So you’ve finally beaten the odds and landed a junior UX role. Now how do you make sure that you’re getting the most out of the time you’re putting in — and impress the hell out of your manager in the process?
By doing these five things, that’s how.
N.B. — While I draw on examples from UX, this advice is also entirely relevant to newer product managers or developers — in fact, to anyone new to any field.
1. Learn to take criticism from others, and to effectively criticise yourself.
As a UX designer you’ll soon realise that everyone has an opinion on your craft, whether well-informed or not. Don’t mistake random opinions (which can often be dismissed) for constructive feedback from people who know what they’re talking about (which can’t).
The people around you want you to get better at your job. They do not have a personal vendetta against you, and they’re not giving you feedback or criticism to hurt your feelings. When you take feedback as a personal affront, however, you make it extremely difficult for 1. you to progress in the field and 2. people to want to put any time or effort into mentoring you or helping you improve.
Don’t argue. Don’t cry. Don’t whinge. Don’t go all oppositional defiant disorder on them and continue doing the same crap just because you happen to enjoy it.
Instead, probe into the thinking behind the feedback. Understanding the process of logic and thinking behind feedback will allow you to replicate those thought patterns in your head, which in turn will allow you to catch your own weaknesses and mistakes before you show them to others.
The true usefulness of a mentor is in modelling how you might approach problems, helping you refine your own thinking so that it becomes as rigorous and robust as possible. That means asking and answering a lot of uncomfortable questions.
That’s how you grow and move up as a designer.
2. Take responsibility for your learning.
Do not wait for your manager or mentor to shovel learning opportunities at you. Sign yourself up for meetups and industry events. Read blogs. Join industry groups. Find an interesting conference and propose to your manager that they send you, and share a summary of what you learned there with your team.
Yes, your mentor or manager should help you with prioritising your learning and setting out a roadmap that will compensate for the fact that — as a newer designer — you don’t yet know what you don’t know. But that doesn’t mean that they can or will do the learning for you, or dictate every step you need to take to meet your goals.
UX is an ever-changing discipline, and you need to get used to constantly learning on your own and seeking out new knowledge to keep your skills relevant. You might not be able to immediately bring every new skill to bear in your day job, but that’s no excuse for not keeping abreast of developments in the industry.
3. Be willing to do the boring stuff.
There are countless articles on how “entitled”, and “selfish” millennials refuse to start at the bottom of a field and work their way up or do the sometimes thankless tasks required to get a project out the door.
I don’t think it’s a millennial problem. I think it’s a “doesn’t understand the realities of working with others in an office” problem, which can affect any age group.
Here’s the truth: There will be parts of every job that you don’t particularly enjoy or want to do. Your work may not always be exciting. You may not always be up at the front of the room facilitating, or doing the high-profile work you crave. You may have to tweak the same thing countless times to get it right, or spend hours sitting down reading through and summarising user interview notes when you’d rather be doing something more creative. You have to learn to be ok with that. You just have to.
Liz Ryan talks about two concepts called “crank” and “flame”. “Crank” is the boring, repetitive stuff you have to do in order to keep the lights on. “Flame” is the exciting stuff that you love to do and makes the “crank” stuff worth it.
Your work, no matter your level of seniority, will always be a mixture of crank and flame. Averaged over time, there should be more flame than crank. If the load gets imbalanced, then talk to your manager about it. But know that you will always have to turn the crank — even if you begin freelancing tomorrow. (Or, let’s face it, especially if you begin freelancing.)
Find your own way to get through the stuff you don’t like doing, and on to the stuff you do.
4. Prioritise improving the quality of your thinking over improving your speed with tools.
There are a ton of tips and tricks on the internet to help you get faster using Sketch or your other design tool of choice — so much so that you could spend your time learning nothing else.
It’s great to learn that stuff, but knowing how to use design tools is just a tiny part of your worth as a designer. You’re much more effective when you wield the tools with knowledge and conscious intent.
So focus on improving the quality of your thinking. The point of hiring specialists in UX design is that they’ve learned the craft of thinking seriously about user needs and how to identify and meet those needs through the medium of UX.
Anyone can go on Upwork and get useless, crappy wireframes done for 10 bucks by some outsourcing firm with an 8-hour turnaround. That’s about all that your skill with the tool itself is worth.
It’s impossible to buy understanding, craft, intent, and knowledge cheaply — so focus on that end of the market and you’ll be happier (and richer).
The real storehouse of your value as a UX designer is in your experience and your thought process. Never forget it.
5. Differentiate yourself.
Some random examples here from my own team: design sprints, content monetisation, voice interfaces, bots, VR, service design, and getting the sound in the damned UX lab to work right.
Figuring out your “thing” will take some time and effort. Look for it at the intersection of:
- What the company needs to get done.
- What you’re personally interested in becoming expert at.
- Wider industry trends/emerging technologies or techniques that will soon be in high demand.
There’s a bit of a mercenary element in #3, but no job lasts forever. Your prime directive as a junior/newer UX designer is to become so valuable and knowledgable that no one thinks of you as a junior or a n00b anymore.
You become the go-to person by showing results. If you’re really interested in design sprints, and the company is working on a new discovery project that you know would benefit from the design sprint methodology, volunteer to lead one. Trick the team into attending if you have t0 (but only with the product manager’s permission, please).
If the results are good, the positive message will get out, and other teams will soon be asking for your expertise. That’s how you build a reputation.
Tl;dr — Be excellent (to each other)
All of the advice above is meant to illustrate the value of setting reasonable expectations, achieving a mutually respectful relationship with your colleagues and manager, and focusing on delivering value to the business (and to your future self, who will benefit from all the skills you’re learning).
If you get all of that out of your first UX role, you’re golden.