Human experiences. There’s an argument to say that collecting experiences is the meaning of life; that seeing new sights and feeling new feelings allows an individual to understand the breadth of the human experience, and to thus live life to its fullest.
It’s from this lofty (and perhaps slightly conceited) perch that we’re going to survey the world of UX design, because it is the role of the UX designer to craft the experiences of a digital product’s users. They control the usability, accessibility and enjoyment of the UX (user experience), and have the final say on whether it is to be one that is pleasant, fulfilling, jaw-dropping, or indeed terrible.
Sculpting a digital world is an exciting prospect, and has seen the role of UX designer becoming ever more desirable in recent years. And while we at The Martec have previously spoken about how to kick off a career in UX and how to navigate the very top rungs of the profession, we are yet to guide UX designers through that middle period of the role — the crucial developmental stage that sees many a fresh-faced UXer either sink or swim.
In search of answers we spoke to three UX design dab hands — Bettina Marson, a UX Specialist at Telstra, Hannah Heffernan a Product Designer at Canva, and Robert Williams, Lead UX Design Instructor at Academy Xi — to hear how they managed to navigate these often choppy waters.
What do the pros have to say about forging a path in UX design? Let’s find out.
Understanding whether a UX design career is right for you
Many a budding UX designer has been surprised at what the role entails once the choice was made to pursue the career. Understanding whether you’re a good fit for the role is the first step on the road to UX design success.
“I’ve always been attracted to creative pursuits and technology,” says Marson. Her entry into the UX space wasn’t particularly conventional, but it was one that seems to have set her up for success. “Initially I studied a Bachelor of Game Design, which led to a career working as a concept artist and environment designer. During that time I cultivated an interest in working closer with technologies to improve the lives of other people — both creating engaging experiences and solving real world problems. This led me to enrol in my master’s degree to fine-tune my focus and pursue UX and interaction design as a career.”
While Marson evolved a passion for all things UX, for others this enthusiasm is inherent. So, are you a natural-born UX designer? One way to find out is to look at the skills that separate UXers from other professionals, and see if your strengths align.
The key skills that make a UX designer exceptional
So what do our experts see as the talents shared by the top UX designers?
As a UX professional at design software provider Canva, Heffernan feels that being able convey your ideas through sketching is a skill that separates the best UX designers from the rest. “I may be biased as someone with a background in art and illustration, but being able to visually share an idea in seconds with a scribble has helped me immensely. With just pen and paper I can jam with my product manager or an engineer and figure out an idea together. It’s so much more collaborative than making wireframes or mock-ups on my computer.”
“Communication,” Heffernan adds when pressed for more skills. “I’ve worked with some otherwise brilliant UX researchers and designers who struggled to get key people on board because they didn’t know how to [communicate]. You can’t operate as this elite theoretical specialist and expect others to agree when you present your recommendations. Get people invested in UX early, and make it accessible, practical and inclusive for people who may be new to it.”
Williams agrees. “In UX design, soft skills have a huge role. The ability to communicate well — to facilitate, to organise and to collaborate — are hallmarks of an exceptional UX designer.” He also suggests that an exceptional UX designer needs to be good at identifying what creates a better world for the customer, and must understand that it takes courage to create change.
Rather than focusing on learnt skills, Marson instead identifies the key traits of an A-grade UX designer. She sees adaptability and drive as the two most important qualities that the best professionals in the field share, as it’s a profession that is constantly evolving. “With the rate [at which] technology is being developed and adopted, one of the greatest challenges I’ve found is that you need to not only be knowledgeable in UX practices, but also in the latest technologies and their limitations.”
Which seamlessly brings us to the next chapter of our pro’s guide to UX design…
Approaches to upskilling, and resources that help
“There are so many schools of thought and methodologies [in UX design] to pull from,” notes Heffernan. In such a diverse field it’s impossible to stay abreast of everything. She recommends that you instead update your skillset in response to project needs.
With that in mind, Heffernan advises the following upskilling approaches and resources for UX designers who are looking to be the best that they can be:
- Become a part of product communities with meetup.com. These events really helped when I was new to Sydney’s tech space, and often cost no more than a glass of wine!
- I read Glimmer by Warren Berger years ago, but it really stuck with me. It was my first introduction into design thinking, before it was a term that I’d come across.
- The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is a really interesting study of usability, also a great read if you’re just a nerd for beautiful design.
- Designing the Obvious by Robert Hoekman Jr. was a book that (Canva founder) Mel recommended when I first started. It taught me some useful things about how Canva thinks about product design.
- Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug is a favourite. I always revisit it for practical tips — monthly at least! Krug’s website Advanced Common Sense also has some really great downloadable resources.
In the same vein, Williams warns against the urge to be a jack of all trades, and recommends that you instead become a master of one (or perhaps a handful).
“Know what you do well. We have so many opportunities to flex our talent in different directions, so it’s worth recognising your specialty. Are you a brilliant researcher? Take your insights into forming a series of objectives within a prototype! Are you fantastic at designing and creating user journeys? Head out with the research team sometime to hear the customer voice directly!”
For those into literature, Williams echoes Heffernan’s sentiments on Steve Krug, and also lists the following books as required reading for UX designers:
- Usable Usability by Eric Reiss
- Smashing UX Design by Jesmond J. Allen and James J. Chudley
- Service Design: From Insight to Implementation by Andy Polaine
- Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf
Williams also advises that budding UXers check out the online resources provided by the organisation that he calls ‘the founders of UX’ — Nielsen Norman Group.
Lessons from those who have done it all before
What else should UX designers know about their profession? Having spent years in the field, our experts have seen it all before. So what learnings and advice would they pass on to those who are trying to make it in the world of UX?
Marson goes first. “When you think of user experience design, you immediately think of interfaces and customer service. But UX design is more diverse than that. We live in a world with many different technologies that allow for many different kinds user experiences, such as virtual reality and voice-based interaction as seen in products like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. User experience is not purely visual, and we must remember that people interact with technology in different ways. It’s important to not only keep up to date with the rapidly changing world of technology, but ensure that the experiences you are creating are inclusive, intuitive and a delight to use.”
What has Heffernan learned about UX design over the course of her career? “That it means something different in every company! Some businesses require a more research- and strategy-based specialist. Other roles I’ve had or interviewed for might talk UX, but then you figure out it’s mostly a UI design position.” In short, she says, you need to be prepared for anything — “it just covers such a broad set of skills.”
“In my experience, I’ve seen that the majority of our work is intangible, and often invisible to the end user,” notes Williams. “The user may only see a view of the outcomes in a single feature, button or tool we provide to them.”
So as a UX designer, he says it’s not ‘what’ is created, but ‘how’ — “how we work within a project group, how we collaborate with others and communicate our findings and deliverables” — that is most important.
A role on the rise
The demand for UX designers isn’t going to decrease any time soon. With so many human experiences now turning digital, organisations are always going to need specialists to help bring their UX dreams to reality.
Those charged with crafting user experiences need to give themselves the best user experience too, only in a professional sense. Gain guidance from more experienced contemporaries. Learn from their mistakes. Identify your strengths and play to them. Motivate yourself to upskill. Do all this and you’ll be well on your way to becoming one of the most exceptional UX designers in your field.