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Getting Started in User Experience

October 5, 2015

User experience has become all the rage among business leaders and talent-acquisition teams. Whether you’re a student or recent graduate seeking a career in User Experience, are transitioning to a career in User Experience, or must fill a need for User Experience within your organization, this article will help you to understand how to get started. First, I’ll explain what user experience is, then provide some resources for learning about user experience, and finally, share some insights on UX practice.

Understanding User Experience

Before venturing further, I want to impart a better understanding of user experience. The term can seem nebulous at times, so knowing exactly what it is and what it involves is important—and you may need to explain user experience to others at some point. The information in this section will help you to do that.

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A Definition of User Experience

The term user experience may mean different things to different people. Let’s look at this definition from the Nielsen/Norman Group:

“User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

That sounds pretty broad and far reaching.

The Foundation: HCI + UCD

The field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and the philosophy of user-centered design (UCD) provided the foundation for the discipline of User Experience. Approaching designs from the user’s perspective helps us to see beyond a user interface and think more about the user’s context. From Wikipedia:

“The chief difference from other product design philosophies is that user-centered design tries to optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use the product rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the product.”

User Experience is not just a field of study or a job function, it’s a way of thinking. A UX process helps us to¬†solve problems. I’m a fan of Leah Buley’s explanation:

“UX often means balancing Business Goals with User Goals and Technology Constraints in a way that creates a harmonious experience.”

User Experience is a team sport. Because it is so broad and far reaching, it seeps into other disciplines and job functions across an organization. I’ll have more to say on this later on.

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What a UX Process Involves

Some UX professionals break their UX process down into three phases—Research, Design, and Evaluation.

Research

The Research phase of User Experience is important in clearly defining a business problem while gaining a better understanding of users’ needs. Insights derive from internal data sources such as stakeholder interviews and external data sources such as field studies. User research and the insights we gain from it create empathy for users among team members and help us to generate solutions that better address their problems.

The data that we collect during research is either quantitative—describing the What, as Demetrius Madrigal and Bryan McClain discuss in “Strengths and Weaknesses of Quantitative and Qualitative Research”—or qualitative—describing the Why, as Christian Rohrer discusses in “When to Use Which User-Experience Research Methods.” For example, quantitative data might tell us that the shopping cart-abandonment rate has increased 25%, while qualitative data would tell us that it has increased because users become confused and frustrated during the check-out process.

Here are some examples of research activities that UX professionals perform and user-centered design artifacts that we produce based on user-experience research:

Design

The Design phase is what most people associate with User Experience. It’s when we begin exploring ideas—based on our research—and generating design artifacts for testing, iteration, and development. I have found it helpful to work openly and collaboratively during this phase, allowing early input from stakeholders across departments. This lets you provide an optimal solution, encourages collective ownership of the solution—because you’ve leveraged everyone’s opinions—and prevents your needing to make large revisions late in the development process when making changes is more costly.

Here are some examples of activities that occur and artifacts that we create during the Design phase:

Evaluation

The Evaluation phase is where the rubber meets the road. A design is a hypothesis—an educated guess about what solution would best serve users—and hypotheses need validation. Through testing, we can determine the usability of our solutions, as well as identify unforeseen painpoints.

Here are some examples of activities that occur and artifacts that UX professionals produce during the Evaluation phase:

The UX process applies Design Thinking to a specific context. Research and evaluation—not just design—improve our understanding of the problem, increase the viability of the solution, and contribute to the overall value of the brand. Even though I’ve broken up the UX process into distinct phases for this article, in reality, the phases overlap and loop into each other, creating a perpetual cycle of improvement.

Learning User Experience

User experience is a lot to take in for someone just starting out. Fortunately, there are many types of information and educational resources available to help you fill any gaps in your learning.

Reading

You’ll find plenty of content on UX topics, in print and on the Web, in a variety of formats. Choose the format that best accommodates your needs. Here is some recommended reading for you:

  • articles—A good way to jump-start your learning process is reading articles on the Web from UX organizations, consultancies, magazines, and professional journals, including the following:
  • newsletters—Many of the sites that publish articles on User Experience also offer a subscription to an email newsletter, providing curated lists of articles that address hot topics and current practices. If you are a busy professional who is learning User Experience, such newsletters serve as periodic reminders to keep moving toward your goal of becoming a UX professional.
  • books—Books, whether in digital or print formats, explore UX topics in greater depth, allowing you to take a deep dive into a subject and gain more profound insights. When you’re just starting off, I highly recommend finding a book that can serve as a desktop reference. Here are some recommended books:
    • The User Experience Team of One, by Leah Buley
    • Lean UX, by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden
    • Undercover User Experience Design, by Cennydd Bowles and James Box
    • The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman
    • Don’t Make Me Think, by Steve Krug

Viewing

While reading is a great way of learning, for those of us who are visual learners, it’s always helpful to see concepts in action. You’ll find two types of content on the Web that serve this need:

  • Webinars—Plenty of sites offer live or recorded Webinars taught by UX professionals. They are typically an hour long, which means you can enjoy them over your lunch break. If you attend live Webinars, there’s often a Q&A at the end, giving you a chance to ask some of your burning questions of the presenter. Some providers of Webinars include the following:
  • online courses—If you need a bit more structure, there are plenty of online courses. Some are free, but most are subscription services. These courses provide step-by-step learning, and some include additional resources and exercises. Some organizations even offer certifications, so you can provide proof of your knowledge and increase your marketability as a UX professional. Here are some recommendations:

Listening

There are some great ways of taking advantage of the time you spend commuting to and from work to continue your learning, as follows:

  • podcasts—Some recommendations for podcasts include the following:
  • audio books—Like podcasts, audio books are a great way to absorb content that you don’t have time to read. Many titles are available in audio format.
  • audio articles—If you use Pocket to keep track of your reading list, it has a listen feature that provides text to speech for your saved articles.

