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.

My background. (Feel free to skip to the part below if this bores you zzZZzzzz) (I wish I could collapse this section so I don’t have to bore you with my life unnecessarily)

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?

OK. We get it, Yeezuschrist dude, get to the point. OK, OK.

Be an observer

  • 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

  • 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

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

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

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

  • 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)

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

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

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

Designer, engineer. Cofounder at Silo.

Designer, engineer. Cofounder at Silo.