It's a Great Time To Be A UX Designer - Algonquin HCD Program 2020 Keynote

Crowd wearing graduation caps and gowns, viewed from behind
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My friend, Sage, and I were invited to give a keynote address at Algonquin College's Human-Centred Design post-grad certificate program for graduation yesterday. We were asked to speak about the importance of the UX community and any other topics that would be helpful for these newly minted UXers launching off into their careers. Below is our speech which I am sharing in case you are or know a recent design/UX grad who might be starting out and could use a little encouragement. :)

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It’s a great time to be a user experience designer. Designers are this wonderful hybrid of artists and technicians, bringing together the study of people, experiences, and everything in between. 
What it means to be a UX designer now

UX is so vast that it is hard to conceptualize for people who aren’t UXers. To create the outcome of user experience, we use a wide range of activities from process mapping to benchmarking to job shadowing to user research to product reviews to journey mapping to service blueprinting to visual design to prototyping to coding and on and on. It can be hard to explain to non-designers why there are so many steps in user experience design.

And because our practice isn’t as well defined as accounting or law, design is often treated less like a practice, and more like a finishing touch. Even among designers, we’re constantly debating what we do and how we do it. (And if you don’t believe me, just see the never-ending “should designers code” debate on Twitter). This struggle to define our practice clearly among ourselves, let alone explain it to non-practitioners, can actually hinder our ability to integrate UX deeply into the workings of our organizations.

Never underestimate the power of a good artifact. They aren’t the means to the end, but a way to help you get there. For many of your projects this will be the first time the people you are working with will have ever seen their work from the point of view of a user or in some cases, as an end to end service.

While working on a web content redesign for a government program, I will never forget the day I put the user’s journey through the program up on a wall. The policy people stopped dead. They told me they had never seen how their work translated into a service. It allowed them to see how the website can be used to help achieve their programs objectives. It was a powerful moment. They immediately became supporters of the project because they now understood how their work impacted the experience.

One benefit of design is that it can be used to document and present how things work, and what the world looks like to the people within it. Journey maps, and other artefacts act like a mirror that reflects others' work back to themselves, in ways they haven't been able to see before.

When we have the chance to help people see their work laid out before them, understand just how much they do, and how it all comes together, it gives them the power, to make informed decisions, to optimize and improve. That can be one of the most exciting, and satisfying parts of the job.
How the community provides support

That said, the UX industry can be an intimidating space. The key to navigating it is to find your UX family and lean on it for support.

I felt like an imposter in this space even after co-chairing CanUX for several years, because I never had a title that acknowledged that I did user experience design. When anyone asked what I did, I referred to myself as a “UX fangirl”. It was my peers and my colleagues who encouraged me to embrace my experience and recognize the skills that I had accumulated over the years, even if I never had “UX” in my title. Now, if you’re a unicorn working alone, or a UXer with a title that doesn’t scream UX, it can be a lonely place without the support of your peers. When we started UXCamp Ottawa (which eventually became CanUX), we were just a group of people who wanted to find the rest of the community and see how many of us were out there. Turns out, there were a lot of us looking to find each other.

What we found was that being part of the community, and sharing our experiences with one another, makes it easier to do the work. Hearing, and learning from others, is important in an industry as nascent as UX. It can make that unicorn job less lonely. It’s a great place to learn, and it can provide reassurance that you’re on the right track, even if no one in your organization seems to see what you see.

Community is a huge part of how I get my work done. For many years I didn’t have others in my organization that could critique my approach or designs so I would reach out to my colleagues for their help. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to Tanya (and probably a few others in the room) to talk through an approach or bounce ideas on how a workshop should run, and if it would meet the objectives.

Your fellow UXers are your allies. They can support you and you can support them. Refer them, spread your connections wide. There is more than enough work to go round. Tanya and I constantly have people reaching out for our advice, and more often than you’d expect, looking to hire us. Having a network means you can refer others, because as much as we want to help everyone, it makes sense to show them that there’s a wider group of people they can reach out to and learn from.

Sharing your research and designs with your colleagues gets you the habit of putting your work out there. It legitimizes your work, and it creates a shared understanding. In the project I’m working on right now we made sure to share everything and when we came up to the usual blockers, out of the woodwork came support from those we shared with. They saw the value of our work, and joined forces to propel the project forward, and most importantly help to get it launched.

What people also discover within the community is that it’s really hard to find -- or be -- a “User experience designer”. Chances are, you’re more likely to find UXers as product owners, business analysts, program managers or partnership leads before you find anyone sporting any kind of UX-related title. And that’s partly why it can feel so lonely at times - you can’t necessarily identify UXers by their roles or titles.
Accepting that designers don’t just design

The reason why any good UXer gets up in the morning is the drive to apply user-centered design to the creation of an experience that is beneficial to users and meets their needs. But before we can research, design, develop, test and iterate, we often need to advocate. In many cases, the role of UXer seems to be evolving into a hybrid of design delivery and change management. If you think you can walk into your next job and just get to designing, well, sorry. 

Designers are finding ourselves promoting user experience design in organizations where UX is immature, advocating for the use of proper design methods, for including users, for permission to do design instead of design theatre.

It’s the part of the job that no one really talks about and it can be exhausting, but if you’re as much of a UX nerd as we think you might be if you’re here today, it can be really exciting. Think of all the opportunities to talk about design, users and everything that goes along with it!

Now let’s be honest, designers don’t always succeed in advocating for users. We don’t always see our research used or our designs launch. We don’t always have a say in how projects are structured or run, but by speaking up we can influence the culture over time.

And sometimes you don’t see your success till much later. There are times I really struggle, especially in one project. I second guessed my approach. I couldn’t find the value of what I was doing because I was so deep into the details. It wasn’t till I stepped away from it that I was able to look back and see everything I had learned and achieved. And now, years later I am proud of that work, I’ve been able to use the approach in other projects and to top it all off I’ve learned that others have taken the research and used it to fuel new projects.

By advocating for users and proper user centered design, by finding our peers and being part of a community, we can lift each other and help user experience to become a more ingrained part of organizational culture, no matter what our titles are or where we sit in the hierarchy. We can move design forward. We can help our industry evolve. We can measure our impact in small wins, not transformations. And that’s progress. Small wins are still wins.

It really is a great time to be a user experience designer. We’re glad to have you.

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