Do as I say, not as I do

Assorted wisdom for students of UX

New user experience designers occasionally ask my advice about getting into the business. “If you knew then what you know now,” kinda questions. Some want three things. Some want five things. I’ve added those numbers together. So, what follows is Eight Things that occurred to me in the moment someone asked, “What advice do you have for someone just entering the business?”

Pick a job based on the people

There are design challenges everywhere. If you’re attracted to a brand, a product, a salary, you’ll be dissatisfied with the work unless the people are awesome. Don’t pick easy-going people. Find people who are going to challenge you. Don’t pick jerks either: you can challenge someone and be nice about it. No matter where you are in your career, you deserve respect. The best colleagues show respect by delivering feedback directly and constructively. One of the most rewarding jobs I ever had was working for nearly two years as a Federal employee for TSA’s e-government group. My boss challenged me constantly. It was hard, but I learned a lot.

Have a life

The most engaging, productive, and collaborative people I’ve worked with have a life. They have interests outside work, and they leave work at work. UX is a lens that helps you see the world differently, but it’s not the only lens, and it gets stronger the more you can compare it to other lenses. When my friends and colleagues compare managing teams to coaching soccer, or iterating on a design to composing music, or planning projects to cooking a meal, I know they’re thinking deeply about these things.

Accept imposter syndrome

Constant doubt is the job description. It’s not you, it’s the work, it’s the field. It’s the common thread that unites us as designers. If you didn’t doubt, you wouldn’t want to make it better, and if you didn’t want to make it better, you wouldn’t be doing design. Design is constant iteration, and that doesn’t come from being satisfied with the work or yourself.

Accept that design isn’t just design

You’ll spend the vast majority of your time managing your time, organizing your tasks, validating your approach and direction, getting feedback, coordinating with other people, composing emails. This is part of design, this is the part that makes it real, that makes it happen. No job entails sitting in a corner making wireframes all day. No good job, that is.

Get great at writing

Writing is the only technical skill you should focus on. At the heart of good writing lies the same stuff that’s at the heart of great user experience. Sure, you’ll need to learn new tools, and you’ll want to exercise your creative chops. But writing glues everything together. In this job, you’re writing constantly, and you should be great at it. Take the time to compose email messages, presentations, and documents. Don’t tack on writing as an afterthought. Cut your words down by half, then half again — that’s great writing. In retrospect, I should have stuck to two pieces of advice.

Pay it forward

What attracted me to the web was that it was a medium in and of itself. What sealed the deal, professionally speaking, was attending a CHI conference. The vibe of the community was intoxicating: a blend of commercial drive with academic rigor, people excited by practical problems. That vibe stuck with me after I moved to DC, and started helping organize local events. I found that I wasn’t the only one interested in getting birds-of-a-feather together. There was something about the novelty of the field and our unique position that made it exciting to get together to talk shop. As fields mature, their communities fragment, perhaps even becoming exclusive. The community is as much UX design heritage as is library science or anthropology or graphic design. Let’s keep this going: Organize, participate in, and support community-run events.

Understand product development

Agile is the philosophy du jour, with Lean close on its heels, and Waterfall thrives in many organizations. Related, separate, entangled, distinct: these design and development approaches may morph into something else, may further diverge, or may disappear altogether. You may find them philosophically and methodologically suspect. But these are the processes and tools product teams use. Every product development approach is a reaction to what came before. (There would be no agile if there hadn’t been waterfall.) So whatever happens tomorrow will be grounded in what they’re doing today. Understanding what’s happening today prepares you well for what might emerge tomorrow.

Know thyself,
but don’t pigeon-hole thyself

My work in collaboration and conflict revealed a paradox. On the one hand, it’s important to understand your preferences, understand your strengths and weaknesses. Self-reflection is the most important skill a designer can cultivate. Admit where you thrive and where you stumble. Admit what causes anxiety and what gives you the greatest pleasure. On the other hand, don’t let any of these things confine you. Things that cause anxiety are the things that help you grow. Activities that are professionally satisfying contribute to your energy and strength, and contribute to the team’s efforts. Embrace all these opportunities as ways to become better at what you do. And constantly reflect on your work–without beating yourself up!–to explore what was effective, what needs help, and what represents your next most interesting opportunity.

So, what advice do you have for new designers?

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