A little over a year and a half ago, I was a UX intern with no idea what the heck was going on. I had a million questions about the field and desperately wanted answers and advice. I decided to start a podcast to pose these questions to some of my personal UX heroes.
For the past 18 months I‘ve had the privilege of talking with some of the brightest minds in our field. I’ve bombarded them with questions from my perspective as a UX intern, and they’ve shared their wisdom with me. What follows are the pieces of advice that were most repeated on the show and that stood out most to me. I want to share them because they inspire me to become a better designer, and to be better rounded as a person.
“Be curious” was one of the most repeated words of advice. Curiosity is the drive to probe deeper into a problem and to ask crazy questions. It’s how discoveries are made.
As designers, we need to be some of the most curious people out there, because we have a great opportunity to use that curiosity to help other people. So how can we “be curious”? Here are several ways:
- We have to listen. This is something really undervalued today. We need to take a genuine interest in the world around us and sometimes just shut up.
- Right along with listening, we should ask good questions. Good questions probe and ask why. The same goes for good teachers, good students, and good UX people. They ask why.
- We need to be teachable. Being teachable means being open minded and humble so that we can take the answers that we are given and learn from them.
Remember that every design challenge presents an opportunity to be curious and make discoveries. This includes those that might look really boring at first glance. They just could be the projects that you learn the most from.
Empathy was probably the second most mentioned trait of a UX designer. Empathy is what makes us human; it’s the ache that we feel when we see someone struggling or in pain. Empathy puts the emotion in design and allows us to have a human connection across an inhuman computer network.
We all feel empathy, but sometimes it needs to be prompted. One of the ways I have found to prompt empathy in myself is by creating personas or user profiles. Even if the photo used is not a real life user, it helps me to see even a stock photo of a user and read about their needs and hear what they’re saying. I like to review a relevant persona or user profile every time I am about to begin work on something. It helps me to adopt the empathetic mindset needed for the project I’m working on.
In the best case scenario, we can talk with real users of our designs. Even though you can get the same quotes and insights relayed from someone else, being with a person, looking into their eyes, and hearing them talk about their struggles makes all the difference in your design work.
Anything that lets you connect with the people you’re designing for helps to develop empathy.
Talk with Other Designers
I strongly dislike the word “networking.” It just sounds so impersonal, as if you’re only thinking, “what can this person do for me?” It doesn’t have to be this way though. Designers need other designers. Being part of a community challenges us and helps us grow. It’s mutually encouraging to talk with other people who are also passionate about UX.
One of the easiest ways to talk with other designers is to use Twitter. Twitter is a treasure trove of resources and conversations about UX that is going on all the time. A great way to get started is by following the people you respect and then following the people they interact with. And don’t just be a stalker—comment and ask questions. Many people will reply to thoughtful questions or comments on their own tweets, which creates meaningful conversations.
Conferences and meet-ups are the very best way to connect with other designers. Something about an in-person discussion on a presentation or new ideas revitalizes the designer’s soul and builds lasting relationships. It can be super intimidating to dive in and talk with people you have never met before, but it gets better once you take the leap. Trust me. My first conference was rather disappointing because I didn’t have the courage to stick out my hand and say “Hi, my name is Wesley” to the strangers around me. And it can be really hard to do! But that same conference the next year was a better experience by 10X because I did just that. As soon as you have even a short conversation with the people around you, they aren’t strangers anymore.
Get a Design Mentor
Behind every one of your own UX heroes is a great mentor (or two). Many designers are in the place they’re at today because of the wisdom and guidance of mentors. And many of these people want to pass along what they have been given, which is one of the most beautiful things about this field.
If you don’t have a mentor, you should get one. They don’t have to be world experts or anything, as long as they have a little more experience than you and are willing to help. The fist step is simply asking. Don’t be afraid to ask, but be considerate of their time. If they aren’t able to help, they should be able to direct you to someone else who can.
Along these lines, if you have been doing UX-related work for even a year, you are more than qualified to be a mentor yourself. Remember when you didn’t know anything about design? Imagine how helpful it would have been to have someone to talk through complex ideas and tough career choices. The cool thing about mentoring is that the mentor often benefits as much as the mentee.
Write, Then Speak
We are professional facilitators of communication. It follows that we should be excellent written and verbal communicators ourselves. But these two skills come only with practice.
Jeffrey Zeldman says, “You don’t know what you think if you don’t write.” Writing is fundamental to exploring and truly understanding an idea. Therefore, write! It doesn’t have to be a book or even a blog. Personal journaling is a great start to expressing your thoughts in written form. If you’re up for it, a blog allows others to peek into your thought process and create a conversation with thoughts of their own.
