‘UX Designer: a self portrait’ by Amanda Moussa

Getting started in UX Design: 5 behaviours I wish I’d learned sooner

There is a lot of advice for newcomers to UX Design. Whether starting from scratch or moving into it from a related field, it can be hard to know how to begin to devour all the advice and guides that clamour for attention.

Still, it feels that much of the day-to-day practice of UX is missing from this pile of tutorials, portfolio tips and ‘you are not your user’ reminders. I’ve come to see UX not just as a collection of techniques, but as a way of being and thinking — a mode of conduct within a team.

Recently, I was asked for a few tips by a former colleague who is making the transition from web development into UX. I found myself rambling for 45 minutes, ranting about the things that no one tells you when you’re attempting to make a start.

Since I have no wish to recreate the vaguely horror-stricken look that slowly overtook her face, I won’t rant for 45 minutes.

But I will distill down the main behaviours I wish I’d started to practise sooner.

1. Become an expert on your product as well as your user. Do this as early on as you can.

Becoming an expert on your user is a given, of course. But you also need to become an expert on your product.

Know your journeys. The key journeys, the most common journeys, the edge cases, the exceptions, the variations, the entry routes, the annoying little unintended rabbit holes that haven’t been fixed yet.

I’ve worked on projects where this was easy and enjoyable to do, and products that contained so many moving parts that it felt virtually impossible. But persist.

It will give you the ability to zoom in and out. It will get you familiar with both the details and the wider picture. You’ll see dependencies, relationships, implications and opportunities that might be missed. And you’ll know the wider context of every interaction — you’ll know what else is happening to this user during their visit.

Your user does not see a jigsaw of separate projects. They see one product. Learn how it fits together.

2. Pick up a pen before you touch a mouse

It’s not that UI is less important, but it should never be your starting point. Instead, pull the camera back. Wide angle. Context. What happened before this? What are you trying to do? What is your user trying to do? What do you know research-wise?

Pens are the tools here. Sketch journey ideas, big picture thoughts, multiple options, before you put anything onto a screen. Switch off the computer if you have to.

3. Greet everything with a question

Well, not for the sake of it. But aim to understand as much as possible and to check every assumption — yours and theirs.

Sorry to everyone who works with me. I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m not trying to catch anyone out. I might not even be looking for answers. But questions explore assumptions and build shared understanding — as well as illuminating avenues of thinking. You want to learn more, you want to understand as much as possible.

Don’t edit your questions too much before you speak them. The more you do this, the less you’ll worry about looking stupid. Sometimes the questions that sound obvious and stupid to you are the ones that prove most useful.

4. Rip stuff apart

Do it politely. But your job is to identify what’s wrong and why, and help make it better. To do that, you need to criticise. Justify it. Substantiate it. But do it.

Don’t be scared of judgement. It’s what they pay you for.

5. Read widely

Let’s face it, this will help you whatever your job is. Don’t just read about design and technology. Read fiction to improve your understanding of story construction. Part of UX is identifying the stories at the heart of the user’s experience— and communicating them. Learn how to formulate stories.

Read about thinking, about social behaviour, about politics, about business thought, strategy, religion, writing, psychology. Devour the ‘smart thinking’ section at the library. Build your empathy and understanding of other points of view. The more you do this the more you’ll internalise patterns and make unconventional links, and the broader your frames of reference will be.

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