Last Updated: August 24, 2021
These days, when looking for a career change or just to learn new skills, something creative and challenging at the same time, it is not unusual to come across terms such as UI, UX or UX strategy and design. It is also entirely possible to get both amazed and overwhelmed by the amount of information you interact with while trying to learn more about the field. If you’ve come across such terms, chances are that by now you’ve asked yourself all, or most, of the following questions.
- What do UI and UX actually mean?
- How different is UI from UX?
- What do UI/UX designers really do?
- What are the skills necessary for a good UI/UX designer?
- How can I become a UI/UX designer?
This article deals with all such questions with the aim to guide you in the right direction. The interest in UI/UX design is constantly increasing. There are exceptional designers associated with the best agencies, and sometimes working on their own, adding value to the field. This is why, even if you’re not thinking to switch your career, gathering some knowledge is worth your time, to say the least.
Today, UI/UX designers are an essential part of every industry. From designing interactive mobile applications and effective websites to conducting quality user research, these creative professionals do it all. The difference made by well thought out design projects, both in making the lives of users easier and in generating more revenue for organizations, cannot be overstated.
Given the importance and the usefulness of this role, it will not be wrong to say that the market for design is going to thrive, at least for the next few years.
What is UI/UX design?
User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) are interdependent. So, in modern industries, it is normal to expect some UX skills from UI designers and vice versa. This is one reason why the job postings often ask for “UI/UX Designers” instead of separate roles for each. Strictly speaking, however, UI and UX are not exactly the same.
User Interface (UI) Design
UI deals with the visual aspects - the look and feel - of any software, website, or mobile application. The goal of a UI designer is to make the interaction with technology aesthetic, pleasurable, and useful at the same time.
From the design and color of buttons to the hover effects on various links and from the transition between webpages to the use of visual elements, all decisions fall under the purview of a UI designer.
User Experience (UX) Design
UX is much more than the appearance of a website or mobile app. UX encompasses the entire journey of users when they interact with a product or service. UX designers, therefore, have a user-centered approach to the development of a physical product, a mobile application, or a website.
It will be wrong to say that UX designers are not concerned with the look and feel of a product. They are very much interested in aesthetics but their story doesn’t end here. They conduct extensive research to understand the needs and expectations of the target audience so that when the users interact with their product or service, they leave accomplished and satisfied. The aspects a UX designer focuses on are best summarized by Peter Morville’s User Experience Honeycomb.
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There is a clear overlap between the role of UI and UX designers. Both the designers want to create a useful and pleasing experience for their users. Similarly, when it comes to the basic skills, UI and UX designers have a lot in common.
So, if you’re new to design or are in the phase of gathering maximum information, it is a good idea to take both UI and UX together - and this is what we’ll do from here on.
Essentials for a UI/UX Designer
To say that there is a standard path to follow when it comes to a career in UI/UX design will be wrong. The entire discipline, it must be noted, is open to creativity and innovation - and this applies to the path you choose to step into the field. However, there are some key elements to guide you along the way. If you keep the milestones in check, you can be as adventurous as you want.
Steps to take to become a UX designer
- Gather knowledge
- Be a part of the network
- Learn the principles and the process
- Know your tools
- Deal with the real world
- Build your portfolio
If you don’t know much about UI/UX, the first step is to start learning. This is important as it will help you understand the field, the processes, and the challenges as well as align your interests in a more specific direction. Thankfully, there are a number of remarkable books that you can read and a good amount of podcasts to listen to.
You’ll be amazed to see the number of books on UI/UX design turning up as the result of a single Google search. If you’re new to the field or are looking for not-so-technical but equally informative material, it is best to start with the following exceptional pieces.
- The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is arguably one of the simplest and the most comprehensive books ever written on UI/UX.
- Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug is another simple guide for UI/UX designers with a load of useful information.
- Intertwingled by Peter Morville deals with the complicated network of information we interact with on daily basis, focusing on the role of UI/UX designers in making this network useful and usable.
- If you’re interested in typography, colors, and the appearance of content (which is extremely important), then The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams is definitely worth a read.
Along with these books, there are a number of podcasts you can listen to and see what the designers are doing in the world. Design Matters, The Crazy One, and UI Breakfast are some big names out there.
Gathering adequate information and learning more about the discipline can help you find your specific interest as well. Throughout this phase, you’ll find out whether you’re more of a usability researcher or a front-end designer, whether you think you’ll work well with people or with the UI/UX software and tools. All this is essential for your UI/UX journey.
