Sunday, June 5, 2011

Multi-Faceted by Necessity

I have new (6 months together now) junior co-workers who ask me what they need to do in order to be considered User Interface Designers, Interaction Designers, User Experience Designers, or more likely some combination of those titles as long as they come with higher pay, prestige, and significant work. They are considered graphic designers at the moment. I have also recently had front-end engineers ask me the same question. So I am using my career as an example here since it is the one I am most familiar with.

The simplest answer is that you need to know and do more. I think of my work in terms of user experience. Every element in a company affects user experience. Technical limitations in database design affecting how relevant or useful some bit of information is for a user are things I need to understand and factor in. Reading between the lines when meeting with stakeholders is important for saving time and staying employed. Expressing your ideas in writing, info graphics, wireframes, and mockups is essential.

So how did I get there?  1) Startups  2) Reading  3)Web Design

  1. I started working in Silicon Valley in 1997 as a project manager with a Master Degree in English. Within a year and a half, I was in a 3-person startup funded by a small insurance company. I helped design the product, designed and coded the interface, ran the Russian development team, wrote the copy, and hired a bunch of people. Another year and a half and I was managing 8 people at eLance; moonlighting at another small startup of 5 people doing UI design.  Startups are good for stretching your talents into the available need.
  2. You gotta digest a few books and be learning continuously. I started with Don't Make Me Think and my brain's been plastic ever since. Loved a few editions of Principles of Interaction Design by Cooper, et al. Read Norman's Emotional Design a few years ago and was struck by how shallow most of the UI design I do is. Then I shrugged it off and went back to work... Use Jennifer Tidwell's Designing Interfaces every other day or so at work. Seen Edward Tufte's seminar twice over the years. Have 2 sets of the books.... And here I am getting a second Masters Degree. Not proud, just obsessed.
  3. I could be wrong, but back in the day, we sorta had to do it all if you wanted to make websites for people (and make $). A lot of HTML/CSS.  A little javascript (some Perl...). Gather requirements. Design. Analyze server logs. FTP to the server. QA your own work. Did I mention write all the copy 'cause the client can't seem to get the words out? 
 If you take all that experience and then decide to focus it on improving the end users' experience as well as the performance (from the company's perspective) of some digital product, you get a lot of skills you don't use directly except as checks and balances against the complex machine which will actually develop and support your products. You also retain enough skills to express your research and your original ideas in forms which allow stakeholders to understand them and evaluate their potential -- eventually coming aboard as clear supporters. And it's cool to know a lot of stuff.

NEXT POST: Re-designing the Grocery IQ iOS app for the Google/Motorola launch of their Honeycomb tablet device. With pics!


  1. Similarly, but further down on the totem pole, I took a more front-end-focused position right out of college (where I still work) and have been able to quickly move into the UX domain, where I wanted to be, because of a few factors (probably not my BA in English): my freelance experience, early indicators as to my interest in usability, user research-based initiatives, etc. (and general knowledge gathered from reading), and because of the department's combined small headcount size + lack of design-oriented producers. In light of my non-tech major, my freelance experience (when freelancing on medium sized projects, as you mention Rob, it's much like a person doing a portion of the work of an entire creative agency.. in a way) was a great asset.

    There's a lot of value to your example and, in the end, it ties in well with Mike's post about his view on 'generalists' and the benefits of such multi-channel education.

  2. Thanks for the great insights! I personally am transitioning from being a Graphic Designer to UX/UI design. Like you said through a lot freelance and reading on my own, especially HTML/CSS/Javascript and other tools has helped me getting to UX/UI. I had the visual communications skills from my B.S in Graphic Design but they don't teach you much skills/tools to go into the webdesign industry. It was only through freelancing and working in small companies where I had to be the designer and web developer that I learnt those skills. Now with my Masters, I can take it further.

  3. Thanks for your insights Rob! (I use Grocery IQ on my iPhone for just about every grocery trip!)


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