The previous post on this topic offered an overall summary of what I’ve been learning in my conversations with folks. Now I’d like to go into a little more detail on some of the topics.
So what should I learn?
Identifying the best areas to focus is probably one of the hardest tasks, especially for those folks who are not able to afford to get a degree or do a bootcamp like General Assembly. The guidance offered through official programs is not to be underestimated!
What do you already know?
You almost certainly have experience in _something_ that falls into UX design. Whether it’s researching how to do something, drawing things in your spare time, talking to someone new, explaining a skill or idea to someone else, or trying to use a new piece of software: these are all applicable to UX in some way or another.
The way I like to think about UX research and interactive design breaks down like this (see my quick and dirty handout from a recent talk I did):
Everything informs everything else, from the information you gather at the beginning, to the analysis with other folks, to the early sketchy design possibilities you create, through to iterating on your design based on feedback you get from stakeholders and users.
When these designs need to be produced in higher and higher fidelity as your team gets closer to something that works well for the stakeholders, there will likely be continued iterations based on what’s actually feasible and plausible. (I am not as experienced in the visual design aspect of the UX process, so I cannot offer as much structure around that part.)
What do you like to do, what do you need to learn?
Figure out what you know how to do or could easily learn. With that information, you can focus on what you know how to do and how to integrate it into a project, and then on improving any areas you specifically want to learn.
I personally need more practice in visual design and data visualization: I’m not especially familiar with visual design or otherwise making things visually approachable, and these both seem useful to at least have a basis in.
I’m working on identifying the best ways for me to improve these skills, and found that working on badges with Fedora folks helped a bit. Among other things, it meant that I had the opportunity to ask what people did when they did specific things that I might otherwise not have encountered (such as specific keystrokes in design programs).
For other folks, it might be wise to learn the basics of HTML and CSS. Even if you do not wish to write the code for your designs, it is immensely helpful to understand how programming works.
If you’re not familiar with how to phrase things, maybe you want to work on writing content for your designs. Maybe pretend that you are talking to someone who has never run into the thing you are talking about, or to someone who is too busy to give you more than a 30 seconds to a minute to read whatever you have to say. Figure out the most concise, but clear, way to say whatever you need to say. Even if you don’t want to write the content for your designs, it’s really important to be able to express yourself simply and clearly. Words are important, along with visuals and structure.
If you are looking to get into research, it would behoove you to learn some about quantitative research, not just qualitative. One of the major points that folks looking for quantitative researchers want is the ability to tell if the company is measuring success effectively.
Possible places to get cheap but decent classes include Lynda and Coursera. I’ve done some Coursera courses, specifically “Human-Centered Design: An Introduction”, ”Design Principles: An Introduction”, and “Information Design”.
Whatever it is that you need to learn more about, there is probably a way to do it online (remember to check Youtube!). However, it is often the things one needs the most help in that are the hardest to figure out how to learn on one’s own. Knowing the terminology is important for any successful google search!
(Note: I suspect that offering classes in basic aspects of each piece of the UX process would be a good value for the UXPA boston group, given the content of the previous paragraph. Not everyone learns from videos/written instruction very well)
Do a project. Any project
In my experience, the best way to learn is to find a specific design project — really any design project is fine to start out — and start working on it. If you have friends who write programs, see if they want your help. If you have friends with lots and lots of ideas, ask them to let you help design one of them. If neither of these are the case, consider an area in which you wish that something existed, or in which you wish a piece of software were easier to use. At this point, it matters less if your project goes live — although that’s always preferred if possible — and more that you are working on something.
Take lots of screenshots and notes and keep track of what you’ve tried, what worked, and what didn’t work. These will be useful when it comes time to create your portfolio!
Remember: the point of your first project is to learn, rather than to succeed, and most people learn the best from failure. Failing at something isn’t actually bad. Indeed, it’s almost expected, since you’re new at it. Figuring out where things went wrong is the important part.
