When I first set out to become a User Experience Designer, I had no college degree, and very little money—but I had a burning desire to learn and incredible life experiences. I had no roadmap for the journey that lay ahead, but I set out with all my heart, mind and soul and never looked back. This is the roadmap I wish I had from the start.
These steps should provide a high-level overview for anyone interested in what it takes to become a UX Designer.
1. Understand & Articulate Core Concepts
The most important task when approaching a new discipline is to understand and articulate its concepts and principles. Imagine that you're an explorer determined to discover unchartered territory. Instead of putting yourself on the ground with a map drawn by someone else, you might want to take a flight over the area and see the landscape from above before you jump into the jungle and start hacking away with your machete.
You want to get a feel for the features and character of the discipline. Orient yourself and set expectations for how much time it is going to take to gain proficiency. Identify with the parts of the discipline that speak to you most. Ask yourself if this is the right path for you, or if there is another road that suits you better.
What excites you most? What makes you feel uncomfortable or uncertain? What areas do you think would come most naturally to you? What seems confusing or contrived?
If you know a UX Designer ask them which are the most foundational and important UX publications. If you don't know one, start searching the web and make note of recurring names and publications. You want to pick one or two works that will serve as your initial guide map to the discipline of UX.
When I first set out to become a UX Designer, I tried to identify the seminal works and then went out and studied them in depth. By seminal works, I mean materials that shaped the discipline of UX and contain the propositions that later works build upon and argue against.
The two works I identified and studied were:
- Jesse James Garret's The Elements of User Experience Design.
- Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler's A Project Guide to UX Design
The Elements of User Experience Design was first written in 2002, and it was a work that popped up everywhere when researching seminal works of UX Design. It seemed to be a concise and clear summary of the core concepts of UX Design, but it lacked the raw practical application that A Project Guide to UX Design provides. Given that my pursuit wasn't an academic one, I used these two books and their different strengths to give me a high-level overview of the core concepts and principles of UX as well as the process of applying them in real projects.
Here is the high-level overview of UX Design that I came up with:
User Experience Design is the craft of using real people and their needs as the calibrating force to design and develop digital products.
It is incredibly important to write down (in your own words) the summary of what you've learned about the high-level concepts and principles of UX Design. If you cannot articulate something you've learned, you probably haven't learned it that well. Once you have written something that encompasses what you learned, go ahead and share it with the world and see what other people think.
Getting feedback from real people is a pattern you should have identified in what you wrote, so why not put that pattern to work and see what you learn along the way? You don't have to call yourself a UX Designer before you start practicing some of its principles, do you?
2. Identify & Build Key Skills
So now that you've got a good understanding of the lay of the UX land, you're going to want to identify the key skills that will allow you to do your job as a UX Designer. The skills that interest you most are probably going to be the ones you want to focus on, but identifying and strengthening your weaknesses is important as well. Before I talk about my experience in skill building, I want to share a distinction between hard-skills and soft-skills which I think might be useful.
Hard skills are the more technical and tactile skills that live at the heart of a discipline. Soft skills are the supporting yet essential background skills necessary to do your job well. Having a balance of hard and soft skills is crucial to being a valuable UX Designer.
I found a great list of hard skills that is organized by the different segments within the UX Discipline. You might want to print this out and familiarize yourself with its terms:
Here are a list of soft-skills that I think are crucial to being a good UX Designer:
There's a great e-book from UX Mastery called Get Started in UX that talks a lot about hard and soft skills and getting started with a career in UX.
In my exploration of UX I strongly identified with the Interaction Design, Visual Design and Computer Science disciplines of UX. I have a natural inclination to organize information by categories and to group items by relationship to one another, so I felt the gravitation towards Information Architecture, but it was the process of creation that really got me excited.
Here are the skill lists I created:
- Prototyping (HTML, JS, CSS)
- Wireframing (Omnigraffle, Balsamiq, Axure)
- UX & Content Strategy
- Guerilla User Research & Testing (Google Analytics, Crazy Egg, Usability Hub, Ethn.io, Silverback)
- Visual Design (layout, color, hierarchy, typography)
- Formal Research and Testing (lab testing, field studies, user surveys, card sorting)
- UXD Management (collaboration, conflict resolution, delegation, motivation)
3. Identify and Connect With Industry Leaders
Just like we took a high-level overview of the core concepts and principles of UX in Step 1, we want to understand who the main influencers are in the field of UX and where they stand on the spectrum of the discipline.
