UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) are the elements that make digital product design. UX refers to the experience customers have when they interact with a digital product, be it a website or app – while UI refers to the aesthetics of the interface, including the colours, typography and visuals.
UX design is a career path that has evolved along with the internet, becoming more complex over the last 20 years. As Alex Lampe, Creative Director and Co-founder at Wiedemann Lampe puts it, “(In the early 2000s) UX was something you did instinctively. Every website was a playground, finding the boundaries, occasionally failing and finding patterns that worked. UX design today is much more scientific, measurable and critical.”
UX designers now need a broad variety of skills, including technical ones like wireframing, prototyping, web design and user research, as well as interpersonal skills like empathy, in order to understand how people think. “My job is mostly to understand people then craft technological experiences that'll help them in some way, whether that's being able to set a timer so they don't forget the dinner they're warming up or using an app to learn a new skill,” says Nibras Ibnomer, who is a Product Designer at STINT and a D&AD New Blood Juror. We spoke to six UX designers including Lampe and Ibnomer, to find out their tips on how to break into and excel in this field.
Become a sponge for information
At the beginning of your UX journey, soak up as much information as you can. Chrystal King, Product Designer at Twitter and one of this year’s D&AD New Blood Jurors, says she immersed herself in every free resource she could find online when she started. King says, “I built a curriculum for myself and learnt loads through podcasts like High Resolution, Medium publications like UX Collective, crash courses like 52 Weeks of UX and The Hipper Element and longer courses on Coursera. By doing this, I went from knowing nothing about product design to having a good foundation and being job ready fairly quickly.”
Start designing right away
Ibnomer says, “If you want to be a UX designer, start being one now. Design 100 things – start by following along YouTube tutorials of interfaces you find interesting. Find a Figma community file of a design you love, duplicate it then try to recreate it. Stop occasionally to check your design against the original designers', you'll learn so much from the decisions they made. Slowly, the puzzle pieces will begin to fit together. You'll move from understanding interfaces to grasping user experience to naturally wanting to learn user research, and you'll start building your knowledge. Now you can volunteer, support a start-up part-time or design a product you want to use. There's no better learning than skin in the game.”
Similarly, Lynne Egwuekwe, Product Designer at This Place and a 2021 D&AD New Blood Judge says, “Find a project to do, ask friends, charities, small businesses, even the company you're at if they need help with anything design related and you can apply what you’ve learnt to real-life problems. Often conceptual pieces of work miss out on the very real constraints that force you to be creative in your problem-solving. And you can add it all to your portfolio!”
Make work that delights
In a sea of sameness, the UX designers we spoke to agree that their job entails not only meeting customer needs but creating designs that stand out. “There are a lot of opportunities to do things differently in the world,” says Fura Johannesdottir who is the Chief Design Officer at Huge and on D&AD’s Board of Trustees. “Have you ever asked the question why all the banking apps function almost exactly the same? Think about how fun it would be to design the next version of how they work, create new design patterns, fully utilize ALL the features that are built into a mobile device. Think about how the brand itself comes to life through the experiences you create, how does it play a role in the experience itself? This is how you push your own craft to levels. And the fact is that people will take notice when you start challenging things, do it differently, dare to stand out.”
Similarly, Pieter Nijs, Digital Director at mortierbrigade says, “A lot of UX designers only focus on the usability aspect whereas we believe the usefulness and the delightfulness of a product or service are at least as important. Usability is the base but usefulness and delightfulness will be the aspects that will drive users to your product and will make them come back for more.”
Share your journey to build connections
Ibnomer also recommends documenting your journey when you first start out, saying, “Write, blog, tweet, record short videos, record short podcasts; whatever feels most natural and enjoyable to you. The internet [is] a perfect zero-cost vehicle for experimenting with identity, trying out new ideas, and making new connections. People love a story, they love a behind-the-scenes look at a hero's journey. In this case, you're the hero, your call to adventure is becoming a designer and the obstacles you face will be the natural struggles that come up along the way. Work and learn with the door open, let people in and you'll form friendships, connections and gain mentors who'll help you out along the way. If there's any way I can help, you're always welcome to drop me a DM.”
Learn how to run creative workshops
Lampe says one of the things that was pivotal for him was learning how to run creative workshops. He remembers running his first workshop with a client years ago, where he didn’t have any exercises, and they went straight into co-creating wireframes. “It took hours. It felt productive but the result was full of compromises that came from a lack of prioritisation and clarity,” says Lampe, “I learnt so much from that situation and went away to learn about things like service design, running design sprints, behavioural psychology principles and interview techniques, which are now instrumental to the work we do.”
Lampe recommends building a vocabulary of frameworks to use such as the Service Design Blueprint, which can lead to incredible insights and highlight huge bottlenecks and opportunities at an organisational level. He adds, “Go to some workshops and see how they are run. Listen out for and collect ice-breaker exercises that you can use to kick things off and intersperse through your sessions. They really set the tone, break down barriers and will help you get the most out of people.”
Understand what drives and motivates people
The UX designers we asked unanimously agreed that understanding people is one of the most important aspects of their job. Egwuekwe says she used to be an actor because she’s always been interested in people, before pivoting to product design because she loved the unique combination of empathy, creative thinking and technology.
Similarly, Johannesdottir says, “We are in the business of creating relationships between people and brands. We need to be people obsessed, really understand what drives them, their unmet needs and how their behaviours might change over time.”
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