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What is a UX Designer and How do you Become One?

by Christian Briggs | | 21 min read

Becoming a UX designer is not a one-time journey. It is an ongoing process. What does that process look like? What activities will propel you forward? How can you become the best UX designer you can be? Read on to find out!

Always Becoming a UX Designer

It is easy to read the phrase “become a UX designer” and picture a one-time journey.

Becoming a UX designer is a one-time journey.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

... but really it is an ongoing process.

Always becoming a UX designer is an ongoing process.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

There is no end to the process; only improvement. When you spend an hour learning a new skill, working on a project or creating a design, don’t think of it as a shortcut to the destination of “designerhood.” Instead, think of it as an improvement on the quality of your work, your marketability, job satisfaction and ability to make a positive difference in the world.

So, why doesn’t a UX designer ever stop becoming one? There are two big reasons:

  1. As a UX designer, the problems you are asked to solve are always deeply wrapped up in the current situation — the latest technologies, current cultural forces and world situation. All of these are constantly changing. 

  2. To influence and improve these situations, you will have to constantly adapt your skills, knowledge, methods and tools. 

As an example, imagine you were asked to design a mobile commuting app in 1999.

A mobile commuting app on a 1999 mobile device.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

You would have had to understand how to design for very small screens and slow data speeds, but you would not have had to understand micro mobility (e.g., electric scooters and bikes), self-driving cars or digital payments. Also, you would probably have used Adobe Photoshop to create the screen designs.

Now imagine you are asked to design the same app in 2030. Small screens and slow data speeds are no longer an issue, but you probably will have to understand micro mobility, self-driving cars and digital payments. And you are probably no longer using Adobe Photoshop, but some other tool for design.

A mobile commuting app on a 2030 mobile device.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

At this point you are probably wondering, “If there are no specific steps that will lead me to the destination of UX designerhood, then what is all of this about?”

We’re glad you asked! Because there are five things you can focus on throughout your career, that will help you to continually become the best UX designer you can be! They are:  

1. Do the Craft of UX Design. 2. Communicate Brilliantly. 3. Embrace Complex and Wicked Problems. 4. Think Flexibly. 5. Learn to Learn.

Five things you can focus on throughout your career to become the best UX designer you can be.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Do the Craft of UX Design

Let’s start with the most obvious thing you can do to continually improve as a UX designer: Do the craft of UX design as often as you can. 

Every day, look for opportunities to learn and master the tools of UX such as pen and paper, Sketch, Figma, XD. Use those tools to create artifacts like sketches, flowcharts, wireframes, mockups, prototypes and design documentation. As often as you can, familiarize yourself with UX design processes such as user research, user testing and design critique.

Do the craft of design — master the tools, create artifacts and learn the processes — every day.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

These opportunities don’t just happen at work or in a design course. They happen every day all around you. Remember that unusable app that made you feel like tearing your hair out? Try to identify the root problem and then sketch a better version. Bonus points for then testing your improved version on a friend. Do you overhear complaints at your company about a system or a process? Have conversations with the people affected, identify the cause of their frustration and design a solution. Or two. Or three. 

The craft of a UX designer is like the craft of a carpenter, who constantly improves their ability to measure rooms, estimate projects, use new tools, and the range of things they are able to create. And just like a carpenter, you must constantly practice your craft to improve it. 

The importance of the craft of UX design is fairly obvious. Job listings are peppered with requirements for designers who can create mockups and sketches, conduct user interviews and use the latest design software. Next, we will talk about a less-obvious skill that will serve you well throughout your career as a UX designer: Communicate brilliantly.

Communicate Brilliantly

Good communication is important in any role, of course, but as a UX designer you will have to do it in ways that cut through the noise of complex situations to reach people across departments, fields and cultures. Why?

UX design work is always done in the center of a larger process — after a new need, an idea or a business case has been identified, before the testing and deployment of the designed experience and usually in parallel and in collaboration with developers, marketers and managers. 

So, as a UX designer, you are always a critical node in a network of communications. The more you can clarify every piece of information that you create or interpret before sharing it with others, the better off your organization will be.

