’ve hopped on the bus, you’ve checked out at an online store, and you’ve told yourself: fuck this. I could do it better.

Well then, let’s do it better.

You’ve probably been observing how things are designed. You secretly loathe how some products work. Maybe you’ve wished more than once that you were given the chance to redesign this one product. “Only if”.

I have good news for you. UX Design is fairly new. It’s a field built upon the experiential knowledge of professionals, and non-professionals, of so many different disciplines. Some with degrees, some without. This means that no matter your origin, you have a place here.

Alright, enough chitchat.

I want to tell you my background quickly, so you understand my point of view. I discovered design when I was in high school in Ecuador. I designed the yearbook of our senior class. I moved to Spain, and I studied a Computer Science bachelor. In second year I wanted to dropout because I couldn’t reconcile my love for design and CS. I didn’t. In third year I took this class called Human-Computer Interaction and I fell in love with it. I studied my senior year in Uppsala University, Sweden, and I tried to take as many classes as possible on user oriented design, and I did my bachelor thesis on HCI.

Then I moved to the US and started working at a VC/design agency. I started as an intern (putting out IT fires and fixing Mailchimp templates) and when I realized that I could both code and design, I researched what the name was and I found UX. I drafted a proposal to change my job to that of a “UX Engineer” (and I found out I hadn’t made up that name, and more people were using it) and submitted to the partners at the agency. They liked it. My job changed and I started “kind of” designing things. This company died and I started working at an industrial design agency as a UX Designer. I worked on projects for Jawbone, Samsung, etc. Nowadays I work at Kite as a designer and engineer. I love it. Join us. Wink. Wink.

Alright. That’s me. Let’s continue, shall we?

What is expected of you as a UX Designer?

Your superiors and colleagues will expect you to design the experience of the product/feature you work on. They will expect you to help ideate core parts of the product, offer alternatives on how to design it better, how to make it easier for users to understand, and possibly how to design it in a way that it improves certain success metrics (conversion ratios, etc.).

Be an observer

Welcome to the realm of UX. From now on, you’re an observer, and that’s 90% of your job. Observation. As a UX Designer, you have to love observing behaviors. Every person is a potential user, and every behavior is a potential component of your life.

  • Observe how people behave. Go to a busy street on rush hour and look around you. All those people around you have their own micro-cosmos of a life, with the products they use, and how they use them. Feel small, feel insignificant. Understand your tastes are not the same as others. Embrace that idea, embrace smallness, and become a tiny observer among giants. — As an activity, just sit on a bench and observe them for a while. Try to understand their tastes, their profile, the brands they use, how they use their umbrella, how they carry their phone, their notebook, their purse. Imagine a product, something mundane like a backpack, and try to design it for those people you see. Do you notice the subtle differences between the way they walk, their age, their demeanor? How would you design it in a way that it would work for more than just one person, maybe hundreds or thousands?
  • Observe how things are made. Go to a subway station and observe how people get their tickets or reload their cards. You see their struggle? How would you design it in a way that it was easier? Observe how the stairs are made and the layout of the station. Would you design it any differently?

Become an expert at observing people. Love observing people. Make it a habit, make it a skill. No one can teach you that. You train your brain to do it. Most importantly, observing people you’ll develop a very valuable skill: insight. The only way to get better at diving deeper into a user’s behavior is actually doing it. Observing and synthesizing behaviors. Understanding why.

Experiment and get out of your comfort zone

A fantastic part of UX design is ‘playing’. Experimentation is not just a perk of being a UX designer, but a must. Experiment with the things you want to design. Don’t fall into the mistake of box thinking. Sometimes you have to shred and rewind. Experiment with your own job. Ultimately, you’ll define what kind of UX designer you’ll be.

  • Remember the activity of going to a subway station? Let’s use the insight you gained from that. Create a cardboard prototype of the ticket machine you would design and bring it to the station. Ask random people to tell you what they think and make people “use” the cardboard prototype. You’ll be surprised of how many people don’t have a problem interacting with a random stranger. You’ll get so much insight from user’s opinion. This activity was suggested to me by Thomas Arend, when I was clueless about how to make UX happen in my life. Just try it out.

Get inspired

There is plenty of very interesting UX work out there. Browse the Internet for how people are making things happen.

Here’s something that may clash with some advice you may have received so far. There are portfolio-style websites like Dribbble or Behance that may seem like an interesting source of inspiration, but understand something: nothing beats real products. Don’t let yourself be convinced by flashy UIs with amazing animations. Well designed products don’t need glitter. Look for real products with real applications, not hypothetical UIs or “material design re-designs”.

