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Staying Up to Date in User Experience

July 15, 2019

Back in high school, I was a member of the Tech Team—a supergroup of nerds who fixed computers and helped teachers resolve any issues with PCs in their classroom. When I got home from school, I worked on my Geocities site. I flipped to the advanced editor to edit the HTML and unintentionally ended up learning the scripting language. The Internet was in its early days, and I was excited that I could build something of my own.

Then, when I applied for college, I wanted to continue building Web sites. However, that goal changed somewhat when I took a required class in human-computer interaction (HCI). The course made me think differently about building Web sites. Instead of just coding them, I wanted to design sites to ensure they would be useful and usable. So I went on to study User Experience in graduate school and landed a couple of internships doing user research and design for both Web sites and software.

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Apple released the iPhone the year I finished my Master’s degree, and I think that’s when I realized my education in UX design would never be complete. Not only was there an entirely new form factor to design for, there were also different hardware considerations and touchscreen interactions I had never designed when I was in school. Since landing my first UX job, I have instinctively developed and refined a routine to stay current in User Experience.

By sharing my routine for finding and consuming new information, I hope to inspire others, but also to get feedback on how I could continue to refine my approach.

Develop Your Love of Learning

When I talk with other UX designers, I’m often surprised to learn that they don’t have a routine for staying current with their field. While I think some designers haven’t thought much about developing such a routine, others genuinely have trouble finding the time to expand their knowledge.

Sadly, I also suspect that some UX designers may have lost their passion for learning—possibly due to encountering frustrating challenges at work. Kaja Laura Toczyska has offered some excellent advice for finding your love of learning: explore many different topics to find one that deeply interests you and “the rest will come.” [1]

Make Time

For those who already have a set of areas of interest, the most common barrier is likely finding the time to explore those interests. This isn’t easy. Some of us are single parents. Some of us have multiple passions and can’t spend all of our free time studying User Experience. Some of us have more than one job. You’ll never have enough time to learn everything there is to know about User Experience, and that’s okay.

On a UX Podcast episode, Kate Rutter acknowledged that we must be selective in what we learn. Kate said, “We’ve got so much breadth of material that judicious practitioners have needed to make choices of where they put their evolutional learning because it’s effort, and it can be stressful.” [3]

If you focus mostly on what’s interesting or relevant to you, you can start prioritizing all of the content that is out there. However, you shouldn’t ignore headlines that don’t immediately grab you because you’d then risk not being exposed to things that could develop into new areas of interest for you.

Once you’ve found the content you want to read or listen to, take a look at all of the pockets of time you might have available. I enjoy listening to podcasts while commuting, cleaning, doing laundry, or cooking. I usually read articles when I need a short break at work. There’s a bonus to reading articles during those short breaks, too: microbreaks improve job performance. [2]

Find Good Content

Once you’ve identified the time you have available, you’ll need to think about how content is going to make its way to you. You can’t rely on having new content that happens to match your unique areas of interest finding its way directly to your email inbox or Slack messages. Nor can you spend entire days filtering through podcasts and social media. No one has that much time on their hands! Fortunately, there is a solution: you can set up filters and automate the way you receive new content.

In Vasilis van Gemert’s 2012 article on staying up to date, he suggests using two filters: people and time. [5] You can follow people on Twitter and other platforms as a way of filtering new content—but don’t follow too many people. Then, when you find new articles, consider saving them to read later to see whether they’re still exciting or relevant to you after some time has passed.

You can automate how you receive content by subscribing to relevant blogs and Web sites with Feedly—or using an alternative RSS feed reader. As Figures 1 and 2 show, if you subscribe to a Web site such as UXmatters using Feedly, you’ll never miss an article.

Figure 1—Viewing a list of articles on UXmatters in Feedly
Viewing a list of articles on UXmatters in Feedly
Figure 2—Viewing a UXmatters article in Feedly
Viewing a UXmatters article in Feedly

You can also subscribe to podcasts using an app such as Overcast (iOS), Castro (iOS), or Pocket Casts (Android and iOS). Plus, you can subscribe to email newsletters and set up Google Alerts for specific topics or areas of interest. Remember to unsubscribe or unfollow such content sources once they’re no longer interesting or relevant to you.

However, once you’ve set up some automation, there’s still more work to do. You must acknowledge the reality that all those people you followed and content sources to which you’ve subscribed won’t send everything your way that there is to know. So you must continue to manage your content subscriptions and find alternative ways of getting new information such as the following:

  • Attend conferences or local meetups.
  • Join a UX book club online or in person. Remember, you can sometimes get books in an audiobook format.

