Image Credit: Photojumbo

Question: You’ve mentioned using hackathons, side projects and freelancing as one possible pathway to get started with design. What does an actual project look like from start to finish? — MS

Getting Started
User experience is a pretty broad field that looks to its professionals to combine a lot of neat but challenging concepts and skills. A small project to kick-start your exploration of the field is a manageable and time-constrained way to see if it’s something that’s of further interest to you. If it’s something that you like, keep going. If not, feel free to explore other paths or interests.

In the past, I’ve taught both long-term programs (semester) and very short-term workshops in product design and UX design, and I’d encourage any interested or aspiring designer to work on it as a self-initiated project. It’s a safe (and fun) space to explore what you enjoy about the design process and what skills may come to you more naturally, while also identifying areas of confusion or room to grow and learn.

The approach below is bigger in scope compared to most of my former students’ first projects at General Assembly (which they finish in a week). However, it can be completed within 2–4 weeks depending on your familiarity with concepts, ability to teach yourself new things, and your time management/speed.

As a quick side note, I’d recommend remembering to document your work and findings as you go either, through versioned files or photographs — you’ll need this for any presentation or portfolio consideration.

Ready? Now to pick a project. You’ve probably got an idea in your head about an app or a website that you’ve been wanting to design. If not, pick an app or website that you’ve used before but thought that the experience could use a little improvement. For the sake of this exercise, it’s best if you choose a mobile app concept due to the constraints of the free tool you’ll be using. Once you have a sense of what’d you’d like to work on, here’s how you can proceed.

Let’s do a walkthrough (for definitions of bolded terms, you can reference this handy table).

  1. Analysis (1–2 days): Conduct research on 3–4 similar or competing websites, services or mobile applications, focusing on aspects like key features, users, layout and design, business model (or pricing/revenue streams). Place this into a matrix or a chart to summarize and visualize your findings.
  2. User Research (1–2 days): Design a survey or small set of questions of things you’d like to know about users (or prospective users) and their experiences, usage, or perceptions as it pertains to your app, website, or product. Distribute the survey and/or interview and handful of people (try at least 5 people but no more than 15 or 20 people to start) who might potentially use your product to collect any information for gaps in your knowledge. Aggregate the responses, analyze them for overlaps or differences in responses, and look for the average across the group. This average or best guess at an average will help you determine a persona(s) or a composite profile that reflects your users.
  3. Information Architecture (1–2 days): Assess to best organize how users can navigate your site or app (site map) and aspects of organizing information like navigation, menus, and content areas. Generate a sitemap or blueprint of the various pages, sections or areas. If you want to have a data-driven approach to creating this, look into card sorting, which will help you understand how people sort, organize, classify and categorize information.
  4. Flow and User Journey (1–2 days): Storyboard your persona(s) experience with your product from the initial problem or challenge they have that makes them want to use your app or website to how your app or website systematically solves their problem (and their likely outcome as a result of usage). Determine the key “checkpoints” in this story and map them to specific interactions that the user has with your app or website (e.g. user inputs data X into a form, user browses menu Y to find page A, user clicks on the star to favorite item Z ).
  5. Scope and Sketch (1–3 days): Draw by hand the various step-by-step screens (wireframes) for your product, keeping in mind that you can always change things. Remember that don’t have to have perfect lines and drawing skills. You can draw rapid sketches and imperfect versions of your idea. The idea is to quickly ideate, reduce scope if needed, and test. You can go back and clean up your drawings or create new drawings for cleaner lines or clearer ideas. During this stage, you may also wish to paper prototype to work out interactions and new ideas, using post-it notes and modular hand-drawn elements to interchange things easier (e.g. pop-up windows, menu bars).
  6. Prototype (2–3 days): We’ll be skipping the digital wireframing process and going straight to prototyping and testing. Use POP! App to photograph your hand-drawn wire-frames (use a black marker or Sharpie to make the lines show up better in the photographs) and assemble your prototype in the application with clickable areas and links.
  7. Test (2–3 days): Test your newly finished POP! App-made application (you can generate a sharing link through the app) with friends or family who reflect your target persona, preferably testing in-person. Jot down notes as you collect at least 3–5 participants’ feedback and responses.
  8. Iterate and Test, again (1–3 days): Based on feedback from the first prototype, revise your design and re-assemble or update your POP! prototype for a second iteration. Test that iteration on a set of different 3–5 participants and collect/record their feedback.
  9. Present (1–2 days): Once you’ve finished, put together a short summary in a report or a presentation deck to share your process, work, and final outcomes and conclusions. Be sure to use all of your photos, screenshots, prototype links, participant feedback and personal reflections to discuss your process and your thoughts.

And there you have it! A start-to-finish UX project that you can complete on your own in 2–4 weeks.

Some of these things will require piecing together information via Google search, but others are things that may include reading resources or speaking with members of the UX community. If you’re looking for a good starter set of reference links, check out my UX Design: Resources Guide (PDF) on my Resources page. If you’re looking for more in-depth help with navigating the design process or building a portfolio, see my Coaching page for more details. Have fun designing and I hope that this exercise helps to inspire you to further explore possibilities in user experience and design!

What practical tips or exercises do you recommend for interested or beginning UX professionals? What was your first UX project or undertaking — and what did you learn from that experience?


“Hello Melissa” is series dedicated to the inquisitive letters on design and career that I’ve received over the years, and excerpts of my reflections and thoughts in response.


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