How to get started in user experience design
Follow your thumb as you scroll across the home screen apps on your phone — the ones you use every day, that play a central role in how you communicate and experience the world. How does your favorite app draw you in, “decide” what to show you, and become something that you use multiple times a day?
Getting to know experience design
- What is UX and UI exactly?
- How do I break into a UX career?
- Where to start learning about UX
- Build your portfolio – the right way
- Get inspiration from everywhere
The way an app keeps you coming back is a prime example of a good user experience (UX): the digital design principle behind how we interact with and experience a product, system or service. UX design incorporates how we perceive utility (an app’s purpose), ease of use, efficiency of that product, system, or service and more.
What is UX and UI exactly?
UX designers look at how people interact with systems and then work to make those systems better - or more efficient, easier to use, and a great experience. One way to understand UX is to think about the last time you went to an e-commerce website with the intent to purchase. If you found the experience to be long and complicated – it was a poor user experience. If it was efficient, streamlined, and quick for you to accomplish the goal that you went to the site for, it was a successful user experience. Every component was well designed, from when you arrived to that last click, by a UX designer and their team.
In my role as a senior experience designer, I primarily focus on designing apps for large corporations, for mobile devices, but UX comes into play with almost any technological interaction, or day-to-day process. When we talk about UX for apps and other technology on your phone, for example, we use it as an umbrella term that includes:
- Accessibility, or the ability for everyone, no matter their circumstances or disabilities, to participate
- Information architecture, which is the way content, data, and media are arranged, and presented
- Interaction design, which focuses on designing how users and systems communicate and interact
- Visual design, which is the way an app looks and feels (color, typography, spacing, etc.).
Each of these areas impact both the user interface (UI), which are the visuals people see and interact with on a screen and the broader UX, which includes strategy, research, writing and more. When we think about “Good UX” we often like to say that it should be completely invisible - something that users don’t even notice. If it’s working the way it should, when you’re within an app you love to use, you won’t talk about the great architecture, design, or minimalism of it, you’ll just simply enjoy using it, use it often, and share it with friends.
How do I break into a UX career?
First, you need to recognize that UX is more than just visual design—it is also a vital part of app development and business strategy, along with product management and engineering. When we think about the digital world and the experiences it provides, it’s clearly a crowded space that’s only getting more competitive – everyone’s fighting for your attention and engagement – and only the best experiences keep you, the user, coming back for more. UX is a robust and potentially lucrative career path for those interested in, and passionate about, making products and experiences better because UX designers provide companies with a unique perspective: the user’s.
UX is a design field that requires constant questioning and curiosity about people and their experiences with technology. It demands both precise attention to detail, and a rigorous process that questions what people need, and how to best present that concept to a wide and diverse audience. Really successful UX designers find the right questions to ask that can lead to solutions. In order to do that, we regularly speak with users to ensure we understand their perspectives and we do in-depth analysis to ensure the solutions we explore solve our user’s problems in a way that is both intuitive and efficient.
Getting started in UX can take many routes. If you’re still in school, you can major in something like Human-Computer Interaction or Interactive Multimedia (like I did at UNC Chapel Hill) or explore other credible UX degrees, programs and certificates. If you can’t ,or don’t want to go back to school full-time, another option is to get a certificate like the ones offered by the NNGroup. (This is also a great option to level up your skills down the road). A third route is to follow a more self-guided model. Whatever approach you take, be sure to research whether the program has successfully helped others transition into UX and take any guarantees of quick results with a grain of salt—most folks that I have seen transition into UX spend about 6-12 months learning and taking on small projects before they land their first full time role.
Where to start learning about UX
If you’re a beginning designer, or looking to pivot your career to UX, I recommend you begin by focusing on resources that help you better understand the ”why” behind the work we do. Don’t jump straight to designing apps from scratch. Instead, learn how to break down an ambiguous problem into small, manageable pieces, learn how to ask good questions, and learn how to think critically.
Some resources include:
- UX strategist, researcher, designer Debbie Levitt’s Delta CX blog. She covers UX best practices, interviews other experts, offers viewers free portfolio reviews and more. Find her on both YouTube and LinkedIn.
- UX design and research veteran Darren Hood’s The World of UX podcast. A weekly show that includes interviews with top practitioners, mailbag sessions answering listener questions, and even the occasional industry history lesson. Hood’s consistently updated lists of UX and Information architecture booklist are another great way to get deeper into the subject and pick up some important reference tools for future projects.
Also, get acquainted with basics, such as iPhone IOS and Android design guidelines, be detail-oriented and understand the tools of the trade. If you understand the wireframing tool Adobe XD, that's a huge plus. (There are tutorials to get started here.)
If you want to be a great designer, it’s in your best interest to learn to work with any tool. You’ll ultimately be moving around to different companies using different tools throughout your career, and it’s more important to understand the system and problem than a specific tool. Eventually you’ll be able to solve a UX problem with a pen and paper.
Build your portfolio – the right way
Think critically when sorting through online resources, and watch out for misinformation, lessons that omit context or bootcamps and programs promising a 'quick certification'. It’s challenging to get into the high-demand UX field, and it takes work. Focus on transferable skills — occupations such as graphic design, web development, or even science or research. The UX discipline is so focused on iteration and asking questions, that obtaining robust and relevant experience is key to building your portfolio. Also: be patient. It takes time to learn new skills and apply them well.
New designers should build a portfolio around the problems they want to solve and the companies they want to help. Check out Tony Aube, an award-winning designer, who offers a great model for building portfolio presentations that sell your skills. When you’re ready to share your work, it’s key to showcase the thought process behind a project, through case studies, and be concise — think about walking a potential employer through the story in five minutes or less.
Quick pro-tip: don’t include onboarding and sign-in processes as examples unless they’re very unique, otherwise they’re considered basic challenges and overused cliches, they won’t make you stand out. Also, annotate your designs to explain how your research optimized the final results.
That being said, the best way to optimize your own skillset is to collaborate with other designers. Visit digital UX communities such as UX Mastery and Designer Hangout or, better yet, join your local UX professional association like the UXPA to search for leads on jobs. For your first role, filter for junior/entry level UX designer or UX researcher roles. Digital communities are also a great place to network. Attending and volunteering at industry conferences can both enhance your skills and help you make valuable connections. When you do find a job lead, try to find out what tools and processes the company uses, so you can highlight your experience and understanding of those tools and processes in cover letters and interviews.
Get inspiration from everywhere
While it’s often thought of as a visual medium, storytelling — and understanding character development — is vitally important to good UX work. It may sound odd, but I take a lot of inspiration from sci-fi books, which often have a central plot around solving problems that haven’t been invented yet. Books also teach empathy, and the ability to imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes —which may be the best tool in a UX designer’s toolkit.
When you really dive into UX research, you’ll find that you need to empathize with not just one, but multiple different groups (aka personas) of users, each with a completely unique set of needs, wants and challenges. We all want to have a great digital experience, and get to the things we care about and the tasks we need to complete, quickly and efficiently. It’s up to us as UX designers to show them how.