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!
What is a UX Designer?
A UX designer crafts user experiences for digital products like websites and apps. They focus on understanding what users need and enjoy. Think of an app you love using. A UX designer has carefully planned your experience with it. They decide everything: from what features will help you achieve your goals to how those features work, how you receive information, and the tiny details such as button placement, color schemes and font sizes. This role combines visual appeal with functional design and delves into user psychology.
UX designers are creative problem-solvers. They aim to balance aesthetic appeal with practicality. Their goal: make user interactions smooth and enjoyable. They make every design choice, from button size to checkout flow, deliberately and focused on the user. This dynamic and creative field evolves as technology and user expectations evolve.
Always Becoming a UX Designer
It is easy to read the phrase “become a UX designer” and picture a one-time journey.© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0
... but really it is an ongoing process.© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0
You won’t find an 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 improving your work's quality, marketability, job satisfaction, and ability to make a positive difference.
So, why doesn’t a UX designer ever stop becoming one? There are two reasons:
As a UX designer, you often face problems intertwined with several factors. You may find it related to the latest technologies, cultural forces and the world's current state. These elements change constantly.
You must adapt your skills, knowledge, methods and tools to influence and improve these situations.
For example, imagine someone asking you to design a mobile commuting app in 1999.© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0
You must understand how to design for small screens and slow data speeds. But, you would not have understood micro-mobility (e.g., electric scooters and bikes), self-driving cars, or digital payments. Also, you would have used Adobe Photoshop to create the screen designs.
Now, imagine someone 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.© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0
How to Become a UX Designer?
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:© 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.© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0
These opportunities don’t 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 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.
As a UX designer, your craft resembles that of a carpenter. The carpenter continuously hones skills like room measurement, project estimation, tool usage and expanding their creative range. And just like a carpenter, you must constantly practice your craft to improve it.
You’ll find the significance of UX design fairly obvious. Job listings frequently seek designers skilled in creating mockups and sketches, conducting user interviews, and using 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.
Effective communication is essential in all roles, especially for a UX designer. You must communicate well through complex situations. You need to reach people across various departments, fields, and cultures. This need arises because UX design work sits at the heart of a larger process. It starts after identifying new needs, ideas, or business cases before testing and deploying the designed experience.
You collaborate with developers, marketers and managers. As a UX designer, you act as a crucial communication node in your organization. Clarifying every piece of information before sharing it improves the organization's efficiency.© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0
For instance, when a customer or product owner presents a product idea, you must convey the problem, solution and next steps. You do this through sketches, design specifications and prototypes. These should be easy for the team to understand, trust and act upon.
Similarly, if the development team finds a product requirement challenging or unfeasible, you must refine this information. This ensures the product owner can comprehend, trust, and respond to 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:
Make It Understandable
When communicating with a stakeholder, developer or another designer, learn their specific terminology. Visual communication (for example, through flowcharts, diagrams and mockups) can help them understand exactly what you propose.
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 include a strong rationale — research, data, evidence — that allows a person to trust that the effort will be worth it.
Help People Get Behind It
Brilliant communication goes beyond appealing to logic. It also appeals to emotion. So, don’t just include a strong rationale in your UX design communications. Include stories, images, and evidence that appeal to people as well.
Make It Actionable
UX design communication often focuses on action to change the world. So, you must communicate your messages clearly and indicate the next steps to take or avoid.
Being at the center of and collaborating with different departments brings its share of challenges. Those aren’t the only complex situations you will find yourself in.
Embrace Complex and Wicked Problems
To consistently become the best UX designer you can be, you must 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. Shake a farmer's hand, and you can feel the strength of working with the earth and animals.
You may not see it in their handshake but experienced UX designers are passionate about understanding and solving problems. Spend enough time with them to see their proficiency in this area. Like mechanics and farmers, they often enjoy tackling challenging problems. You could say that UX designers cultivate solutions in the soil of problems.
