How to become a UX designer — from my experience of teaching UX

Hang Yu
Hang Yu
Oct 8, 2015 · 8 min read

After teaching a few UX Boot Camp courses and seeing my students from different backgrounds starting their career as UX Designers, I have learned that there are many paths taken to become a UX Designer. If you’re considering making the move from a different career to become a UX Designer yourself, below are three core suggestions and best practices that can help you enter the field.

Changing your career is not easy, so be sure you’re ready to make the change

One of my students has been a highly successful architect for years. He and his co-workers designed mansions for Michael Bay and many other celebrities. Despite how successful he has been throughout his architectural career, he is not happy with it.

“I can see myself in 10 years, and it’s not exciting enough for me. I want challenges.” This is where his desire to become a UX Designer begins. “For years my design has been based on THE clients’ preference. The audience is very specific. I want to design for more people,” he said. However, after the first few classes (our Boot Camp is 12-weeks long with 3 projects), he struggled. “It’s more difficult than I imagined”.

My student’s former work as an architect

Changing your career is never easy. It means that you have to start fresh, leave all the domain knowledge you’ve accumulated in your previous life behind and learn lots of new things. The best advice I can give you before you get started is to make sure that you know what UX Design really is and that it is something you would love to do. Doing what you love is the best possible career choice you can make, and so it’s important to make sure that UX Design is something that you can become passionate about as you evaluate possible career opportunities. Talk to as many friends or working professionals in the field as possible, and ask them what their work life is like. In addition, try to attend UX events, even though you are not yet a UX Designer yourself. Getting involved in the community will help you to better understand what your career will look like once you become a UX Designer.

Another good way to get involved in the field is to immerse yourself in knowledge about the field by reading books and articles about UX design, especially case studies that show how it’s been applied in practice. There are several good reading lists you can find online, like this one by Simon Pan or this one by the HCI department of UMich.

“Though challenging, I can see myself doing this for years, EVERY DAY, and I am willing to work very hard to fulfill it.” says my student, the former architect. After making the jump and going through my Boot Camp course, he has started his own startup as a Co-Founding Designer

Mr. Architect’s sample work after completing the Boot Camp.

It takes practice. A LOT of practice.

You might have heard that everyone should be able to become a UX Designer. “I thought this was going to be easy, but it’s hard. Harder than my previous job as a programmer,” said one of my students who used to be a very senior Software Engineer. If you want to become a UX Designer just because you think it is easy, it might surprise you once you get started.

Technically, everyone can become a UX Designer. But the reality is, before you can get hired at most companies, even as a junior designer, you will need to have some level of relevant experience and demonstrate your skills through your portfolio of work. “It’s like everyone wants a UX Designer with experience, but I can’t get experience if I can’t get a job to start with!” said one of my students who used to be an accountant. “My previous job has nothing to do with design or research. What should I do?”

The best answer is that you need to work hard to accumulate some experience. My advice is: experiment with small real-world projects, begin to conduct user research sessions, and last but not least, participate in hackathons or any other design events as frequently as possible.

  1. Experiment with small real-world projects

Being hired at a big company might be difficult to achieve for your first step. However, you can start with doing project work for non-profit organizations or academic groups. They are more likely to be open and excited to get your help. You might need to start by working for free in some cases, but you will have control over the scope of your involvement. While doing your project, try to analyze the problem that you are trying to solve for the organization, what information is needed in order to provide a solution, and how to determine whether your solution has successfully solved the problem. In order to gain context and to effectively approach your project, try to talk to the organization’s users as early and often as possible. You will need the user’s feedback to influence your design decisions. Remember, UX Design is a problem-solving process, and user research will help guide you through that process. Additionally, try to practice the UX methodologies you’ve learned from other UX Designers, from a Boot Camp or from simply a UX book.

