Getting started in UX design will feel overwhelming no matter what learning path you choose. This field has many facets and mastering it not only requires solid theoretical foundations but also takes plenty of practice.
While starting my UX learning journey as an Architecture degree graduate I constantly had thoughts about having to learn everything from scratch — this felt overwhelming. What came to save me was an online article that listed so many similarities between what architects and UX designers do.
This helped me to adopt a much more optimistic attitude about my situation. Hell yeah, I wasn’t at square one anymore! I started looking for opportunities where I could use my current knowledge and skills in the new field and the more I searched the more of these I found. I realised that even if I did something other than architecture, it would be still applicable. Now, think about activities you do in your day-to-day occupation. I do believe that you will be able to find analogies between whatever you do and the User Experience Design work.
Of course, first of all, you need to understand what UX discipline is all about, what type of work it involves, activities, processes etc. Next, try to ask yourself questions like:
– What processes do I use in my daily work?
– What tools do I use?
– What are my skills?
– What can I easily learn? What comes easy to me?
– What are my work outputs (e.g. drawings, presentations, reports)?
– What people do I work with? What is my team like?
Divide a sheet of paper (or a page in your digital note-taking tool) into 2 columns and list answers to the above questions in one column. Move on to the second column and start writing down how each position on the left could be transferred to the UX design role (don’t be too literal — as long as you can see some resemblance between the two, it will be fine).
– I use drawing software for CAD drawings → Using software to draw UX ideas
– I work with technical people and know people from IT department → Communicating my UX ideas to developers
This short exercise works as a motivation booster since it will make evident that you are not starting from scratch and have some foundations even if it is your “day one”. To be honest, I believe that almost anyone can transfer to UX design from another discipline — for some of you it might take a while longer but I know you can make it. Well, I made it so you can do it as well.
Okay, let me cut to the chase. Out of dozens of methods I used during my UX self-education project which I undertook a couple of years ago, I picked 3 that I think brought me the best results:
1. Immerse yourself
Surrounding yourself with pretty much everything related to UX design is important especially at the beginning of the learning journey. My number one tool, books, will let you dive deep and focus on specific areas. Books are usually carefully arranged and, therefore, will allow you to structure the knowledge properly and to understand basic terms before jumping into more advanced ones.
Thanks to this your learning will be more smooth and less overwhelming. It is important to choose books that are adequate to your level — if by accident you pick one that seems too difficult to follow along, don’t force yourself to read it to the end and try something simpler instead. Also, there is no need to read non-fiction, technical books from cover to cover — this is something that took me a while to figure out.
What it means is that instead of reading a book page by page you might be better off skipping some paragraphs or even entire chapters which are not of your interest or feel like a dull repetition of something you already read about. Let’s say you just read a short article about, for example, user testing and want to deepen the knowledge. The best thing you can do is to grab a book that touches on this subject and open it on a chapter where it explains the concept in detail. Don’t worry about reading the book in a patchy manner.
Okay, so what about finding appropriate UX literature? I won’t list all books that are great for UX beginners (the internet is full of comprehensive lists like this). I will just give a few examples of pieces I found particularly useful at the beginning of my learning path:
- Steve Krug, “Don’t make me think”
- Smashing UX Design, “Foundations for Designing Online User Experiences”
- Susan Weinschenk, “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People”
👉 Check more useful resources (books, articles, podcasts) in my free e-book “Become UX designer in 2022. 6 practical steps.” Grab your free copy here.
On top of that, I recommend reading online articles and blog posts (I guess you’re doing some of this already if you read this post) — they will help you stay up to date with the newest trends, ideas and ongoing matters. Catching up on what is going on in the UX world is important since the field is evolving at quite a fast pace and you rather don’t want to lag.
Podcasts are great for this purpose too and might be used in a mix with books and articles or as an alternative once you get tired of reading. Finally, I have to say that reading and listening as ways to consume knowledge will not only help you learn about particular ideas, terms and processes involved in UX design but will also shape your way of thinking.
For example, you might read someone’s case study and learn about an idea that helped improve their project and then one day come up with your great idea thanks to applying a similar thinking process. Further, joining local or online UX events is another way to immerse yourself in the UX design world and increase your chances of success.
