Beyond Empathy: Approaching a New Career in UX

So you're starting a career in UX. You’re empathetic, detail-oriented, and a stellar organizer to boot, and you want to combine these skills into a career. Welcome, New UX Designer! We’re so happy to have you in the industry.

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard that empathy is at the core of the UX process; this is one thing we’re great at communicating to designers who are just starting out. However, UX requires more than empathy, and it’s hard to know what else to prioritize when you’re new in the industry and there’s so much to learn. Where do you begin?

Here are a few additional lessons I hope will serve you well as you start out in your UX career.

Prioritize Problem Solving Over Producing Deliverables

When I first started in UX, I thought that the most important thing to learn was how to produce the necessary deliverables for the job. What I had yet to gain perspective on was the simple fact that deliverables are worthless if they aren’t backed by critical thinking. Essentially, “user experience design” is just another way to say “problem solving.”

Learning how to solve UX problems is especially hard for new designers, but you can develop these thought-muscles through sketching, reading, and discussion. Surround yourself by people who put top-notch thinking as the highest priority, and avoid people who emphasize your ability to crank out wireframes over your ability to think critically about them. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to answer one simple question: why? Why did you choose to solve that problem? Why did you choose that solution? A UX designer’s ability to answer “why?” with strong, sound reasoning is their currency. It’s what separates the best designers from the rest, not their ability to crank out all sorts of deliverables.

Prioritize The Right Answer Over the First Answer

About two months into my first UX job, my boss asked me to come up with 10 entirely unique solutions for one interaction design problem. This was annoying – I thought that one good solution should be acceptable. My natural human instinct to expend as little cognitive energy as possible was kicking in, and this didn’t really sound like a way I wanted to spend my morning.

Now, with hindsight at 20/20, I know my boss was teaching me an important lesson: in design, it is far more important that you come to the right answer than any answer, and the right solution is often not born from the first idea you have. Relying on your first answer simply to get things done is the fast track to mediocre and unusable design.

As a new UX designer, avoid your natural urge to settle on your initial idea. Get comfortable thinking of multiple solutions/ways to carry out a specific solution. Set quotas of how many ideas you’d like to generate, perhaps 5, 10, or more. Think about why these solutions work. This is hard, and it takes practice, but this is what will help you to come to sound conclusions. This is what will help differentiate your work from others.

Prioritize All Parts of the UX Process Equally

When I first started out in UX, I thought the only time I was designing was when I was sketching, wireframing, or diagramming flows. It took about a year and a half (and a long talk with my boss at the time) to understand that every part of the UX process is an opportunity for design.

I cannot stress this last point enough: sketches, wireframes, and flows are not the entree in a meal where everything else is a side dish. Research needs design. Documentation needs design. Meetings need design. Every single thing that you do as a UX designer needs solution-oriented, purposeful thinking about the big picture and its related outcomes. Everything in the UX process is connected, and if the rest of the process is poorly designed, it will be clearly reflected in your wireframes and flows.

I like to think of the whole UX process like a complimentary, multi-course meal. Do yourself a favor and give attention to each course equally, and don’t focus on wireframes and flows as the entree.

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One last bit of advice – don’t be afraid of the work it’s going to take to become a strong designer. Developing your UX skills takes time, and it won’t happen overnight. Hopefully it’ll be a little bit easier now that you understand a more about how you should be approaching your new field. Good luck!

Samara is a user experience designer in Viget's Falls Church, VA, HQ, where she works with clients such as Catholic Charities and the White House Historical Association. She enjoys sketching, creating information architecture, and teaching UX to fresh industry faces.

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