Tech Career Insights: What I Wish I Knew When I Started Out As a UX Designer

What I Wish I Knew When I Started Out As a UX Designer

By Laetitia Gerber

When I started out as a UX designer, I had little idea of what was required to be awesome, and what I needed to do to get there. I had to do a lot of research to figure things out for myself and decide how to improve. In this article, I’ll share what I thought was required to be UX designer, what actually turned out to be required, and how I went about getting better at those things.

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Before moving into UX, I worked in a number of different roles related to customer support. The golden thread throughout all of them was that I wanted to solve customers’ problems.

My company at the time only opened a UX division about four years ago. In South Africa, this still is a very new thing, so I didn’t fully understand the concept yet. But when I was tasked with finding a fix to our customers’ frustration with a software update we had shipped, all roads seemed to lead to UX as a solution.

How I got my first role in UX design

My initial research brought up UX as a possible solution so prominently, that I realised I should approach the UX team and ask them what they had been working on. I thought that my experience with the V1 and V2 software could possibly help with the problem we were experiencing.

During our chat, the UX team lead informed me that there was an opening in the team. I was at a stage in my career where I needed a new challenge and what I had so far learned about UX had really inspired my curiosity. I researched what I needed, and started learning bits and bobs as I went along. I really wanted that position.

My company believed in training staff and providing them with opportunities to grow, and I was showing that I was willing to learn. That why I was eventually given the opportunity to move into the UX design team. Yay!

What I thought UX design was about

Finally, I was able to apply my customer knowledge while learning UI and UX design principles. It was all a win-win at the time, really, but some things turned out to not be exactly as I had anticipated. Bearing in mind that, four years ago, I had no design experience whatsoever, this might come as little surprise. My initial misconceptions were:

  • UX design is about designing pretty pictures
  • Going from design to implementation would be seamless
  • Photoshop would be the primary tooling I used

Turns out, it really isn’t just about the beautiful illustrations. Once I debunked those myths, I figured out that there’s so much work that goes on behind the scenes! You need to:

  • research the issues,
  • wireframe a first version of a design, and
  • test it.

You might even have to do that a few times before you get the final result and even then, it won’t be perfect, and you will probably change it a few more times.

“UX design is about designing pretty pictures”

All I ever saw when someone mentioned UX/UI was beautifully constructed designs, but I didn’t really understand the work behind it. I started asking our designer questions about what design software he would suggest, and how I should go about working on it, and realised that there’s a lot that goes on before the “pretty picture” comes to life.

“Going from design to implementation would be seamless”

Once the designs are ready, this “thing” needs to be built. All we need to do is just hand them over, right? Well, the short answer was “no”: I realised it’s not as easy as just handing over the designs, because you can’t just expect developers and QAs to understand your thought pattern. There are going to be a lot of questions and push back from devs saying you can’t do certain things, and a lot of questions from QAs asking if you’ve thought of everything. Quite often, this means going back to the drawing board!

The best solution here is having support: the more you have from the start, the better. You can work as a team to best include everyone’s perspectives, which will make implementing things a lot easier.

Build a relationship with devs and QAs so you always have people to bounce ideas off of, and stop wasting hours on things that might look great but are not actually possible!

“Photoshop would be the primary tooling I used”

Being completely new to design, I thought the primary tool was Photoshop - and only Photoshop. However, once I had moved over into my new role, the UX team exposed me to the different kinds of software I would be using, like Balsamiq and Sketch:

  • Balsamiq allows you to quickly make mock-up “sketches” which help a lot with first iteration ideas.
  • Sketch helps with putting these concepts into beautiful UI illustrations. You can then import those sketches into prototyping tools, and the programme also has templates which makes the whole process very streamlined.

Don’t get me wrong, Photoshop is a kickass program to work with, but it has a pretty steep learning curve. I found that the other software made it a lot easier to design interfaces fast.

Still, at this point, I thought that mastering these skills would be enough to make me design concept-screens like a boss!

What UX was actually about

Even with the fundamentals in UX down, I still needed to close the loop by talking to people who use the software. My mentor suggested I test my wire-frames, which meant venturing into user-testing with prototypes.

Research, wire-frame, test - repeat!

User-testing prototypes follows a process something like this: you build, you get someone to test, you use their feedback (however hard it is to see them fail at your design), and then you reiterate and repeat. What makes it so hard is that users almost always fail the first time - but this is normal. This is the whole point of user-testing, and although it isn’t always easy, you learn to work with mistakes and fix them.