How can you reach this level of expertise? Work on a variety of problems, especially the challenging ones. As you do, you'll start to recognize different types. As a skilled mechanic can tell between a rich or lean running engine, UX designers often discuss various problems.
You will encounter many throughout your UX design career, but here are three common types: Simple, Complex, and Wicked problems.© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0
A simple problem, often called "clear," "obvious," "tame," or "trivial," has a straightforward definition. It involves an easily traceable cause and effect with a testable solution. Examples include creating a louder violin, a faster car, or an eye-catching advertisement. These problems might be challenging, but understanding the steps to achieve the desired effect is relatively easy.
A complex problem features a less clear definition, multi-directional cause and effect chains, and solutions you may find harder to test. Examples include creating an app that enhances community engagement or a digital experience for collaborative student learning. You may find these problems challenging to solve. It's difficult to pinpoint the exact problem, distinguish causes from effects, and determine the successful solution.
A wicked problem may have multiple definitions, explanations of cause and effect, and no immediately testable solutions. Some examples of wicked problems include:
Poverty and homelessness.
Improving educational outcomes.
We want to share this to give you a head start on the rest of your UX journey. This way, you can notice different problems around you daily.
Alan Dix, professor and expert in human-computer interaction, discusses wicked problems and the importance of understanding problems in your work.
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.
Iteration, process, exploration
Changes the physical and social world to create value.
You can create value and not discover it.
Physics, math, process, and material construction
Change the physical world.
You can discover and change the facts about the physical world.
Change human perception.
You can change the perception.
Change knowledge of the physical and social world.
You can observe and discover facts.
Let’s begin with a practical example. Imagine someone gives you 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 large project with many challenges and many decisions to make. What can you design and build to change people’s perceptions and behaviors? What sort of interface will you need? Will data flow between the app and the billboard? How? How will you test it and iterate? How will you know for sure that your design has achieved its goals?
This is where flexible thinking will help. Think of it like putting on different pairs of glasses. Each one allows you to see different parts of the problem.© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0
You might start with art thinking as you consider how people perceive public transportation and how you might change it. 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 public transport people to post fun photos of themselves on the billboard. You put on your design thinking “glasses” and realize that you must understand the 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. You’ll ask and address questions about how the photos will go from app to billboard, where you’ll store the images, and the resolution of a billboard. As the project nears launch, science thinking helps you gather the data to help you understand if and how your solution worked.
This example does not accurately represent reality, of course. In a real project, you’d take many more steps, involve people, and think in a more non-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 most important thing you can do to become the best UX designer you can be is to learn how to learn. Learning skills are the magic multiplier of all the other skills. It enables you to acquire and master the processes, tools and artifacts of UX design. It helps you find and use new ways to communicate brilliantly and makes understanding the people you communicate with easier.
Learning also allows you to more easily grasp and combine new flexible ways of thinking. It 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 best methods for you. For example, many find that taking hand-written notes—in notebooks, in the margins of books, or digital format using a stylus—helps 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 boot camps, while others learn best from short video tutorials or blog posts. The list of methods is endless.© 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.
Possible Career Paths of a UX Designer
A UX designer's career path is dynamic and filled with diverse opportunities. This field blends creativity, psychology and technology. It offers various roles, each with unique challenges and rewards.
When we talk about creativity, we often think of geniuses and moments of inspiration. However, as Alan Dix explains, there’s quite a lot more at play. Here’s what it means to be creative.
Look at potential career paths:
UI Designer: Focuses on creating visually appealing design elements, layout, and interactive properties of a product. This role requires strong graphic design skills because a UI designer needs to make digital interactions between technology and users smooth, enjoyable and efficient.
UX Researcher: Focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations. The work involves conducting surveys, interviews and usability tests. This role is crucial for creating user-centered designs.
Information Architect: Specializes in structuring and organizing digital products. They help ensure easy navigation and a seamless user experience. This role involves creating user flows, content inventories and site maps.
Interaction Designer: Concentrates on creating engaging interfaces. The designer works on the interactive aspects of design. The interactive aspects include elements like animations, buttons, and transitions.
