The Mythical User

Taking the mystery out of User-Centered Design

So, you want to be a UI Designer?

on 4 August, 2011

You’ve been thinking about changing careers? Or evolving your career? You’ve decided to join the glamorous ranks of the rich and famous, all-hallowed User Interface designers.

Oh boy buddy have I got some advice for you! Here are 13 things you’ll need to know to be successful:

  1. Be prepared: Everyone, and their cousin and their dog thinks they can do user interface design.  
    UI design looks easy.  It looks like art and common sense.  And honestly, that’s one small part of it.  However, because it looks easy, everyone you will ever work with will think they can do it better than you.  It’s ok.  Let them try, because sometimes non-designers come up with really neat ideas just because they don’t know what they’re doing.
  2. None of your perfect first-draft designs will ever go live. 
    Being a UI designer means balancing the needs of the user and the needs of the business.  If you’re lucky, you work in a company where this isn’t a big conflict.  But unless you are a one-person company, your designs will need to change to accomodate other peoples’ tastes and needs.  Don’t take this personally.
  3. Some of your designs will totally and royally fail.
    Be glad when this happens.  You aren’t a real designer until you have had a colossal failure.  Seriously.  I won’t hire someone who hasn’t failed.  The lessons it teaches you sting like hell but it makes you so much better.
  4. Pay attention to the small details.
    Every detail is important.  Every pixel counts.  Pay attention to dimensions, fonts, letter spacing, shadow directions – everything.  Look at every bit of every design with a critical eye because each iteration will be subconsciously used to measure your skill and worth to the company.
  5. Do one project, for a non-profit, for free.
    A lot of people out there will jump up and down and tear their hair out when they read this.  There’s a big stink in the creative community about “don’t work for free”.  I say that’s BS.  Pick a non-profit or charity.  Do some design work for them for free.  This gives you a chance to fill out your portfolio, lets you meet really nice people who can recommend you later (and will) and does some good for the world.  Everyone should volunteer.  Don’t listen to the grumpybutts who say you’re devaluing their work by doing yours for free.  One project won’t crash the economy.
  6. Be ready to explain every decision you make.
    You’ll be asked why you made something blue.  Why it’s on the right. Why it’s round.  Have a reason.  Don’t ever make arbitrary decisions.  It’s ok if, occasionally, you say “I can’t really explain it, but it just felt more aesthetically pleasing” – every once in a while.  But MOST of the time, you need to have a valid, logical reason.
  7. Ask yourself WHY often.
    When you finish a design, ask yourself why you made every decision you made.  Why did you make that font blue?  Why is that all caps?  Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” to yourself, but then don’t be afraid to make changes as a result.  If you can’t justify a decision to yourself, it’s not going to hold up for your stakeholders or your users.
  8. Get other opinions.
    You need to become used to being a collaborator.  You’re not a holy artist up on some mountain, working in isolation to create the golden idol of design.  You’re designing something for people to use, so you need to ask people what they think.  I’m not just talking about user testing – I mean ask people if they think that radio buttons are the best way to do that, or if they’ve seen something new and better.
  9. Get ready to lose some battles.
    Sometimes, no matter how right you are, you will get overruled.  When this happens, you have to think: how important is this?  I ask myself how many users will be affected, and how much it will affect the user’s experience.  Is it just not ideal, or is it truly bad?  Go to the mattresses to prevent something from being bad, but consider letting not-ideal go live, and then testing into the ideal design.
  10. Familiarize yourself with standards.
    Computers are confusing and complicated to a lot of people.  Make life easier for them by doing things in a standard way as often as possible.  Make life easier on yourself by using established design patterns.
  11. Make yourself some PSDs and use them.
    I have PSD libraries of widgets and elements I use often.  This is everything from a sample flash message to radio buttons to a grid template for spacing.  They save me immense amounts of time and repetition.
  12. Test like a fiend.
    If you’re ever not sure, test.  If you’re ever sure, test.  No matter how awesome you are, your users will show you that you don’t know as much as you thought you did.  Be humble and be prepared to let your users teach you.
  13.  Don’t take things personally.
    You are not a diva.  You are not special.  You are not granted some gift that others don’t have.  Also, your designs are not YOU.  If someone doesn’t like one of your designs, it’s not because they don’t like you.  Don’t take anything personally.  When you have a bad day, go home and grouse about it, and then let it go.

There are plenty of technical skills you should learn – html, css, javascript – and tons of art concepts to grasp – color theory, composition, balance – but those are all easy to learn. These 13 pieces of advice were hard won with fifteen years of greying hair. They’ll make the difference between a passable designer, and a really great one.


