In today's digital world, User Experience Designers are a hot commodity. In schools, everyone wants to learn it. In the workforce, everyone wants to become an expert. It's impossible to overestimate the importance of having a good start to your career. Picking the right school and company, and building a strong, nurturing support system are essential to developing your craft, confidence and career path. And while most of those choices are made in the first few years, they have an immense affect on your professional journey for the years to come. A little scary, I know.
Luckily, hindsight is 20/20. So I wanted to share some of my lessons.
(Photo: LA LINEA by Osvaldo Cavandoll)
Practice. Stay Updated. Take Risks.
If you've got that UX itch, you've probably already sketched a few mockups. Maybe they were for random projects, or maybe you're just like the rest of us crazies and you do that stuff for fun. Either way, that's exactly what you should be doing – being proactive, manufacturing work in areas you find interesting. Find a project and draw your vision for it. Dissect the concept to features and experience. Take a stab at prioritizing what the client would deem important, and implement new ideas.
The secret is to keep the fire burning. Sometimes it'll be a simmer. Other times, a full boil. Never stop reading and learning, and don't' be afraid to challenge your UX convictions. Analyze other people's projects, read literature and understand the tools at hand. Dive into consumer psychology and yes, read another articles about Millennials. The beauty of this profession is that things are fluid. It's up to you to adapt, or risk becoming outdated.
Start With The Pros.
The fastest way to learn is by working for a company that specializes in UX/UI. It'll be the most reliable and rich learning experience, and it'll also come with an inherent exposure to various tasks and specialties:
You'll do work for various industries
Different projects will challenge you with different layers of complexity, different considerations and platforms, as well as different technical, legal and bureaucratic needs. Sometimes, one industry teaches you a lot about another one. Other times, it's unique in its demands and solutions. Either way, a specialized UX company that serves a lot of different clients would serve you well. On that note, when interviewing, be sure to ask if you're projected to work on various clients or one in particular.
You'll work with clients
UX is a collection of solutions for aspirations, needs and requirements. Specialized companies often work closely and directly with the client's team. That will provide you with a glimpse into your client's perspective, which will become invaluable as your career progresses.
You'll learn from the best
Most UX/UI companies are bottom heavy, relying on select senior people to guide the ship. This presents a great opportunity to learn from seasoned veterans. Finding a good mentor is key to your development, and you should make a concerted effort to connect with one. A mentor who's willing to teach you is absolutely priceless.
You'll learn about yourself
Working for a specialized company will give you a clear picture regarding where you excel and what you need to work on. Comparing yourself to your peers and superiors will be a great measuring tool for your strengths and weaknesses. Again, invaluable.
You'll get thrown into the fire
A big part of your development has to do with owning projects, and executing assignments to perfection from both a business and creative perspective. Most companies live by a "sink-or-swim" mentality, which could hurt a young designer's confidence and, at times, reputation. Having said that, don't let that scare you. Instead, embrace opportunities, and make sure you're being set up for success by communicating early and often. If a project feels too big, say it, and own it. It's better to be under-promised and over-delivered than the other way around.
Couple of lucky extras, since we've made it this far:
Classics First. Trends Second.
Fads fade. So this isn't about how well you can incorporate one-pagers, gamification elements or flat designs. From flash to virtual reality, to whatever comes next, everything is based on the fundamentals of UX. Make sure you know them.
Don't worry about your paycheck
Money is a huge deal. And when you're starting off, sadly you won't see much of it. But with patience, hard work and talent, it's not unheard of to triple your starting salary in 3-5 years. Think of your first job as (an extension of) your tuition, and always focus on where you want to be, not where you started.
IMHO, a UX designer needs to be able to sketch their ideas on a piece of paper. Moreover, a designer who "feels" the experience can almost inherently imagine and see the sketched-out solutions in front of their eyes. Be that as it may, we all need good tools because they make our work better and smarter. I firmly believe you should never settle on software, as it's an investment that pays itself off instantly.
The market is flooded with incredible functionalities, capabilities and experiences. Getting yourself accustomed to learning new tools will make you sharper and more adaptable. So go ahead, enjoy exploring.
Last but not least, your book.
There are no shortcuts here. Your professional identity is your portfolio: your work, your thinking. As a UX designer you're expected to build an experience that presents screens, sketches and explanations that break down your thinking. A couple of (tastefully told) anecdotes won't hurt either. Even if you're opting to use a platform, consider customizing your site to help separate your book, and yourself, from the herd.
Designers often struggle with building their own brand. My advice – whatever you do, stay true to who you are as a person and as a professional.