2. Talk to users whenever you can

The ability to understand user needs and behaviors is not something that you can acquire from a single conversation with a user. And by “users”, I am not referring to people you find from a recruiting firm to interview and help evaluate a product. A user can be anyone who interacts and engages with a product. For example, when one of your friends complains about Facebook, you can ask them how they use Facebook and why they think it works or doesn’t work for them in order to get experience with gathering and evaluating user needs. In addition, this goes hand-in-hand with the first item, the experimental project. Once you have some ideas about how you can improve the design of a product, ask your friends, family, co-workers or even someone in a coffee shop for feedback. My students once did a guerilla usability test (where you get lightweight feedback on an idea without needing to create a detailed user research plan) in a coffee shop and they told me that they gained an incredible amount of insight over that one day study just by talking to 8 random people. In addition, you will definitely become a better communicator, and start to become more empathetic to the needs of users once you talk to more and more users directly.

My students in a coffee shop doing guerilla usability testing.

3. Participate in design hackathons and events

I once mentored at a design-a-thon event at USC and since then, I’ve become a strong advocate for hackathons (a 24+ hour event where teams come up with innovative ideas and pitch their product solutions). You will be surprised about how much you can learn during these intense but fun events. You will get to meet talented designers and developers, learn how to work in a team, and practice your UX skills. You will see how an idea turns into a product, and how to best present your thoughts and designs. Each of these skills is critical for UX Designers. Plus, it’s always good to put some projects on your portfolio that demonstrate your ability to work collaboratively on a team.

“Hackathon is fun and you’ll learn a lot. Most important of all, you’ll be proud of yourself once you’re done.”

Learn to ask the right questions, and ask a lot of them

Asking the right questions is an artform and is something that I’m continually learning. Asking good, meaningful questions applies to many different roles, but it’s particularly important for a UX Designer. I have a really good story that demonstrates why this is.

Once in my UX class, we invited a startup co-founder over and had all the students conduct an expert heuristic review for their website, helping them identify usability gaps in their product. The moment that I launched the company’s website, everyone started to give feedback right away.

“For an e-commerce website, I want to see your products right away, not your warehouse deals.”

“I want to see the price right away, but you have ‘call for price’ and it’s definitely not intuitive.”

“Why do you have different listings for the same product with different colors? I think it should be on the same listing and I should be able to select colors from there, just like Amazon.”

The discussion went on for almost 20 minutes and all of my students were happy with their critique and all the pieces of feedback they gave about the product.

“The comments you gave are really good.” I said, “Here’s a quick question for our client: what kind of e-commerce do you do?”

The startup co-founder replied, “well, we do wholesale. This website is more like a list of our inventory.”

Everyone in the class became silent after hearing the answer. Everything they said all of a sudden became insignificant. Of course customers need to “call for price”, because the client is doing wholesale. Of course the website has different listings for different colors, because the price and technical specs are all different. All of a sudden the real usability problem became that the website failed to indicate that they only do wholesale. A few months after the client came to visit the class, and after all my students from that Boot Camp had graduated, I was still getting texts from them: “I will never forget the client who does wholesale. I think that is the first time I really understood what UX is and what it takes to become a UX Designer.”

I guess this is the best way to educate them on one of the most important things about UX: know your customer and forget about your personal preferences. In addition, asking meaningful questions is far more important than stating facts or giving opinions about a given design. For example, instead of saying “I don’t think you should use this font”, try to ask “why did you choose this particular font?” Try doing this for a few weeks and you will be surprised with the outcome.

Teaching UX has been a fun journey for me and it feels extremely good knowing that you can help people launch their careers in UX. If you are also trying to become a UX Designer, I hope I’ve offered some useful insights and starting points. Best of luck!

DesignIQ

Ideas & Case Studies From the Design Team at SalesforceIQ

Hang Yu

Written by

Hang Yu

Sr. Product Designer@SalesforceIQ

DesignIQ

DesignIQ

Ideas & Case Studies From the Design Team at SalesforceIQ

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