That said, it can be difficult to know what to do at any stage of a project, especially if you’ve never tackled one before. This is where having someone you can check in with is invaluable. Not only is UX design not really a solitary activity, but having someone to help nudge you on the right path when you get stuck is fantastic.
If you have a mentor, that’s great. If not, see if you can find other folks who are also job hunting to work with. Chances are good that you are each better at different pieces of the project, and this will provide you both with additional experience.
For a possible mentors, join http://designmentors.org/ (credit to David Simpson for this!) and get in touch with someone who looks useful for your needs.
If you’re still struggling to figure out a design idea, this page might be helpful.
If you’re not sure how to approach a project, this site talks about the whiteboard design challenge that sometimes happens in interviews, and is a decent overview of what a design project could involve.
(Note: Offering folks ways to get in touch with others who are looking for their design projects to work on might be a useful feature. Similarly, ways to find mentors.)
In general, you will need to use a tool of some sort for your design project. Paper prototypes are amazing, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, they are difficult to test out remotely, and rely on excellent drawing skills and handwriting to be easily used for prototypes.
There are a large number of options for tools in the UX design space.
Some are focused on being easy to use to make low and medium-fidelity mockups and prototypes (Balsamiq was my first tool, for example. Axure is easy to start out, but a bit complicated to learn to turn into a prototype). Some are specifically meant to help folks turn their designs into prototypes (like Invision, which is free and supports uploading existing designs) and often support collaboration quite easily. Others are more on the visual design side of things, although sometimes still include fairly easy ways to make mockups and prototypes (Sketch is extremely popular, but mac-only).
Adobe’s creative cloud service includes a lot of commonly used graphic design tools, whether photoshop (for which Gimp is a decent free and open source substitute, if poorly named), illustrator (vector graphics; try Inkscape for a free and open source substitute), indesign (as far as I can tell it’s about design for publishing online and off? Not sure of the best free equivalent) or the recently added experience design (XD beta, again not sure of an equivalent, although I think it may be meant to compete with Sketch).
The ones I’ve listed above are the most frequently mentioned in job applications, especially Sketch and Adobe creative cloud. Axure and Invision are also quite common. There are a _lot_ of other newer (and often free/beta) options, although I’ve not done much exploring of those.
(note: classes/mentors for basic introductions to the most common design tools might be useful, especially for those who are not already familiar with Adobe Creative Cloud. Not everyone learns from videos/written instruction well)
Other tools and techniques
You may also want to investigate tools for mind mapping (I like MindMeister, free for a small number of maps), which can be useful to keep track of relevant ideas and concepts. Or for remote affinity mapping (I like Realtimeboard, free for a small number of boards) and other sticky-note/whiteboard-based activities.
There are a lot of other techniques that could be good to learn, including task flows and journey maps.
Many companies want folks with experience in the agile framework, so learning what that is and the various ways that design folk have figured out how to integrate into it would be useful.
If you are not already familiar with style guides and pattern libraries, getting a basic understanding of those would be useful.
Ok, I’ve done my first design. Now what?
First, congratulations! That’s often the hardest part.
Review your work
Take a look at what you did with an eye toward improving. What do you want to learn more about? What do you need help with? Where do you feel you excelled?
Take a look at various blogs in UX, as now that you’ve done your first project, you will likely start finding that those start making more sense to you. I found that reading various blogs and watching videos was overwhelming before I’d done a project, because I had no idea what was relevant.
Twitter has a lot of fantastic UX folks, although who you want to follow may be partly location-based. I like Jared Spool, Joe Natoli, Luke Wroblewski, Mule Design Studio, Dana Chisnell, Sarah Mei, and What Users Do.
http://52weeksofux.com/ is an excellent overview site that I really need to revisit myself, now that I’ve got some experience in UX.
I’m also fond of UX Mastery, and the Nielsen Norman Group.
There’s also a lot of good books out there!
(note: a curated list of useful links and books would be really helpful!)
