How to make a UX designer

Heather Wydeven talks about her entry into the field of UX and what helped her succeed as a new UX designer.

Where do new designers come from? In the case of Heather Wydeven, a UX designer at The Nerdery, she came to UX via theater and then graphic design. In a recent interview, Wydeven took the time to speak with me about her route to UX design, what it was like entering the UX field, what new designers should know, and how more experienced designers can help bring new designers into the fold.

After spending several years working in theater, Wydeven decided to channel her creative skills into a career in graphic design. She came to UX design without even realizing what UX was, but the root of her motivation was something that’s familiar to many UX designers: a recognition that things could be better and a desire to solve problems.

“While I was doing graphic design,” Wydeven said, “I started to become more curious about web design and UX design specifically, though at the time I didn’t know it was called ‘UX design.’ I was using websites and being frustrated about my experiences on those websites and thinking, ‘There’s got to be a way to make these better. This has got to be somebody’s job to design these websites better than they are now.’”

She was hooked, but at first, she didn’t have much luck. The positions she found required at least several years of experience. How does a new designer break in? Enter the UX internship program at The Nerdery, which is designed to give people who have no experience in the field an opportunity to get into UX. The key is identifying people with the right skill set. For Wydeven, that was her approach to a project.

“When I was interviewing for the apprenticeship,” Wydeven explained, “I brought in some print pieces and was walking through them; the way I talked about it really helped [the interviewer] identify that I had those skills they were looking for in a UX designer. Even though I was a print designer at the time, I was thinking with the mindset of a UX designer. A lot of the process that I went through, to design this particular print piece, was getting feedback from all the stakeholders and from our, in a sense, users of the piece — how was it going to be used? What size did it have to be? It doesn’t have to be UX work, you know, if you’re a young designer, but something that you can [use to] talk through your process and your thought pattern.”

“They took the time to invest in me, and they took the time to invest in my UX journey.”

Once she was in the program, she progressed from observation to hands-on design work. Based on her experience, she has some good advice for new designers — be patient, be a good listener, and be a good communicator — but what was the major key to her success? Mentors. Mentorship is something that was baked into The Nerdery program, but it’s also one of the most import pieces of advice Wydeven has for both new and aspiring designers and more experienced designers: find a mentor and be a mentor.

“I feel like mentorship is huge,” she noted. “It’s just that investment in new designers…People pick up tips and tricks along the way that they’ve shared with me that I think are hugely valuable. Just from my own experience, I’ve had a number of senior designers here at The Nerdery play this role for me. They took the time to invest in me, and they took the time to invest in my UX journey. I don’t feel like I would be where I am today without those people…What really benefited me was to try things on my own. We’re on a project together and the designers say, ‘All right, I trust you to work on this. I’m here. I’m going to give you feedback, and I’m going to check your work, and we’re going to do it together, but I trust you to run with it and to learn what you need to learn.’”

Wydeven is now a couple of years into her UX career, and she loves it. It will probably come as no surprise to other designers that some of her favorite parts of the job center around the user-centered nature of what she does, interacting with users, and designing things that help users and solve problems. At the end of the day, it’s still a business, and to Wydeven, that’s one of the best things about it: finding the sweet spot that meets both the needs of the user and the needs of the business.

“We meet with the stakeholders from the client up front,” she said. “Our goal is to understand what their business goals are — ‘What are you trying to accomplish? What is your need, and how can this project fulfill your business goals and meet the needs of your users?’”

Wydeven points out that UX is always changing; change is a constant. Given that, what’s the best way to make more UX designers?

“There’s been a lot of discussion about the best way of doing this. Is it traditional education, going through the college route? Is that the most efficient way? Because the industry is changing so quickly, four-year college degrees are sometimes not able to keep up with the programs and requirements as quickly as the industry is changing, which is where you have things like our Nerdery UX apprenticeship or Center Centre or Unicorn Institute; programs like that can create UX designers [through] hands-on experience and give students real-world experiences on real projects, solving real problems.”

You can listen to the entire interview in the player above, or through our O’Reilly SoundCloud stream.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigation into Experience Design and Business.

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