Public speaking is something that can be extremely intimidating. If you think about it, though, we do all kinds of speaking when we show work to supervisors or engage with clients. These everyday skills can be massively improved by speaking to groups. And it doesn’t need to be the keynote at a huge conference; a local UX meet-up would love to hear a 20 minute presentation. From that short presentation you can move on to speaking at a conference. Conference organizers are always looking for new speakers.
Bottom line, writing and speaking make us better communicators and we need to actively improve those skills.
Do a Lot of Work
Please watch this two-minute video and then come back. (It’s one of my favorite videos ever. It used to be on my phone and I would watch it every morning.)
It’s all good and fine to read articles and watch talks about UX, but if we don’t actually DO UX, we won’t get better. If you can’t get the kind of experience you want in a job, there are a bazillion products and services out there that you can practice on. A side benefit of doing unsolicited redesigns is that they look great in your portfolio and tangibly demonstrate your passion.
Another opportunity for practice is with non-profits. They usually have tight budgets and often a sharp web presence is neglected. Most would be thrilled to have design help, and you can feel good about what you’re doing while you are creating a portfolio piece.
Try New Things
Life is the ultimate user experience. Learn everything you can from your life so you can make other people’s lives better. Keep yourself open to new ideas from unexpected places. Don’t be afraid to tackle scary projects, and don’t write off the ones that look really boring.
It can be easy to mentally silo yourself into thinking that you will only stay within a given specialty or field for the rest of your professional life. It’s comfortable to think that way, but it’s also dangerous and potentially stagnating. So keep an open mind and pursue what you enjoy doing. Too many people go along with the flow and only take opportunities that are offered to them. You have to get out there and make your job happen, not just let it happen to you.
I’m preaching to myself here. You have to fail, because if you’re not failing you’re not learning. Most of the time there isn’t a “right way” to do things and you just have to try out new ideas. You have to push through uncertainty, try an idea, and learn from successes and mistakes.
This is probably my biggest challenge as a designer. I absolutely crave dogma. I want unbending laws and perfect processes that never change. I want these things so that I can comfortably succeed. Because of this challenge I can become overwhelmed and incapacitated when I encounter a problem that is new for me. I spend so much time fearing failure that I end up failing anyway. I say that I’m preaching to myself because I frequently need to be reminded that failure is essential to growth.
This field is so new! Don Norman only coined the term “User Experience” 20 years ago. We don’t have a standards board or a governing body. Everyone is still learning and figuring this thing out. There are so many ideas out there that can be overwhelming and make you feel unqualified, but you can learn from your mistakes and become a better designer if you just dive in and give yourself the chance to fail.
Enjoy the Journey
Being a beginner is a beautiful thing. Beginners bring unique insights and can see things that the experts might not recognize anymore. So don’t get bogged down with everything that you don’t know. It takes time, experience, and commitment to gain competency. Take your time, allow yourself the time to grow, be gentle with yourself, and enjoy the journey. (Beautiful little paraphrased quote from Whitney Hess.)
Although “intern” is not in my title anymore, I like to think that I’ll always be one at heart. The mindset of an intern is one of a perpetual student who is constantly learning and playing with new ideas. But this journey of learning can be overwhelming; there’s just so much out there and so many people “ahead” of us. Passion and drive are wonderful things, but we can’t let them make us feel overwhelmed. We need to live in the moment and appreciate what we have accomplished so far. We need to enjoy the journey of learning that we are on and not get stressed out by all we don’t know. For one thing, we won’t learn as well if we’re stressed, for another, life is just too short for that.
Signing Off…and Moving On
The podcast series made for an exciting year and a half filled with much personal and professional growth. The people I interviewed are my heroes, not only for their work, but also for their willingness to gladly give their time to a confused intern with a little show. Just listening to them talk as I reviewed the podcasts to write this article made me excited to be in this field. They helped me to a clearer vision of the nebulous discipline of User Experience and fanned the flame of my passion for design. At the same time, they helped me to realize that being a UX designer isn’t all a hilariously fun field trip to the chocolate factory. There’s homework and late night studying involved, too. I’ve learned that being competent in this field requires a lot of dedication and really hard work.
The future is bright for experience designers. We have so many increasingly recognized opportunities before us to make the lives of other people better. I mean, that’s all this really boils down to. The reason this field exists is because people need help, and we have the tools and knowledge to help them. We have an amazing opportunity before us to truly make a difference in the world. Let’s give it all we’ve got.
The UX Intern Interviews
You can listen to all the interviews by The UX Intern
- Katie Dill and Joe Rinaldi
- Leslie Jensen-Inman and Jared Spool
- Luke Wroblewski
- Jesse James Garrett
- Whitney Quesenbery
- Lou Rosenfeld
- Russ Unger
- Steve Krug
- Whitney Hess
- Todd Zaki Warfel
- Aaron Walter
- Joshua Porter
- Andy Budd