Being a designer provides fantastic and fulfilling opportunities to affect how people interact with the world. It's therefore not surprising many people choose UX/UI or Product Design as ways to make a living. Yet, being a designer is also really, really hard. Designing software—or software supported—products and services requires technical and non-technical skills, including the ability to comprehend and incorporate relevant industry, domain and customer knowledge.
When I decided to pursue a design career, I hadn't considered much of that, I just enjoyed creating visually appealing and interactive things; be it a book or a website. The world of design changed around me and I went along for the ride. It took time for me to understand and develop these different skills; through formal studies, on-the-job experience, personal projects and informal training. I have some way to go if I'm ever to master all the skills, but one thing hasn't changed, I still love and continue to create things.
Over the past year—still grappling with life during a global pandemic and counting myself amoung the fortunate—I have increased my engagement in the design community. Acknowledging I have experience and expertise to share, but also, that much of the wisdom I have obtained over the years is not my own to keep. So, offering my time is a small way to give back to design, which has given me so much.
With a goal to become more present in the community I offered myself up as a resource to other designers, through increased engagement in design groups as well as by becoming a mentor on The Amazing Design People List (ADPList). ADPList aims to democratise mentoring by offering designers all over the world the ability to connect with designers and other product experts from all over the world.
Further to this, I have also had many interactions with designers in a formal capacity. Spending the better part of 2021 building out the design team at Cluey Learning.
As my interaction with designers increased I was provoked to unpack emerging trends and the changing role designers are starting to play in software development. These themes are notably affecting less experienced designers, both in terms of their outlook on what it means to be a designer and their potential growth.
The thing is, designers emerging in recent years have had a very different path than those of my generation. They come through an era where being a "UX Designer" is broadly understood, respected and accepted if not fully appreciated. This has made it difficult for me to relate to the sorts of decisions they need to make in the early stages of their careers. Therefore, I've had to ask a lot of questions to really understand and empathise with their situation and where they are coming from.
The market too is vastly different, and currently in the midst of a skills shortage when it comes to senior, product-orientated roles. While there are many emerging new talents, companies might not be in a position to take on junior designers. Worse still, some companies may take on junior designers and throw them in the deep end, failing to adequately prepare or develop them for what's expected.
Reflecting on my own career beginnings, I entered the workforce on the cusp of everything becoming "digital". The rules weren't fully set. In fact, my first job was predominately print-orientated. I was however, a very eager (and early) adopter of the internet in my youth and was building websites while in high school during the 1990s.
My own design studies did include "web design", but I wasn't studying "UX" or "Product" design. Those terms did not have widespread use. What my studies did prepare me for however, was that regardless of the content, context, or medium, rationalising concepts was fundamental to making something that solved a problem. I also learnt the building blocks of visual language and communication; everything from hierarchy, typography, copy-writing, colour theory, animation, illustration, photography, branding, film-making, and more.
By the time "web" became the new landscape to design in, adapting to the new medium was a learning curve, but not a re-invention of design fundamentals. Having a solid grasp of foundational methodology in regards to problem solving and communication has subsequently made it easier for me to adapt to the increased rate of change and the different frameworks employed. It's also prepared me to question or adapt frameworks for different contexts.
What I've been confronted with recently about the the development of emerging UX designers is they can become more focused on framework outputs than outcomes. The emergence of short-term programs intended to get designers job-ready, rapidly, has no-doubt played a role, but also the way in which we discuss design as a community, through short-hand buzz words which gloss over what we really mean. I presume the idea of fast-tracking the fundamentals is to land emerging designers in environments where they will continue to learn from experienced peers and seniors, on-the-job. Or, that most of the functional skills can be picked up through asynchronous tutorials.
This is a natural trend, given the demand for designers, and the greater interest in becoming a UX/UI or Product Designer. My concern however, is that designers may not be landing in roles that actually help their growth, beyond giving them commercial experience.
I do agree there is much to learn on-the-job, yet it can often be limited to domain, software and stakeholder management. Broader design development usually manifests itself in moments of guidance and feedback, assuming the right people are around to support that. It really depends on the environment.
My concern extends to the homogenised way in which young designers express themselves. This is evidenced by the countless—almost identical—case studies for lifestyle apps I have reviewed this year, which flow like so:
- Problem statement
- Competitor analysis
- User interviews
- Empathy map
- User persona
- User flow
- UX tests
- Final (Material) UI
This is a great list of tools for a designer to have in their kit, and to demonstrate in a linear process. However, the "UX" of the case-study itself can often be underwhelming and I'm often left asking questions about the intended outcomes, like, "What problem was solved?" or, "What in the research led you to design the user flow the way you did?"
This line of questioning results from the framework and its associated tasks being presented as rationale, rather than the processes of formulating rationale. The clear links between stages in a framework are often missing. I'm not sure, but I sense this is because designers are checking a list of what they believe hiring managers want to see.
While I do want to see how an individual approaches a problem, I'm really looking to understand how and why that process led to deliberate decision making. I'm also looking for signals about what makes them, them. What part of the process they outlined—and outcome they came to—required them as particular individuals? What did they interpret or present in a certain way that others wouldn't or couldn't?
I accept that it can be hard for me to appreciate what it's like to be a new designer in 2021, in an industry that has matured immensely. I can also acknowledge a lot of what I'm discussing is nuanced and takes experience to fully comprehend. Nonetheless, I've compiled a list below of tips that I've been giving to designers of varied experiences to hopefully help them along their path.
In no particular order, here goes:
1) Be yourself
A bit cliché, but vital. I'd always encourage designers to present some personality in and around their work. Your CV and portfolio should reflect you and what you value as a designer. This could mean the need to throw a few things out there that may not be completely obvious in terms of relevancy to a given role being pursued.