Usability Analyst: Focuses on evaluating products for ease of use. The analyst identifies issues and provides solutions to enhance user experience.
UX Writer: Creates clear and concise copy for digital products. They create user-friendly texts that complement the UX design.
Watch Torrey Podmakersky, author, speaker and UX writer, discuss the pathway to becoming a UX writer.
Product Designer: A broader, more generic role that requires decision-making at a more strategic level. This role involves overseeing the entire design process of a product. Product designers might need a deeper understanding of all aspects of design and sometimes even front-end development,
UX Manager/Lead: Leads UX teams and projects. The manager/lead focuses on strategy, team management, and ensuring project goals align with user needs.
UX Consultant: Works independently or with consulting firms. They provide expert advice and solutions to companies on their UX strategies.
These roles show the versatility of a career in UX design. Each role requires a blend of technical skills, creativity, and an understanding of user psychology. The right path depends on individual interests and skills.
The Power of Networking as a UX Designer
Networking with fellow design professionals is invaluable for aspiring UX designers. It opens doors to new opportunities, insights, and learning. Here's why it's essential.
Broaden your Knowledge Base: Interacting with experienced professionals enhances your understanding of the field. They offer practical insights you won’t often find in UX design courses.
Stay Updated: The UI/UX field evolves rapidly. Networking helps you stay current with the latest trends, tools, and methodologies.
Mentorship Opportunities: Experienced designers can provide mentorship. They guide you through challenges and offer career advice. Those new to the field can get help from this.
Job Opportunities: Often, companies fill UX design jobs through referrals. Networking increases your chances of learning about and securing these opportunities.
Feedback and Collaboration: Sharing your work with peers provides constructive feedback. This can improve your design skills.
Build Confidence: Regular interaction with seasoned professionals boosts your confidence. This is essential when you seek UX design jobs or look to excel in the field.
Actively networking and learning from others open the door to a successful career in UX design. Broaden your focus from what you know to who you learn from in the industry. But networking works well when you have your work to showcase. And for that, you need a good portfolio.
How Do You Create a Better UX Design Portfolio?
Creating a UX design portfolio showcases your skills and experience. Your portfolio is your career's visual story. It must be user-friendly and highlight your best work. Include diverse projects to show versatility. This can range from graphic design to web development.
1. Impressive Homepage
Start with a captivating homepage. It's your first impression. Ensure it's visually appealing and easy to navigate. Highlight key projects here. Each project should tell a story. Focus on the problem, your design process, and the solution. This demonstrates your user experience expertise.
Here’s a quick tip from Michal Malewicz, co-founder of Hype4, on how to make your portfolio stand out from the competition.
2. Detailed Case Studies
Include detailed case studies. They should cover your role, challenges, and how you applied UI design principles. Showcase your skills in visual design, information architecture, and usability. Use visuals like wireframes or prototypes from Adobe XD or Invision.
UI and visual design comprise a big chunk of user experience. Learn more about the importance of UI and visual design from Michal Malewicz.
3. Showcase Technical Skills
Your portfolio should reflect your knowledge of digital products and software development. Include projects that show your ability in visual design. Tools like Illustrator can highlight your graphic design skills.
UX leader at Google One, Stephen Gay, emphasizes the importance of storytelling in portfolios.
4. The Process and Decision-Making
Your portfolio is not just about the final product. It's about your journey. Include your thought process and decision-making. This shows your ability to adapt and learn.
In this video, Stephen Gay shares his number one tip on what to include in a portfolio.
5. Contact and Conclusion
End with a clear, concise contact page. Make it easy for potential employers or clients to reach you. Your UX design portfolio is your gateway to new opportunities. Make it count.
In the conclusion of a UX design CV, you should:
Highlight your professional goals.
Portray how your experiences and skills prepare you for those goals.
Showcase your enthusiasm for the UX design field.
Express eagerness to bring your unique skills to the benefit of the potential employer.
