UX Designer Career Path: How to Become a UX Designer
“A good design should have nothing that is irrelevant, accidental or unrelated to the main idea.”
When legendary IBM industrial designer Eliot Noyes expressed this opinion in 1944, he was referring to how the best everyday physical objects wed functionality and aesthetics. Now, seventy-five years later, that same focus on intentionality and un-fussiness also serves as true north for digital design — especially user experience (a.k.a. UX) design.
Often conflated with digital graphic design, UX is essentially the process of improving and simplifying the user experience for a digital product — it's not all about how a tech product looks when you use it. The way a brand’s logo pops up when you click on an app isn't really UX. But the way your favorite restaurant directory or weather app defaults to your current location — that’s a deliberate UX choice.
We talked with four UX design pros — some emerging, some long-established thought leaders — about breaking into the industry, how to advance, how they approach projects and what they love about their work. Those who shared their insights include: Sydney-based Adham Dannaway, a freelance UX designer and UX Twitter luminary who’s worked for Qantas, Growth Giant and more; Kevin Lucius, creative director of SmartFinancial (and HGTV-featured printmaker); Lauren Howerter, senior UX designer at Solstice; and Laura Klein, an industry veteran who co-hosts the What is Wrong with UX podcast and has written two books about UX.
How did you first get into UX?
Freelance UI/UX Designer and Front End Developer
I actually started out studying computer science at UNSW Sydney. I was lucky enough to get an IT internship after that, where I discovered my passion for websites and design. I then studied a Master of Digital Media to learn more about design, and built websites on the side to pay the bills, mainly helping small to medium-sized businesses with branding and site design. After my master's, I worked at start-ups, tech companies (Campaign Monitor, Freelancer.com), agencies and larger corporations (including Qantas, St. George Bank and Westpac) to gain experience and build my skills.
UX Designer at SmartFinancial
I always loved art and design as a kid, so I decided to pursue it as a career without knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I got a bachelor's degree in technology and studied visual communication. The curriculum included web design, photography, graphic design and marketing. One of my first jobs out of school was at a commercial sign company. We designed way-finding signage for hotels, airports and hospitals. That was my first experience at a professional level designing something with a user in mind. Our goal was to move people through a space and guide them toward an endpoint. So later on, when I got more into web design, I found it interesting that the same concepts applied. I picked it up quickly and really enjoyed it.
Senior UX Designer at Solstice
Like many UX designers, I started off in a more traditional graphic and print design job then worked into digital. UX design is similar in that, as a designer in general, I follow the same core design principles that a graphic designer or print designer or web designer might follow. But as a UX designer, the scope of my responsibilities and work has increased. I'm thinking big picture, thinking strategically. And that involves a lot of not-so-glamorous design work, like diagrams and whiteboarding — a lot more collaboration than any other realm of design I've worked in.
It's really a more objective design practice in that very little of what I do is dictated by subjective opinions, whereas marketing design or brand design is very subjective. You collect feedback that's like, "I don't like blue," or, "I don't like the color of this thing," or, "I don't like the type style." And in UX, I’m thinking so much more about how someone interacts with what we're designing. What's legible to them, what colors are visible on a screen in daylight. The mindset is very different in that way.
Principal at Users Know
Author (Build Better Products, UX for Lean Startups)
I started off doing user research at a think tank. I was very low level but got to learn from some really experienced folks and got really lucky. Then I went and learned how to program. People who were actual interaction designers at that point, the ones that I knew, all had master's degrees in it — and that was not me. So I went off, learned how to program, then became an engineer.
I had started a master’s program in computer engineering, but then a friend offered me a [role] at her design boutique she had just started. They liked the fact that I knew how to do research, how to write well and how to do end programming, so I could do prototyping (creating early test models of designs in order to gather feedback). Turns out, if can do research and know how to prototype, they can teach you the middle part, which is the actual design part. So mine was a weird kind of wandering road.
Do you think there’s a “traditional” path to becoming a UX designer? If so, did your own path mirror or depart from that?
Dannaway: Back when I finished high school, there was no such thing as a “UX designer.” These days there are private courses you can study to get into UX design. My path wasn’t a particularly efficient path, but it made me the designer I am today and gave me strong technical foundations in development, which have been helpful in my career.
Lucius: There are plenty of educational opportunities to learn UX now, but when I was in college the term wasn't widely used, if at all. I probably followed the same career path as a lot of other designers from that time. I graduated with a basic foundation of web design knowledge that I continued to build upon. As the industry has changed, I’ve had to adapt and learn a new set of skills — which is not a bad thing.
Howerter: I think it's very common for UX designers to have a background in print design, and it's also common to see people that come from a lot of different backgrounds. I've known engineers who’ve converted to design. I was a biochemistry major and ended up taking the long, scenic route to a design career. I don't think UX design is brand new, but I do think tech is so booming and changing and evolving that it’s attracted a lot of different kinds of specialties in the industry. And I think you see that in design as well.
