How to get started with UX

How to get started with UX


What is UX?

How can I get into UX?

What does the day to day involve?

I get asked these questions a lot.

Many people, even designers, don’t really have a clue what UX actually means. They think it’s some kind of handy-wavy fu that consultants palm people off with. Meanwhile, real UX design is in high demand. What’s all the fuss about?

U Friggin’ X

UX is such an annoying buzzword (UX = ‘User Experience’). It’s a tiny acronym for a huge area, but many companies only use it in a very narrow way. It’s often used to mean something like an “Interaction Designer”, who works on the details of how people interact with an interface.

But this diminishes User Experience Design. UX design proper should include the bigger picture:

How does this particular app or feature fit into the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve with your project?

UX design has been around for a while now, and it has predecessors in industrial design, user centered design, and human computer interface design.

It is important to understand that UX design is not some new, ‘science fictional’ practice — people have been wrestling with these problems for a long time.

For instance: many of the lessons learnt in designing and testing a physical ticketing machine might apply well to designing a touch-screen version. Similarly, if you had previously designed layouts for a library card system, you’d have very useful insights into designing a digital equivalent.

However, though it does have precedents in a variety of disciplines, UX design is not just the ‘function’ behind the visual ‘form’. It’s thinking through the entire experience a user might have — every encounter they might have with your product or service, and finding ways to improve the entire structure. Depending on what you’re working on, it may well go beyond the screen, into physical goods, services, interactions, and products — even relationships between people.

That Sounds a Bit Like ‘Design Thinking!’

Ah, another trendy buzzword! Like ‘UX’, ‘Design Thinking’ is a reframing of design, so that folks who aren’t designers can understand that design is not just about making stuff pretty.

The only difference is — while UX tends to be centred around digital products, Design Thinking might be applied to pretty much anything — an organizational structure, a medicine distribution project in the developing world, or a drone delivery service.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s still nothing short of revolutionary for the average company. But it’s just user-centred design-done-right under another name. (Jared Spool, an expert on the subjects of usability and design, does a great job of explaining this — link in the footnotes.)

So What’s the Difference Between UI and UX Design?

User Interface (UI) design is a close cousin of graphic design — it’s the craft of laying out interactive and informative content on a screen, to make an interface with which people can interact. However, the interface is not the solution. UI is a big part of UX, but it’s not the ‘whole experience’.

“What about all those UX / UI people who say they do both?” you may be wondering. Often, they don’t. UI designers, graphic designers, visual designers are not necessarily UX designers, but they tack “UX” on their resumes and titles because it’s a popular buzzword.

“But — people experience the things UI designers create; therefore, they’re UX designers, right?”


Well — to clarify: Only in a very narrow way.

The UI designs and animations on popular site Dribbble, and the latest swipey interaction patterns are just one very small aspect of UX. The average UX/UI designer does UX in the same way a house painter does architecturenot much.


Don Norman tries to fit his brand new Macintosh in his car

We need to circle back here, and get to the root here of what UX actually means. In fact, there’s barely any reason to use the term, unless we use it at the level of design legend Don Norman, who originated the concept of ‘UX’ while working at Apple in the early 90s:

“User experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

We’re not just talking about an app here. We’re talking about the entire experience of a brand or product.

Norman was thinking about things like the size of the box that contained the original Apple Macintosh, so the poor new owner could fit the thing in his car.

It’s a design process that should include every aspect of the product; from the first hint of it in someone’s life to their eventual deep, emotional relationship with it.

Popular Slack app vs. venerable IRC

Very few companies understand this, and even fewer actually manage to execute on it.

With digital technology becoming generic and ubiquitous, the feature war is now over. Companies can only differentiate themselves on the experience they provide.

Given that most of the ‘experiences’ companies currently provide are rubbish, there’s a lot of work to be done — which might be where you come in.

10 Key UX Skills

As the field of UX is so broad, the day-to-day work of a UX Designer can be incredibly varied — but there are fundamental skills that you cannot do without. There’s a lot in this list! But don’t be put off — no-one can be an expert in all these areas. I’ve worked with brilliant UX Designers who were specialists in just one or two key things.

Realistically, if you start with just one skill and put it into practice, you will make exponential improvements in your product or service.

1. Communication

Design is easy – people are hard.