2) Keep an eye on the prize, experience alone doesn't always lead to growth
When considering opportunities, designers should be mindful of whether they are looking to learn more, or just do more. Experience is good, but sometimes not always relevant to one's goals. I suggest giving some thought to what one really wants to do in the context of UX or Product design.
While one can't always be picky about potential work early in a career, understanding the different roles which exist and what a job description is promising is important. To give an example, there is a distinction between the UX work on static micro-sites, and the UX work for software products or services. One isn't necessarily better than the other, but the former may not necessarily prepare a designer for the latter if that is what they really want to do.
By way of extension, both big companies and small start-up environments offer learning opportunities, though very different ones. Considering the difference in the context of one's own journey means being clear about the potential to gain experience through more ownership in a high-pressure start-up or agency, or a need work among others in larger teams to sense-check habits and gain new perspectives.
I've had many moments in my career where I have had to confront this decision, often choosing to take a step backward in order to make real growth.
3) Keep your chin up
As with any career progression, designers will be knocked back, down and around. Remember, being a designer is hard. Things always turn around however, and opportunities will continue to come along. I feel for disheartened designers who are trying to catch a break when they tell me about the roles they didn't get but I encourage them to focus on improving objective things. They can't control what's going on in a hiring manager's head and need to stop theorising about subjective reasoning behind a decision. Take applicable feedback and work on improving.
It's also very important to acknowledge that hiring managers are looking for things which one can't always prepare for. They are assessing many things in the context of the needs of the role, the team, and the company. Decisions aren't personal and not necessarily a reflection on a candidate's ability to do the role. Also, sometimes hiring managers get things wrong.
4) Improving UX is an outcome, not a goal. So, like it or not, you have to be strategic.
As much as it pains me to say this, improving user experience isn't exclusively reason enough to sell an idea. It should always be an outcome of the work designers do as they strive to help customers complete their job-to-be-done, while simultaneously creating moments of delight. Yet, designers need to offer stronger rationale to other stakeholders around the business about why UX considerations are important in their varying contexts.
As designers we can't expect a business to trust us with the experience of their customers without trusting that we understand the need to drive business outcomes as well.
Good design doesn't just require strategy and execution, good design is strategy and execution. So, steer conversations away from solution concepts toward problem defining discussions by asking "why?" This can be achieved through the same tactics used during customer research, such as probing and stimulating with applicable artefacts.
5) Visual design skills aren't just about UI
Many designers who don't have a visual or graphic design background tend to be content focusing on UX (without UI). I'm not exactly sure how realistic this is early in a career or in delivery focused roles, but even so, being an effective designer in any context means being good at visual communication. This goes beyond the finesse of user interfaces to all the artefacts that need to be created throughout the design process. Therefore, graphic or visual design skills are always worth developing.
6) Be prepared to present
Presentations are important. That is, the artefact itself such as slides, and the storytelling delivery. Whether interviewing for a role, or presenting ideas to clients or stakeholders, designers should always arrive prepared.
When presenting work, designers should avoid bringing up design software, or scrolling down a case-study on a web page. In both cases the interface gets in the way of the content and viewers will read ahead or look around rather than focusing on what is being said.
PowerPoint or Google Slides presentations allow one to package work in a way that can be stepped through, controlling the narrative.
In the context of a job interview, if a case-study has been sent ahead of time on a website portfolio, a presentation-friendly version should be ready for the interview. The version intended for independent reading should not be used for presentations.
It can't be stressed enough that presentation skills are as important as anything else in a designer's toolkit as they demonstrate a key skill which will be applicable to any design role.
7) Don't get precious
Designers should always be prepared to defend their work with sound rationale, and therefore never be concerned about presenting it. Pro-actively sense-checking logic and asking for feedback will help validate decisions or identify opportunities to make things better through differing perspectives.
Whether seeking customer feedback, or that of a subject matter expert, designer's must never get precious or defensive. Rather, they should invite active criticism by prompting others to literally scribble over their work. This can be achieved by literally printing things out, sticking them on walls and handing people pens, or by using virtual shared spaces like Miro and inviting annotation.
8) Never assume the user will just be there
Whenever a designer presents a piece of work, especially if the focus of the work was user experience, it's important to set some context as to why the app or website exists and why it is the right channel for addressing customer needs. Too many case-studies gloss over the fact that customers will need to find the website or download the app, as well as neglecting to explain exactly how the product will actually make money.
While a user journey can start at a home screen, a prospect journey won't. Understanding and communicating this by including it in end-to-end journey maps showcases a broader value one can have as a designer.
9) Not every problem solving example needs to end with an app design
Designers transitioning from another profession into design can often feel like they are starting from scratch. I'm constantly reminding them that they can provide case-studies and stories from real-world problems they solved in their previous experience. Design is problem-solving, and demonstrating that capacity doesn't require the manifestation of a website or app.
10) Best practices are not rationale
As discussed earlier in regards to a UX framework. We can't rely on key words or task labels to justify our decision making. The process exists to help inform decisions. When rationalising the solution it's critical that the inputs and insights which informed the solution are highlighted.
Similarly, designers tend to skimp on UI rationale. If a finished UI is included in a UX case-study, there should be as much rationale about the decision making which informed the visual style as there was getting there. This could be done as a separate portfolio piece but it's not enough to just indicate a UI toolkit or Material was used for efficiency and familiarity. Font choices, colours, iconography, image-styles are all deliberate choices that should be explained.
I hope you have found some of these tips helpful. If you'd like to discuss them further or get more contextual advice in regard to your own design journey, find me on ADPList.