Klein: I started working in the mid-'90s, so there was no traditional path into any of this. None of this existed yet. When I started, I think there was still a website that listed all the new websites on the web. If you talk to folks who've been doing this stuff since the early- to mid-'90s, some were doing it as human vector stuff (for example, creating scalable, digital illustrations) or information architecture. We all had super weird career paths — because that's what there was. And there were way more generalists back then. There was a point where I was a webmaster because I could kind of design and kind of code and kind of write, so that meant you were a webmaster!
Is a master's degree necessary for getting a good job in UX?
Dannaway: Even though I gained a bachelor's degree as well as a master's, I don’t actually think either of them are necessary to be a good UX designer. The most important thing in my opinion is the practical experience gained by working on projects with other skilled people. There are also a lot of UX design articles and books to learn from, and you can always get involved in a side project for some extra practice. [Note: Dannaway compiled this list of 10 must-read UX design books in 2015.]
Lucius: I would never discourage someone who’s considering expanding their education, as I’m sure it would be very beneficial. But in my opinion, there’s nothing more important than experience. To be hands-on with different projects, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, is what makes you better as a designer. I had a professor in college who would often say, “The most important thing we’ll teach you is how to learn.” That’s always stuck with me and is a good reminder to always keep pushing to get better.
Howerter: That's such a difficult question, mostly because of the astronomical cost of education. There are some really good programs out there. I think if you do post-secondary education, do a lot of research and figure out what programs are best. Even an MBA coming into the field with exceptional business knowledge can be super valuable, or coming with a human-computer interaction degree could be super valuable in this realm. I think there's plenty of opportunity for people who study outside the direct realm of design to get into the field. Channeling those different backgrounds can really set you apart.
Klein: Let's just say that I’ve seen people with those degrees and without those degrees, and I have not seen any sort of pattern. The interesting thing is that some of the best design and product people I know just seem to think in a particular way. They're able to think at the high level and low level at the same time. They're able to think strategically about what the user needs, and they're very good at digging down into the details and all the secondary stuff. They don't get hung up on just doing the process. So, yeah, I know good designers who had all kinds of education and I know good designers who I would also say that wasn’t true of.
What are the career advancement prospects like in UX?
Dannaway: In terms of career advancement, I think the career of a UX designer is quite flat. You can stay a UX designer for a long time and progress to work on larger more complex products. Some UX designers become team leads or managers, others go into product management or service design. Once you’re confident enough, you can become an independent consultant and contract directly with companies (rather than being an employee). Some UX designers use their unique skill set to start their own businesses. It really depends where your passion lies.
Lucius: Absolutely. It’s a growing field, and it feels good that so many companies now understand the importance of design. In the past, I think it was oftentimes overlooked and sometimes written off completely. But good design is what makes things work. It attracts customers, builds desire, solves problems and makes things easier.
Howerter: It depends on where you work. I work at a consulting firm and there’s a lot of potential to move up quickly, but it might be different in house. I think a good question to ask going into a job is what sort of advancement structure exists. How many levels do you have for UX design? Within the realm of design, what are the levels? Is there a director position? Is there a VP position?
And then if you have an opportunity as part of an interview process to talk to other designers, you can ask how many times they've been promoted, how long they've been there, where did they start that. But in general, in tech, just the way that companies are scaling up quickly, a lot of opportunity comes with that.
Can you clarify the difference between a UI and UX designer? How interrelated do you see the two?
Dannaway: User interface (UI) design is simply part of the user experience design process, which roughly includes: researching user needs, defining the problem, coming up with ideas to solve the problem, creating prototypes (this is done by a UI designer), validating the ideas via user testing and finally creating the visual designs (this is also done by a UI designer). As you can see, UI designers perform a subset of the tasks that a UX designer does.
Lucius: I think UI is very important, but it’s just one small subsection of the overall design process. It sits alongside research, analysis, prototyping and testing. UX is the all-encompassing communication that a company has with a user.
Howerter: It's a common point of confusion. As the industry has evolved, we've started to hear the phrase “product designer” come up a lot more. And I think part of that term is an attempt to eliminate confusion between UI and UX. At Solstice, UI and UX are very interrelated. We expect the UI designer to do typical UX activities like wireframing and information architecture and things that are less visual design-related, as well as the visual work. And then work with developers to make sure the thing is being built to spec. So our UX design role is really more like what you might hear in the industry as a product design role, which is somebody who can use design from end to end. Some companies separate it out, which allows for someone to hyper-specialize in one thing over the other and get really, really good at it.
I've worked at companies where the two are split out, but I really like an approach where, as a designer, I'm able to see something through. And I think that also eliminates any gaps that exist in handoff. Anytime you hand off, say, wireframes to a visual designer, there's always potential for things to get lost in translation, which can cause delays and just not be the most efficient.
