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Like many print designers over the last ten years, graphic designer Tish Gance found herself needing to transition from the world of print to digital design—a career change she made three years ago by entering the field of user experience (UX) design. In order to give you a better idea of what a UX designer actually does, she told her story to Scott Morris.
I’ve been a user experience designer for about three years, and before that I spent 22 years doing print graphic design. Like a lot of graphic designers, I saw the print industry changing dramatically and rapidly, and I knew it was only a matter of time before my shop was going to have to lay me off. I needed to find a new career, and I was fortunate enough to have a software developer friend suggest I look into a career in UX design.
Honestly, it was love at first sight—after spending so many years working in graphic design, I found I’d already been applying a lot of the core UX design methodologies in the design process without even knowing what they were, so for me the switch was pretty seamless.
UX Designers Fix Things That Suck
When someone asks me what UX professionals do, I start off by giving my short answer: “I fix things that suck.” Of course, this always gets a laugh, but it also opens the door for a deeper conversation about what it is to work in user experience design and what my role is.
The way I frame the UX process is like this—nearly everyone has a smartphone or some similar tech product these days, so I ask them about the last awful app, program, or online experience they had. Most people have no problem thinking of a bad interaction, and they enjoy venting their frustration at “stupid” tech problems. I then ask, “So, would you want your own customer to experience that kind of problem or frustration with your website or app?”
Not surprisingly, the answer is always, “No! Of course not!” So then I ask them, “But if you were somehow creating that kind of frustration, wouldn’t you want to know about it and be able to fix it?” And that’s always when it starts to click for them—identifying and fixing design problems that negatively affect a user’s experience is exactly what UX designers do.
UX Designers Can Work For Companies, or Freelance on Their Own
As far as where UX designers do what they do, that can go a few different ways. User experience design jobs range from working full time for a company to freelancing as a UX army of one. In my case, I’m on the latter end of the spectrum—I come from a long line of entrepreneurs, so it felt natural for me to work independently with small businesses rather than work for a big (or even mid-size) company.
Most of my clients come to me because they know their website isn’t performing but they don’t know why. Either that, or they want an objective overview of their online experience so they can make decisions about their marketing strategies, their SEO (search engine optimization) approach, and their social media campaigns.
So we start by creating a journeymap (a visual representation of a customer’s journey with the client’s product based on user research), performing some ethnographic studies (research into social behaviors and perceptions in groups, organizations, and communities in relation to the client’s product), and really digging deep into how the client or business interacts with their customers.
As you explain these concepts to clients they start to shift their mindset from business-centric to customer-centric, and you can literally see them having this “a-ha!” moment. It’s awesome! I love that, and I also love the fact that no two days at my job and no two clients are ever the same. There’s always something new to learn and new problems to solve, which leads to new ways of looking at and understanding the world—not just business or design. It’s definitely never boring.
A Day in the Life of a UX Designer
Being a user experience designer is a dynamic job (particularly if you work for yourself, like I do) so work day routines can really vary, but my days when I schedule client meetings are the most predictable.
I get up when it makes sense (based on what I have planned for the day), spend some time feeding and playing with our cats, get some exercise for myself, and then I start transitioning into work mode.
I’ll begin by answering emails or writing posts on LinkedIn and checking the day’s calendar. After that, I’ll usually meet with a client at a local coffee house for an hour to review progress on their journeymap.
This is followed by visiting business owners or other potential clients for any networking meetings I’ve set up, and then it’s back to the coffee house to meet with two or three more clients to review and collaborate on their UX process.
I then head home to finish up any client work and have dinner, after which I end my day by doing my user experience design “homework”—reading UX design-related books and articles.
Of course there are alway variations to this schedule, and there are days where I spend more time doing UX-related office work—things like running website or app overviews (going through a site or app at a high level and looking for usability and experience problems), conducting heuristic evaluations (getting hands on with a product’s user interface and evaluating it against a set of UX criteria), or looking at heat maps (tracking where users’ mouse pointers spend most of their time on a site or app) to see if my clients’ goals are being met.
And that—in a nutshell—is what UX professionals do. We help businesses make sure that their products are designed with their customer’s experience in mind, and we get there through a combination of design work, problem solving skills, and interacting with our clients to understand exactly what their customers need.
If user experience design is a field that interests you, the best advice I can offer is to just get started and go for it! It’s an industry that has so much to offer professionally, and there’s no shortage of work (at the time of this writing, Indeed.com has over 16,000 UX positions listed).
As a society we seem to be focused on building crappy things really fast, instead of slowing down and knowing why we’re doing what we’re doing. The challenge of the UX designer is to know your why, and to help your clients see how beneficial this is to their product in the long run. Once you get the hang of that, everything else will fall into place, and you’ll be ready to start fixing all those things that suck.
If hearing more about UX design resonated with you, be sure to check out our Skillcrush UX Designer Blueprint. This 0nline course is designed to be completed in 3 months by spending only an hour a day on the materials.
Scott Morris is Skillcrush's staff writer and content producer. Like all the members of Skillcrush's team, he works remotely (in his case from Napa, CA). He believes that content that's worth reading (and that your audience can find!) creates brands that people follow. He's experienced writing on topics including jobs and technology, digital marketing, career pivots, gender equity, parenting, and popular culture. Before starting his career as a writer and content marketer, he spent 10 years as a full-time parent to his daughters Veronica and Athena.