As a UX designer, your ability to communicate will help everyone.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

For example, every time a customer or product owner shares a product idea with you, it is your job to distill the problem, solution and next steps into crystal-clear communications — sketches, design specifications, prototypes — that will be easy for the rest of the team to understand, trust and get behind and act on. Or if the development team informs you that a product requirement is difficult or impossible to implement, your job will be to sharpen that information so that the product owner can understand, trust, get behind and act on it. 

What can you do to communicate brilliantly in UX design? You’ve probably already guessed after reading the bold text in the sentences above. Here are four key things you can do:

  1. Make it understandable
    Whether you are communicating with a marketer, developer or another designer, learn and use the terminology and visual language(s) that will help each one understand exactly what is being proposed.

  2. Help people trust the logic
    Every napkin sketch, every high-fidelity mockup is a proposal for a change in the world. These changes require effort, investment and risk. When creating these, always try to include a strong rationale — research, data, evidence — that allows a person to trust that the effort will be worth it. 

  3. Help people to get behind it
    Brilliant communication doesn’t just appeal to logic. It also appeals to emotion. So, don’t just include a strong rationale in your UX design communications. Include stories, images, evidence that appeals to people as well. 

  4. Make it actionable
    Since so much of UX design communication is slanted toward action to change the world, make sure that your UX design communications clarify what should — or should not — be done next. 

Being at the center of, and collaborating closely with, different departments brings its share of challenges. And those aren’t the only complex situations that you will find yourself in. 

Embrace Complex and Wicked Problems

To consistently become the best UX designer you can be, you will need to not just tolerate but also embrace the idea of working on difficult problems. 

You can tell a professional by the challenges they embrace. Experienced auto mechanics love the challenge of fixing an old car, and usually have the grease under their fingernails to prove it. Musicians revel in difficult music and will practice it until their hands are calloused. Shake the hand of a farmer and you can feel the strength that comes from working with earth and animals. 

You probably won’t notice anything different in their handshake, but you will notice that experienced UX designers love to understand problems and fix them. If you spend enough time with them, you will notice that they are pretty good at it — and like most mechanics, musicians and farmers, they often enjoy the challenge of difficult problems. You might say problems are the soil where the UX designer grows solutions.

How can you get there too? Spend time working on lots of different problems and especially embracing the challenge of the more difficult ones. As you do so, you will begin to notice different types. Just like a pro mechanic can see and smell if an engine is running rich or running lean, and a musician can hear the difference between tonal and modal music, UX designers will often talk about different types of problems. 

There are many that you will encounter over the course of your UX design career, but here are three common types: Simple, Complex and Wicked problems.

Illustration of simple, complex and wicked problems.

UX designers are asked to solve simple, complex and often wicked problems.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Simple Problems

A simple problem (sometimes referred to as “clear”, “obvious”, “tame” or “trivial”) has a clear definition, simple chain of cause and effect, and a testable solution — such as the problem of how to create a louder violin, a faster car or an eye-catching advertisement. These problems may be difficult to solve, but it is relatively easy to understand what needs to be done to create the desired effect.

Complex Problems

A complex problem has a less-clear definition, multi-directional chains of cause and effect, and solutions that are harder to test — such as the problem of creating an app that facilitates community engagement, or a digital experience that allows students to collaboratively solve learning challenges. These problems are difficult to solve, and it can be hard to understand the problem to be solved, which parts of the situation are causes and which are effects, and when a solution has been reached.

Wicked Problems

A wicked problem may have multiple definitions, multiple explanations of cause and effect, and no immediately testable solutions — such as the problem of addressing poverty, improving educational outcomes or designing a solution to some part of climate change.

We are sharing this with you to give you a head start on the rest of your UX journey, so that you can begin to notice the different types of problems around you every day. 

Think Flexibly

In order to solve complex problems and communicate across disciplines, a UX designer must be able to think flexibly — to use different types of thinking for different purposes. If you have heard the term design thinking, you may presume that it is the only way that designers solve problems. Actually, it is only one among many. Here, we will consider four of them. The other three we will call, for convenience here, engineering thinking, art thinking and science thinking.

