UX design is an emerging field, so it often means different things to different people. This means that for new entrants, it’s sometimes hard to figure out how to get started and prepare for the challenges. Nicole Bergstedt is a senior UX designer at the Thomson Reuters Innovation Lab in Cape Town, with 14 years of experience in the industry. She started out as a web and UI designer before switching to UX. We asked her how she moved into UX and what she’s learned so far.
How did you get into UX design?
I had very little idea of what I wanted to do after school. I experimented with Journalism, French, Psychology, Fine Art, and Graphic Design. I completed a BA in Industrial Psychology and French, but found my way back to graphic design with a diploma in Desktop Publishing and Multimedia Tools. Although I undertook my psychology degree to open up my professional opportunities, it became very useful in my UX work later on. It helped me understand what drives users’ behaviour. The design diploma challenged me to be more structured creatively: I had to learn to use specific tools and methodologies.
After my diploma, I used my college’s network to identify possible employers and find work as a web designer. My first job was to design and code websites in HTML and CSS. Thereafter, I moved to another company and started working in UI design. When I was promoted to Design Team Lead, I started learning how to manage a design team and make decisions about our product.
The design landscape changed a lot while I was doing all of this: UX design came into its own as a field. People came to recognize that building websites and digital applications was about more than the actual designs and code. The focus shifted to validating assumptions through user research and testing. We had been doing bits and pieces of this as part of UI design, but in UX, this was the main thing. Observing these changes, I decided to make a deliberate shift from UI design to UX design.
Why did you ultimately choose to specialize in UX design?
UX is much broader than what I did previously, because it involves looking at all aspects of the user’s experience. It’s about how the user engages with a product or a process, how they feel about it, and how it fulfills or doesn’t fulfill their needs. If someone asks me what I do for a living, I usually say: “You know those apps on your phone? I design those.” But that doesn’t really speak to UX’s full potential. What I should say is: “Have you ever applied for a loan and found it an extremely painful process? Well, I’m trying to rethink that process to make it easier for people like you to get financing.”
I wanted the broader perspective that UX offered, so that I could be part of shaping product strategy. There is nothing worse than spending six months designing and building something — like I did, previously — only to find that it doesn’t actually solve a customer’s needs or that they can’t use it. As a UX designer, I am able to prevent that: I can conduct thorough user research and user testing to ensure we create products that are actually useful to our users.
What did you think was going to be challenging about UX design as a career, and what turned out to be the actual challenges?
Perfection is the enemy
When I first started out, I knew the big challenge was to make everything “pixel-perfect”. We had to take considerable time to create well-designed, polished, high-fidelity mockups. Design, it felt then, was about pursuing aesthetic perfection. Now, surprisingly, that same perfectionism is a stumbling block: I have to move fast and iterate rapidly — using wireframes and low-fidelity mockups — to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Now the challenge is to avoid becoming too attached to my creations, so I can rapidly improve upon and, when necessary, discard them.
My key hack for this is to force myself to release something for testing long before I feel it’s completely “finished” or “ready”. After all, design is never “done”. You will always be making changes and improvements — and that’s OK. It’s important to fall in love with the process of rapid iteration and improvement, not the finished result. This way, you’ll find a sense of accomplishment in your progress, even though the product might not be “done”.
Giving and accepting critique
Another surprisingly big challenge turned out to be learning to both give and accept critique. As a junior designer, I found it difficult to accept that someone didn’t “like” my work or that there was something “wrong” with my solution. I felt that, implicitly, they were criticizing me as a person — that I must be really bad at my job. Consequently, I avoided soliciting feedback as far as possible, out of a fear for being hurt.
Gradually, though, I realised that people were critiquing my work, not me, and that this was an opportunity for me to become better at what I do. What helped me was to constantly remind myself that I am not the customer. I’m designing something for someone else. That means that my own ideas are less important than the feedback and critique I get from my users and my peers. I can’t create a better solution without it.
Later, when I became a senior designer who had to critique juniors’ work, I also saw the other side of the coin: that it’s actually very hard to give feedback in such a way that the other person will find it useful and constructive. I could totally see my previous self in the junior designers whose work I was critiquing. As an experienced senior designer, it’s very easy to go with your gut reaction and just say “Oh, I don’t think this works”, but that doesn’t help the other person at all. Learning how to give constructive feedback that initiates a conversation, that the other person can use to learn, is a skill in itself.
The key way to do this is to use an inquisitive mindset. Instead of jumping to judgements like “I don’t think this works”, I find it more valuable to probe someone’s thinking. I do this by asking open-ended questions like “What was your thought process here?” and “How do you see the problem?” This also has the benefit of making people feel valued: they can see that I’m interested in their analysis and opinions, even if I don’t agree with their conclusion.
What’s been most rewarding about being a UX designer?
It’s extremely rewarding when I can use UX design to make products and services accessible to disadvantaged people, who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. This TED talk eloquently shows examples of how design can be used to do this, in this case through low-cost designs that can be made available to more people and therefore can have a wider social impact.
At the Thomson Reuters Innovation Lab in Cape Town, my team and I are currently working on a FinTech proof-of-concept to make financing more accessible to small-holder farmers in Africa. It’s a $450bn industry touching everything from food security to financial inclusion, so the real-world impact is tangible. It’s rewarding to see that I can contribute to that through UX design.
- Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. This is one of my all-time favourites on making design intuitive because it’s super practical, witty, and easy to digest.
- Rocket Surgery Made Easy, also by Steve Krug. Great book to help you bootstrap and “guerilla user test” your prototypes.
- Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden. Helped me learn how to implement Lean principles in UX design.
- Sprint by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. Helped me understand how to rapidly ideate, prototype and test an idea in just 5 days, using the Google Design Sprint process.
- Creative Confidence by Tom Kelley and David Kelley. This is a great book about the principles of Design Thinking from the founders of IDEO. It makes creativity accessible to everyone within an organization.
- The Invision blog’s newsletter is probably the only one that I look forward to receiving and read as soon as I get it. Every issue has loads of articles on UX, as well as career advice and insights from some of the top companies in the design industry.
- I follow UX Collective and UX Planet for really great articles on UX, Product Design and User Research.
- Muzli has huge amounts of design inspiration, along with Dribbble. Great for coming up with ideas.
- Sketch Together by Pablo Stanley are probably my favourite video tuts of all time. He’s really funny and informative and gives tutorials on lots of different design tools, not just Sketch. He also has a webcomic called The Design Team, which is always good for a laugh!