Did you ever wonder how to become a UX designer? I often get asked this question by clients or (non-designer) colleagues. And my answer is: there are many different paths to UX. I’ve had colleagues with a background in psychology, languages, communication sciences, but also developers. Each path has its own pros and cons, but in the end: we can learn a lot from each of these disciplines.
The UX ecosystem
In our office we use Slack as a communication tool. We recently also integrated Howdy, an Artificially Intelligent bot, into Slack. You can use Howdy to ask team members questions, whether for SCRUM/daily standup purposes, or to ask who wants what for lunch.
Howdy has great functionality, but a great personality as well. This is thanks to Neal Pollack. He used to take the stage as a comedian, but now he is working in the product-design department at Slack. He uses his writing skills to create the user experience (UX) of the bot, not through shapes and colors, but through text.
To me that is both scary and awesome. As technology advances, I sometimes wonder: where is this going? Will my skills be sufficient in the future? Will there be more competition in the UX-market from people with even more diverse backgrounds? But it is also awesome that companies are open to think beyond “traditional” designers. And I would love to have a comedian like Neal on the team!
The UX skillset has always included a wide variety of skills, such as: information architecture, visual design, animation, writing, analytics, etc. To this list, a few more exotic ones can be added as well, such as (but not limited to): architecture, art history, film, business, psychology. Here is a visualization of the user experience ecosystem, based on Nathan Shedroff’s diagram:
Each of these are separate disciplines in their own right, but also useful skills to have as a UX designer.
What we can learn from…
I will now discuss 8 different disciplines from the wide range, and dig a little deeper into what we can learn from them.
The great Buckminster Fuller once said: “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” Does that sound familiar? I know I also trust on my feeling to know whether something needs more work.
But there is also a scientific basis to this. Beautiful things are perceived as more trustworthy; they make people happier. And you can for example see this in action in banking websites. Which bank would you trust with your money: the one with a beautiful website, or the one with an ugly website? (provided that the other service aspects are similar)
“When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” — Buckminster Fuller
And there is more we can learn from architects. We have a similar design process, that includes research, ideation, prototyping and testing. But architects’ responsibilities also include overseeing construction.
Just as we rely on a team of skilled developers to help realize our digital designs, they rely on plumbers, electricians, and the like to complete the construction of a building. We both must be masters of communication to have our team construct the solutions we’ve envisioned.
At my previous job, we designed a wonderful vision of a future product, but when development started, we left. That means you miss out on half of the fun (and opportunities for learning). What I love about my current job atiCapps is the direct interaction with a bunch of great developers.
The thing is: nothing ever gets built as planned, neither physical buildings nor digital designs. By sitting side by side with a developer, you learn more about the implementation of your designs. You find out what you didn’t think of beforehand. And of course, you can control the results, check whether implementation is done right and fine-tune details such as the exact timing of animations.
Mike Monteiro is not a sales guy, but he is pretty perseverant in his fight to make sure designers also have sales skills. He says: “I’d rather have a good designer who can present well than a great designer who can’t.”
And he is right: it is also the designer’s job to sell their work. When presenting to a client, you should be able to justify choices, handle critique. But you should also communicate well, and be able to formulate your ideas in a convincing and constructive way.
Psychology has many influences on UX (think for example of the book “100 things every designer needs to know about people” by Susan Weinschenk), but let me highlight the concept of flow by Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi.
He is famous for creating the concept of Flow (also known as “The zone”). This is the state you are in when you are fully focussed, involved and enjoying an activity (like designing a funky new concept for your favorite startup).
As you can see in the graph, to get into the Flow-state, challenges presented to you should match your skill level. This can be applied to a game, where the difficulty is increasing as you progress, but it can also be applied to for example an app UI.
You start with basic functionality, hiding more advanced features to keep the UI clean and clear. And when a user has used your app for a while, you can show more advanced functionality. If you would show them this at first use, they might be overwhelmed and feel anxious, but when these steps are taken one at a time, users feel more in control.
