What makes someone a good designer?

…and other questions I received while speaking on a Women in Tech panel in Seattle, Washington

Last week I had the honor and opportunity to speak on a panel at University of Washington’s Women in UX conference, joined by fellow designers from Facebook and Splunk. There were lots of great questions from both the student moderator and (mostly undergrad) attendees— here are a few highlights.

That’s me (second from the right), in the company of fellow designers from Facebook and Splunk.

What makes someone a good UX designer?

I love this question because 1) it came from a new designer on my team who was there to support me and 2) just by asking it, you are well on your way. My answer is simple: a good UX designer asks questions. What if…? What happens when…? How does …? As designers we have a unique opportunity to represent the users (sometimes, we are the only ones on the product team pushing for what is in their best interest), so asking questions is the key to ensuring everyone has a shared understanding of the goals (and non-goals) of the team, the product, the business, etc. In my experience, no question is too basic — bring your beginner’s mindset and don’t be shy about asking the most basic, foundational questions about the concepts, nouns, verbs, patterns, risks, users, behaviors and decisions happening in the product. When you think you’re done asking questions, follow up with a few rounds of “Why…?”. Occasionally in a design review or strategy meeting months into a project I’ll still toss out a “Who is our MVP user?” — when the PMs, EMs or designers all give different answers, its a reminder that no matter how deep into a project we are, its always a good idea to cross check our assumptions. Being a good designer starts with understanding the problem you are trying to solve.

What would you tell yourself while you were an undergrad?

Something I am still working on everyday is not letting the idea of perfection block progress. Much like with my current gig as a product designer, sometimes getting something out the door is more important than making sure is perfect. I would tell myself not to be afraid to fail, to enjoy the process and take bigger risks (everyone on the panel agreed, being a student is likely the only time you’ll have such freedom, so enjoy it!). Also, make connections — the relationships you make in school is where and how you start to grow your professional network. It is a small world and you’ll be surprised at how often you’ll run into a familiar face in the work place.

How might students or women with little experience create a portfolio? Are student projects ok?

I have been a hiring manager (and/or closely involved in portfolio reviews) and depending on the specifics of the position details (if we’re in need of a junior vs. senior designer, for example), I am looking to see if your portfolio demonstrates your design thinking. Do you go deep into solving the problem? What types of constraints did you consider? Student and personal projects are a great opportunity to showcase your personality and passions (I still include a few just-for-fun projects on my own site!), and at the end of the day I am looking for a body of work that stands out from the crowd: a great representation of who you are and how you work. If we meet in person, I might ask you what V2 of your design might look like or how you might iterate on a particular UI. Where you created the project doesn’t always matter — I want to see how you do it.

What do you do outside of work to stay inspired?

I’ve written about my love for artsing and crafting as my own way to unplug and stay inspired, and all three of us on the panel reiterated the importance of finding things outside of work that make you happy.

I’m not sure what facet of UX I want to do. What should I major in?

This was a scary moment — please don’t pick your major based on what I have to say! But I can say this: 2 out of 3 of us on the panel did not go to school for design (I was the outlier) which proves that your coursework doesn’t have to dictate your future. So, find something you are passionate about and give it your all. The beautiful thing about working in any design discipline is that you are building your own, personal toolbox of skills. If you focus on content design and later decide you want to specialize in interaction, your work as a content designer is absolutely relevant and useful. If you start in research and move to information architecture, you will already understand things from the mind of a user. As creative professionals, we are lucky to love what we do, and I truly believe that you will find success if you follow your passion. So, jump into a facet of design that excites you — the passion and energy you bring to work that you are excited about will make it easy to feel if it is right for you (and if it turns out it isn’t, it’s never too late to make a change).

I often share #wireframeoftheday on Twitter to encourage everyone to put ideas onto (real) paper.

What tools should I learn?

You’ll need some hard skills to work as a designer — luckily, most places are a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of set up. Personally, my team uses Sketch and Invision (same for the other gals on the panel from Facebook and Splunk). Friends of mine are Adobe loyalists paired with Axure or Proto.io. Watching a few Skillshare or Lynda courses on any of the above would probably serve you well. If visual design is your thing, consider taking some foundational art courses to familiarize yourself with basic principles of color and composition. I’d get a sketchbook and practice putting your ideas to paper (check out my #wireframeoftheday on Twitter for examples of quick sketches that conceptualize some UX iterations I’m working on). It is also and interesting exercise to grow your awareness of apps or websites you love — why do you love them? Is it the typography and photography style? Is it a delightful interaction? Once you have a designer’s eyes you will start to notice and appreciate thoughtful details (warning: you’ll also notice all of the terrible, horrible, no-good UX out there too, but you should consider that as opportunities to change the world!).

I also spoke briefly about getting out of your comfort zone (I forget which question triggered this topic) but the idea of pushing past the boundaries of where you are currently as a way to stay inspired, to learn, and to grow seemed to resonate with everyone on the panel. I set a personal goal for 2017 to speak at a conference for the very first time, so when the opportunity to sit on this panel arose I teetered on the fence a bit before committing — mostly because it was intimidating, something I had never done before, would be some extra work on my end, etc. Turns out, is something I want to do more of, but I would have never found that out unless I went for it.

So, to the smart gal in the back who asked me what piece of advice I would give to someone looking to start their careers in design? Go for it.