Be a part of the network
You will never be good at UI/UX unless you participate in the ongoing design conversations. There are tons of impressive blogs and forums where designers share their thoughts, experiences, and problems. The best thing about UI/UX designers is that they are always open to new ideas. Even if you’re not yet a professional designer, your ideas still have value. What is more, being a part of this knowledge network can keep you updated with the latest happenings in the field, thus fueling your interest.
When it comes to blogs on UI/UX, some of the best ones include Nielsen Norman Group, Semantic Studios, Pleasure and Pain by Whitney Hess, and UX Collective and UX Planet on Medium. The list doesn’t end here. There are a number of impressive blogs talking about the best design practices. Follow the pros and you won’t get disappointed.
You can also participate in various forums (r/userexperience and r/Design subreddits for example) and share your own journey or talk about your interests. The best way to learn more is to contribute to the discourse.
Learn the principles and the process
UI/UX design, like any other discipline, relies on certain key principles. True that being a designer means you’re more open to experimentation and innovation but the underlying rules must always be kept in mind. In order to be a UI/UX designer, it is not only important for you to get acquainted with the rules of the game but also to practice them, as much as you can.
The foundations of the entire design process lay on the key principles of empathy and usefulness. To understand whether a UI/UX designer has done a good job, all you have to do is find out how happy the users are with the product or service. For being a designer, therefore, you must focus on the following practices.
- User-centered approach: Your design is nothing without the users. Your design should be tailored such that it speaks to your audience. Make sure that your goals are always aligned with the needs of your end-users.
- Problem-solving attitude: If you’re a UI/UX designer, you’ll have to solve a variety of problems on a daily basis. Keep your eyes and ears open for you’ll be asked a lot of questions.
- Usefulness: Whether you’re designing a website or electronic equipment, you need to make sure that your audience can make the best use of it. Always remember that it is the people whose lives you’re trying to make easier.
- Innovation and creativity: UI/UX design is nothing without creativity. You need to develop an attitude where you’re not afraid of trying new things and experimenting with the design (colors, typography, etc.). This is how you make the process pleasurable.
- Simplicity: Creativity on your part should never complicate the tasks for your end-users. Your designs need to be intuitive and understandable.
- Accessibility: Empathy is extremely important for a UI/UX designer. Knowing that not all people can access all sorts of information, it is important to make your designs inclusive and accessible for everyone.
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Along with the basic principles, if you get acquainted with the overall process of UI/UX design, it will be a huge addition to your knowledge and skills. The best UI/UX agencies, generally, adopt the design thinking approach. The iterative process can be broadly divided into the following steps.
- Research: Finding the needs of users and to know the people you’re designing the product or service for.
- Analyze: Analyzing the data and outlining the requirements for your design.
- Ideate: Brainstorming ideas and working with drafts of the design that fit the users’ needs.
- Design: Working on the final design and layout of your product, service, website, or application.
- Test: Conducting tests to see whether your design is working as it should.
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It is worth noting that UI/UX design is a collaborative process where feedback is of great importance at all stages of the process.
Know your tools
No craftsperson can function without his/her tools. UI/UX, being a demanding art, relies on a number of such tools. Thankfully, in today’s age, the tools are so advanced and so well-developed that the entire process does not appear frustrating. If anything, the tools make it more enjoyable.
To stay updated and to really thrive as a UI/UX designer, you need to learn some of these exciting tools, experiment and play with them, and formally start creating your own designs.
- Sketch: For any UI/UX designer, Sketch is one of the most trusted friends. The software makes the process free of issues such as frequent crashes and reduces all the tedious work.
- Figma: Figma allows you to simulate real-time interactions of users with your design. It helps you look at your design from the perspective of your end-users, thus really understanding their needs.
- Adobe Design Tools: Adobe is a master when it comes to design tools. In the form of Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, and XD, you get a lot to work with. Designing with Adobe tools brings UI and UX together, filling the entire process with fun.
The list doesn’t end here but the above tools can help you get on the right track. There are dozens of other tools, such as Proto.io, Craft, Marvel, InVision, and a lot more. Mastering all the tools, however, will take time, patience, and practice. The bottom line is that you should keep your tools really close and make the most of the features they offer.
Deal with the real world
At this point, you might be getting tired of learning and knowing a lot of stuff. Worry not, for now is the time to step into the world. You’ve gathered adequate knowledge, you know how things work, and you’ve got your toolkit ready. Now, you’ll get to solve some real problems.
To be a good UI/UX designer and to advance in the field, it is essential that you get your hands dirty by taking up a few projects. It doesn’t matter if the projects are short-term, what you should be looking for is to gather valuable experience. In this phase, freelance projects, brief internships, part-time gigs, and your pet projects are all equally important. The golden rule is to not let the knowledge get wasted; you must put it to use.
