What you’ll never learn in school.
I have often wondered what drives people to become UX designers and why anyone in their right mind would pursue a career in this profession. When I step back and look at the overall challenges and hurdles, the trials and tribulations of being a designer, I can’t understand why a lot of us choose this career path and stay. And, I wonder if budding designers truly know what they are in for.
UX is a burgeoning field and people are attracted to it because it is a hot career path for them. They spend a lot of money for a degree, invest their time and work hard to get that first position. Once you are knee-deep in an investment like that, most of us feel as though we have little choice but to move forward and stay.
That is probably what happens with a lot of designers. They pick a field because it is listed on some website as a “hot new career path,” find a school or program, take a position that isn’t a good fit and then settle in for a career of mediocrity. If they had it to do all over again and had known what challenges they would face, how many of them would have chosen differently?
At the outset, it may seem as though I am being overly negative about my chosen profession. Don’t misunderstand me. UX Design has been a good career choice for me. But, it hasn’t come without its own unique set of struggles — challenges I would have never guessed I would face. That is, going into it, there was a lot I did not expect and a lot I did not learn in graduate school.
My career in this field matured as UX was going through a major transformation. As such, there is a lot I never learned in a classroom that I had to learn on the job. And, I am still learning new tricks today. If I were to write a letter or essay to myself in the past, there is a lot I could have warned a younger me of. The following is what I might have written.
Prepare yourself for routine rejection. It’s normal.
UX atypically sits on the front line of product conceptualization. It’s similar to any other creative endeavor you might have been exposed to in your lifetime — writing, advertising campaigns, art or even scientific research. You are the idea person, which puts you on the front line since you’ll be sharing the first ideas around a product. You are the person who will provide the foundation for the product and begin to conceptualize what was once only abstract.
You get an idea and you go with it. You will tease out the idea, sharpen it and tweak your first drafts. But when it is time to let the world see it, that’s when the real work begins.
Having just completed your degree and secured your first job, you will walk into a meeting someday soon and have someone ruthlessly tear your idea to shreds. You want to know what the worst part of that is? They’ll likely be right. Your idea, your first draft, will not work. And if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know this is true. You want to know what is even worse than that? After 14 years of designing, this will still happen to you. I’ve gotten better at differentiating the turds from the gems. But, I still routinely come up with bad ideas and face rejection on a weekly basis at minimum.
Here’s a bit advice from someone who has grown thicker skin and learned how to manage the self-doubt you will soon feel creep in. The difference between successful people and those who are not is subtle. Successful people produce more. They try more. It isn’t that they have more good ideas. They just produce more and thus are more likely to have a great idea buried in a pile of bad ideas. Some of the greatest composers, inventors and creators in history produced far more work that fell into obscurity than work that became famous. Keep designing and keep generating. You will get better and find a better idea.
Your greatest fear will be the blank canvas.
Coming up with new ideas or solutions to problems is not easy. You will struggle with this only to have a project manager or stakeholder perpetually holding your feet to the fire on a deadline. UX is not like working on an assembly line or conducting some other rote task in the workplace. It requires thought — sometimes deep thinking.
In the beginning, you will fear the blank canvas, the dearth of ideas and the utter perplexity of the creative process. But in time, you will begin to harness your creative energy and learn how to keep despair at bay. You’ll learn how to collaborate and that great design is a collage of ideas from you and your colleagues, not just your idea. And yet, you will still have your bad days throughout your career. You will still have days where the ideas will not come to you or where there is no good solution to a problem. You will always have a healthy fear of the blank canvas and even a certain respect for it.
In other words, it only gets a little better. You picked a career where people expect you to just pull a great idea, solution or design out of your ass on a daily basis. It doesn’t work that way and you will contend with this in every position you hold.
If you think you’re good, you probably aren’t.
Early in my career, I used to think everything I created was good. Then, after a few years, I would look back on my work and say, “Boy, that’s really shitty.” I would wonder how I could have possibly thought my previous work was anything more than a large pile of shit warmed over. I still do that. I can’t go back and look at my previous work without finding fault in it.