The technical side of UX design is easy. The real challenge is developing the so-called ‘soft-skills’: discussion, negotiation and collaboration — with a whole range of people including other designers, clients, coders, product managers, and executives.

Industry veteran Aza Raskin does a great job of summarising this:

Your job as a user experience person is to cultivate a culture where good design has a leading voice at the table. If you cannot communicate, you will fail. If you cannot convince, you will fail. If you cannot listen, you will fail.

As Mule Design Founder Mike Monteiro puts it in his excellent book ‘Design is a Job’- your role as a designer is to be a “Communication Professional.”

It’s not enough to do great work. You must be able to explain, persuade, and sell that work, or it will never see the light of day.

You have to get along with your colleagues, deal with tricky problems, collaborate, mediate, listen more than you speak, and be both empathetic and diplomatic.

Without these skills, it’s likely your ideas won’t even get used— even if they’re ‘technically’ superb.

  • Action: Ask yourself where your strengths and weaknesses are in communication.
  • Even better, ask friends, family or colleagues. If you want to improve your skills in this area, you need an honest assessment from those who know you best.
  • Read Design is a job by Mike Monteiro — it’s a superb book that includes lots of great advice on improving your communication. Monteiro is an absolute design legend — you should really watch all his video talks too.

2. User Research

The entire foundation of UX design is the people we are designing for.

If we don’t know our users, how can we create great products for them? Talking to users — on the phone or in person — is the most direct and powerful way to get qualitative feedback on an existing product, feature, or idea.

From this research, we can start segmenting prospective users and classifying them into different character-types (‘personas’), and by what they are trying to achieve (‘user stories’). This research process is your guiding force in UX design — without it, your only compass to follow is your assumptions — which are usually wrong!

  • Action: Before you start your next design project, ask yourself “Who is this for?” — What do they want, and how can we help them?
  • Even better — ask some potential users, and make a list of their needs and difficulties in the area you working in. Use this list to create a ‘Persona’ or two to guide your work.
  • Read Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf. Quite technical, but really “Everything you ever wanted to know about developing digital products but were too afraid to ask.” An essential primer.

3. Information Architecture

Information architecture is “making sense of mess”. Life is messy. Projects are messy. UX is messy. There can be so many moving parts to keep track of, it can be hard to make any sense of them. Information Architecture is a set of tools that WILL HELP YOU SOLVE THAT MESS. And once you have solved it, and have a basic draft of where you are, and where you want to go, everything will slot into place.

Don’t get me started on how essential this is. As a consultant, I’ve troubleshooted many ongoing projects that were big trouble because they failed to plan out a decent structure from the start.In this context, it’s your job to go back to the start and figure out “what we have”, “where we want to go”, and “how to get there”. You will need to answer questions like:

  • How do we organize the menu hierarchy?
  • Which items get priority?
  • What filters should we add to these search results?
  • What words should we use for these interface elements?

Without planning out the structure of your work, you may not even consider these questions, and will answer them poorly even if you ask them. Your users will have endless problems trying to deal with your product or service, and they will switch to your competitor without hesitation.

  • Action: Information Architecture seems like a daunting subject, but it can actually be very simple. Here’s one quick example: Ask your users what language they would use to describe the actions they want to take, then try running a card sort with them next time you are building a navigation system.
  • Build an Object Oriented UXfor your app or service. It will make your life infinitely easier as you plan, design and build features.
  • For more on this subject, read How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert. It’s a brilliant introduction to Information Architecture — and in fact, managing any kind of design project. Practical, simple and straightforward.

4. Workshops and Collaboration

Back to communication skills. This is where they really have a chance to shine.

Can you express your ideas clearly, with nothing more than a pen and paper?

Can you help people express their ideas in a way that others can understand?

The more ideas you start with, the better your range of options. If you can include technical staff, the office intern, and the CEO in your design process through fun and engaging workshops, your product is almost guaranteed to be better. And there’s an added bonus — as your team is directly involved in the design process, they will feel more invested in the product, and understand better the direction the project takes.

  • Action: Read Sprint, by Jake Knapp and pals.
  • Google Ventures use the 5-day ‘Design Sprint’ process to help startups figure out what they’re doing, and test their ideas. It’s a brilliant, straightforward summary of loads of UX techniques, and a robust structure for a week-long workshop.