The freelancing world is full of UI/UX projects with platforms such as Upwork, Freelancer, and Fiverr full of people looking for designers. Yes, you’ll have to be patient and the long droughts with no projects to work on might be frustrating but if you keep on investing your time and effort, it’ll be worth your while.
There are also some programs, such as the annual Season of Docs organized by Google, where you can find the projects that interest you, be mentored by professionals, and earn some money as well.
Throughout your journey, you should also have a small project of your own running at the side. It can be anything from creating a hypothetical mobile application to improving an existing website or, maybe, recreating a brand identity. As long as it keeps you busy and allows you to hone your skills, you can really learn and experiment this way.
Once you get a project, or you decide to work on a project of your own, be sure to make the most out of it. Remember, you will make mistakes and that is how you’ll learn and grow.
Build your portfolio
With the UI/UX design market so full of people, you need to make yourself seen and stand out. The best way to do that is to create an impressive portfolio consisting of everything that you’ve learned, all that you’ve done, and the skills you possess. Marketing yourself is an integral part of your journey as a UI/UX designer.
You should be thoughtful and creative when designing your portfolio. In fact, you can think of your portfolio as a design project of yours. Some of the things you should include in your portfolio are:
- Design projects: It is important that you don’t just state what you’ve done but go a step further by explaining the context, the tools you used, and the things you learned.
- Research: If you’ve worked on some research projects, mention those in your portfolio. This gives an impression that you’re interested in the discipline and that you stay updated with the latest happenings.
- Certifications: Learn new skills and get certified from reputed organizations around the world. The certifications serve as proof of your expertise.
- Key skills: Tell the world about the skills that you possess. This includes your expertise with the design tools and your soft skills.
- Blog: Write about your thoughts on UI/UX design and share those with everyone. Be a part of the conversation and show the world what new things you can bring to the table.
In case you don’t know where to begin, looking at a few example portfolios is always helpful. Go through the portfolios of designers such as Elizabeth Lin, Leandro Varanda, Zara Drei, and many others. You can also learn a lot from the way a UI/UX agency maintains its online presence. For instance, Ramotion’s UI/UX Design Agency displays a unique set of projects to inspire and motivate you. Pick up the best practices and create a remarkable portfolio of your own.
Being a UI/UX designer, like any other career path, demands that you adopt a serious attitude and set your eyes on bigger goals. The entire journey is full of learning experiences, mistakes, accomplishments, and failures. The key to success is that you keep an open mind and have a positive attitude toward learning new things at each stage. As you begin your career as a UI/UX designer, try to practice the following as much as possible.
- Never stop learning: Things change so frequently in the design industry that staying stagnant is the same as striking a deathblow to your career. Keep learning and practicing new things each day.
- Make mistakes: You’ll never achieve perfection in design if you do not falter. Remember, however, to learn from each mistake.
- Network with professionals: Be a part of the network and see what the big names in the industry are doing. This will not only expand your vision but also help you progress in the career.
- Mentor and get mentored: If you get a chance, learn from others through mentorship programs. Once you’ve gone a little further in the career, transfer your knowledge to others. This will help you in ways unimaginable.
- Be open to feedback: Never take professional feedback personally. Keep in mind that by critiquing your work, people are doing you a favor and giving you an opportunity to be the best.
Above all, try to enjoy the entire process. UI/UX design is fun and it will remain fun as long as you keep finding new challenges and ways to put your creative mind to work.
A Typical Day for a UI/UX Designer
A UI/UX designer does a number of things on a daily basis. These include organizing and conducting meetings, planning, user research, and the actual design work, among others. How you spend your day as a designer can vary but a typical day for you will pretty much go as follows.
The day kicks off with an early morning meeting (a scrum if you follow the agile workflow) with quick updates on the tasks, challenges, and the upcoming stuff. After that, you’ll go through some emails, grab a cup of coffee (if you want), and plan the rest of the day. Depending on the status of each task, you might get on a call (or have a meeting) with the development team to address some pressing needs and issues.
After lunch, your day will be spent on your desk with your design toolkit. You’ll get to use post-it notes, Sketch, Adobe XD, and a bunch of other tools to do some real designing. Towards the end of the day, you might have an overview of the progress made that day, get some quick feedback from the team, and wrap it all up.
Whether you’ve just started learning about UI/UX or you’ve already mastered some tools and practices, the guidelines mentioned above are bound to help you in your career as a UI/UX designer. The world of design is full of challenging situations and has massive potential for growth. From brand identity to product design, UI/UX designers are working on remarkable projects day in day out. So, put your designer’s hat on, embark on this journey, and be a part of the design world.