Your best bet would be to summarize what you did, whether as part of your portfolio or as preparation for your portfolio. Keep your eye out for things you would have done differently next time, as well as things you think worked out well. You want to describe your process, and at the same time tell a story about what you did and why. Remember to be clear on what you did and what your teammates did: as I’ve mentioned above, UX is typically a team process.
If you want to write the HTML and CSS yourself, that’s fine. However, beware of the problem of running down rat holes to make things look perfect, and never actually creating a portfolio that you can share. That’s a major reason I’m moving away from a static website to Wix.com — it’s so much easier to do good design if I’m not also trying to write the code.
Tell a story?
I’ve had lots and lots of people say to tell a story, so I’ll share something about that. I had no idea what that actually _meant_ until I had a chance to a) dig deeper into what specifically folks were thinking about and b) see examples of this. One of my major problems is that writing a portfolio for a UX researcher is _hard_. You tend to have fewer pretty things to show folks than the typical graphic design portfolio might, and you may or may not have the design skills to make your portfolio pretty.
To the best of my understanding, your story needs to include as much guidance for your reader as possible. Like everything else, use your nacient UX skills on your portfolio: guide your reader through it.
Guide your reader
Use Gestalt principles to help your reader know where to go next, and I recommend an overview (this links to my in-progress update for my website) of your major goals and results to act as guideposts.
From this page: Include as much as possible of the STAR method in your portfolio to communicate what the situation is (goal of the project), what tasks and actions you accomplished (your UX toolkit of wireframing, usability testing, sitemaps…) and what the end results were (analytics, final designs, customer testimonials).
Note that I’m still struggling with the best way to explain the end results in some of my projects, because they either were one shot things (through hackathons) or are on pause while underlying things are completed.
I’ve got a portfolio, now what?
Get someone to look at it! Just as in everything else, you want someone else to take a look because there will be something you’ve missed, or ways in which you are not as clear as you’d like.
If that’s not an option, take a week or two, and then take another look at it. You’ll probably find typos and brainos (places where what you wrote doesn’t actually make sense), even though you are the one who originally wrote it.
(note: I expect that offering folks portfolio feedback would be really helpful! I’ve personally gotten in touch with someone from designmentors.org and have a review pending)
Do more design work!
Find more projects to work on. Now that you have your first one under your belt, this will go more smoothly, and you likely will find it easier to identify areas to work on.
If you happen to be able to find an internship in UX (say, Outreachy), take it! Guidance is amazing.
Start looking for jobs
This will help you get an idea of what the market looks like right now. It may help you decide what tools or skills to learn, or identify things you specifically _don’t_ want to do. And hey, you might find a job that looks good!
Honestly, I should have already said this, but this is easier when you have a little experience. At least in my case, having some basic knowledge makes it easier to talk to folks about UX.
Better yet is if you have a specific goal in talking to folks. For example, since I’ve been collecting data about the hiring process in Boston, I’ve had no trouble contacting folks about interviewing them. You may be able to take the tactic of asking folks about what they do in UX, potentially allowing for the opportunity to learn more about UX at their company.
Business (MBA) folk do something called an informational interview. In some cases, this appears to mean talking to folks about UX at their company. In others, it might involve the possibility of going to someone’s company and actually seeing how it works. As far as I can tell, your best bet is to see if you know anyone working at a company that includes UX folks and see if you can get any of them to introduce you. You can also message people on LinkedIn without a connection, but that may not work as well.
Present on your project
If you have the opportunity to present on a project you’ve done, take it. Presenting skills are very important in UX, and practice does help. Talking in front of a group of people can be scary, especially if you’re also trying to get them to hire you. Practice in a safer space, first, if you can.
Be visible online
If you don’t already exist online, you really should. Start a blog (I’m quite fond of Medium) about your UX experiences/learning/thoughts. Be active on twitter. Be visible in your UXness.
I’ll be chatting with more folks over the coming weeks, and will be speaking to the UXPA Boston board the first week of October. Watch this space!