5. Wireframing and User-Flows

With all those great ideas knocking around, it’s up to you to synthesize them, hone in on them, and give people what they actually need, not just what they say they want. As Ford put it:

If I’d listened to what people wanted, I would have just built a faster horse-buggy

A wireframe is a rough, skeletal model of a UI built with mostly black and white lines, boxes and shapes representing the structure of an interface. It’s a simple way to diagram your idea — while a ‘user flow’ is a sequence of wireframes, describing the sequence of interactions a user goes through to complete a task.

  • Action: Next time you’re doing any kind of design work, sketch out your ideas on paper first! It doesn’t matter how rough your drawings are — just test out some ideas.
  • Even better, try out half a dozen ideas and choose your favorite. Keep off the computer till you have something solid that you’re happy with.
  • Computers are fantastic for high-fidelity designs, but they will always slow you down and fix your ideas if you try to use them in the early stages of your work.

6. Copywriting

You won’t see copywriting listed on a lot of UX job descriptions, but really it should be. After all, the bulk of the average interface is text.

If you can write effectively, in language appropriate for the user, you’re already halfway there. Walkthroughs, tutorials, dialogs, icon labels, button labels, marketing sites — all require good writing to be effective.

  • Action: Use real copy in all your interfaces! Using ‘placeholder text’ like ‘lorem ipsum..’ is a lazy shorthand that will do you no favours. Improve your copywriting skills through practice.
  • Read John Zeratsky’s 5 Rules For Writing Great Interface Copy article, and find ways to use less words — as Torrey Podmajersky recommends.

7. Visual Design

This might seem surprising in a list of ‘UX’ skills — but without an understanding of the basics of graphic design, interface design, and color theory, your work may well suffer. Even wireframing needs visual hierarchy and good typography!

Moreover, visual branding, use of color, and typography make up a large part of a ‘user experience’ — if they’re poor in your product, that experience will suffer, and you won’t always be working with a talented user interface designer to back you up. Building skills in this area will be a massive asset to your work.

  • Action: Visual design is best learnt through direct experience, so try one of these free online courses: Alison, Udemy, Canva, or Skillshare.
  • Want to go a bit deeper? Try a mentored online course like Design Lab. (Full disclosure — I have taught here!)

8. Prototyping

Smart UX designers don’t build their product before they test their ideas. Instead, they prototype — a quick and simple way to make something that looks and feels like a real product, but actually isn’t.

Prototype, test, repeat — and you get to something awesome long before the average programmer has even set up the environment they need to start working.

  • Action: Make a free account on. Invision or Marvel and have a play! Try out the example prototypes, and experiment with making your own.
  • It’s very easy to create something using your existing digital designs, or even by taking photos of your sketches on paper using the mobile app.

9. Product Testing

Once you have developed your prototype, it’s time to test your ideas.

Product testing is an art in itself. Do it wrong and you learn nothing, or hear only what you’re looking for. Do it right, and you may get incredible, unexpected insights that change the whole direction of a product.

The key thing here is to avoid asking ‘leading’ questions — like “Do you think the social media icons are easy enough to find here?” or “Is this new design clearer?”

Leading questions deny the opportunity to hear an open answer.

Done right, product testing is a careful process of showing (not telling!) users the product, setting tasks (ideally tasks the users care about), listening, observing, and asking why they are doing what they are doing as they go through the process, and what they are thinking.

  • Action: Test your work! Whatever kind of design you’re working on, try it out with friends or colleagues. Set them a task, don’t lead them on, observe, and ask them to ‘think out loud’.
  • Read Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug . This is probably my favorite book ever written on UX — and he doesn’t even mention the ‘buzzword’. Awesome writing on usability testing, and improving digital products, delivered with humour and charm.

10. Analytics

You need to know how users are using your product out in the wild — that’s where analytics come in. Be it a web app or a mobile app, you can learn a lot from all the data pouring in about how people are actually using your product.

Does anyone ever actually click on that button? No? Well, maybe you should get rid of it.

Good design has to be informed by the data, and if you learn to use it right you will get enormous improvements in your work.

  • Action: Add Hotjar, Mixpanel, (web) UXcam, or Appsee (mobile apps) to your personal site, company site, or mobile app. It’s free to get started, and you’ll quickly get useful insights into how people interact with your product. It’s fun too, to see where people are tapping around on your product! You can learn a lot, very quickly.

