Some advice for breaking into UX & Product Design.

Chris Spalton
Jun 24 · 10 min read

Whether you’re recently graduated, looking for a career change or already working on the fringes of UX, whether through graphic design, a research background or similarly related fields, formally making those first steps (particularly early in your career) into UX or Product Design can be a minefield to navigate.

As part of Redgate’s #NewJobJune, we put the question out to Redgate’s product design team to understand their top tips. We’re a diverse bunch, with different routes into this field, so everyone has something different to offer.

Be a sponge

Learning throughout your UX career is an essential skill and mindset to adopt.

First things first, when breaking into a new industry, you need to be absorbing as much information about it as you can. Read a ton of books, check out articles on Medium and other blogging platforms. Listen to Podcasts about design, user experience, even (especially) psychology. The UX industry is very open and constructive and even superstar industry thought leaders are approachable, open and transparent about what they’re still learning or thinking. It’s quite a unique industry in how openly people discuss their work and techniques so there’s a wealth of inspiration and information out there.

As you go, start to implement what you learn, introduce a new design pattern, adopt a new technique for mapping your user’s journey, try a fun and new workshopping technique. Learn from that in turn, iterate on what works for you and your style, get rid of what doesn’t. Discuss with your peers or teammates, then repeat. Learn the principals, then continue to experiment and develop the different methods to apply them. A growth mindset and willingness to be a life long learner is essential to become an experienced and exceptional designer.

There is no single right or wrong tool or process. Try to experiment as much as you can with as many processes and tools as you can. “Learning by doing” is one of the most effective ways to grow fast into an experienced designer.

Don’t get discouraged by your mistakes.

When any UXer looks back at the projects we did for our first projects we all see a lot that could be improved. Every experienced designer has a full memoir of things that have gone wrong, war stories about about designs that didn’t resonate with users, or focus groups that turned feral, or of clients that looked at some work the designer was really proud of and responded with a simple “I don’t like it, do it differently.” But that’s all ok — one of the best ways to grow as a designer is to mess up, reflect on what happened and improve for next time, you learn from your mistakes, the key is to move on from it and don’t make the same mistake twice.

Everyone has the right to be wrong so be forgiving on yourself. But constantly try to reflect, learn and adapt.

Regularly, put some time aside to reflect on what you do. At each stage of a project try to analyse what and why you’ve approached it in this fashion, how could you have done it differently? How would have that affected the outcome? This ties in with the life long learning aspect. UXer’s need to be empathetic and self aware not only outwards with regards to their users and customers needs, but also looking inward to their own approach and how it can improve.

Work out Loud

If you apply for a UX role, people are going to be interested in what you’ve worked on, are thinking about and how you tackle problems. They’re going to check out your social media profiles as that gives an insight to the person behind the application form. Social is a perfect placve to highlight the things you’re working on, thinking about, or learning. Showing your work and process through a platform such as Twitter gives a great insight into the type of person you are and how you approach problem solving so make sure you’re regularly showing your work online.

It doesn’t have to be shiny polished artifacts, the most interesting part of any project is the hard work and problem solving in the middle of a project so show us how you’re approaching those. Show sketches, notes, work in progress snapshots or photos of post-it’s on the wall as you’re solving a journey map. Share your own blogs and thoughts, give us a view of the person behind the screen. Ask for feedback, join conversations, contribute to the community, comment on blog posts that spark your ideas, and share work that inspires you.

You have to own your personal investment towards progressing and being great. Proactivity is key.

Now, we’ll all be pretty forgiving of what’s on your social, whether it’s rival football team bantz, or commentary on whats happening in Celebrity Love Island , but a social profile that shows a desire to learn, ideas and processes will go a long way to standing out.

Seeking out an expert to work with, or even better be mentored by is a great idea.

Don’t be afraid to ask people for help, finding an experienced person with time and avaialbility to bounce ideas off, ask advice, and provide constructive feedback can be one of the most valuable things you can do. Go to meetups or conferences and talk to people there, talk about the projects you’re working on, the things you’re interested in and see who is there who can help. See if someone has the time and willingness to meet you for a coffee and chat before deciding if it’s right for both of you to progress the relationship more formally.

As I mentioned, UXers in general are open to be approached so reach out via your social networks, look for Slack communities where designers hang out and start there.

However, there’s a few rules around this; Always be respectful of others time and availability, people are (mostly) willing to help, but they’re also very busy. If they say they can’t help you, that’s because they can’t help you, don’t take it personally. Approach it by ‘expecting’ nothing, but ‘appreciating’ everything Every little nugget of help and wisdom they can supply is a step in the right direction. Always say please when asking for help, and always say thank you when someone does. It’s important.

You don’t have to seek Rockstars, just the folks who have been through the trenches and can tell a war story or two. They’ve already made all the mistakes you haven’t (yet) and will have valuable insights.

If someone more experienced than you gives feedback, receive it in the spirit it is given. They’re giving you advice and tips from all the mistakes they’ve already made on your behalf. Listen to them, like, REALLY listen to them. You don’t have to take the advice, but make sure you’re clear on why you are or are not taking it on board. Listening is possibly the single most important skill a UXer can develop, whether it’s from a mentor, your colleagues, your stakeholders and especially your users, so practice developing it.

Never, ever stop asking questions,

Learn how to present your work

Storytelling is a key design skill. Learn how to tell stories about your work. You need to learn how to explain your work to your team, your managers, people in your business and most importantly your audience.