Your conclusion should compel the employer to take action—select you for an interview. It's also good to mention your availability for interviews or to start work. Be sure to keep it concise and compelling.
What Are the Entry-Level Steps to Becoming a UX Designer?
Becoming a UX Designer involves education, skill development and practical experience. Aspiring UX designers must focus on understanding user needs and creating user-friendly interfaces. This journey combines knowledge of human-computer interaction, design principles and technical skills relevant to UI/UX.
Educational Foundation: While many companies don’t insist on formal education or degree in design-related fields, you can pursue computer science, design or human-computer interaction education. It will provide a theoretical understanding of key concepts.
Develop Soft Skills: You need good communication, empathy, and problem-solving skills. They help understand user needs and work in team environments.
Practice UI Design: Gain proficiency in user interface design. It's a crucial component of UX work.
Michal Malewicz explains what UI design is and what it involves. Get to know about the most important components of design that you’ll use as a designer.
Build a Portfolio: Create a UX design portfolio. Showcase your best work, including case studies and design solutions.
Gain Practical Experience: Start with internships or entry-level UX design jobs. Real-world experience is invaluable.
Stay Updated: The UX field evolves rapidly. Stay informed about new trends and technologies.
Network: Connect with professionals in the field. Networking can lead to opportunities and mentorship.
Following these steps, you can navigate the UX designer career path effectively. Each step builds upon the previous, gradually enhancing your capabilities and understanding of UX design.
Essential Qualifications for UX Designers
Essential qualifications for UX Designers encompass a range of skills and knowledge areas vital for success in this field.
Understanding of User Experience: To excel in UX design, you need a deep understanding of user experience principles. This includes knowing how users interact with digital products and what makes an experience engaging and intuitive.
Proficiency in Graphic Design: You need graphic design skills for visually appealing interfaces. This involves understanding color theory, typography, and layout principles, which are essential for crafting aesthetically pleasing designs.
Skills in UI Design: UI design proficiency helps you as a UX designer. It focuses on the design of user interfaces for software and digital products. The core focus lies in making the design user-friendly and accessible.
Knowledge of Information Architecture: Information architecture involves structuring and organizing content in digital products. This ensures users can navigate and find information easily, a key aspect of a positive user experience.
Content holds a lot of importance, along with good design. Frank Spillers, CEO of Experience Dynamics sheds light on the importance of content and how to organize it to get better results.
Expertise in Visual Design: Visual design skills help create functional and visually compelling interfaces. This includes understanding design elements and principles to create a cohesive visual language.
Soft Skills Mastery: Along with technical skills, you also need good soft skills to succeed as a UX designer. They involve effective communication, empathy, problem-solving, and collaboration. These skills are crucial for understanding user needs and creating effective, user-centered design solutions.
Experience with Digital and Web Development Tools: You need familiarity with different digital and web development tools. Designers use these tools to create wireframes, prototypes, and designs for digital products and web development.
Understand Software and Web Development: A basic understanding of software and web development can benefit you. It helps collaborate effectively with developers and understand the technical constraints and possibilities.
These qualifications pave the way for a successful career path in UX design. They equip you to create user-centered, aesthetically pleasing, and functional digital products.
The Take Away
Every design project poses a unique set of challenges that, as UX designers, you must prepare for. While the tangible deliverables that UX designers create are easy to grasp, a better mindset makes UX designers successful.
Continuously practice the craft of UX to deliver increasingly better artifacts.
Communicate these artifacts so that the rest of the team understands them easily, trusts them, gets behind them, and acts on them.
Embrace complex and wicked problems and realize there will never be a straightforward answer.
Think flexibly, approach problems from different perspectives, and be open to solutions.
Most importantly, keep learning. Becoming a UX designer is not a one-time journey but an ongoing process.
References and Where To Learn
Glassdoor’s research on the expected pay of UX designers across companies
Take a course from IxDF to learn UX design and grow your career
Read the Forbes article on How To Bring Your Products To Life With Good UX Design
© Christian Briggs and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0