Everything I Wish I Knew When Becoming a UX Designer

Blog Barista: Tommy Truong | Apr 17, 2019 | Career Hacks | Brew time: 9 min

Recently, I had the honor of being invited to speak at the Michigan State University Experience Architecture (XA) Club about my experiences as a User Experience (UX) professional. As I prepared for this talk, I realized there’s a lot I wish I knew in college about UX. So, here are some recommendations for all the aspiring UX pros, so you can better prepare yourself for the industry.

Stepping into the World of UX

Before I began my career at Kunz, Leigh & Associates (KL&A) as a Business Analyst/UX Designer, I was like most students in the XA Club. I majored at Michigan State University (MSU) in Experience Architecture. I actually started at MSU as a Computer Science Engineering (CSE) major due to my love of development and application design. During my second year in CSE, I met Dr. Bill-Hart Davidson, one of the founders of the XA program, who sold me on the program’s composition of software development, professional writing, project management, design, and most importantly, user experience. After meeting with Dr. Davidson, I immediately changed my major and haven’t looked back since.

Between the many hours spent grinding at internships and classes, I graduated in four long years with a degree I was passionate about. After graduation, not only did I accept a full-time position, but I also founded Great Lakes Reality Labs (GLRL) at the same time — business analyst by day and startup by night. The adventure had begun. Now, two years later, I am still going strong and I love every minute of it.

The Daily Tasks for UX

In case you don’t already know, the UX world and technology industries move at a fast pace. So, daily tasks are sometimes like a revolving door. Over the past 6+ years, the things I do day to day are often quite diverse and vary depending on what projects I am currently working on.

Each day will present its own unique challenges — you could be doing anything from designing user interfaces as UI designer or maintaining user stories as a business analyst to brainstorming educational solutions in virtual reality as a learning experience designer. You will work closely with teams comprised of other talented individuals like software engineers, project managers, professional writers, clients and more. Everyone brings their own specializations to the project as the subject matter expert for their respective roles and you’ll be able to contribute yourself as a UX professional.

The Tools Used Daily  

UX professionals utilize a plethora of tools, both physical and digital. The tool that you choose to use should depend on what “fits the bill” for the role you need to play. “Fitting the bill” constitutes both what is most effective for completing a task and what remains within the financial/time restrictions of a project. Each project requires a slightly different approach depending on the team’s standards and practices.

Good tools will not make you a good UX’er. It’s up to you, as the UX’er, to analyze and understand the problem and what tool would be the most appropriate to address that tool. Some tools are free and some cost money. Luckily, the companies I currently work for have given me access to popular paid tools such as JIRA and Sketch. However, I can attest from running a startup, that most free tools, like Adobe XD and Trello, will satisfy your needs well. Paid products definitely provide some extra convenience and features (if you can effectively utilize the tool), but the same outcome can be achieved through free tools and some cleverness.

Currently, I use the following tools the most for productivity, I definitely recommend trying them:

  • Pencil and paper
  • A camera (usually my smartphone)
  • Google Drive
  • Trello
  • JIRA
  • Visual Studio Code
  • Sketch
  • Invision

At the end of the day, the best tools are the ones that allow your team and workflow to finish the job in an effective and sustainable manner.

Being Prepared for Future Opportunities

Your university, professors and community can help you significantly, if you work for it. I would be severely remiss if I did not attribute what the XA program gave me in regard to the success I have found. My professors, the lessons learned from guest speakers, and the multitude of course projects became the launchpad that allowed me to access a plethora of opportunities.

One of the main goals of the XA program at MSU was to build a student into a “jack of many trades.” Within just four years, I don’t believe it’s possible for anyone to become advanced in their field — or even barely proficient. When learning any new trade, you’re restructuring of your own preconceived notions, rediscovery of foundational concepts, and then, feeling some growing pains. So, don’t worry, it takes time to get where you want to be.