Stories help you influence, they help get people on the same page, they help people understand what, why & how you did things. Humans naturally react well to stories, they frame things in a way we can understand and relate to.

Learn how to show what you did, how you approached it, and most important why you did it. Frame the problem you undertstood needed to be solved, who was experiencing that problem, how you fixed that problem for them and what were the outcomes.

You can (and should) talk about your work at every stage, bring people along on your journey with you.

Talk about your work, often, early, and always. Keeping people informed is essential to a succesful project. You can’t design worthwhile solutions in a vacuum

Show your working out, sometimes, despite best endeavours you won’t get it right, but as long as you can explain your thought processes and clearly show how you reached the conclusions you came to that’s still an invaluable learning and teaching exercise.

Be humble, and open to feedback, but have confidence in the choices you made and the reasons for them. Be prepared to be be challenged, to be wrong, but to have rationale for why you did what you did.

PRACTICE makes perfect.

Actively practice to build your skills, particularly if you’re taking the first exciting steps of your design career, before you’ve got ‘real life’ experience to draw upon, or put projects in your portfolio. This could be a personal project, a theoretical project (e.g. redesign the Facebook app), some work with a charity (e.g. redesign their website), or to help out a mate make their website for their next big idea. Being proactive in this sense shows drive and enthusiasm, allows you to experiment with different techniques free of the constraints of working within a business and really enables you to start to build up a portfolio and to learn your craft.

How might you re-design the Youtube experience?

Also look for inspiration everywhere, it’s important to do your research on the subject areas you’re trying to get into, but there’s lessons to be learned from all sorts of places, whether it’s physical service design in places like airports, or comic books, or websites completely unrelated to the ‘core’ subject matter where you’ll work, observe, analyse what works and what doesn’t and develop your own ideas for improvement. You’ll learn loads in the process and it will all go a long way to helping you stand out.

Always be looking at design from outside your field from different angles in different industries.

Start adopting a process early.

You might be familiar with the Double Diamond process of UX, it clearly shows the phases of exploration and discovery, definition of a problem, development of ideas, and delivery of a solution.

There’s loads of articles out there about the Double Diamond so we won’t go into detail here, but nailing down a process that works for you is vital. It provides a framework to work with, clear steps of what you’re doing in each phase and gives a great map to progress in a logical format. An example process (and way to show and explain your work) could be as follows:

  1. Combining a business requirement and user need, create a hypothesis or experiment you’d like to learn about.
  2. Do your research to understand your target audience and the nuances of their problem.
  3. Analyse the patterns you find, create personas, understand your users main goals and motivations.
  4. Use your analysis to highlight painpoints your users are suffering and opportunities where you and your products can help.
  5. Match the User needs with your business requirements to find a sweet spot where they overlap.
  6. Of all the opportunites you uncover, decide on what you are going tackle first.
  7. Create a design brief to outline your proposed solution, create storyboards and concept to communciate how it work. Test things again with your users to learn if it will satisfy their needs.
  8. Start designing based around these scenarios.
  9. Test them, iterate, refine.
  10. At all stages be prepared to review, rethink, and re-do. Iterating regular and often when new information or patterns come to light is key.

You can use the above process (or whatever works for you) for small projects, large projects, huge business projects or side projects, it might take months, or you could put together a lightweight version in a week. Any of these will help you show you’re taking a user centric approach, trying ideas before settling on or becoming wedded to a single design and willingness to iterate when you realise you’ve got things wrong, all will be invaluable when applying for your first UX role.

Last but by no means least:

BE A HUMAN TRYING TO HELP OTHER HUMANS

As we mentioned at the top of this article, there are many routes into a UX or Product design career, whether that’s a formal education, or learning by doing as you go. The key to success in any route however is the drive to be a good human being, dedicating your career to helping other humans. As a UXer, you might need to deal with people who you wouldn’t normally encounter (or want to), the key to success is being empathetic to a wide range of peoples needs, so talk to people. Chat to the barrister at your local coffee shop, ask how your office cleaner’s day is going, talk to homeless people the same way you’d talk to your bank manager. Learn and observe from everyone and everything around you.

Experience Designers are here to make the world a better place and to do that we have to be absorbed and invested in the world around us.

We really hope that this blog has provided some ideas and food for thought for you if you’re looking to make a transisition into UX, thanks to the entire UXRedgate team for their input and wisdom as always. If you have any other tips to share with the community or questions to ask us, please comment below or hit us up on Twitter. Also we have further resources being shared under the #lifeatRedgate and #NewJobJune hashtags on Twitter. We really look forward to hearing and learning from you all about what works for you!

Redgate are actually hiring across a number of roles at the moment, get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Good luck out there!


Thanks to Natalia Rey, Saikiran Mohan, Sybil Hoang, Mikaela Argyriadou, Alicja Leszczyńska, Pete Woodhouse, Matthew Godfrey, Neil Turner, Andy Richardson and Jonathan Roberts for their input to this article, follow them for more great insights on design, research and culture.

All images from Unsplash.com

Ingeniously Simple

How Redgate build ingeniously simple products, from inception to delivery.

Chris Spalton

Written by

#Sketchnotes, #creative #UX #design consultant at @redgate_ux Underground music fan, and #Eelmanchronicles #comics creator.

Ingeniously Simple

How Redgate build ingeniously simple products, from inception to delivery.