What's the scope of your work?
Dannaway: I like to be involved in the entire design process. It usually involves conducting research to understand user needs, defining the problem, coming up with ideas to solve the problem, creating prototypes, validating the ideas via user testing, designing the interface and building the front end (although I do less development work these days). It’s also important to balance the user needs with the business needs during the design process, which can be tricky.
Lucius: SmartFinancial is both a B2C and B2B brand, so I'm constantly shifting back and forth between the two. Each one has its own unique audience and objectives, so it can sometimes be tricky. On the consumer side, we provide a library of articles and guides to help shoppers fully understand the complexities of insurance. We also provide a platform that allows customers to compare insurance rates side-by-side from national carriers and filter their options however they want.
On the business side, we provide insurance agents and carriers with tools to help them reach new customers and grow their business. In either case, it’s my job to oversee all design and interaction we have with our customers. I fall somewhere between a creative director and UX designer. We’re a small company so we have to be lean and aggressive and work very closely as a team.
Howerter: My role at Solstice encompasses everything from early strategic work with clients — figuring out what to build, which usually includes a lot of workshopping, an ideation session. From there it usually involves collaborating with product and engineering to figure out, now that we know what to build, how should we build it. So that's really early, like wireframing (outlining a design layout) and just putting things in a loose framework. Usually that includes testing. So we have user experience researchers and bosses who own most of the user research that we do. Then once we collect user feedback, we take our designs to high fidelity — so design that's ready to be developed, basically. So we'll have good documentation for all the animations or interactions that we want to include, and then working with developers when they're being built to make sure that they're doing so correctly.
What do you find most rewarding — and challenging — about working in UX?
Dannaway: I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of solving problems and the creativity required to build things. I think that’s why I love designing websites and apps so much. There are always new problems to solve, and in my field these problems are usually solved by building a new website or app feature, or tweaking an existing one. It’s rewarding to make problems disappear and to have some fun in the process.
Lucius: I love solving problems using design. It is, however, certainly challenging at times. It’s a delicate balance of art, design and science. The key is to solve the problem, but do it in a way that’s beautiful, sexy and meets the needs of both the business and customer.
Howerter: I love how fast tech, and the digital realm in general, moves. I love that I can design something and two weeks later it's a real thing that real people are using, and we're getting live feedback. It's such a close feedback loop, and it's really gratifying to either have success really fast or fail really fast.
Also, you learn at an accelerated pace. And as a UX designer, I love working with people from different walks of life. I was on an agriculture project about six months ago and went to farms and saw how it all works. You realize it's really not about the tech; it's about the lives of these people. It's about how they do their work, and finding opportunities to make that easier. Being able to connect the work I do on my computer screen to real people in real situations is always really motivating and inspiring.
Klein: I still just really like making things that make people happy, things that they like using and make their lives better. The other day we were testing out features and someone who had just received access to a new feature Slacked me and said, “Oh my god, I showed this to my associate, and he was so jealous and wanted to know why he didn't get access to it!” She was like, “I just did the tasks I had to do in record time, and it was so great.” And hearing that is the best feeling in the world. So that's why I do the challenging stuff.
I spend a lot of my time talking people out of ideas and kind of having the same conversation over and over. “Oh, that’s an interesting feature. Why do you want to do that? What do you think you're going to get from it? What other things do you think we could do in order to achieve those same results?” Like, some people just come and say, “We should add machine learning.” And it's like, no, we 100 percent should not. Or maybe we should, but let's talk about what you think you’ll get from machine learning and figure out if there's a cheaper way to get something similar.
What’s a typical prototyping process like for you? How many iterations does a project normally go through?
Dannaway: Every project varies in size and complexity, so I don’t think there’s an average or “correct” number of prototype iterations. You need to keep iterating on a prototype until it works. For example, you might be tweaking a sign-up form to try and reduce the number of drop-offs. You may only be able to come up with one new idea that you believe is worth testing. Whereas if you’re lucky enough to start building a new app from scratch, you might have several different directions you’d like to test.
I think a prototype should look and feel as close to the final product as possible to yield the best results. Sometimes I create a quick website with a dummy back end; other times I can get away with an InVision prototype (a set of images linked together using clickable hot spots). Once you’ve validated that the prototype meets the user needs, it’s time to build the real thing.
Lucius: I like to go a bit old school and begin with paper and pen sketches. To me, that’s still the best way to start getting your initial ideas flowing. From there, I’ll continue to refine the design, build a prototype and then start getting some feedback from users. At SmartFinancial, it’s sort of an unwritten company motto to not overthink things too much. By that I mean, we’re given the time we need to research and design a product, but we also try to get it in front of our customers as soon as we can. That can sometimes be hard to do when I feel it’s not yet perfect, but it always pays off. We’re able to get real, actual feedback from customers and then continue to improve it. None of our projects are ever really done; we’re always adding new features and improvements.