With a map of UX influencers, we can follow them, read about them, learn what career paths they took and what motivates them as designers. This helps us understand what UX has been and what the influencers say UX will be. It also helps you identify with what is important in UX and what can separate you from the crowd.
MY UX INFLUENCER LIST
Here's a list of industry leaders that I identified at this stage of my journey:
- Aarron Walter
- Andy Budd
- Bruce Tognazzini
- Don Norman
- Ethan Marcotte
- Jakob Nielsen
- Jared Spool
- Jesse James Garrett
- Luke Wroblewski
- Mike Matas
- Paul Boag
- Whitney Hess
4. Attend Conferences, Workshops, etc.
Once you've got a solid understanding of UX principles, the skills you need to learn, and who the major influencers are, it's time to jump into the UX community to put all that you've learned to action. Some events are better than others so I would advise doing some solid research to determine what would be the best use of your time and money. You don't necessarily have to drop a few thousand dollars and a full week in order to get your foot in the door. Often there are local workshops that can help get you momentum in your UX career.
Knowing yourself and your career goals is really the most important part in deciding how to invest your time and money on conferences and the like. I suggest you use your skill lists as a guide for making choices, but also be mindful that these aren't going to make you a master at anything. Instead, they'll probably give you entirely new ways of thinking and expose you to ideas that change your trajectory.
MY CONFERENCE SHORTLIST
- Usability Week by Nielsen Norman Group
- UI19 by User Interface Engineering
- An Event Apart
- Smashing Conference
5. Immerse Yourself in UX
You're back from the conference with a massive buzz for UX and you likely have more information than you know what to do with. You've probably found some people that really inspire you and some resources that are incredibly valuable. This is the time to immerse yourself with all the awesome UX resources you discovered at the conference. Whether it be magazines, podcasts, video courses, tutorials, or other events—go ahead and immerse yourself in everything UX. You'll start absorbing information from all angles, and the deeper parts of your consciousness are going to become increasingly familiar with the vernacular and processes behind UX.
6. Analyze Everything UX
In your world of UX immersion, you're going to want to start to think critically about every interface and experience that comes your way. Start asking yourself questions like "Why did the designer decide to use this affordance?" and "Is there sufficient hierarchy in the layout?" and "Is the most important action the most obvious action on the page?" and "I wonder who their key user segments are. If I were to guess it would be..." and any other questions that come to mind.
The tools you use to analyze the experiences are not as important as the thought process, but you might want to start learning prototyping tools like Axure RP, Balsamiq or OmniGraffle as part of your analysis. Training yourself to identify and ask the right questions is crucial, but being able to answer questions with solutions is the end goal. You want to be able to think and communicate like a designer.
If you don't know what something is called or how to express an idea, go ahead and look it up, sketch it, prototype it. You'll often find your questions at the intersection of multiple disciplines. You'll want to understand business process as well as technology implications. It's important you're able to converse with stakeholders as well as developers.
The cool part about this step of analyzing everything 'UX' is that it never really ends. Once you get started you'll find your critical designer mind with you all the time—looking at how you could make something better. That philosophy of continuous improvement is what will allow you to add value. Identifying problems and creating solutions is crucial so go ahead and get started on something that really interests you.
This analysis for me came began by way of sketching interfaces that inspired me and annotating every element. I wanted to understand the thought process behind the design, but also the code that made the components work. Because my skill list leaned towards prototyping and front-end development, I found myself opening Chrome Dev tools and inspecting page after page for the applications that drew my interest.
Here are the interfaces I studied extensively (if you look closely you'll probably see recognize design patterns I've used on my projects):
7. Commit to a Local Community
If you are committed to becoming a UX Designer, it only seems appropriate to make an intentional commitment to a community of other local designers who can support you and help you along your journey. Depending on where you live, you might be able to find a great local UX community. Keep a lookout for ways to can give back to your community and you'll find much in return.
MY COMMUNITY EXPERIENCE
I found UX Design communities to be particularly welcoming. People come from all sorts of backgrounds and seem to understand what its like to be a newcomer. I started going to a bunch of different Meetups and found a few that resonated with me more than others and I decided to commit to those. If you're in Denver I highly recommend Refresh Denver and UX Book Club Denver.
8. Find a Mentor
This is one of the most crucial steps in becoming a UX Designer. Having a mentor with more experience, knowledge and skill will help you understand yourself better and will empower you to navigate your career more successfully than you could alone. I searched long and hard and tried a few different mentor relationships before I found one that was a good fit.