4. Data analysts
By looking at analytics, you can measure human behavior to convince your clients they need to change something in their UI. But you can also use this data to get a better picture of your target group. During the design process, you might think users will respond in a specific way, based on your previous experiences. But what if you are wrong? By using analytics, you can fine-tune your mental picture of your typical user, so next time you understand how people might react. Or as Spotify’s Rochelle King puts it: “Things that worked a certain way two years ago might not work the same way now. And so it’s always important to hone your instinct over time.”
Looking at the data also helps you get a better idea of how different your users are from you. One of the main skills you need as a UX designer is empathy, and I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “You are not a typical user” before. But exactly how different are they from yourself? Like opposite? Or just a little more impatient? To clarify this, looking at user data is invaluable.
And there is also another nice side-effect from looking at the data: you can give issues the right priority. Users (or your CEO) might complain, but if you don’t see a drop in usage, there is no need to panic. You’ll have to get to the bottom of the issues, and fix it. But you can give it the right place in your list of to do’s.
These days, designers think more and more in terms of systems. Methodologies such as Atomic Design borrows concepts from object-oriented programming. And working modularly is really interesting to make sure that UI elements are used consistently across the whole application.
Developers use the “don’t repeat yourself (DRY)” principle, and we should do too. Sometimes I still catch myself copypasting a UI elements in a Sketch file, but luckily most of the time I use symbols and shared styles (similar to master objects in Axure). This way adjustments are immediately applied on all related screens.
And if you throw all modular elements together, you can easily create a style guide that documents the basic elements of the UI for developers. And in the process of creating this style guide, you can discover and tackle inconsistencies in the design. Double win!
One of my colleagues, Sjoera, is a UX Designer with a background in linguistics and translations. She focuses on how humans communicate and interact, which is a great starting point for human-computer interaction.
Intercom recently also published a blog post, in which they discuss conversational UIs (such as the AI ones or the new Quartz news app), and also suggests that we can learn from linguists.
In smaller companies like ours, copywriting is often also the job of the UX designer. We don’t have a dedicated copywriter. But copy can take your design to the next level. As Jeff Gothelf puts it: “Good design with poor copy is a poor experience (or worse, an unsuccessful one).”
As UX-ers, we are the ones mainly focusing on desirability (the human side), while developers focus on feasibility (the technical side). And usually the client is thinking about the viability (business side).
But ideal solutions score high on all three aspects. So also for us, it is useful to think about the business side. We should design something that is within the client’s budget (especially for smaller clients). Sometimes the greatest challenge in a project is to limit yourself to be creative within the economic reality. So it is important to clarify expectations at the kick-off meeting.
Solutions that are good for the business don’t always have to be bad for a user. Ideally, business goals and user goals align, and you get a win-win solution. You can create a wonderful product, but if the company that is supposed to supply that product goes out of business, there is no value for the user left anymore either.
Principles that are used in animation (for example for Disney or Pixar movies) can also be applied to UI design. By letting UI elements move in a certain way, they get a specific character. Depending on the motion choreography, an app can feel more playful, more relaxing, more aggressive or more serious.
Animations can also enhance interactions by clarifying what is happening. They can clarify the structure of the application by for example sliding in a new screen from the side or an overlay from the bottom. Or they can emphasize an action, like a fade-out effect when removing an item from a list.
Adapt or die
So I hope you enjoyed this exploration into the different disciplines, and as a key take-away, I would like you to remember this: We all have different backgrounds and different skills, but in the end it is really about adaptation. Some things rarely change and can be universally applied, some new skills might be needed in the future.
Or as Josh Payton from Huge formulated it:
“The best designers for this new environment are those who can confidently navigate change by adapting, not those who cling to whatever specialty in which they were formally trained or have the most experience.”
This post also appeared on Medium.