Total beginner looking for guidance about User Experience Design
December 27, 2016 3:58 PM   Subscribe

A couple of questions: Do I need to be a jack of all trades in all of the aspects of UX and UI design? Are a lot of companies unaware of the differences between UX and UI and lump it all into one job duty? Can I focus more on the user / usability research aspect and slowly branch out to the strategy and design aspects? Do you have any advice on an incremental and non-overwhelming baby-step approach to learning all of the skills necessary to go into the UX design career?

Next semester, I’ll be graduating with a bachelors in psychology and a minor in anthropology. I’ve never taken a class in marketing or business, though in retrospect I think it would have been better if one of those were my minor. I'd switch, but after next semester I will have reached the limit of how many classes I can take with the assistance of financial aid.

I stumbled upon UX Design about a week ago and have been reading about it ever since. The initial description really appealed to me - mainly the user research aspect. I feel like I would be delving into the psychology of how users use websites and/or apps. I’m pretty empathetic and it appears to me that empathy (stepping outside your own perspective to see how others experience a product) is a pretty useful skill.

The more I’ve been reading articles however, the more I’ve seen how much deeper the role of UX designer is. It seems that user research is only a tiny sliver. There is a huge strategy and design component as well. It’s all a bit overwhelming and intimidating. And then of course, there is the UI aspect as well, which seems like it is less about analytic skill and more about artistic skill, an area which I’m not so confident in.
posted by ggp88 to Education (6 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I know someone with an interesting, successful career in UX design but neither any programming nor any business/marketing experience. What she has instead is a PhD in psychology, but her dissertation research wasn't really relevant--just the HCI / human factors coursework and side jobs she took along the way. I suspect her skillset confines her to very large and/or unusually thoughtful enterprises, but if that's the skillset you want, any skills you're missing might be available via some highly appropriate master's program.

Business and marketing experience is relevant to a different but more common job--product management--that does involve understanding customer needs and conveying requirements, but it can be a challenging role to someone trying to steer the user experience, because how well engineering and business work together in an organization is at least as variable as how UX design tasks are assigned. Product managers very often have to be content with engineering decisions that meet a deadline / minimal set of requirements rather than a well-informed ideal, but many teams do work with the product manager on those decisions.
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:31 PM on December 27, 2016

Best answer: Are a lot of companies unaware of the differences between UX and UI and lump it all into one job duty?

I'd say yes, for sure. I think people on the design and development side understand the difference much of the time, but people in "the business" not so much.

I do not come from a design background whatsoever. I have a PhD in English and after getting out of the adjunct thing I ended up in a research/consulting job, then did a job that would fall under the umbrella of "content strategy," then was a business analyst, and am now firmly in UX strategy. The other people on my team come from design backgrounds, mainly.

Having a background in psychology (plus anthropology) is a huge advantage in UX, I think, so (depending on the courses you've taken) you're probably better equipped than you think to do that kind of work. You say that you think that research is a tiny sliver, which I'd say is not exactly true. If an organization is doing UX well, research is perhaps the most important part of UX design—the strategists should be making decisions based on research. There is a huge strategy and design component, but these pieces are all cogs in the same machine.

The thing is, if you're just finishing your degree, you're not going to be an expert on anything related to UX right out of the gate anyway. You might want to look for a first job that gets you in the door in product design or development but I think your academic background could prepare you quite well.

You might want to go and take some online courses to get a sense of what the field is actually like and put together some portfolio pieces showing how you'd approach a UX research problem. I did David Travis's Udemy course and it was good—there were a number of sample projects that ask you to do some research. And there are a lot of good books out there. In the main, though, I think you're psyching yourself out about how arcane UX strategy is.
posted by synecdoche at 5:33 PM on December 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

This is semi-anecdotal, but your interest in the research side of things may be beneficial. My masters is in HCI/UX, and most of the people in my program were interested in the design side of things. They were less interested in learning about users and more interested in impressing them. There were very few people that explicitly expressed interest in research. (For me, I wound up becoming a software dev because I discovered I really liked it while learning it for some of my required courses).

