How to break into the UX Design field

I see quite a few posts on Facebook and LinkedIn asking for advice on what degree to pursue to become a User Experience (UX) professional. While getting a degree is a good way to break into the UX field, here are some resources that might be useful to get started and be successful in the field without a degree.

Learning the design process

Before you learn the skills, it is important to understand the design process and principles. Here are some FREE online courses that will teach you these.

  1. Intro to the Design of Everyday Things (2 weeks)

An online course taught by Don Norman, one of the pioneers of design. This course teaches the basic “must know” design principles. https://www.udacity.com/course/design101

2. Human Computer Interaction (9 weeks)

An online course taught by Scott Klemmer, a Professor at University of California, San Diego who was part of the HCI group at Stanford University. This is a great course to give you a complete overview of the design process. You may also choose to do a project as part of the course.

The process

An important part of design is the process that you use. A typical process would look like this.

A simple design process

In reality it might not be such a linear process and would vary depending on what you are designing, the organization, the users and other constraints. You do not have to master all of these. Focus on your strengths and work towards your goals as a designer.

User Research

This is not as complicated as it sounds. Pick any problem that you want to solve or a product you want to create. How would you understand what users need? Go ask them! Create a set of questions to ask any of your friends or even strangers, maybe in a coffee shop. You may ask any question to inform what you will later be designing, such as, how do they handle the problem currently? What are some of the challenges? What might be helpful for them? Document their responses and you have your requirements to design.

In the industry, user research is a vast field. Some companies employ specialists for this purpose. Common activities that they carry out are interviews, participant observations, surveys and data analysis which are out of the scope of this article.

Ideation

Once you know what your users need, start thinking or brainstorming on how you would solve the need or problem. A good way to start is by asking questions. What does the user want to achieve? What are some existing applications or services that attempt to solve the problem? What is successful or unsuccessful in these applications? List down all the ideas you can think of.

Sketching

Pencil and paper — Find the best designers out there and you will notice them extensively using a pencil and paper to sketch out concepts and ideas. By no means are you required to be artistic. Most of your work would only require you to draw lines and rectangles. Don’t bother about crooked lines.

The point of sketching is to come up with as many sketches as you can to evaluate multiple options and narrow down on the best solutions. Some people call this “quick and dirty prototyping” or “rapid prototyping”. Here is an example of one of my own sketches for a mobile application I was designing. As you can see, it doesn’t have to be neat, at all.

Interaction Design

Interaction Design is the method of designing the way in which your user would interact with your system or application. This could be designing screens for a mobile app or a website. Once you’ve sketched your ideas, the next step in the process is to convert your best ideas from your sketches into wireframes. A wireframe is an outline or skeletal representation of the application screens. For example, the wireframe of Facebook looks like this.

Wireframe of Facebook — (Adopted from http://www.flairbuilder.com/)

There are plenty of tools that allow you to do this. You just need to drag and drop different components on the screen to create your designs. The following tools are most widely used. All of these have resources online and there is plenty of help available online. The best way to learn is to actually try them out.

1. Moqups — Free for a limited number of projects. I started with this and found it to be one of the easiest to use. (https://moqups.com/)

2. Axure — Free for students. (http://www.axure.com/)

3. Balsamiq — 30-day trial version. (https://balsamiq.com/)

Pick one and learn it well over time.

Visual Design

Here is where you might have some trouble, as there is no free software to recommend.

1. Sketch — Has a one time cost attached to it. Very easy to learn. If you are passionate about learning visual design, this might be worth purchasing. It costs $50 for students. (http://bohemiancoding.com/sketch/)

2. Photoshop — This is so expensive today that I’m not even going to post a link. If you can get access to this in your school or at work, learn it well. Adobe Know How has a great course covering the essentials.

3. Gimp — Free but has a learning curve. Not widely used in the industry. (http://www.gimp.org/)

Here is an example of an application I designed using Sketch. It’s very simple to learn and might be worth purchasing if you’re really into visual design.