A Final Note

This list is by no means comprehensive! To keep things short and simple, I have for example left out Coding — which is an enormously useful skill for a UX designer to acquire, but not one that I see as central as say, Information Architecture. I’m sure there may be others — please let me know if you think I’ve left out something essential.

Getting Started with UX

Now you have a rough idea of the skills, it’s time to get involved. Not a designer? Don’t worry — UX is not just for designers! Anyone wanting to build a better digital product can and should learn more about UX design.

Yes — even without formal training. Many phenomenal UX designers don’t have any formal training either. They learned on-the-job, through years of trial and error.

Moreover, UX designers come from a wide array of backgrounds – I’ve worked with brilliant designers who stated in areas as diverse as psychology, industrial design, engineering, law, finance, and education.

The key attribute they all share is a fascination with UX, and an enthusiasm for learning.

For those of you looking for a place to start, here are some ideas:

Talk to teammates

If you’re lucky enough to work with UX designers — hang out with them. Ask them what they do. Try to get involved as much as possible with workshops and other activities. Ask them how they learned.

Reach out to friends

Know a UX Designer? Visit their office. Take a tour. Get a feel for what they’re doing. They may not be able to show you all their work due to NDAs, but at least, you can ask them questions about their process. Maybe you even could intern for them.

Attend Meetups

Meetups are so essential. The design community is broad and welcoming, and I’ve learnt so much of what I know from talks and conversations at events. It’s very likely that there are great (and often free) local events near you, where you can listen to talks about design, meet the speakers and really get acquainted with the scene.

I highly recommend Interaction Design Association’s events (IxDA). The User Experience Association (UXPA) is also worth checking out. I’ve also heard great things about UXCrunch in London.

Enroll in a course

If you live in, or near, a big city, there are many part-time and intensive courses for you to choose from.

Companies like General Assembly, School of UX, and Webcredible offer really strong courses that will help you learn the ropes, network; and for the intensive courses — switch careers and find a job. [Full disclosure — I’ve both taught and studied at General Assembly].

These courses are no ‘magic bullet,’ but they can be a really strong foundation from which dedicated students can launch themselves into a career in UX.

Learn Online

For most people, I think this method is going to take longer — as so many of the skills UX designers need to master are people-related, it makes sense to take an in-person course.

That said, if you’re a long way from a big city, or just want to learn on your own time, online courses can be a good way to get involved.

Search for courses with hands-on mentors, who chat with you weekly. DesignLab, Interaction Design Foundation, General Assembly, Springboard, and Udemy are worth checking out.

See Diego Mendes for more thoughts on getting into UX — link in the footnotes.


UX is a broad field — and really those cute little swipe animations are just a tiny part of it. UX is still learning how to define itself, and new job descriptions and titles are emerging all the time.

It’s an exciting industry with plenty of room for you to get involved and help shape it. Moreover, there are tremendous opportunities all around the world, as the ‘Digital’ becomes ever more central in our lives. The technology is changing at an incredible rate, and human psychology and experience are endlessly fascinating. While the work can be challenging at times, it remains fun and engaging, because there’s always more to learn.

Final note: I’m easy to reach via my Twitter, or the form on my site. Please feel free to ask me anything about design, UX, remote work, or Toptal (where I work remote).

UX Design Resources


  • It’s a great time to be a UX Designer — Part stand-up comic, all awesome designer. A fantastic talk by industry veteran Jared Spool, that really takes in the breadth of UX.
  • Mike Monteiro — 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations. You see, I like funny speakers. Mike tells it like it is. This talk is not very ‘UX’ focused, but great on the life of a designer and communicating with people (clients or otherwise).

Short Articles

Books You Really Ought to Read

A quick summary of the books mentioned above, in recommended order:

  • Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. Funny, short and on point. Everything you need to start thinking about the people who might use your product.
  • How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert. Such a great outline of the principles of Information Architecture, along with the essential politics of any design job. All laid out in plain language by an expert in the field.
  • Sprint, by Jake Knapp and pals. Tons of useful UX workshop techniques, laid out in a simple, structured way.
  • Design is a job by Mike Monteiro. Hilarious and concise — everything you might want to know about freelancing, clients, and keeping your shit together.
  • Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf. A little more technical, but a deep instructive read on the Product Strategy and Business Analysis side of UX, with a particular focus on startups.

Finally, a couple of real classics by Don Norman