So you want to get into UX? Here’s 8 Things You Should Know Going In.
I became a full time User Experience Designer a little over six months ago (my official title is “User Experience Specialist and Web Designer” but that’s one helluva mouthful isn’t it?). It still feels really surreal to see those words on a screen even though I’ve spent my college years iterating my portfolio, teaching workshops around design, being part of design communities, and working in different parts of the industry. It certainly feels like I’m not qualified to speak on the subject since it feels like I just started (more on that later!) Regardless, it’s been a blast and has had its set of challenges with much more fun and chaos on the way. With this small but quantifiable experience as well as my intentions to be approachable about my work whenever possible, I get asked by many of my peers and network the same questions:
“I want to transition into the UX space. Should I? What should I know going in? What tools are needed?”
UX is a growing and popular field right now so it makes sense many folks would want to get in while it’s hot. Rather than risk repeating myself (or others who have written on the subject!), I figured I’d write a small guide of what a potential UX-er should know going in. I wanted to keep this guide accessible and informative to answer this question based on my own experiences:
“What should I know beforehand when going into the field of User Experience Design?”
I hope this helps in your decision making process!
1. There are trade offs to being creative and empathetic
Many folks I talk to want to get into UX because one gets the opportunity to be creative and empathetic in their day to day job. And you do get to model those soft skills! But there’s certainly a trade off. Some ideas don’t make the cut, sometimes your users are dissatisfied with your iterations, sometimes management doesn’t like the idea no matter how much time, data, or research was put into it, and sometimes your efforts to follow a unified process are not conducive to the time you have to get a product feature out. You are guaranteed to be an other on your team because you are thinking about the quality of the product and its usefulness in addition to “will it make us more money?” or “is it feasible with regard to our current system?” And sometimes you run into a creative block where ideas nor changes are flowing no matter what you do but alas you still have to come to work each day and put your best foot forward. But don’t lose hope! Because those moments where things do align and you release a quality product or feature knowing all of your work paid off is an absolutely euphoric feeling that deserves to be strived towards. But just know the trade offs. Being a UX designer is not some idyllic field where every collaboration is successful and our users love us. But it is fun and challenging.
2. Humility is paramount
UX Collective said it best in a similar article: if you think you know what you’re doing in UX, this isn’t the right field for you. UX is full of ambiguity because the challenges are bigger and more complicated each day. With that context, its best to come in with the mindset that you don’t have all the answers but are going to try and find out what will be most useful to your users. User Experience Design is a service oriented job. It’s not that different from being the front desk staff at a hotel. Just imagine instead that your product is the room your users stay in. When they ask for a new towel, clean sheets, or room service, you do your job to provide them what they need and with the best possible service. When UX is seen from this paradigm, it keeps us grounded in how we approach our users’ needs and takes our egos out of the equation.
3. You will always feel less
It is difficult to look at your peers or other people in your UX community and not draw comparisons whether it is to their positions, their portfolios, or their ability to get work done within their teams. And the truth is this feeling doesn’t go away no matter what station you reach in your career. It feels like someone is always doing it better. Even though I am someone who works in the field, I still feel like I am not qualified like I mentioned earlier on. Do be gentle with yourself though. There is more than enough room at the table for everyone.
4. The UX community, like any community, is varied
What that means is there will be jerks and egocentric bigots but there will also be incredibly helpful and humble souls. It also means that Design Twitter can at times be enlightening and at the same time be trite or resemble the musings of a modern Nero. Just know that going in and have fun! Meeting other UXers is wonderful and can spring some really wonderful discussions and ideas. Here is a list of my personal favorite designers on Twitter:
Carol Smith — A designer interested in the intersection of AI and UX. She has worked at plenty of big names such as IBM and Uber and is incredibly approachable and kind.
Liz Jackson — A designer who is also a disability advocate. If you are looking to get into accessible design, check out her as well as her startup Thisten and her advocacy organization The Disabled List.
