Getting Started in User Experience Design

In the past few months I’ve taken on two and-a-half mentees through the Information Architecture Institute’s mentorship program (two are local, one is remote… sorry Tyler, I know you’re a full person!). This has got me thinking even more than usual about how to get started in user experience (UX) design, so I’ve decided to save myself some time and write a post that collects all the resources and advice I usually give out on this topic. I hope this is useful for you, but if you feel like I’ve missed something there’s a comments box at the bottom. ; )


1. Cultivate a UX world view

UX design is more than a profession; it’s a mindset. You cannot become a UX designer without it. Fortunately, there are a couple of books you can read that will get you most of the way there:

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. Warning: If you read this book, you will never again be able to operate a light switch or a door without commenting on it. This book, more than any other, teaches you how to become aware of when things are designed to be used by people… and when they are not.

Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug. This book is basically the Norman book applied to the Web. After reading it, you won’t be able to use a website without commenting on it. It’s a great intro to how people interact with the Web.

Developing a UX world view is much easier if you possess a few key characteristics. I recently wrote an article that outlines what I believe to be the essential characteristics of a good user experience designer. While some of these characteristics are skills that you can develop, some are personality traits that someone usually has or doesn’t. Empathy, passion, and a quick, observant mind.

2. Learn what UX designers do and how we do it

There are many, many books out there on one aspect of UX design or another, but these two will give you a good glimpse of what it’s like to be a UX designer.

A Project Guide to UX Design by Russ Unger & Carolyn Chandler. This book, more than any other, gives you a peek at the day-to-day life of a UX designer and what will be expected of you in that role. If this fascinates you, move on to the next book…

Communicating Design by Dan Brown. What people usually don’t tell you about being a UX designer is that you’re really only designing things maybe 20% of the time. The rest of the time you’re either researching, analyzing your research data, or trying to communicate what it is you’ve actually designed. Communicating about your research findings and designs will take up a whole lot of your time. In this book, Dan clearly defines the types of documents we use to communicate, tells you how to make them, and even goes to the trouble of teaching you how to present them.

3. Explore what others have said about how to get started

I am far from the first to write about this topic, and others have written about it in a lot more depth. They give you resources for education, highlight the best books about more focused UX design issues, and connect you with a lot of the great UX bloggers out there. So if you’re still interested in the profession after you’ve done the first two things, check these articles out too:

Starting a Career in User Experience Design by Nick Finck. Nick has an interesting take on this subject. He breaks it down into three areas: Education, experience, & exposure. Education & experience make sense, but exposure is something new. I wholeheartedly agree with Nick here (see #4 below).

So you wanna be a user experience designer — Step 1: Resources by Whitney Hess. This is a treasure trove of good resources. Links to educational programs, books, conferences, principles… pretty much all things UX. I hope she’ll continue this series as the title of this post implies.

(Update: Whitney has in fact published Part 2 of that series… and it’s tremendous. It’s a series of guiding principles for user experience designers and experience design.)

4. Get on Twitter

Okay stop laughing; I’m serious. Twitter is pretty much where the UX community happens these days. It’s where we share information, go to each other for advice, and make jokes at each other’s expense. Twitter has taken names from mailing lists and made them into real people you can have a conversation with. How do you figure out who to follow? Well there are two ways.

First, Twitter has allowed some people to create lists of people for other people to follow. Of course, UX designers being a bunch of nerds there are now over 50 UX related lists. Here are some of the most comprehensive:

Here are some more strictly curated lists:

The second way is to follow people manually. Fortunately, Elizabeth Buie has taken on the onerous task of maintaining a manual list of all the UX designers who tweet. At some point this will be converted into a Twitter list, but for now it’s the most comprehensive resource available.

5. Attend Conferences

The corollary to being on Twitter is going to conferences to meet the UX community face to face. This is pretty easy because there is very little ego in the UX community, but if you already know someone from Twitter it’s even easier. And yes, the conference presentations & workshops are inspiring and mind-opening, but it’s those times between sessions or at meals when the ideas flow like a waterfall.  Don’t be shy. It’s worth coming out of your shell a little. Here are some of my favorites:

Interaction. This is a relatively new conference (2010 will be its third year) put on by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), but it is always a powerful one. It is heavily focused on design and design research. It is as practical as it is inspirational. You will undoubtedly come away from this conference a better designer than you arrived.

Idea. This conference is put together by the Information Architecture Institute every Fall. It’s unique in that it’s single track and that its focus is on information architecture and user experience beyond the typical boundary of the computer screen. This conference is great for kicking you out of a mental rut.

IA Summit. This is one of the most venerable UX design conferences out there. It’s big. There are four tracks plus at least two days of pre-conference workshops. That’s a lot of content, and it’s always great!

6. Go local

I know, when you have to pay for a conference yourself, it seems a lot less attractive. Fortunately, there are a lot of passionate, intelligent groups of UX designers for you to hook up with. For free. Here are three to seek out.

UX Book Club. Only a year old, the UX Book Club movement was started by Steve Baty and has really taken off. There is no master organization, just a collection of local UX design groups who decide to read one UX book a month and get together to discuss it.

IxDA Local Groups. The IxDA has long been a very loosely knit international organization, but local groups have always been part of the mix. Lately I’ve noticed a rise in the activity of local IxDA groups, including presentations by true industry thought leaders.

UPA Local Chapters. These organizations usually charge a membership fee, but if one of the other groups is not available it can be worth the cost.

7. Get a mentor

As I said at the beginning, part of the inspiration for this post was my recent experience as a mentor. A mentorship can really be whatever you & the mentor decide it should be, but one great opportunity it gives you is exposure to potential work opportunities. For pay or pro bono. What you really need to have as a beginning UX designer is a decent portfolio, and having a mentor is a really great way to make that happen. Here are links to the mentorship programs I know of.

IAI Mentorship Program. This is the one I’m involved with, and in my experience it’s well run.

IxDA Mentorship Program. This one is not easy to find and it’s fairly new, but if interaction design is more your focus it should still be worthwhile.

Well that wraps it up for me! User experience design is, unfortunately, a difficult field to get into. Employers don’t understand that even new designers with a basic set of skills can drastically improve their products. But if you do the things I talk about above, you will be able to prove your value. It might take some effort to get into this field, but let me tell you it’s worth it!

Experienced folks… if you’re reading this, what have I missed?

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