Six years ago, when I graduated as a Product designer from India, I got an opportunity to work with a renowned IT firm as a User Experience Designer. Having designed physical products only, I knew as a product design student that switching to digital design would mean exposing myself to a plethora of new tools, information, design process, and ways of working.
Six years later, as an accomplished Interaction Designer at frog, I am proud of the choice I made. I see technology evolving every day, bringing user experience to the forefront, and in many cases, being critical to product success. The way I worked when I started was a lot of trial and error. I am still trying out new strategies to move my career forward and discovering where I fit, or do not, in this fast-changing industry.
As my career grows, I am grateful to receive messages from young designers who want to follow in my footsteps and ask for advice on starting and succeeding as a UX designer. Therefore, I decided to publish a post for young User Experience Designers. With my experience of learning from other designers and non-designers alike, I believe that other people’s journeys and stories can significantly impact our own.
At the start of my career, I was called a UX designer. I was expected to work on end-to-end design processes across research, synthesis, visual design, prototyping, and, if possible, also do some front-end coding.
Today most design-centric firms have niche roles catering to research, visual design, prototyping, UX writing, etc. Beyond this, you also got to choose whether you are a hybrid or a specialist.
In hindsight, it allows us to question how we fit into the design industry and reflect on where we would excel best.
Thus, it’s essential to keep up.
👇🏼Here are some ways you can do that:
- Continuously improvise your skillset and learn new ones.
How do you build a DLS from scratch? How can you apply the latest web accessibility guidelines to your design?
- Understand the state of the industry, and stay updated on the design, technology, and trends.
What does the Metaverse mean for designers? How are the latest campaigns against climate change impacting our lives, choices, behaviors, and the clients we serve?
- Evaluate and re-evaluate your role and interest.
Do you enjoy conceptual design or find product design and delivery more fulfilling? Are there specific domains that you are most passionate about?
In my experience, the most talented designers are the ones who have knowledge and a unique point of view. After talking with them for even a few minutes, you’ll realize that you learned something worthwhile. Every successful designer has their point of view, influenced by the books, trends, and people they follow. Make sure you read a lot of stuff. Not just about design, but about Business, Technology, Politics, Economy, Environment, basically everything that affects the world and then affects design. The readings eventually help you develop an individual point of view, allowing you to communicate better with clients from various industries and address their unique set of needs.
For those who don’t like reading, I’m sorry to say, that’s a habit you should get into sooner rather than later. It improves your vocabulary, makes you more thoughtful, and in time, a better communicator.
There is a fundamental problem with the Indian education system. We rarely give importance to the art of presenting ourselves to an audience, communicating effectively, and crafting a story. In my career, I have met many designers who are highly talented in their technical skills. However, they do not advance in their careers because they can’t convey their ideas well. The finest thought process or the most novel idea won’t get far if we cannot articulate it well or be willing to collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds.
One trend in the 2019 state of UX report was:
“Our employers and clients are buying way more than our technical skills. They are buying our authenticity, transparency, openness, ability to collaborate with our peers, and ability to recover from failures. This transformation in the way companies invest in design is making designers realize they are selling a process, not a deliverable.”
Sure, at the beginning of your career, technical skills matter. What can you do? What tools and software are you proficient at? But as you progress in your field, technical skills take care of themselves. It is the soft skills that begin to matter more and will make you stand out from your peers.
👇🏼These are a few soft skills I’ve found to be helpful:
Learn to work with stakeholders: Listen attentively, steer the conversation, push back without undermining others, and educate on the impact of user experience when needed.
Pick your battles and know when to let go: There will always be lost battles, clients who don’t understand your design processes and who don’t trust your expertise. Knowing when to let go and when to push back is a skill. It will come with practice, but follow your instincts and always justify your design choices.
Create a work environment built on trust: Talk to people from different teams and find allies and support networks early on. Design is a small piece in the larger scheme of things. If you can create shared experiences, understand each other’s viewpoints, and build good relationships, you’ll have an easier time influencing people. A lot of this is well described in the book Articulating Design Decisions.
Accept and learn from criticism: Design is about iteration, so do not be afraid to fail fast and often. Let go of attachment to your work and learn how to implement feedback. Don’t be picky about taking input only from designers within your team. Often the more valuable feedback comes from developers who have worked on similar products for a lot longer than you, product owners, and users.
Learn to tell a story: You have to tell a coherent and engaging story and tailor it for your audience. Invest in your presentation skills; it’s often more critical than design.
Be fully present in all meetings you attend: Designers often liaison between product managers, executive stakeholders, program managers, and developers. As a result, you will usually be called to many meetings, depriving you of a lot of heads-down time. To protect your time and energy, make sure you know the agenda of the meeting before you show up, and if it does not concern you, or it is something that can be tackled 1–1, move out politely. Nevertheless, if you decide to remain in the room, make sure you listen carefully, take notes, ask questions, and express your opinions. At the end of the meeting, you must have all the information necessary to move forward.
A number of young designers I’ve met sulk at the idea of being in projects that are not complete or do not cater to the target audience or domain of their choice. At the start of your career, every opportunity is significant. It takes many different projects of varying needs, domains, skillsets, complexity, and size to finally understand your fit and start making conscious decisions around what to pick and lose. It also takes many years of hard work and sincerity to establish your reputation, network, build and maintain trust.
When starting, do yourself a favor and start saying “yes,” to everything. Think of any opportunity that comes your way as a chance for you to exercise muscles you may not have known you had or to learn something new!
I am often asked how long one should stay in a company before moving on. Even though I wish there were a formula to measure this, the answer is: stay as long as you have something to learn and are challenged. Changing jobs brings a raise, but prospective employers will look for the challenges you have overcome and the projects you have delivered over time. This takes years to accomplish in a firm. It’s pretty simple: if you’re not challenged, look elsewhere. If your work isn’t going live, try elsewhere. If you struggle to be heard, look elsewhere! I believe it’s a very outdated mindset to think that staying at a job for a certain amount of time will look better on your resume.
Last but not least, invest in self-care. I used to think that my personal and professional lives could be kept separate. Don’t bring work home, and don’t let problems at home affect the work you’re doing. I learned very quickly that this is not true. In the wake of a few unfortunate events, my creative blocks became consistent, I took my problems into meetings, and my drive and motivation began to dwindle. Reality set in: we’re only human, and that’s fine.
Also, I learned that it is possible to maintain emotional and mental fitness to cope with stress. The key is self-reflection and self-care. A significant aspect of how much impact you have daily is self-reflection. A level of self-awareness is essential, and we should make decisions based on our values and ethics. Self-care is paramount to this. It is draining to work in this industry, where you are expected to consistently design creative and innovative solutions. To do this well, we need to be mentally and emotionally prepared. You should find what it is that helps you relax and take care of yourself. To be a better designer, you need to start taking care of your mental health.