After participating in your first few meet-ups you might conclude that you didn’t learn so much and feel like your time was wasted. I was there and understand it well. However, social happenings like this are a serious opportunity to meet amazing people who face similar challenges to yours or who are more experienced than you (which is even better for your development) — occasions like this might lead to finding a part-time project that will help you build a portfolio and land a dream job.
2. Don’t wait, design.
Theoretical knowledge isn’t everything and I’m sure you already know it. Even if you read tons of books on how to design interfaces it’s almost inevitable that your first piece of design is going to be crap. That’s what being a good designer is all about — having a solid knowledge base that is regularly put into practice, receiving feedback, learning and iterating.
Only by practising one day you will get to the point where knowledge is applied somehow automatically, your process is well-organised and the whole thing just comes easy to you (this is not to say that everything will be obvious and straightforward). I think one of the blockers faced by many aspiring UX designers is that they say something like “I need to learn a lot of theory first and then I hopefully get a job or internship so I actually start designing” to themselves. Please… don’t wait for this to happen and start designing today!
Okay, you might be thinking now “What on earth am I supposed to design if there is no client, no brief, no project and no team…”. The answer isn’t difficult — let me just mention a few things that you can do to get some hands-on experience right now, no matter where you are and what you do:
- Get a habit of using your freshly learned knowledge in practice. Let’s say you just read an article or book chapter about designing great, usable forms. Put this knowledge into practice by finding an existing form that sucks (e.g. go to the online store checkout page that made you feel annoyed last time you shopped there) and redesign it using the guidelines you just learned about.
- Come up with an idea for a product or feature. You can do this by thinking about your problems and then ideating how to fix them. For example, imagine you cycle a lot and when something breaks in your bike, you don’t know which mechanic to choose — go ahead and design an imaginary app that will let you browse bike repair shops around you and compare their services and prices.
- Find a website (e.g. of a non-profit organisation) that looks disorganised, unintuitive or just doesn’t seem to be well thought-through. Consider how you might reorganise its information architecture, content, layout, navigation etc. and draw those screens. Always keep users in mind. I know you probably don’t have them next to you at this moment, however, try to think about what they might be like and what are their reasons to visit the website you aim to redesign. You might even go a step ahead and contact the website owners to share your ideas on how to improve the website’s usability and offer them a free redesign — it will be their choice to use it or not but the value for you is:
👉feeling good about trying to help someone
👉learning to take the initiative
👉working on a real-life project
3. Get feedback
This one might sound like something out of your control. Well, you can’t give yourself feedback (at least one that is unbiased) — someone has to do it for you and you can’t control what it is going to be like.
The idea is pretty simple — always strive to get as much feedback on your designs as possible and don’t worry who you get it from. Being open to showing your work to anyone is something you have a lot of control over. You might show your sketches or prototypes to a colleague, a friend, a family member or even someone who may be the target user of your solution.
They don’t have to be knowledgeable about UX at all. This is important because working as a UX designer means that everyone (literally) will want to give you feedback on your designs. Yes, I know how it sounds but people you are going to present your design work to (managers, marketers, CEOs, team leaders, developers etc.) will comment on things like layout, navigation, information hierarchy and density, inputs and interactions based completely on their preferences or presumptions.
Your work output is in most part very visual (wireframes, mockups, sketches) so anyone can say something like “I think this button should be in the top right corner instead of bottom left” or “This input label should be to the left so the form takes less vertical space” or simply “I don’t like that this button has an outline and it would look better as a text button”. Of course, you will be prepared to answer these since you made aware design decisions (I hope). But don’t stress too much over this — you can’t always (and probably never will) be prepared to answer all comments. Most times you will need a while to think about it and get back to stakeholders.
While learning UX (and you never stop learning it) even feedback that seems trivial at first is likely to teach you something and will make you more considerate in future design decisions and reacting to feedback. To put it short, you can grow only by getting (constructive) feedback frequently. And not just by receiving it but more importantly by analysing and using it to improve your design process. What is great about feedback is that comments and questions you receive will uncover gaps in your thinking process — things you haven’t thought about but next time you will not overlook them for sure.
So.. what are you waiting for? Grab all your sketches and drafts and bring them in front of your flatmate or parent and ask them for the feedback! Aww wait, I would almost forget to mention — by repeatedly showing your work to someone you practice your communication and presentation skills which, indeed, are essential to UX designers daily work and during job interviews. As my architecture teacher used to say: “If you explain it [your design ideas] to your mom and she understands it, everyone else will too”.