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How-to's, especially in today's impatient world, tend to overlook complex, nuanced, or challenging aspects of UX.

A photo of me doing a UX Crit at Booking.com – these are 10,000% one of the best things a UX designer can do to improve their work.
A photo of me doing a UX Crit at Booking.com – these are 10,000% one of the best things a UX designer can do to improve their work.
Monday 11 April 2022

How to be a UX designer (sans the UX)

I saw a post on LinkedIn the other day that resonated; “How to become a UX designer” videos on YouTube paint pictures like, “Five simple steps that will get you your first job!”. The tips and advice are well meaning and relevant, yet they often overlook complex, nuanced, or challenging aspects of the job. It’s not all process, prototypes, and case studies. These videos could also be about:

  1. Learning how to work in a large organisation
  2. What to do when challenged by higher-ups
  3. What you should do when your project gets put on hiatus
  4. Working with difficult stakeholders
  5. Knowing when you’re being a difficult stakeholder

This isn’t an exhaustive or definitive “How to” listicle. Moreso, it's the “How to have a UX designer mindset” I wish I knew when I started out.

Don’t take UX too seriously (but take pride in what you do)

UX design isn’t brain surgery. This is a bit of an unfair comparison; just because someone is a brain surgeon, doesn’t mean they're placed on a lofiter position on some imaginary noble career ladder. But I have seen some UX designers take their job oh so very seriously (hands up: I did too). Relax. As UX designers we’re either contributing to capitalism, the attention-economy, or destroying the environment (if you’re doing all three... well...). Whilst it’d be great to break free, we have to acknowledge the reality our efforts are contributing, and the reality of how we live; we’re doing this because we have a unique set of skills, and we need to pay the bills.

I remember working with a colleague who was troubled that all he felt he was doing was encouraging people to buy things they didn’t need. This shook me too, I just couldn’t believe someone else aired the same sentiment I was keeping deep inside.

Here's a tip

If reality is tugging at your values and keeping you awake at night, look to work for a charity or NGO. Better yet, give some of your UX design experience on a volunteer basis in your spare time. I’ve been doing it and it feels good to take what I know and give it to a charity that benefits from it.

Invite criticism (from time to time)

The sooner you distance yourself from your work, the better your work will be. Hands up: I used to take every minor question or observation of my work as some personal assault. How self-centred; but it’s understandable. Creative output (any output really) that gets questioned by peers (and users) can be uncomfortable at best and soul-destroying at worst. You are not your work though. Drop the ego. You’re getting paid to do a job. So ask your colleagues how you can improve your work; you’re not asking them “How can I be better?”

Here's a tip

Do critique the Wim Hof way; ice cold, deep end, and throw yourself into it. Get over it. Whatever you’re working on, tomorrow, set up a “design lab” or “UX Crit” or whatever you call them in your company, and invite every relevant team member you can think of, and some more. Ask, "What isn't working here?" rather than, "What do you think?". When you invite criticism it stings less. Ask for it.

Be the river, not the rock (for the most part)

UX designers should always advocate for users’ needs. Therefore, learn to identify red flags from colleagues such as wanting changes “just because” or doing what the HIPPO wants (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). From time to time these sorts of challenges come up and it’s these moments that you should reinforce what the evidence/data/user is saying. Stay politely firm, like the rock, and always advocate for the user. For everything else, be the river, learn to let go, and trust the process. Trust your product manager knows what you should focus on in the upcoming sprints. Trust your UX writer knows the product’s tone of voice a bit better. Trust your researcher's analysis and guidance. Learn to follow the inevitable twists and turns of product pivots and setbacks (I was on a project that took three years to launch!) – it’s always a marathon, never a sprint.

Here's a tip

This isn’t about being inflexible or complacent at all times, it’s about knowing when to be the river and when to be the rock.

Read between the lines (sometimes)

I work in a big organisation so it’s natural to hear from a lot of perspective a lot of the time. And if you’re like me, sometimes you think every perspective, opinion, or observation counts. Important lesson learned the long way: you do not have to take everything said on board.

‘Perspective’ can take many guises too:

  • The question that’s actually a critique; “I wonder if you could be better here?”
  • The ‘I know more’ observation; “This isn’t how users behaved when we tested it.”
  • The splitting the hair input; “It was actually 17.5%, not 17.1%.”

These are subtle, subjective, contextual, and a bajillion other factors can be at play, so don’t read into these too much when you do hear them. But, take note of the way the input is phrased and ask yourself, “Is this genuinely helpful right now? Would more clarity help? Where can I use this input in the product/project? Will this ultimately benefit the end user or achieve an internal metric?”

This is a bit like the ‘it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it’ remark when you fall out with someone. We have relationships with colleagues too, so learning to understand what to engage with and what not to is invaluable. Understand it, and move past it.

Swim in the other lane (occasionally)

Doubledown on your strengths; it’s good to improve what you’re lacking, but get great at what you’re good at. This isn’t about ‘staying in your simlane’, but about doing the absolute best in it.

Strong visual storyteller or graphic design skills? Bring this to your team or department’s next update deck. Great at facilitation? Run workshops and encourage others to shadow you so they can learn. Superbly analytical? Strategise more closely with your product manager on how UX can solve business objectives.

It’s not your job to be in these lanes at all times, but from time to time, know what it’s like in them, and bring what you know best to them.

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