Howerter: Iterations vary. It's very rare that you'll do anything right the first time — extremely rare. So an early prototype, we'll go through five, six, seven revisions, until it’s at a place that’s ready to be tested. And then after testing, depending on the question you hope to answer, it might go through several more rounds of iteration. It’s all really determined by the confidence level that the team and client have in investing and building that thing. That's what that early phase is all about: Is this at a place where we all feel confident that our users are going to be able to use it, engage with it, find value in it. Then at the point where we feel confident that it's worth the investment, then usually you pull the trigger.
I've used everything from framers to Proto.io to InVision. I think it's always determined by the objective of the prototype. So if I know that I'm prototyping something that we're going to put in front of our client customers and we want to learn about how they place the return online or something like that, we'll figure out what we want to put together. I like to create a storyboard. Sometimes we'll use sticky notes so they can move things around. And then based on that storyboard, based on what we know we want to learn from the test, I'll figure out what tool does the job most easily. And I think fidelity in the prototypes means a lot too.
So if you're trying to learn a really specific thing, and you need some interactions in there to really get close to what the actual experiences look like, then it's a good time to move into something like Proto.io, where you can really do some careful animating and create interactions to give customers a real feel of the experience. But if you're early on and you're like, “Hey, is this even a feature that you would find valuable?” It’s not necessary to get to that level of detail. You can do something more low fidelity. So it varies on the objective.
Klein: I wrote a blog post about this called "The Right Deliverables," which talks about all the different kinds of prototyping. Well, more deliverables and artifacts, but that includes a lot of prototypes and all the different levels on how you might decide: Do you need a sketch? Do you need an interactive prototype? Do you need a pixel perfect mockup? Because those are all things I've heard people call for. So I’ll do anything from a description and a user story to a Balsamiq mockup to a quick sketch with the engineers to a fully interactive prototype to a somewhat interactive prototype with annotations. That's my favorite. It just depends on what I need to do.
What’s your user research process like? Are there any methods you swear by over others, or is it always situational?
Dannaway: User research in a nutshell is asking users the right questions to figure out their needs. Interviewing users or watching them as they perform their tasks is usually what works best. During an interview it helps to have two people; one doing the talking, and the other observing and taking notes. You can also record the interview session to play back later to take further notes.
Lucius: This might sound obvious, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to fully understand the problem you’re solving and clearly define the goals before you get started. It’s easy to get caught up and breeze through this step faster than you should. This part of the process should not be overlooked. It’s where you can uncover possible issues and determine the best way to solve the problem.
Klein: Direct observation and contextual inquiry are the gold standard. I can even do remote contextual inquiry in many cases, especially if it's a screen-based [project]. Remote is not the same as unmoderated, obviously. But again, it depends on what I want. I’ve written a lot about [the decision-making process of] when to use qualitative, when to use quantitative, when to interview people, when to observe them, when to run a diary study, when to do a survey.
Do you find that what clients say they want and what you observe differ at times?
Yes, 100 percent. And in fact, I almost never ask people what they want. I mean, I'll ask people what they want. And then the follow-up question, of course, is, “What do you hope to accomplish with that?” Or, “What do you think that will give you, or how will that help?” In some nice, non-confrontational way.
Where do you see UX design heading next? Which major trends excite you?
Dannaway: UX design is still in its infancy, especially in larger corporations. I’m hoping that the user-centric design principles that underpin UX design will continue to spread across different industries and technologies, like AI, voice interfaces and virtual and augmented reality. UX principles are already being used by service designers to help improve services.
Lucius: When someone thinks of UX, their mind probably goes straight to digital. But it’s more than that; it extends to the physical world as well. I think you’ll continue to see more of that. Companies are understanding and embracing the idea of looking at the big picture. Every interaction a company has with a customer, whether in the digital or physical world, is now being looked at in the overall design strategy — especially as the two worlds are becoming more interconnected. I think that’s really exciting.
Howerter: I think “product design” is a term you're going to continue to hear more and more frequently as more companies embrace the idea that design is really not limited to a certain skill set or creating certain deliverables. It's really about creating an experience. And I think there's going to continue to be a move toward leaner and more nimble teams. So designers who are really collaborative and work closely with product people and engineering leads on a daily basis will have the most success moving forward.
Klein: This may just be the circles I run in, but I’m seeing more ops stuff — design ops, research ops. We just did a podcast on this. I'm seeing more research around that and talking to more people who are keeping design consistent across large organizations and coming up with tools to support — which is great. You know, something beyond the shared sketch file, which is a lovely start, and 100 percent not the final answer. So I’m seeing more, “How do we make it easier for large groups of designers to design collaboratively across teams?”
Interviews were edited for length and clarity.