Functionality is the most important thing

This connects with the idea I just explained. Now you’re in the realm of UX, and there’s nothing more tempting in this world than beautiful words and glitter. You’ll see textures, you’ll see animations. You’ll see “fluid” interfaces. “Frameworks”. Ignore them. Before praising or admiring someone else’s work, ask yourself twice if all that shit is actually useful. Distill the glitter out of the products you see and deeply analyze if this is the right way to make something useful and easy to use.

There’s no better way to “delight” a user than making something functional, consistent, and robust.

You’ll hear that a UX designer’s job is to “delight” the user. That is not entirely true. Your job as a UX designer is to make the communication between user and product as seamless as possible, through functionality, usefulness, and easiness. There’s no better way to “delight” a user than making something functional, consistent, and robust. In the world of functionality, there’s no space for glitter. No one cares if your buttons are rounded or if they have shadows. You need to design UIs and experiences that have the right physical attributes to make the user love the product and use it as an extension of their own body.

Functionality is what differentiates good UX design from great UX design. Functionality is your religion and your dogma. Functionality is the absolute cornerstone of a successful product. It’s the reason we keep using hammers, it’s the reason why writing on a tablet is just not like writing on a piece of paper, it’s the reason why it’s easier flicking a switch to turn on your lamp than going to an app to do the same thing. Functionality is consistency, structure, hierarchy.

As a UX designer, you’re a structural designer that needs to achieve the best possible functionality. You need to finely balance the user needs, the user wants, and your own technical limitations. You can design a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing product, that works very well.

Fuck glitter.

If your users want glitter, they’ll go buy a piñata.

Wireframe stuff. Prototype shizzle

Wireframe, wireframe, wireframe. Whiteboard, and go back to wireframe. Wireframe so much that you’ll be thinking in boxes and user flows.

Prototype your wireframes. Learn to prototype. Prototypes go from cardboard to 3D prints, and from clickable PDFs to native Objective-C / Javascript prototypes. Learn to prototype. A UX designer that prototypes is a UX designer that makes people happy.

Learn to prototype.

Combine data and intuition

Finely walk between the world of data and your intuition. Combining both is an explosive mess that will make your users happy and your product a success.

  • Learn about A/B testing. Test different designs with your users and analyze the results. All that data is a great way to validate your hypotheses about your user’s behavior.
  • Learn about the market. Competitors are a great source of data. How are other people designing this kind of product? What are the usual patterns? How are other products used by your same market target generally designed?
  • Learn about the biology of your user. This is valuable data that will provide you the physiological reason for many of your user’s behaviors. Learn about behavioral neuroscience. A simple reading on foveal vision can get you a long way and you’ll learn priceless insight about your users.

Remember, users are just as human as you are, and that means many of their wants and needs sometimes don’t respond to a logical process. Users are contradictory and sometimes irrational, just like you, just like me.

Networking is not everything (it’s little)

Networking will not make you a good designer. Networking will get you some contacts, and most of them will sit on your LinkedIn contact list forever. Forever.

The value of work is orders of magnitude above the value of networking. Your work, your quality as a designer is the highest expression of your potential and it’s the reason people will hire you. A good portfolio, a good track record with real products, insight, and passion beats the number of LinkedIn contacts you have.

Use networking wisely. Foster relationships. Find people that will challenge you. Find people that will make you question your core beliefs and practices.

Loyalty to the user

There’s an important moral aspect to being a UX designer. When you decide to become a UX designer, you promise your undying loyalty to the user. Your users may be poor or rich, may be stubborn (probably will be), but they’re your users. Your users are your clients, and if you want to become a master of your craft, you need to treat them with respect.

That means no getting mad when you get bad feedback. That means not thinking “users are stupid”. That means taking into account every single opinion you get. The user is your ultimate judge.

There’s no bigger waste than a UX designer with an ego. Let your pride be that of your product, and your ego that of your user.

Build yourself and have fun

Last but not least: build yourself. There are many types of UX designers. To be fully honest, the most amazing designers I’ve worked with are the ones that leverage their other skills to complement their UX craft. Some have an art background, some have a CS background. Advertising, web development, you name it. Mix your skills. Develop a unique craft.

Have fun. Enjoy every second. If you’re not enjoying it, your users definitely won’t.

Designer, engineer. Cofounder at Silo.

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