Thinking Types

Typical Methods

Primary Goal

Core Assumptions

Design Thinking

Iteration, process, exploration

Create value by changing the physical and social world.

Value is created and not discovered.

Engineering Thinking

Physics, math, process, material construction

Change the physical world.

Facts about the physical world are discovered and changed.

Art Thinking

Media, aesthetics

Change human perception.

Perception is changeable.

Science Thinking

Scientific method

Change knowledge of the physical and social world.

Facts are observed and discovered.

Let’s begin with a practical example. Imagine you are given the budget to design a mobile app and to create a large internet-connected digital sign in the center of a large city. The goal is to improve people’s perception of public transportation and increase the number of people using it daily.

It is a pretty large project with many challenges, and lots of decisions to make. What can you design and build to change people’s perceptions and behaviors? What sort of interface will be needed? Will data flow between the app and billboard? How? How will you test it and iterate? How will you know for sure that your design has achieved the goals?

This is where flexible thinking will help. Think of it like putting on different pairs of glasses, each of them allowing you to see different parts of the problem.

Science Thinking: Change what we know about the physical and social worlds. Art Thinking: Change the human perception of the world. Engineering Thinking: Change the structure of the physical world. Design Thinking: Change the structure of the physical and social worlds.

Your ability to think flexibly will help you solve complex and wicked problems.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

You might start with art thinking as you consider how the people perceive public transportation and how it might be changed. Would heroic images on the billboard change perception? What about personal public transit stories from app users? Might humor change perception? You don’t need to be an artist to employ art thinking, but thinking like one will help!

Let’s imagine you decided to use social pressure by allowing people who use public transport to post fun photos of themselves to the billboard. You put on your design thinking “glasses” and realize that you need to understand the actual people in this real city before designing a solution. You do some user research, prototype your idea and test it. You put on your engineering thinking glasses and begin to ask and address questions about how the photos will go from app to billboard, where the images will be stored, and the resolution of a billboard. As the project nears launch, science thinking helps you to gather the data that will help you understand if and how your solution worked. 

This example does not accurately represent reality, of course. In a real project, there would be many more steps and people involved and the thinking types wouldn’t be used in such a linear order. 

What it does represent is how flexible thinking — the ability to approach a problem from multiple angles — is a crucial skill for you as a UX designer.

Learn to Learn

The last and perhaps the most important thing you can do to continually become the best UX designer you can be is to learn how to learn. Learning skill is the magic multiplier of all of the other skills. It enables you to more efficiently acquire and master the processes, tools and artifacts of the craft of UX design. It helps you find and use new ways to communicate brilliantly, and makes it easier for you to understand the people you communicate with. Learning also allows you to more easily grasp and combine new flexible ways of thinking that can help you to analyze and address complex and wicked problems

There is no magic method for learning, but you should pay close attention to, and develop the methods that work best for you. For example, many people find that the act of taking hand-written notes — in notebooks, in the margins of books or in digital format using a stylus — helps to solidify their knowledge. Other people use digital apps to keep typed notes that are taggable and searchable. Many people learn best in structured courses or bootcamps, while others learn best from short video tutorials or blog posts. The list of methods is endless.

As a UX designer, constant learning is part of your role.

© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

The key is to pay attention to the methods that work best for you, improve those and use them. It is a long-term investment that will improve all of your other efforts to become the best UX designer you can be.

The Take Away

Every design project poses a unique set of challenges that, as UX designers, we must be prepared for. While the tangible deliverables that UX designers create are relatively easy to grasp, what makes a UX designer successful are their mindsets:

  1. Continuously practice the craft of UX to deliver increasingly better artifacts.

  2. Communicate these artifacts such that the rest of the team understands them easily and trusts, gets behind and acts on them.

  3. Embrace complex and wicked problems and realize that there will never be a straightforward answer.

  4. Think flexibly, approach problems from different perspectives and be open to different solutions.

  5. Most importantly, keep learning. Remember, becoming a UX designer is not a one-time journey; it is an ongoing process.


© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

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