Here Are The Hard Skills You Need To Succeed As A New Designer
Many of my friends either manage or mentor teams of designers. Their main complaint about new designers?
They’re unprepared for the real world of interaction design.
There seems to be a disconnect between what they did in college versus the nuts and bolts of interaction design that need to be done in companies. They don’t have the skills for Lean UX or even for building wireframe after wireframe. So if you’re a new designer just out of college or a class like General Assembly and think you’ll be the next Steve Jobs in two years, you need a dose of reality.
- After you’re hired, your boss doesn’t care about your degree from Carnegie Mellon unless you’re building jets or tanks. For other programs, they’ll care about it even less, because the programs are misaligned with real world needs. You may dis your boss for not having the degree, but they’ll have real world experience, awards and more credibility than your college instructors. And many didn’t spend $125,000 to get where they did.
- After you’re hired, your boss doesn’t care about the exotic usability project you did about cell phone usage in Uganda during college. That project may be awesome, but it has limited application to the real world of their job. What your boss wants you to do is design a SharePoint intranet. In Seattle. For engineers.
- After you’re hired, your boss may care about the visually stunning work you uploaded to Dribble. And it’s only because they know you can resize images in Photoshop, and they have 100 of them that have to be resized because they don’t have a visual designer.
- What your boss cares about is filling a need right now. The person that gets hired is usually culture fit first, but also has the right skills (or can learn them) second. If you have fewer skills than other candidates, that makes you less valuable. When you’re a junior designer, flexibility and the ability to learn quickly is the key.
Interaction design isn’t hard, and usually doesn’t require an advanced degree. What it does require is a few skills. If you have these skills, you will always be employed.
The ability to write and tell a story
Writing is an essential part of our job. Whether it’s writing annotations, composing help text, or performing content strategy, the words we use and how we structure them affect the usability of the applications we design. Whatever the words are, they have to positively affect the user experience or adequately explain to your engineering team what you want built. Just explaining what a valid email address is, for example, can take half a page in a specification.
You may have to do anything from constructing a simple help dialog to writing 1,200 pages of documentation for an FDA approval, but the ability to write well will reward you well in your career.
Almost every designer I have hired possessed exceptional writing skills. Some were former journalists. They had written everything from help content to marketing materials. They understood writing tone, style, and audience. They understood how to tell a story within the context of their audience.
The ability to use tools like Omnigraffle, Visio or Axure
It’s great that you did a six month research project in college on different shapes of steering wheels and how they affected the driving experience, or you’re a senior designer that’s coming in as a contractor.
Your boss probably doesn’t need a lot of the fluffy stuff. They need to get stuff done. They want you to wireframe. For some crappy intranet. On legacy technology. By Tuesday.
You’re going to be following someone else’s lead by fixing someone else’s wireframes. You’ll make minor corrections, fix typos and rework wireframes because a redesign is out of scope or can’t be built because the technology is screwed up. You’re going to be using someone else’s research, or maybe the research isn’t needed because you just have to follow best practices.
Whatever you’re doing, you shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel because they’re looking for you to follow instructions more than anything else. Make yourself invaluable by learning the basics of multiple wireframing tools. Omnigraffle, Axure, Visio, and Balsamiq are some of the best tools out there — learn enough about them so you can be proficient with them on day one.
The ability to prototype
The ability to take chicken scratches from a whiteboard and turn it into a clickable prototype will make you your boss’ best friend.
Because they don’t want to do it. Remember that your job is to do the work no one else wants to do. If you complete these tasks, you’ll be rewarded in the end.
It’s been years since some managers had to build prototypes. Many may not have at all. They came up during a different time where emphasis was on research and documentation, not testing new ideas quickly. Those managers look to their new hires to do it, and with many companies going to smaller teams, this will be an important skill going forward.
Frameworks like Twitter Bootstrap and Foundation have pre-built components that make it easy to produce prototypes that are good enough to test users against. Today, I would ask for this skill before wireframing because this is not only the quickest way to get a product tested and built, but you’ll understand the technology you’re designing for.
You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to work in the design kitchen, but you do have to know how to cook. This is evident in the junior designer job descriptions.
The ability to make best guesses based on limited research
New designers think they’re going to spend months of time researching every nuance of a product or feature — a request that I actually received once from a junior designer I managed.
Early in your career, long-term research projects almost never happen. You might have to design an intranet for users you’ll never meet. Or you may have to design a public website where you have to approximate what the personas want by using Wikipedia to research local demographics.
Most of the time, you’ll make design decisions based on best practices and best guesses.
You’ll consistently ask “why” of your team members. You’ll look at competitors and figure out the design patterns they use. You might use frameworks, or determine other tools like Excel are better for performing some user interactions because your development resources are limited. Whatever it takes, you’ll learn that saying “I don’t know” will be your best friend because you’ll quickly learn how to find solutions.
No matter what you learn in college, it’s the basic skills of being an interaction designer that will take you far in your career. Interaction design isn’t just research, it’s about the ability to use your hard skills to execute on the findings you have–whatever shape they make take.
The better you understand this, the better off you will be in your career.