Today’s Glossary Term: 
The glossary term was boring me.  So, I can safely assume it was boring you too.  I’ve decided to stop doing terms, and if you miss them, I’ll be happy to start again.

Today’s Interesting Link:
hack2work.com is a great blog that has tips for the working designer.  I love them because they grok the real world, and you should too.

Today’s Usability Quote:
“If something feels inefficient, it IS inefficient” – Jensen Harris

Today’s Music To Design To:
I don’t have an Amazon Affiliate account any more, so I’ll make my recommendations without links for the time being.  Enjoy!
dubnobasswithmyheadman is a fantastic album by Underworld.  It’s energetic, it’s magical, and it sneaks up on you.  You’ll find yourself in that space where you design without any thoughts… it just flows.  And, it’s great for imagining superhero battles in abandoned warehouses.  I’m just sayin’.

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14 responses to “So, you want to be a UI Designer?

  1. Thomas James says:

    OK. I love you. Don’t even know who you are. Bookmarking you right next to my to-do list. I had a revelation this week that UI design is what I wanted to do. This post gave me even more confidence.

    -Tom

    • Krys says:

      Thanks, Thomas! Good luck with your career change – I hope you’ll let me know how it goes.

      UI design is really rewarding – I wake up every morning eager to go to work. 😀

  2. Thanks a lot Krys .. I am really thinking hard at changing my career to a step above to a UI Designer. I am a UI Developer now, and whenever my UI Designer comes up with a solution, there always will be an argument and change. After thinking hard, I thought of becoming one and maybe coupling both my developer role and designer role (suggest me please).

    I used to do lots of Photoshop works for my college which, now I think might work out here. And these 13 points really striked a chord in me.

    Thanks.

    -Satish

    • Krys says:

      Satish,

      UI Developers often make the best designers because they understand what can be done and what can’t.
      However, be careful not to fall into the trap of limiting your creativity too much – the best new tools come from someone asking for something that can’t YET be done. :>

      Good luck!

  3. jiatelin5 says:

    hi,Krys..
    I am totally a newer to be a ui designer.That means I have got almost no skills neither knowdge about UI design. I need your suggestions(like books or lesssons recommended).

    • Krys says:

      Hi there –

      I’m so glad you’re interested in being a UI Designer! it’s such a rewarding profession.

      The answer to your question is pretty hefty, so I’ll make it my very next blog post. Look for it soon!

      Best,

      -Krys

  4. […] still learning.  You need to have some soft skills, which I’ve described in a previous post.  In addition to these, you need to be very good at communicating, and you also need to have some […]

  5. brianhermelijn says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post, Krys. I have always wondered what makes someone a UI designer, but these statements is just straight the point.

  6. Kumar says:

    Hello Krys.

    I am Kumar,B.Tech IT graduate,and i chosen my career path as Creative Geek(UI/Web Designer)
    Please give me a valuable thoughts about my profession that i taken,

  7. gayeelam says:

    Thank you for a great post, Krys. I’m very interested in becoming a UI designer. Right now I’m a graphic designer and want to expand my skills. You are wonderful.

  8. Eirehs says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful post you have here Krys. It really helps me understanding about IU designer and now I feel in love of becoming a UI Designer. I am on my first semester of web development course but I find UI designing is more interesting and have decided to get in this field and be better with it but I am totally and absolutely new in UI designer and don´t posses skills and have little or no knowledge about UI designer. I need your help would please tell me where should I start what should be the first step. and also would you please recommend any good books and lessons for help. Thank you and God Bless! 😉

  9. Hi KRYS,
    I like your list, it’s right and very useful. I have liked point 6 (Be ready to explain every decision you make.) and I’m really struglling to get it over as recently I have been interviewed about my mobile app project and I failed to explain it so as result lost the job. I’m bad articulating my decision, design and thoughts about whatever I make it. Hope so soon will come over on that.

    I’m getting trouble in landing my next job becusae of lack artculation/english skils and by my interface designs I’m getting into interview phase at really nice agencies but finding it hard to get on the board.

    Thanks for sharing your valuable list about user interface design.

    • Krys says:

      I so completely empathize with your problem!

      I strongly recommend doing a couple of things: First, read some design books. When you see a great explanation of why to do certain things, highlight it and borrow it later. Second, read “Communicating Design” by Dan Brown. It’s awesome.
      And third, while you’re designing take notes about WHY you made decisions you did. Get people to challenge you on every one of them, like practicing for a test in school. You’ll find that makes your designs better, too!

      Good luck, my heart goes out to you in your quest!

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