Experiencing

While theory is great, eventually you just need to do User Experience! Ultimately, all of us learn by doing. You’ll advance your UX career by engaging in the following activities:

  • workshops—Depending on the environment in which you work or your level of confidence in your newly acquired skills, if you aren’t ready for a real project, take a workshop. In addition to the instructor’s imparting plenty of theory and knowledge, you’ll also get a chance to participate in some hands-on activities that will better prepare you for real-world work contexts. Some workshops may be pricey and time consuming, but many are worth the investment. Here are my recommendations:
  • community—As you progress along your development path, reach out to experienced members of the UX community. Whether engaging with other UX professionals through professional organizations, conferences, or social media, I have found them to be very receptive to answering questions and sharing advice. Even better is adopting someone as your mentor. This gives you a direct line to someone with experience and, in return, gives your mentor the opportunity to demonstrate his or her expertise. Some recommendations include:
  • projects—While all of this theory and practice serves its purpose in helping you to get started learning User Experience, eventually, you’ll have to dive in and take on a project. You might cut your teeth on a small project—that requires minimal investment by and, more importantly, minimal risk to a business—or just start folding some of the techniques you’ve learned into your existing tasks and processes. If something needs doing, give it a try. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Your manager will likely celebrate your desire to get better at your job!

Practicing User Experience

Now, let’s look at several important challenges that you’ll encounter in UX practice.

Process Change

Practicing User Experience often involves implementing some sort of process change—whether big or small—or disrupting whatever processes are currently in place within an organization. Process change is hard. When starting off, you’ll have to decide what level of disruption your organization will tolerate, then ratchet it up from there. You’ll also have to decide how transparent you can be. I’ve had greater success when communicating openly and including others in the process as early as possible. This helps dispel fear of change and creates ownership of change among your team members. However, you also run the risk of others’ derailing your efforts before you’re able to show actual results. So, in some cases, it may be smarter to begin stealthily, then reveal your efforts gradually as you prove the value of your work.

Culture Change

Even more difficult than process change is culture change. User Experience is more than just a job or a process; it’s a belief system, and the adoption of User Experience requires culture change. You’ll need to get others on board and contributing your efforts to achieve optimal success, but getting their support can be a challenge. Being as transparent and collaborative as possible helps others to see and understand what you are doing. Often, evangelizing User Experience and advocating for the user eventually influences current belief systems, gaining you the support you need. However, swaying the opinions of business heads may require quantifiable outcomes. This is why understanding business goals is so important.

Ultimately, the bottom line is the #1 priority of every company. Customer satisfaction is a direct contributor to the bottom line. By making the connection between the two and demonstrating how a user-centered approach improves both, you can quell much of the resistance you encounter. If, by some chance, you work for a company that doesn’t care about customer satisfaction, it may be time to look for new employment.

Leadership

Transitioning to a UX role and subscribing to a user-centered design philosophy and practices may turn you into a leader. There are many aspects of User Experience that require leadership, especially when process or culture change are necessary within your organization. It is very likely that, even if you work for a company that sought you out as a UX professional, its leaders may not completely understand what adopting UX practices means—or the amount of effort it takes for an organization to improve the users’ experience.

Educating and collaborating with others, coaching them on process, inspiring collective ownership, facilitating change, and setting a good example are all qualities of a leader. Be that leader. But be a servant leader, not a dictator. Knowing when to listen and quietly observe—skills that you’ll use when conducting user research—are also desirable qualities in a leader. Be a master craftsman when necessary, but also be an apprentice. Most important, be accountable and do your best to represent the UX community positively. You may have to overcome any misgivings your organization has because of its prior experiences with unqualified practitioners, who harm our field. Learning how to do all of this is a struggle for all of us.

Conclusion

Getting started in User Experience may seem like a daunting task, but with a clear understanding of what the profession is and what the work involves, dedication to learning, and perseverance in applying what you’ve learned, you can make a career in User Experience a reality. Doing this requires courage, fortitude, and leadership, but a career in User Experience can be very rewarding—and like any journey, it begins by taking the first step. 

Senior UX Designer - Mobile at Cox Automotive

UX Design Principal at Alchemy UX + Branding

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Leban HydeWith a background in graphic design, Leban has been working in Web site and application design since 2008. Working both on staff and as a freelance designer, he has worked in a variety of industries. In the recent past, Leban was UI/UX Lead at National Seminars Training where he began to infuse user-centered design into agile development. Now at VinSolutions, of Cox Automotive, he continues to evangelize User Experience and agile for building better digital products.  Read More

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