The Quick Start Guide to a Career in UX

So I got you to click. I hate to break it to you but there is no quick start guide to anything. But, you’re in luck. I put this guide together so that with a lot of hard work, and the right mentors, you’ll have the tools and resources you need to get started in your UX career. You’ve already taken the first step.

Swiss designer and entrepreneur, Yves Behar, equates good design to a light switch. An easy flip of the switch is all it should take to turn on the lights. If it’s more complicated than that, it’ll never be widely used.

User Experience is by far one of the most attractive careers right now. It offers a mix of interesting experiences, you get to work with a variety of people, pays well, and is becoming a “linchpin” role in today’s technologically centered world. Moreover, you have the opportunity to make people’s lives better and easier by creating great products that will never collect dust. You probably won’t redesign the light switch — but hey, you may just design something that becomes a permanent part of people’s lives.

The Start of a Journey

A few months ago, I set out to learn about the theory and practice of user experience, in hopes of answering, “How do I break into user experience?” I connected with Chris Pallé, the executive director of user experience at Wisdom+Craft. He was glad to help me out and gave me some real insight into user experience and what it takes.

Before jumping into the questions I asked, I want to clear up some of the most common misconceptions starters have about user experience, courtesy of Erik Flowers.

User experience is all of the above, but too many times people focus on the visual aspect— there’s so much more that happens before and after we arrive at the an interface. 99% of people who say they do everything, don’t do everything at an expert level. These people may be great at a startup where they’re the only designer, but when you get to be a part of larger team, everyone starts to specialize in one or two of the above. And for the future, please don’t call yourself a UI/UX Designer.

Secondly, UX is not wire-frames, survey results or prototypes. User Experience is a philosophy that everyone in your organization, big or small needs to have.

Jeffrey Zeldman, the King of Web Standards, put it very simply, “What we do is for people, to make sure they have a good experience. We don’t make our page accessible for a gold star. We don’t design for browsers. We don’t design for mobile devices. We don’t design for tablets and fablets and touch screens and everything else. We design for people.

Jeffrey Zeldman

Out of the Frying Pan

I’m an avid reader, so naturally I’m in the middle of 6 books at a time and have 30 tabs open. Since there aren’t that many formal education paths in user experience, I knew this would be a journey of self-education.

If you were to describe user experience in a few words, what would it be?

Chris: We are the ones responsible for delivering a great experience to the users. We are the people who advocate for the people. We make it intuitive and useful. We make it valuable, and desirable. We make it memorable.

Peter Morvile— UX Honeycomb

What really struck me was the simplicity and profundity of Chris’ answer. Not only did he sum up user experience in a few words, but he made the entire point of user experience within it. His answer was concise, and left no room for ambiguity, just like interfaces and mobile apps should be. It was easily digestible and memorable, which is one of the main goals of a designing good user experience.

What are the best resources for User Experience?

Chris: UXMag, Boxes and Arrows, Harvard Business Review, IxDA, UXPA and UXMatters.

Since then, I’ve really come to enjoy UXMatters and AListApart the most. YouTube is also an amazing resource for learning UX. For example, if you want to learn about usability testing, you can see a full usability interview session conducted by Steve Krug.

What are the most important skills I need when getting started?

Chris: Ask good questions, and learn how to listen; it’s extremely important. Asking good questions means learning how to ask the right questions — the questions that get you further into user research. Asking the good questions is like peeling back the onion a few layers, revealing who the users are and what makes them “sing.” The good questions allow you to learn what’s important to the stakeholders. It’ll help you learn who the people really are who use your product, and you’ll be able to design it better for the people who will use it- a way that’s intuitive, easy, and fun to use.

Play to your strengths — I can’t emphasize this enough. Take a good hard look at the skills you already possess. Are you a great writer? Are you a great communicator? Are you a great storyteller? Take what you’re already good at and apply those skills to the user experience. Then pick up a few more skills to complement those along the way.

One of the key ideas I’ve taken away from our conversation: If your questions are more effective, your ROI per minute will be much higher. Less time needed to understand the project + less time spent in meetings = more time to work on the user experience.

And into the Fire

C: Imagine three circles. We’ll label them “business, people, and technology.” They each intersect in the middle, and each represent a crucial part in the the design process. When designing a project you need to keep each of these in mind, and inherently understand each of these elements and how they interact with the others. You see, each of elements depend on each other, and the middle represents the tension and “problem-space” between them. Most UXers use a similar diagram and the overlap represents the solutions — but that’s like saying, “something magical happens here.” We must first articulate the problem before we can hope to uncover the solutions.

The Problem Space

For example, the business manager will say that they can only spend $15,000 on the product and it needs to be done in three weeks. The developer will say that in order to implement all of the features they spoke about in the last meeting, it’ll take six weeks. And the web designer is vying for a certain look for the website that’ll knock both the manager and developer off track. Each is an important piece of the puzzle. As a user experience designer, you have to learn how to dance — dance between the circles that is. You need to advocate for the user, which should be validated through testing, and at the same time consider the business and technology goals and for the project.

What I didn’t know at the time, is that I’d have ten meetings since our first time speaking. Chris has personally guided me and answered all my questions on an ongoing basis. He’s a good mentor, but an even better friend. Thanks Chris!

I am an interaction designer in NYC. Check out my website and feel free to respond to this post on twitter: @jacobrogelberg.

P.S. Check out the Ultimate UX Community on Slack.

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