It's likely that you'll find plenty of experts in your local community, but the hard part is establishing a mutually beneficial mentorship. Mentorship is a two-way street and you need to demonstrate not only your commitment to learn and grow as a UX Designer but also your commitment to them as a mentor.
People have different needs and expectations, and finding out what a potential mentor is looking for is key. Don't be afraid to ask direct questions like "Would you be interested in being my UX mentor? What would you be looking to gain as a mentor? What kind of time commitment would be reasonable for you? Are there any skills that I can offer you in return?"
Don't feel obligated to do anything more formal or less formal than you're comfortable with. Figure out what works best for you and ask for it.
MY MENTOR EXPERIENCE
After searching around and trying different mentorships, I settled on a UX Designer that I identified as an industry influencer—Whitney Hess. I resonated strongly with Whitney's passion to guide designers through their careers and to improve the human experience.
At first, I was reluctant to pay for a mentorship but after great consideration I finally made the commitment to hire her as my mentor. I will never look back.
In our first one-hour conversation I gained more insight about myself and my career than I had in months of introspection. I learned that my wide range of skills and non-traditional experience was a huge value. I learned that I didn't have to commodify myself as another designer but that I could lean on my strengths of understanding client needs and distilling complex problems into simple solutions.
My experience is something to be said for Whitney's skill as a UX career coach, but I think this applies to speaking with anyone who has more experience in your field and is committed to helping you along your journey. So even if you're not able to pay for a mentor, do recognize the immense value that they have to offer and be intentional about finding a mentor.
I read a lot of articles about finding a UX mentor along my journey and so I thought I would share some of them with you in case you're interested:
9. Work On a Real Project
Working on a real project is by far the most important step in becoming a UX Designer. It's where all the conceptual knowledge and relationship building gets applied. It doesn't matter if you understand all the concepts and know all the great designers, if you can't do your job well you're not going to go very far.
Look for projects that will be a good fit for you instead of jumping on the very first thing that comes your way. You want to choose clients that share your values and beliefs and respect you as a person. Choosing a project that challenges you and has a high likelihood of being successful is key. You want your first project to be a seed for many more to come.
MY FIRST UX PROJECT
My first paid project as a UX Designer was with a Denver-based music startup called Thengine. It was this project that launched me in my career as a UX Designer.
I started off with an intense desire to understand. I wanted to grasp what the founders of Thengine were trying to do and do everything I could to execute their vision. I researched the industry and interviewed musicians from all over the country to understand the problem that Thengine was proposing to solve. I sketched interfaces and gave users scenarios to complete simple tasks. I built prototypes based on my validated paper sketches and tested those prototypes with more users.
I invested hundreds of hours into making this project successful and while the end result wasn't the best user experience ever designed, it was a huge milestone in my journey and it gave me the momentum and confidence to continue forward on my journey as a UX Designer.
I would encourage you to document everything about your work process. Save all your sketches. Draw everything you can think of. Iterate. Ideate. Brainstorm ideas in was that are visually stimulating. Take photos of your work and save it into Evernote (or your tool of choice). Even if you've never drawn or sketched before, you need to start articulating your ideas and capturing your thought process to excel as a UX Designer.
10. Share Your Work & Ask For Feedback
Now that you've got a project finished and fully documented it's time to add it to your portfolio and share it with the UX community. Ask for feedback. Tell people you want to improve and want any advice you can get. It's a bit intimidating at first, but learning how to ask for and receive feedback is crucial.
You'll learn things that you could never have learned before. Someone might point out a great opportunity that you missed or a big rookie mistake that you made—either way, you're better off knowing than not.
I think you'll find that once you've gone through your first project, the next project will come more naturally. No matter how your first projects goes just keep trying, keep improving and keep learning. Being a UX Designer means you can choose which hats you want to wear and what areas you are passionate about, so don't feel pushed or compelled to do anything that doesn't fit with you and your goals.
The hard work I invested in my early projects has paid off. Not only was I referred to other great clients but the UX community began to notice what I was up to. I was featured in UX Mastery's 10 Inspiring UX Portfolios, and I was asked to do interviews for The Interaction Design Foundation.
By no means have I mastered UX design, but I have a passion for telling stories and for making the world a better place through what I love. UX just happened to be a tool that I fell in love with along the way.
There are so many paths you can take to becoming a UX Designer and I hope you have a blast on yours. Feel free to reach out at any time if you have any questions or want to talk about UX. I'm always interested in learning new things and meeting new people.
I've had a few people reach out to me with additional resources that are useful on the journey to becoming a UX Designer. I've included these links here.