When I first entered XA, I already understood some basics of programming and application design from CSE. More importantly, I had also began learning the concept of algorithmic thinking. That method of thinking, combined with the XA curriculum, provided me with basic proficiency towards user-centric problem-solving. Internships in web design/development and instructional design during my time at MSU also provided me with opportunities to discover and practice those basic proficiencies within already established industry workflows/processes. Internship experience will be your best friend.

So, network, network, network. And work hard to build your confidence, skillset and most importantly, your reputation (through various internships and community events). Above anything else, doing that will get your further into the industry.

Landing Internships

One of the more difficult tasks as an undergraduate is to land internships — the relevant experience needed in order to get the experience in an actual “job.” Sometimes those internships are paid and sometimes they are not. Both can be great assets.

During my time at MSU, I was fortunate enough to accept various MSU program positions such as the MSU College of Arts and Letters, Spartan Innovations, and the MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology. When I say “fortunate,” I do not mean blind luck. My opportunities came through independent work outside of classes/jobs and the network I built through involvement. When you are ready to look for internships, look for positions that describe the area of work and/or skills you have practiced and want to further develop through industry experience. Not every position you want to be in is labeled “UX” and not every UX position will be what you want to do. Reach out to your universities, your professors, and peers to find an internship that is best suited for what you want to do.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned from XA and my internships is the importance of iteration. There have been countless times that I have repeated a project from scratch because I learned something while working that I knew would improve the product as a whole. Each time I repeated the same project, I improved my production quality and lessened the time it took me to achieve a similar outcome.

Eventually, this iteration built a portfolio that I could advertise to employers while building my own confidence, so I could market my skill set. For aspiring XA’ers and UX’ers, I highly recommend using this iterative approach to build your own portfolios and skills.

Finding Career Opportunities

As an XA alumnus, I understand the difficulty of both figuring out what the UX industry is and then explaining that to others. Even today, I cannot always explain UX in a manner that is understandable by everyone (even my parents have given up on trying). I still feel that many employers do not fully understand what UX is — despite listing UX positions!

What I recommend, that has helped me find good UX opportunities, is to first choose one thing in UX — either an area or a skill — to begin focusing on. Sure, being a “jack of all trades” has its benefits to both you and any company, but being a “master of none” will make it harder for companies to hire you.

Don’t worry too much about which area or skill you choose because that’s not what you’ll be stuck with forever. Just pick one that you find the most interesting first. Your interests, passions, and ambitions will significantly motive you to become a better UX’er. Then, learn as much as you possibly can about it — read the UX research, research how it’s practiced in the industry, and practice doing it yourself. After you’ve done all of that, then add it to your portfolio. And don’t worry about whether any of your portfolio pieces are “absolutely perfect,” they are just another iteration that you can continuously improve on. Your vast portfolio, and desire to continuously learn and grow will impress future employers.

You’ve got your portfolio ready and you’ve looked at hundreds of companies, what do you do when you think you found “the one?” Well, after you’ve identified a position and a company you want to pursue, then you need to figure out how the employer perceives UX.

Some may not understand what the UX industry is or how user experience differs from what they have already been doing. Some of this can be done through either researching the company (if it’s large enough), speaking to existing team members and/or speaking with those in charge of hiring. But don’t just start sending people emails with “What does UX mean to you?” Have some finesse with it. Whoever you speak with, instead of saying “UX this, UX that” or “UX is the cure to all apps,” talk about the skills/experiences you have and explain how they have built your ability to analyze existing products/platforms and design sustainable solutions to continuously improve the experience of end users. At this point, you’ve already done all the hard work necessary to start your career. Be confident, your vast portfolio, and desire to continuously learn and grow will impress future employers.

Hopefully, I was able to answer some questions for you and ease some worries of the aspiring UX’ers out there. It has been an adventure for me and I am still learning new things and meeting interesting people every day. And it will be for you too.

My last piece of advice to you is do not downplay your own capabilities or let inexperience prevent you from pursuing new opportunities. Be confident, persistent and purposeful. Even if you don’t land the internship or job you want right away, learn from that experience and use it to continuously improve yourself — you are your own project and your best portfolio piece.

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