There are different ways to approach this, and it really depends on your situation and the company’s openness to getting user feedback. In my experience, some companies are very hesitant for a designer to talk to their clients. To get buy-in, I learned to use the “Show-don’t-tell” method, and showed stakeholders ideas in a real world setting. This is where prototypes help a lot.

Showing a prototype to a user will allow you to see what they are doing, which helped me empathise with the user and pushed me even harder to get it right. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone struggling to get through their work-day!

Suddenly, I realised that, to be awesome at UX, I had to open my ears and listen to the people I was designing for!

Having realised this about user-testing, and having an amazing colleague that helped point me in the right direction, I finally had a viable process that I could follow:

  1. Decide what you want to test.
  2. Figure out what the value of this feedback is: Is it to see if they can find a specific button? Or is it to see if they know the flow of the process that needs to be completed?
  3. Build a scenario to test exactly what you want to test: For example, if you want to get an email sent to a colleague, where would you click to do this? Tell a story, and make it relatable so users can understand the scenario better. This will help you get the answers you need. If you find that they struggle to understand the scenario, it’s fine change the story to something that might be more relatable for them.
  4. Decide how to test the scenario: As UX designers, we need to listen to our users, and not design for ourselves. If we stick to the button analogy, click tests are a good start to check if you are going in the right direction. Optimal workshop is great for that. They have heatmaps, so you are able to see where users would expect this button to be. If you are more of an extrovert and like talking to people, get that wireframe in front of users and ask them what they think should happen. Try to not guide them too much.
  5. Build the prototype: Once you are confident that you are going in the right direction, you can start building a prototype. If you have validation from at least five users that this is easy to use, then it’s a good indication that you are on track. Be sure that you list what you are wanting to test and what outcome/feedback you need to accomplish this. Building that script really helps keep things on track and ensures you get value from the user test. Also try record these sessions: It will help you go back later and possibly reference this for stakeholders, and is even just useful if you cannot take notes and listen to someone at the same time.

There are additional ways of user testing, but I have found that click-tests and building prototypes were a great start for me to get going. Here is a link for other user testing methods you could also use.

Tools that turned out to be useful for prototyping

Invision: I found that this was a super fast way to build a visually pleasing prototype. You can get a basic feel for what and where the user will click with a semi-interactive prototype.

Axure: If you feel you need a very interactive prototype to test specific features, Axure works really well. Although I found it is rather complicated at first, once you get the gist of it then it’s is an absolute beast.

UXPin: Although this is another one which I have recently been using, UXpin is still very much a work in progress software. There are a few issues I have encountered with it, but it is great for quick prototyping that is as interactive as Axure and has the benefit of adding micro interactions. It also has handoff tools for devs and allows stakeholders to make comments on the prototype. It also has a central hub for all your UX team’s designs: In most teams, there is always the issue of having access to what a colleague has been working on, whether it’s to help out on a project or to quickly grab an element to re-use it in your work. UXpin makes this really easy, without having access to someone’s laptop or folders.

Where to from here?

UX/UI is a growing industry in South Africa, so we don’t know all the different aspects of it yet. Even I am still learning daily. What I have found helps a lot is to go to any UX meetups or UX conferences to find out what other people are either struggling with or excelling at. Try to find what you really enjoy about the industry and learn more about it. This will make you stand out from the rest!

Resources

  1. Design tools:
    1. “Sketch Together” on Youtube: my favourite tutorials for learning Sketch.
    2. These two articles are also great.
  2. UX theory:
    3. Coursera course for UX fundamentals
    4. Get Smarter course on UX
  3. Prototyping software:
    5. Axure, for interactive prototypes.
    6. Invision, for rapid prototyping.
    7. Marvel, for wireframes and quick prototyping.
    8. Flinto Micro interaction building.
    9. UXPin for rapid prototyping, interactive wireframes, and design systems.
  4. Building a user database:
    10. Airtable. This helps with scheduling users and helps them complete a form for you to ensure that they are the correct persona for what you need to test.

Laetitia Gerber is a UX Designer for Hetzner Hosting Services, striving towards a world with less-frustrated users. She’s an adventure- and new experience-seeker, and is constantly inspired by women in tech. To see what she’s working on at the moment, check out her profile on Behance!

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