Once you’re consuming content regularly, make sure you give back by sharing quality links and summarizing what you found interesting in an article. Since every UX professional has unique interests, you’ll get content from many different places. We need to experience diversity to build stronger professionals in our field and our communities. So share links in Slack or on Twitter, and try to present at conferences or meetups.

Save Content for Later

One critical aspect of establishing a routine for learning is setting up a way to offload content you can’t get to right away. Since you can consume and store only a limited amount of information, it’s crucial that you be able to offload as much reading as you can.

If there’s an article you don’t have time to read or you aren’t sure whether it’s really of interest, consider saving it for the future in Feedly or Instapaper or sending it to the mobile app Pocket, which has the capability of reading articles aloud that you’ve saved to your account. Figures 3 and 4 show how Pocket lets you listen to articles you’ve saved.

Figure 3—The Pocket app can read an article aloud
The Pocket app can read an article aloud
Figure 4—The Pocket app’s controls for listening to an article
The Pocket app's controls for reading an article aloud

If there’s a book you plan to read, but you can’t get to, you can either queue it up or put it on a wish list. While you may never get to it, you’ll at least be able to find the book again if the opportunity to read it arises.

For content that you think would be valuable in the long term, save it in your browser’s bookmarks, back it up to Evernote, or use a cloud-based bookmarking tool such as Pinboard, which is similar to the now-defunct site del.icio.us. To collect diagrams or user-interface inspiration, you might want to set up some boards on a Pinterest account.

Enhance Your Routine with Technology

Once you’ve started to develop a routine for getting new content, you can go a step further by investing in some products that can help you to consume content. These products could enable you to find even more time for consuming content. There’s a lot of technology available for this purpose. I suggest you adopt the following technology:

  • Get headphones to wear at work or while commuting. You don’t need anything fancy, but I love my Apple AirPods for wearing while on the go or around the house. The Samsung Galaxy Buds are also highly rated. At the office or in noisy situations, I switch to my Bose noise-canceling headphones. While you don’t need noise-canceling headphones, you’ll love them if you do a lot of flying or commuting on public transit. Anker now makes a pair that costs less than $100.
  • Get a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi enabled speaker for playing podcasts or audiobooks around the house. You can even get a cheap, waterproof Bluetooth speaker for listening while you’re in the shower.
  • When you find long videos—for example, conference presentations—that you want to watch, it might be helpful to cast them to a TV—for example, using Apple TV or Google Chromecast. Some TVs have casting functionality built in, so you might not need anything extra.
  • If you like reading digital books, an Amazon Kindle is fantastic. The screen is matte and backlit, so it works great in all situations—such as when you’re in the sun or a dimly lit room. I keep mine by my bedside for reading when I have trouble falling asleep.

Integrate Learning into Your Life

There’s no silver bullet that can make you an expert on the latest UX trends and best practices. To become a great UX professional, you need to make learning a constant part of your life. You can do this by discovering your areas of interest, finding the time to learn, and setting up ways to receive and consume new content. Remember, it’s impossible to read everything, so focus on what’s interesting or relevant to you.

When you identify specific skills or techniques that would take some time to learn, you might want to consider setting up a continuous-learning framework with your peers. A successful framework includes three steps: setting an intention, starting simple, and sharing progress. [4]

If you have any additional tips or tricks for staying up to date on User Experience, please leave a comment here or share them with me on Twitter @awirtanen. Thanks for reading! 

Endnotes

[1] Toczyska, Kaja Laura. “Soft Skills in UX—What Makes a Mediocre Designer Great.” UX Collective, April 16, 2019. Retrieved July 9, 2019.

[2] Gorvett, Zaria. “The Tiny Breaks That Ease Your Body and Reboot Your Brain.” BBC Capital, March 12, 2019. Retrieved July 9, 2019.

[3] UX Podcast.#212: Continuous Learning with Kate Rutter.” UX Podcast, June 7, 2019. Retrieved July 9, 2019.

[4] Rutter, Kate. “Escaping the Stagnation Sandpit: Building a Continuous Learning Team, UX Lisbon 2019.” SlideShare, May 29, 2019. Retrieved July 9, 2019.

[5] van Germert, Vasilis. “How to Stay Up to Date.” Smashing Magazine, August 9, 2012. Retrieved July 9, 2019.

Product Designer at Citrix

Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

Andrew WirtanenAndrew has worked in User Experience since 2006. He graduated with a Masters in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University. In 2013, Andrew served as President of the Triangle UXPA chapter in North Carolina. He continues his involvement in the chapter by organizing talks and workshops and volunteering in the mentorship program. When not working in User Experience, Andrew enjoys local restaurants, theme parks, Boston Red Sox baseball games, and metal and indie rock shows.  Read More

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