Advice for Getting Into UX

Jeff Sauro, PhD

User Experience is a fast growing and popular field. It’s been listed as one of the best professions offering some of the best jobs.

It’s not surprising then that people are interested in learning how to both get into the field and advance their career within it. I spoke with a few attendees at the UXPA annual conference in Toronto who were new to the field. They wanted to know what they needed to do to get into and succeed in the field of User Experience. Here’s my advice.

1. Know the history.

UX derives its roots from different disciplines, from computer science, usability, psychology, engineering, design, human factors, and library science to name a few. As such, there are practitioners with different specializations and influences. From a usability influence (and its roots), see the timeline for some historical events.

Read Jim Lewis’s chapter on Usability Testing. While you might not be on the usability or evaluation side like me, it’s important to understand its influence and this is one of the best sources.

2. Learn the lingo.

Like any field, UX has its jargon. While new terms are introduced all the time, it’s good to know the essentials. Here are some common ones to be familiar with:

Knowing the jargon is important, but don’t overuse it and watch out for BS.

3. Understand the fundamental concepts.

Understand these three key principles:

  1. An early focus on users and tasks
  2. Iterative design
  3. Empirical measurement

Get to know the science behind the principles too, along with what I think is the most fundamental concept: the developer is not the user. Keep in mind that often opposing concepts and methods you’re introduced to are not contradictory, but are actually complementary.

4. Master the methods.

The range of methods is one of the things that makes UX research such an interesting and effective field. Some of the more common evaluative and generative methods you should know and use include:

5. Learn the roles.

As the field matures, so do the roles. The major division is between design and research. In small organizations (or within departments of a large org) there’s less specialization; practitioners perform both roles (you should plan on that too). In fact, almost half of practitioners do both design and research as part of their jobs.

Small organizations tend to have designers learn to research and evaluate their designs. This is what I did at startups during the .com boom and at a smaller division of Intuit. I worked with wireframes and prototypes, ran usability tests, then iterated and improved. While you want to have a broad set of skills, don’t think you need to be the best at everything. UXers who can code, design, evaluate, and manage a product’s direction are called unicorns for a reason—it’s nearly impossible to be the jack of UX trades. Success in UX eventually means specializing while still knowing essential theory and skills.

6. Get to know some pivotal people.

Every discipline has its stars and influencers. Know their works and personalities, including Nielsen, Spool, Holtzblatt, Rosenfeld, Norman, Dumas, and Cooper to name a few. You might run into some of these influential people at an industry conference; a few are UXPA, CHI, IXDA, or UX Strat. In my experience, they are all happy to share their wisdom and advice on getting into the field and will have a lot to add to my perspective.

7. Read the papers and journals.

I’d start with the Journal of Usability Studies and CHI proceedings; here are 15 additional publications to try, each with a different focus. Read some of the influential papers; then start submitting your own! Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get accepted. The recommendations from the reviewers will allow you to make your paper stronger and resubmit it.

8. Read the books.

For a couple hundred dollars you can familiarize yourself with the classic cannon of user experience (again influenced by its antecedent disciplines). Even some old school books that were revolutionary for their times are still worth reading today.

9. You don’t need an advanced degree.

While having a formal degree is helpful to provide a foundation in research, design, or computer science, don’t think you need one to succeed or even get in the field. While 10% of practitioners have a PhD, its payoff is unclear given the years of lost income. If you have one, great; if you don’t, your time is probably better spent gaining experience rather than pursuing another credential. Some boot camps also provide the essentials in research and design.

10. Practice!

Nothing’s stopping you from designing and evaluating your designs now. Get an internship, do projects on the side, or seek out work that allows you to learn and explore a broad set of projects. Work with multiple platforms, including websites, desktops, mobile devices, hardware, and IVR. Watch users attempt to use your interface. Despite your best intentions you’ll likely see people use interfaces in ways you didn’t anticipate. When you see this, you’ll get UX and soon you’ll be giving your own advice!

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