Should you become a UX designer?

I co-taught a 10-week UX immersive class at General Assembly two years ago. I sometimes get emails from people inquiring if they should take the class and in general, if they should become a UX designer.

It’s a big call! It’s not a question that cannot be answered easily. This post is meant to address the topic and give those of you who are considering changing careers, a place to start.

Instead of starting to answer the question, I ask one in return, which is:

why do you want to become a UX designer?

If your answer is associated with lifestyle traits such as pay, flexibility, fun environments — you need to rethink the question.

User Experience is like any other thing you choose to do; ideally it’s driven by passion and curiosity. If you want to be a UX designer because you heard the pay is good and it sounds fun to work with startups you need to think harder or choose a different profession. It’s OK to want these things, but it shouldn’t be the driving factor.

First, some practical tips!

1. Start by understanding what UX design actually is.

Even UX people have a hard time explaining what UX is. Why is this? User experience is really an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of things.

A simple yet broad definition…

“User experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

Sounds great, but it’s only the start. If you’re considering getting into the UX field, it’s important to understand everything in the umbrella. I break down some different roles here, but commonly — and especially in a startup environment, the same person is doing a combination of or at times — all of these things.

User Researcher
Primary focus is user interviews, user research, persona development, contextual inquiry and behavior analysis. This person’s job is to understand the user, gain insights through research and bring those insights back to the team in order to make better design and business decisions with.

Information Architect
Primary focus is on organizing information to make it easily navigable by users. This person defines how information is categorized and labeled, i.e. the “taxonomy.”

Content Specialist/Strategist
Primary focus is on tasks such as copywriting, content definition and or planning. Everything in UX comes back to the user and content strategy is no different. Great content strategists have an understanding of the target users “personas” and develop a content strategy to speak directly to them and the specific problems they’re trying to solve.

Interaction Designer
Primary focus is on how users interact with an interface, how screens are connected, and how a user flows through them. As well as transitions between screens, often inspired by real-world paradigms (page curls, sliding windows etc.)

Visual Designer
Primary focus is on the visual aesthetics of the interface: typography, layout, color, graphics, visual effects, imagery and so on.

UX Engineer, Front End
Primary focus on writing HTML, CSS, JavaScript code to implement front-end solutions, usually based on visual designs.

Motion Designer
Primary focus on using Web animations to enhance the user’s experience and that make a product not just usable but delightful.

Project Manager
The Project Manager is not a UX-specific role but it’s worth mentioning as there is usually one as part of the team. If there’s not, you may take on this role at times. Primary focus is on planning, organizing and guiding a project and its team, consisting of UX as well as technology roles.


Want to see real life examples? Check out design jobs at Google and see real job descriptions for these roles and others: https://design.google.com/jobs


The UX Iceberg by Dan Olsen https://twitter.com/danolsen

2. Find what you’re attracted to the most.

Ok, back to practical advice. #1 was a bit exhaustive, hopefully you’re still with me! Find what you’re attracted to the most. Why is this important? For many people a deep interest and curiosity in something is a motivating factor to spend time doing that thing day after day. You’re more likely to be successful at something you really like. Raj Raghunathan, author of “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?” has this to say:

“Become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway.”

While you find what you’re attracted to, make sure you take the time to understand the bigger picture also. You should know enough about all the roles described above to at the very least, have a conversation about them.

3. Do research and meet people.

When you’ve identified what you’re attracted to, do a deep dive into research to learn as much as you can; enough to feel like you really start to understand it. Read as much as you can — on the Internet as well as industry relevant books. Go to Meetups; try to meet with people who do what you want to do (and make sure you pick up the tab). As you go along, write down all the questions you have. As you research and meet with people, reference your list to make sure your questions are getting answered. Write down new ones, repeat. By this point, you should feel much more confident about the possibility of making a life-changing decision than you did in the beginning.


It is only at this point, should you consider making a real decision about starting a new career.


Where to go from here.

For many people, personal situations are a big factor in what path you take when getting into UX. Your financial situation, ability to take time off, workload (if considering part-time classes). Think about what is most suitable (and realistic) for you.

Online vs. In-Person Classes
This is very much a personal question. To me this is a question about which one will you personally be able to learn from? I personally don’t have the dicsipline for online classes and learn better when I can ask questions in real time. One major benefit of taking a live class is the connections you will make to your classmates, teachers and education community. This is invaluable.

Immersive Classes at General Assembly
I co-taught a 10-week UX immersive class at GA a couple years ago. It was a great experience for me personally and for my students as well. There is one very important thing to understand though — and if you take anything away from this article, it should be this:

Any class or certification in UX does not make you a UX design professional. It does however give you the tools to become one. The best UX people have a good grasp on knowing when to do which activities to get the desired outcome. This is only something that can be gained through experience and mentorship.

General Assembly has put a great program together. One of the ways in which it really shines is the hands-on aspect of the class. If you take an immersive class, you will be learning something new every single day through real work that you’re doing with your classmates. It can be a very intense and draining experience as it’s not only your full-time job but there is homework. However, it’s also really fun!

One of my students, Maca captures an animated moment of me in class. You all become close very quickly.

Some Challenges
I’m going to outline some challenges you might face. They can be overcome but are good to be aware of. You can have a very fulfilling career if you put the time in. And of course the …

Challenges…

  • The UX market is becoming saturated with beginners and Junior level people due to its popularity and endless number of education programs and immersive classes. You will not only be competing with the people in your class, but all the people that came before you.
  • Many companies require at least two years of experience in the field before they’ll even consider hiring you. While many companies do respect the bootcamp style education programs, there are some that ask recent graduates to not even bother applying because they receive so many applications (from non-experienced candidates).
  • Many UX design roles (especially in NYC) are design-focused, meaning you’re expected to be able to design Web, software and or mobile app interfaces as part of your UX role.

This may sound deflating but with all of this said, many of my past students found jobs within a few months. There is only one way to excel your path and that’s to do as much work as possible. You must put the time in! As we used to say in class: CRUSHTHEGAME!!


Closing thoughts

There is no fast track to becoming really good at some aspect of User Experience. Like anything else it just takes practice — it’s a lifelong one. I’ve had an incredibly fulfilling career. It’s allowed to meet and work with many different types of very talented people. I’ve been at it for about 10 years and I’m still growing and learning. It’s a very exciting field to work in because of its relationship with technology. As technology evolves at such a rapid pace, UX is bound to as well.

You will have fun, you get frustrated, you will have moments of glory, you will think your work is shit, you will think you are shit, you will not know if you’re doing it right, you will feel confused — and that’s OK! We’ve all been through it and still go through it at times, it’s all part of the process.