How do you learn UX?

May 14, 2018

The question I’m often asked after sending a newsletter or giving a talk is “How do I learn UX?” As we’ve just discussed the topic of what an user experience is, I thought this would be a helpful follow-up.

I find this question incredibly difficult to answer. It’s almost as if I’m being asked to describe to someone, in detail, how to ride a bike. I just know how from doing it. My functional understanding of UX is a learned skillset built from observations, experience, and practice. I really don’t know where to start explaining it.

However, I do get asked this enough that I really need to deliver something. After giving it a lot of thought, I discovered that it’s less about giving a to-do list and more about highlighting skills that tune you into the UX we encounter every day.

Here are five points to help you think and act in ways that consider UX:

1. Analyze the things you like/dislike

I think a good starting point with UX-design is to think about experiences you really like or dislike. What parts of that experience make it unpleasant or pleasant. What could be changed that could make you feel differently.

This could be bigger features (like iMessage) or really small things like an animation (pull down to refresh spinner). Personally, I pretty much do this every time I use something. It’s almost second nature. Think about it, we interact with more than 600 objects daily, so there’s no lack of things to analyze.

2. Think about different parts of a user experience

There are times I get excited about animations and times when I’m more excited about the structure and hierarchy something uses. I organize these observations into different categories that helps me to understand the make up of the user experience.

This can be things like:

  • Animations
  • Structure and hierarchy
  • Navigation
  • User flow
  • Visuals (colors, typography, graphic design)
  • Tone of voice
  • Sounds

3. Remember, user experiences are everywhere!

I try my best to not limit myself to just the web when I think about user experiences. I’ve found that the more outside of the web I can think, the better solutions usually appear. Don’t get me wrong, the web can be a goldmine too, but things like my PlayStation, my car’s entertainment system, or even an ATM can offer inspiration.

Let’s compare experiences of shopping online and shopping in a retail store. What are the advantages of shopping online? Why do so many people still prefer to shop in a physical store? What part of the physical shopping experience is missing from online shopping? And what about the other way around? Most things that we do online (social forums, banking, sending mail) have offline counterparts as well. How can the these two experiences learn from each other?

I think designers in general (myself included) need to be better at thinking more abstractly also. What feeling do I have when I’m out walking in the forest on a sunny day? How can love, sadness, and happiness translate into a digital experience?

4. Talk to users

The most successful projects I’ve worked on are the ones where I have access to real users. It’s nearly impossible for one person or a team to fully understand a problem without talking to real people. Too often we are trying to solve that ‘one big problem’ that only makes the product 30% better. What we miss when we don’t talk to users is the ton of smaller problems that can outweigh that big one. Just asking the right questions and listening carefully can connect you to your most important tool - that user.

5. Ask why A LOT

Finally, I think it’s good to ask why a lot. The Hyper Island Toolbox has a great exercise on this and great products are created when designers ask why. I recently bought a new TV and the remote was very minimalistic and felt nice to use. The big difference from every other remote I’ve seen for the past 20 years? It doesn’t have the number pad! While I initially was confused by it, I’ve come to realize that I don’t miss it at all. Questioning the status quo can be extremely powerful.

I know that this is far from a comprehensive look at getting into UX, but it should help you get started. Like I said earlier, it’s really about tuning your focus to observing, experiencing, and practicing skills to gain a deeper understanding of the UX around you. It may not come easy at first, but soon you’ll wonder how you didn’t notice it before!

Experienced UX professionals: As always, I am open to any input and want to hear if you have other points that can help people get into our field. I would love to add them and give you all the credit. Let me know!

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