Dana Chisnell — A designer focused on reimagining the policy experience. Civic design is a growing field as more and more people grow interested in how design affects the way our government and policies are run and Dana is a great resource!
Jared Spool — If you are trying to find a job in UX, Jared has one of the best Twitter threads out there! He advocates a lot for junior designers and also shares interesting content on the field in general.
Karla Cole — Karla is a Product Designer at Instagram who not only shares interesting content about being a designer (and person!) but being a black woman in design. As far as the industry has come, there are still major gaps in diversity and inclusion when it comes to designers of color and Karla living her truth is always a bright spot in my feed.
There are so many more folks that I did not mention but I urge you to implore and find your own favorites in the industry!
5. You don’t have to check all boxes
A lot of questions I get when folks reach out wanting to go into UX are along the lines of:
“Do I need a special degree? Do I need to do a bootcamp? Should I just learn online?”
Honestly the answer varies depending on the person’s learning style. Some people need immersive environments and some people are perfectly fine learning online. One thing I will say is that employers will most definitely look at your portfolio, which you should put a great deal of effort towards. Whatever path of education helps you to get to a solid portfolio of work is where you should put your focus. UX Collective also has a great collection of articles on creating a strong UX portfolio.
6. Every industry has different (and equally interesting) challenges
UX lives and breathes in fields beyond just the tech bubble. There are really interesting spaces where UX is starting to get more attention like in government, public services, nonprofits, media, and education. So while the tech and startup industry has really interesting challenges (hello ethics and long term implications!) also consider spaces where there are huge needs for complex problem solving! These spaces might not necessarily have processes in place for how to approach UX so it is a great opportunity to be a leader in whichever organization you end up in.
7. Your tools are an asset, not your whole medium.
A question I get asked very often is:
“What design tool should I use? Sketch/InVision? Figma? Adobe XD? Framer?”
Truthfully it will depend where you want to work. When you’re looking at jobs take a look at what tools the organization is working with and make the effort to be familiar with those tools. But above that, know how and why the tools are used for. Prototyping tools are fantastic but should be used purposefully and not limit a UXer’s perspective on the problem at hand. Sometimes the best tool can even be pen and paper.
Dee Hock, founder of Visa, said it best, “Only fools worship their tools.”
8. Build relationships and bridges.
In all parts of life you will be partially defined by your relationships whether it be friends, family, and in this case coworkers. Do play nice with other designers on your team but also don’t forget your business analysts, PMs, and developers (or if you work in a media space like I do writers and editors!). Ask people for coffee, be friendly, and be genuinely curious about what they do. Who knows? They could have a solution to a problem you’re working on or, regardless, you’ll have built a good relationship with a coworker, which is always pretty great. The point is to go in with the intention of building a relationship, not just a means to an end. Great relationships are like plants and need a little watering (shout-out to Kosi and his partner for teaching me that beautiful metaphor).
*9. You don’t have to wear all black to work
A bonus tip! While minimalism is super postmodern and looks cool on just about everyone, it’s so not necessary to being a user experience designer. I’ve seen a few folks who once they got into being a UXer they changed their wardrobe completely to all black and clear framed glasses. It felt a little forced and not true to their prior fashion sense. If minimalism is your prerogative then go for it! But color is also really cool. Though I might be biased as a girl who wears jewel toned eyeliner everyday. Whatever your fashion choices are, experiment and go all out. Try color, try no color, try nude, try asymmetrical silhouettes, or different prints. Design is visual and is a big part of what makes fashion. No need to default to black just because it’s what you’ve seen at conferences. That’s like only using Classic Blue in your color palette this year because it’s the Pantone Color of the Year. Like tip 4 says: designers are varied. This likely does not apply to everyone but just some additional encouragement that being yourself is welcome in the field. So embrace your uniqueness.
If you want to hear me talk more about the specifics of my job check out my most recent episode of my podcast Bean There Done That where I answered some questions about my job. Shoot me a note via email or Twitter if you have any further questions.