Usability testing

This sounds like a very technical term but what you’re going to be doing is simply testing your designs with the help of your users. The goal is to observe people using your application and get feedback about the pain points associated with your design and make iterations. There are more advanced ways of doing this but testing your product with the help of your friends is a good start. Make them use your product and simply observe where they get stuck, what’s confusing or unexpected for them. Note that you do not have to code your application before testing. Take print outs of your designs and that is what you will use to test. The online courses listed above will teach you how to do this.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Once you test your designs on users, make sure to modify your designs to incorporate the pain points you identified during your usability test. It is very difficult to get the design right the first time and iteration is a key ingredient in the design process. I’ll put it this way. If you don’t know the principle of iteration, you will not be hired. It’s that important.

Front-end Development

If you have prior programming knowledge, learning front-end development might be a great way to break into the field. Learning HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript and Bootstrap is a great way to begin.

1. Intro to HTML and CSS — Teaches you how to create a simple website https://www.udacity.com/course/ud304

2. Responsive Web Design Fundamentals — Teaches you how to create websites that work on mobile, tablet as well as desktop devices. https://www.udacity.com/course/ud893

Books to read

There are countless books out there but the ones I would highly recommend are

  1. The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition by Don Norman. This is a must read for every aspiring designer.
  2. Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug. As the name suggests the book gives a practical approach to design and test your designs.

Get social

  1. Meetup — Attend some local events in your area. You can find these on http://www.meetup.com/ no matter which country you’re from.
  2. Twitter — You might be using this for other purposes but Twitter is one of the best platforms to follow some of the best designers in the world. I follow some of my favorite designers. You can start by following the people I follow if you want.
  3. Behance — Behance.net is a website where designers from all over the world share their work. Learning from looking at examples is a great way to learn.
  4. Dribbble — Dribbble.com (Yes, with 3 ‘B’s) is another great website similar to Behance.

You will notice that different people are good at different things, such as graphic design, interaction design, fine arts, photography etc. It is important to not get intimidated by this and stick to your strengths. They too were at some point where we are right now.

Find a mentor

A mentor need not be someone who has vast experience. You just need someone to discuss about your ideas and thought process. Online platforms listed above are great ways to connect with people. Before approaching people, be clear on why you would like them to mentor you. Pick someone whom you think has a good match of interests and whom you think can point you in the right direction when required.

Create a portfolio

A portfolio is a website where you can share your projects. The purpose of this is to showcase your work so that other people can learn about your work. You would use this to apply for a job if you’re looking for one. Behance and Dribbble are great places to get started and get your work reviewed by other designers.

Do these exercises

The best way to build your skills and gain experience is by working on projects. Here are some exercises to help you get started.

1. Redesign your favorite website — Share it on any social media platform and get feedback from other designers. Use this feedback to iterate over your designs. Concentrate on 2 or 3 core screens.

2. Critique a famous website — Think about what works well on the website and what doesn’t. Think about why certain things were designed a certain way and how you could improve it. It is important to observe both good designs as well as bad designs even though the latter might sometimes be easier.

3. Design a mobile app for an idea you might have — Once you are done, show off your work on your portfolio.

What will I be able to do at the end of this?

  1. Get a grasp of the design process and principles.
  2. Learn how to design user interfaces.
  3. Build a portfolio.
  4. Connect with other designers.

Most importantly, you will be able to internalize the principles of design thinking. You will be able to create well designed products to share on your portfolio.

Where do I go from here?

If you’re just getting started, there are a lot of different areas to explore. If you have started connecting with the design crowd, you would automatically discover where to go. Here are some interesting articles you can read.

  1. The Only UX Reading List Ever by Simon Pan — It’s not really the only reading list though.
  2. The Best User Experience Design Links of 2014 by Kenny Chen.

Designers have been magnanimous in the online community. Once you start learning, try to share your knowledge and offer your help to the community as well. You never know whom it might be useful for.

Similar resources

  1. How to become a UX/UI designer when you know nothing by Lindsay Norman.
  2. How To Get Started In UX Design by Matthew Magain.
  3. How to Learn UX and Get a Job by Susan Farrell and Jakob Nielsen.
  4. How to Get Started in User Experience for People I Want to Hire by Patrick Neeman.

What does design mean to you?

If you’ve read this article, feel free to leave a response - “what does design mean to you?”. Make sure you share your work with me on Twitter @_aravindravi and the rest of the design world. Happy designing!

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