Self-Doubt is healthy and it is a part of any creative process. If you think what you are creating is brilliant, most of the time it isn’t. You have to learn how to balance the self-doubt and that internal monologue so it pushes you to a better design, solution or idea without destroying you. And, that is tremendously hard to do.
Looking at your work and your creations in an objective light usually requires distance. It is so much easier to critique someone else’s work than your own. But, when you begin to mature as an artist, you will find you are better able to critique your present work when you have the ability to question your ideas and maintain a healthy level of self-doubt. It’s a difficult balance and you will struggle with this always.
You will never get to a place where you can think you’re good.
You will never master UX. You will, however, grow as a designer. But, the UX profession will evolve and grow as well. And thus, mastery will always lie just outside your reach (if not further). In short, you will never to get to a place where you can rest on your laurels or even be as good as your last project.
The counterpoint to this is you will always find intellectual stimulation in a field brimming with new ideas, concepts and new technologies. If you can learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, you will rarely ever be bored and always find new directions to take your career. But, you will never get to a place where you think you’re good and you’re right.
You will perpetually be misunderstood.
Most people you encounter will not appreciate UX, nor will they understand what you do. Today, UX is more widely spread than it has ever been. So, you will find organizations and people within organizations who get it and understand it. But, you are far more likely to work in a place where people and organizations do not.
A great percentage of your work and time will be spent educating and advocating. You will educate so coworkers understand what you do and how design can impact the end product. You will advocate for the user experience and tirelessly campaign for design-thinking within the organizations you work for.
Through it all, you will find you are still, often, misunderstood. You will lose battles, lose projects and, sometimes, lose your temper. There will be meetings where the loudest voices will only be heard and literal shouting matches will define a product’s direction.
Some days you’ll win. But most days you won’t. Ultimately, you’ll learn the cost of winning is often not worth the ground you gain. And while you lament being misunderstood, some day you will learn understanding others is far more important than others understanding you.
Relationships are precious and far more important. UX is a people business and if you think you’ll be able to put on your headphones, tune out the world and create some righteous designs to be successful, you’re wrong. Your success will primarily be dependent upon your ability to sell your ideas. That requires people skills and developing relationships.
Cultivate and communicate a design vision and philosophy.
It will take you many years to understand this. You will learn UX is beyond aesthetics, that it is about solving problems and simplifying the complex. These are all cliches you’ll pick up along the path in your journey. But, it will take you some time to understand what it means to have a vision for a product and philosophy in your approach.
A vision is where you want to be. It’s the headline you would want to see in a newspaper for the successful experience you design. Vision sits just on the horizon — a destination you are attempting to reach. And, design philosophy drives your vision.
This isn’t about requirements or stakeholder requests. It isn’t necessarily about what your users are asking for or what research indicates. A vision sits beyond all of that, taking those key points into consideration, but not allowing them to drastically deviate your set course or direction.
When you are able to cultivate a design vision and philosophy, you will have turned a corner in your career. But once again, it will take you many years to understand this.
Above all else, seek meaning.
You will spend years learning your craft, pushing pixels, learning new tools and seeking out the “right” projects. You will struggle along to build a portfolio that will get you that “next best position.” In so doing, you’ll concentrate on how your work presents and projects that will boost your appeal to potential employers.
Like a man in the desert chasing a mirage, you’ll reach out for water only to find sand running through your fingers. True satisfaction in what you do will never be found in the glossy veneer of the high profile splash page or the beauty of an interface that provides little functionality. True satisfaction will be found when you seek out a sense of purpose in what you do. Creating something beautiful with the right tools and skills is merely a byproduct of purpose and meaning.
When you leave work at the end of the day, ask yourself how a product has been improved as a result of your presence. When you no longer have an answer, you no longer have purpose or meaning in your work. Above all things, seek meaning. And if you do not find it in your daily practice, pull up your stakes and journey on.