Photo by Slava Stupachenko on Unsplash

A mega-list of advice to my past self as a Junior UX Designer…

A collection of wisdom collected up over the years from others and my own experiences.

Once in a while we have a moment of complete clarity, and it was in a rare moment of peace and quiet this week that a number of thoughts about what I would say to myself at the beginning of my career all came rushing at me out of nowhere. I’ve tried to collect them up, and provide examples where possible. Most of them are so deceptively obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less important. It’s long, and meant to be dipped in and out of. I’ll probably add to it over time too. If you think there’s anything really obvious missing that you have found helpful in your career, do let me know 😄

You are the research instrument

Everything you do, see, ask and analyse is subject to your own biases, built up over a lifetime. You are the research tool in all your activities, and being aware of this is the first step to remaining objective in your work.

Learn how to ask good questions

Questions are the tools of the researchers trade — they’re what lead us to the great insights that the rest of the products and services we’re responsible for influencing are built on.

Understand emotions

If you want to give a good experience then you must appeal to the right emotions. As Maya Angelou said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”.

So many people forget the user experience is both online AND offline

It’s not just screens and apps. It’s the time you can’t work out how to get the bathroom tap to switch on, or you pull a push door. All of this is user experience.

Find a mentor in a senior UX practitioner

Either informally or formally, hanging around those that have already more experience than you can help you expand out your thinking, and address issues you haven’t come across before.

Understand how businesses work

Having a good commercial head on you will always stand you in good stead. At the end of the day, you’re probably being hired to help the business grow, and understanding it’s inner workings will help you make the best recommendations.

You will always need to balance user and business needs

With the best of intentions, a UX purist will never prosper over someone else who can take the business perspective too. The best you can do is make your recommendations and make it clear what the repercussions will be if they aren’t followed.

Pay research participants fairly

First of all, it’s just the right thing to do. Second, you will get much more value from those that feel their time has been valued, they will reciprocate in kind with useful insights into their world. Note that it will vary according to the sort of audience. Someone who fits the profile of someone looking for a new job will be cheaper than an investment banker for instance.

Work hard to understand what your values are

When you are making design decisions that can ripple out and affect millions of people, you need to make sure you have a set of values you can align to and be guided by. Anytime you are asked to do something you are uncomfortable with, you can check if that aligns with your values, and ultimately the decision becomes a much easier one. Which leads me nicely onto the next thought…

You can say no

Not a fan of dark patterns? Make it known. Feel like you’re exploiting people to get them to hand over money, data or something else? Just say no. If your spidey sense is tingling then trust your gut feel.

Never start a funeral with logistics

This is advice from The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker. It’s taken from a story she tells about attending a funeral. As they’re waiting to start, the air is charged with a palpable emotional weight, which reaches it’s crescendo as the minister takes to the pulpit — only to extinguish the gravity of the moment by going through the emergency fire procedure. Experiences shouldn’t start with logistics, don’t extinguish the emotional momentum people have. I use this bit of advice for everything — meeting people, designing experiences, starting workshops (don’t start with the itinerary!).

Get in the habit of recording your work and projects

Do it as you go, if you don’t you will forget. Build up a portfolio of work that can be referred to later on. Collect photos, quotes, and artefacts. Get used to writing down what challenges you came up against. Document the approach and most importantly the outcome.

Aim for simplicity

In design, in process and in communications with other people.

The stakeholders you work with are your user

This is a biggie, and unbelievably it took me a while to realise. You serve them, and the experience they have with you speaks volumes about the sort of outcomes you can provide for the projects you are working on with them. Design for them, be it shorter more usable presentations instead of hefty reports, or making it easier to access repositories of research data.

Learn how to tell a story

Nothing resonates better with humans than a story. We are wired for stories. Being able to simultaneously explain your research as stories internally to stakeholders, and craft an experience narrative for end users is a super power.

The tools really don’t matter

Find one that you like and meets your needs and requirements, and experiment often. Don’t fall into the tribalism of “my tool is better than yours” — just do what is best for you.

Follow the masters

There is a lot to be learned from those that have already trodden this path, and usually written a book or three along the way.

…But take it with a pinch of salt

Although there are some “thought leaders” truly deserving of the title out there in our field, there are many who are not. You learn to separate the ones drawing on years of tried and tested wisdom, and those spouting out opinions to anyone who will listen.

Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than seek permission

I speak to so many people saying “I’ve asked a few times but I can’t get access to a customer/I want to start a research project but they won’t give me budget” etc etc. It’s not always easy, but there are ways around, undercover ways that can get you a foot in the door to the getting that access or budget. Go guerilla. Do some quick and dirty testing. Start asking contact details of customers, rather than asking if you are allowed to do it. Just make sure that you make a damn good job of finding some interesting things to share once people found out what you did (I speak from experience!).

Understand the lateral academic paths and associated industries

i’m talking about anthropology, social sciences, market research, human factors…there are so many to investigate.

Get used to experiments and being lean

Ok, ok, this article is not lean in the slightest. But in your day to day practice a lighter touch has huge advantages. You can pivot quicker, make discoveries and decisions far faster than if you take a heavier approach.

Be a practitioner

You can’t get good without practice, it’s just not possible. I’ve found practicing my craft means i’m confident in my abilities, and can help others. So many new UX practitioners are nervous about running their first usability tests or research sessions, but know that like anything new, this will go. Keep going.

Aim for building trust with stakeholders and colleagues first

If there is something I see regularly, it’s that getting buy in is one of the hardest struggles in an organisation with low UX maturity. First of all you have to build trust that UX is a thing worth pursuing.

Design for humans not technology

People have not changed much over the last few thousand years, compare that to the phone that has changed massively over just a couple of decades. Pay attention to behaviours, culture and society instead of the latest technology fad.

Put an expiry date on your user research

Encourage yourself and others to keep revisiting past research to validate if it really is still relevant.

Build repositories of research

If you’re trying to get more buy into research, then making your repositories accessible to the entire organisation can help people feel included, and builds trust

Get used to finding ways to communicate to stakeholders without using the UX buzzwords

Things like Information Architecture can leave you with blank stares. Find a better terminology. I sometimes say “site structure and navigation” to keep it simple.

Get used to presenting your work

…and the inevitable critique that follows!

Learn about the people you will be working with

Project managers, Product managers, Product owners, Business Analysts, Developers…

Thats it! Is there anything else you think must be on this list? Let me know! 😊 🙌

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Laura Yarrow

Laura Yarrow

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UX and tech geek. Observer of humans. Crisp connoisseur. Yarn fondler. Undercover Northerner.