Learning UX on the job

by boon

I recently passed my one year mark as a full-time user experience designer. While I have been applying user-centered design in my previous roles, this feels like a big change for me. I’m now in a job with a different title (information architect), with different responsibilities (design), working in a different industry (customer experience). In getting here, I immersed myself around books, events, practitioners, and finished a postgraduate degree. But now, it feels like I’ve shifted gears by putting it into serious practice.

The theory vs. practice gap

There’s been a bit of debate about whether you need a postgraduate education to qualify as a UX designer/information architect/interaction designer these days. Having done the MSc a few years ago, I don’t think it’s necessary in building a career, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find good practitioners who have the passion to acquire knowledge apart from the day job.

One of the things I find lacking in commercial practice is the general awareness of solid HCI theory. Granted, it wasn’t HCI alone that gave birth to this industry, but I feel quite strongly that HCI covers enough of the essentials required for sound practice.

At the same time, HCI as a field is also changing, but we’ve been borrowing a lot from the older stuff – passing our knowledge on our colleagues like chinese whispers without keeping things in check. For example, Don Norman has been trying to get designers to stop misusing the term “affordance” when they actually mean “signifiers”. It’s not just HCI, but other fields too – see Mags Hanley’s “Fill in the IA gap” talk at London IA.

Multidiscplinary teams and processes

I love that I now work alongside strong visual designers, copywriters, project managers, developers and directors. It takes many hands to produce good experiences – UX designers should never work in isolation. However, this means we all need flexibility in adapting to multiple processes and practices, yet remaining fully competent in our own areas.

Flexible, focused teams place top priority on shared understanding, willingness to change work approaches, being sensitive to project execution, and effective communication of the overall design. Exceptional teams are very detail-oriented, but focus too much on the details while ignoring other issues leads to misunderstanding and communication breakdown (and occasionally screaming and crying). It’s one big balancing act.

Of course, my experience is heavily influenced by the design studio approach (which I feel is a better way of doing things), but my point is that learning UX on the job has given me that necessary exposure to complex design practices in its various forms.

Designing for more than just users

Another balancing act that is seldom discussed is how to effectively design for the client and even the design team’s agenda. We focus a lot on discussing users since they rarely ever get a say (until the design is launched) – but in reality we’re heavily influenced by client requirements and goals, even our own design preferences and styles. Plus, they’re all moving targets, making it even harder.

Designs are never finished, but they get pushed out into the wild one step at a time. I like the idea that our designs become mediators of conversations, relationships and behaviors. Sometimes it’s about enabling an experience we think our clients or their customers want. OrĀ  changing the way people do things. Other times, it’s just a really good idea.

It isn’t always pretty though. Projects can sometimes be set up to fail, opinions can take a wrong turn, and new technologies can be really disruptive.

The need to reflect

Project pressures and uncertainties rob time away from learning things the way I did before (books, events, etc.). Sometimes I have to stop and think about what I’ve learnt over time, much of it is hard to put in words – but learning on the job has been invaluable. Forcing myself to write this post has been good way to keep things in perspective.