I have seen the question on Quora. I have seen the question on LinkedIn. I have seen the question on so many different online properties that I have lost count. The summarized question is: "How do I get started in learning about UX (User Experience)?". I have yet to see an answer that makes me believe that someone could take it and really move forward into learning the field and ultimately get a job. The biggest problem is that I don't find the question to be phrased in a way that a highly experienced UX professional can meaningfully answer without completely reframing the question.
Asking "How do I get started in learning UX?" or conversely "How do I become an expert at UX?" assumes there is a simplistic answer and belies a overly simplistic view of the wide range of disciplines that make up the genre of User Experience.
UX Is Not a Role
If I were actually talking to a person, I would ask them what they were trying to accomplish with the answer (e.g. get a job, change careers, learn a new skill, design stuff for themselves, etc). Given that I don't have that luxury here, I'll assume that the majority of people asking the question want to open up a new employment opportunity and don't have the luxury of taking several years to go back to school for a degree in HCI (Human Computer Interaction).
The first thing to understand if you wanted to get into UX, is that there are multiple dimensions to the field and you need to decide which type of UX resource you want to become. There are three broad classes that the different sub-disciplines fall into: UX Specialists, UX Generalists and my personal favorite that is often the bane of the academics, the dreaded Hybrids. In this article, I'll cover the specialists and in Part 2, I'll describe both the generalists and hybrids along with a starting point from where an inexperienced person can get going in learning the ropes of UX.
There are so many different specialty roles and sub-roles, that one article is not nearly enough to truly cover them. I will try to do my best to find the balance between being comprehensive and brief.
Very often left out of many projects, User Research is somewhat of niche discipline mostly because many companies consider it a luxury rather than a necessity. User researchers help companies develop a set of questions to be answered and create a custom research plan to answer them. The plans range from common place activities like surveys, stakeholder interviews and usability tests to in-depth studies like brand-resonance tests.
User researchers execute these tests and deliver a mix of quantitative data and qualitative insights intended to give their clients specific understanding about how to meet their business goals. Ethnography is a related domain to user research and typically focuses on the more qualitative studies within user research.
UX Strategists are another niche discipline within UX that is thought of as a luxury. UX strategists very often participate in research and design projects and are most adept at taking research data and findings and synthesizing the results into concepts and high-level system designs. UX strategists very often help to create user personas (sometimes referred to as user profiles), scenarios and journeys.
The core deliverable from a UX strategy is an experience strategy. Experience strategies take many forms depending upon the practitioner, but most contain a highly abstracted design artifact referred to as a concept model from which an actual concrete and detailed design can be created.
UX Architects / Information Architects
Often referred to as IAs, information architects are the transition point between strategy and design. IAs very often play a complementary role in research and strategy so that they can have a good sense of intended users when creating a design. An IA understands how to flesh out a high level design into a complete experience whether it is a site, an application or something completely different.
An IA usually takes research and strategy artifacts in and outputs site maps and wireframes with varying levels of detailed annotations describing how user interactions should behave from a functional point of view.
Often confused with IAs, interaction designers create many of the same artifacts as IAs with the subtle difference that they are most typically not led by research and strategy. Interaction Designers ground their designs in basic heuristics, existing patterns or personal taste.
Content Strategists have several different flavors and ultimately try to deliver a detailed understanding of content structures (headlines, sub-headings, teasers, body, images, etc.), taxonomies (hierarchical structures for categorizing and relating content) and emotional storytelling that weaves data, content, imagery and features into a overarching narrative that creates a desired first and lasting impression with a user.
Many people confuse User Interface with User Experience and many articles have explained why this is inappropriate. Visual designers take a wireframe and turn it into an actual design that can be cut up into the assets needed to make an actual web page. Some visual designers have deep backgrounds in print, identity and logo design, animation (which is a whole other discipline) or typography.
In organizations lacking research and strategy capabilities, visual designers are often pushed to the front of a project to allow a project to be "creative-led" rather than "research-led". Creative-led design shops are often criticized by more academic UX practitioners.
It is highly critical to understand that good Visual Designers have a very big impact on user experience beyond the obvious aesthetic appeal. Good visual designers understand cognitive and usability aspects that can be impacted by color, typography, size (a highly overlooked aspect only now getting attention since touchpoints became commonplace on tablets) and composition amongst others.
User Interface Engineers
UIEs also come in multiple flavors and have been compared in these pages to mythical beasts like the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster. UIEs turn documents and pictures into sites. Depending upon the complexity level of projects, UIEs may need software engineers to make a site a reality, but many UIEs can be self-sufficient with low to medium complexity sites.
Some UIEs act as independent consultants for small businesses and claim to be able to perform all the tasks necessary to create a high quality online experience. A very rare subset can actually do this and I have yet to come across a single professional who can competently perform all the tasks from research through implementation.
Next Time on Getting Started in UX
In part 2 of this article, I'll explain the difference between the aforementioned specialists and UX generalists along with the reviled but necessary hybrid. I'll also cover a listing of some resources for people to get started with a good foundation of UX principals that will help a novice start their journey to acquiring the basic skills they need for employment. In the meantime, please don't hesitate to comment with questions or feedback and I'll try to incorporate the responses into the next article.
Editor's Note: While you are impatiently waiting for part 2 check out: UX is Destroying the World! Will UX Come to the Rescue? also from Stephen.