Google Design
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Google Design

6 Ways to Cultivate Your UX Design Career

Over the past year, I have been coaching a few friends on their job searches and helping them get started in the user experience design field. Through our conversations, I found myself looking back at when I started at Google 10 years ago as a visual designer for Google Chrome and Google Maps, and how I transitioned into my current role as a senior interaction designer on the Google One team. Of the many insights I’ve shared, these are the six that I’ve noticed best support new designers early in their careers.

Be confident & ask for help

During my early years, I thought a good designer was defined by an amazing ability to come up with unique, creative design solutions in every situation. In some meetings, I was too afraid to admit that I didn’t understand the context of the discussions, let alone speak up. But here’s the reality: no one knows everything. You don’t have to always get things right. A designer’s job is actually to gather the information and find a solution based on what you’ve learned.

When I first joined the Google One team earlier this year, I didn’t understand the UI design pattern, and the team style guide wasn’t well documented at that time. So, I sought out a teammate I felt comfortable with and asked her to walk me through the common design patterns in the product and the rationale behind them. I also met with her regularly to exchange feedback on our projects. By reaching out for support, I got up to speed quickly, and I gained a beautiful friendship along the way. It’s perfectly normal to ask for more context and information. When you start asking genuine questions, you will expand your perspective.

Aim the target for impact

Focus on impact

Through the course of my career, I have worked on several brand new initiatives, such as local search and Google My Business, that required collaboration and partnership with many teams across the organization. Everyone has their own idea of what the product should be. This is especially common during the early stages when the product direction is still wide open. Although receiving feedback can be overwhelming, it’s important not to muddle your mind or get caught in an endless, controversial discussion. Debates and discussions are healthy, but don’t let it become a distraction. Instead, figure out a way to help move the project forward and work with your stakeholder to prioritize your effort.

For example, when our project managers were debating about the product directions, I helped my team visualize what the product could be by creating prototypes and highlighting pros and cons for each direction. I find that these prototypes usually help move our discussions forward to the next step.

Grow your storytelling skills

In my early years, I focused heavily on learning new tools and polishing my visual design skills. I thought that my designs would speak for themselves. While these are vital skills, I didn’t realize that presenting your design thinking is just as important as executing your vision. If you can’t talk about your work, pixels are just an image on a screen. As you grow as a designer, put time into developing your storytelling skills.

When I present my work, I no longer assume that they can just look at the design and understand what I was trying to do. I now start with background information and context, such as user journey and pain points, before I dive into how my design solutions could mitigate these pain points. Telling a story helps your team empathize with your users, which allows you to explain how your design solution can improve these experiences.

Teamwork and perspective

Look at problems from other perspectives

It’s easy for a designer to get attached to a particular idea and become blinded by emotion. When you’re presented with criticism or pushback, try thinking about the critique from the other person’s point of view. See what you can learn from thinking with their mindset. Then, explore design solutions from these different angles.

In my experience, even when suggestions don’t make sense, I would push my bias aside and try new iterations. Sometimes, iterating helps confirm that my intuition was right, and sometimes it helps me discover new solutions. For example, our backed up data is complex, and my teammate suggested that I explore a different way to group information in the UI. The suggestions felt odd to me at first, but I gave it a try anyway. As a result, we learned a new way to organize our data in the design. With this approach, you give yourself an opportunity to investigate more options. Design is evolving, so there is always room for iterations.

Stay true to your values

Celebrate your achievements, but don’t put too much weight on external motivations such as awards or a prestigious job title. While these accolades can work as short-term motivation, the outcome is ultimately not within your control. Chasing after these external factors will burn you out in the long run. Instead, think about what gets you up every morning and see what types of work you enjoy.

For me, I’ve taken on several new initiatives because I enjoy the early ideation process, and I adjust well in situations where shifting priorities are the norm. Looking inward helps me focus my personal growth, and I get to make progress at my own pace. There are several value assessments you can take, such as StrengthsFinder, or simply make a list of what matters most to you and see how you can align your work to what you value. If you enjoy doing your job, chances are that you’ll look back at your career one day and be happy with what you’ve achieved.

Work smart and avoid burnout

Growing up in an immigrant household, I was told to always work hard. Hard work can be productive, but needs to be balanced with working smart. In other words, you need to make a way to get your job done without overexerting yourself.

At one point in my career, I put all my time and energy into work. I told myself that I might not be as smart as other people, but I could work twice as hard. After nearly two years of going at full speed, I was burned out. I was in a state of exhaustion, both physically and mentally. A career opportunity means nothing if you don’t have the right physical and mental capability to support it. For your wellbeing, try planning your workday and blocking off time for self-care, even when work becomes especially demanding. I now list out the items I need to get done each week, and I let my manager know when I need additional help. I still work late once in a while, but I don’t let it become the norm.

If you’re just starting to navigate the design industry, I hope you take inspiration in these lessons. And if you’re an experienced designer, I hope you’ll use them as a reminder to keep cultivating your career so that you can look back one day and be satisfied with the journey.

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