While it's beneficial to know something about the various pockets of UX, it certainly isn't a necessity to find research work. The organization I work for employs ~200 people, and there are at least two UX researchers. Several people from my program wound up in research-focused UX jobs at other organizations, too. Most people I know in those positions began with UX Research internships or they were already with the org and moved to the position. One of the researchers at my office began as an intern, getting her bachelors in the same subjects you are. She was not particularly familiar with UX topics outside of research when she started.
posted by yorick at 9:59 PM on December 27, 2016

Like you, I started off with a Psychology degree and got into the field via a masters. But this was back in the 90s when people referred to what is now "UX" as "Human Computer Interaction", "Human Factors" and "Interaction Design". I was then lucky enough to land a job where I was in a department with a number of others working in the same field but with different backgrounds: there were some other people who had started out as Psychologists, some who had begun as industrial designers and so on. Some (like Dave Travis - who was a colleague (hi Dave) )had arrived with a phD in an aspect of the field - and then branched out to embrace other areas. Others (like me, I guess) started out as generalists and then became specialists in a particular area. Personally I'd say that trying to find an initial job where there will be a number of others in the area to learn from - would be well worth doing - harder to do if you are the only UX person in a team of other specialists.

Careers are long and unpredictable things - I'd encourage you to take exactly the series of baby steps that you describe - trying to move at each step in the direction of what interests you and seeking out as much variety as possible. You probably won't learn "all the necessary skills" - because that gamut is too wide for any one person. Instead, try to work out what particular areas you are strong in - that might be a relevant research specialism within Psychology but it could be as somebody advocating the role of users, as somebody embedded in software development teams or whatever. Technology changes at a rapid pace (but it loops back on itself sometimes and great important U/X inventions, like the mouse, can lie dormant for many years. People - and our understanding of them - change rather more slowly - and that can be a career advantage.

A quarter century on and I'm a consultant working as a specialist in a software application used by large organisations: sometimes I work on development and configuration - sometimes on training, sometimes as architect. I wouldn't describe myself as a UX person myself now - but my background in the area informs the way I approach problems and deal with those I meet. On the way I've had roles where I worked on early VR systems, developed websites back in an era when "web-master" as a title used in seriousness, created systems for online language learning, worked on ways in which what we now call avatars could be manipulated, commissioned digital media for a large drinks company, designed games in the dot com era and so on. Baby steps lead everybody on different paths that meander, diverge and re-converge. U/X offers some really interesting paths - and ones which are liable to alter under the influence of emerging technologies.
posted by rongorongo at 10:44 PM on December 27, 2016

You should read this recent thread on UX/UI as a discipline and the current trend in jobs in the different industries that hire UX/UI designers, researchers and specialists.

I won't repeat my answer in that thread except to say that it is a very big tent of different skills and jobs under the broad and slightly meaningless label of 'UX'. Having more skills and the ability to cover more than just, say, wireframing, or research, or content management, or project management, will make you more employable and resilient. But every organisation structures 'UX' roles differently and has different responsibilities, so it's a pretty wide open field at the moment.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:18 AM on December 29, 2016

In my experience UX is something that people tend to find from adjacent fields, often some branch of psych or design. The HCI masters program at my school was interdisciplinary. You could align yourself with psych, computer science, or liberal arts. A lot of the psych focused people did end up looking for research positions. A comp sci background can set you up for a something that straddles UX and front end development. An arts background might be more on the design or concept side, but these are definitely not hard and fast rules.

How broad your role is in a UX position really depends on your company. I know UX people at huge tech companies who spend most of their time analyzing button placement. I also know UX people who work at non-tech companies where they are the ONLY UX person and their responsibilities involve a lot of other stuff, including educating colleagues about UX.

In my studio, we have an XD team, but none of us specialize in a particular area. We all work on different client projects and do all of the typical XD tasks (concepting, prototyping, testing, information architecture, etc.) on our projects. We also overlap with content strategy, so we all work on that as well. It's truly a huge umbrella of stuff and I definitely prefer that to specializing in just one little area.

I've noticed a lot of UX bootcamps popping up lately. These are relatively expensive short-term programs for people looking to break into the field. Honestly, I feel that most people can get the same kind of knowledge by reading a few key books and working on some sample projects in their spare time. UX portfolios tend to be kind of weird because most of what we work on is the bones of a finished product and our part in it is rather invisible. There's so much iteration in UX. You need to be able to look at the final thing and tell someone exactly what your role in it was. If you don't have a team, obviously it's kind of hard to explain how you worked with the developers and the designers. So if you have the opportunity to work with that kind of team on anything, do it.

One thing to note is that UX isn't just limited to apps and web sites. If psych is your main focus, also look at the broader field of service design. This is where the field is headed, in my opinion.
posted by pourtant at 8:01 AM on January 2, 2017

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