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Insights / February 20, 2015

Getting Into UX: Expand Your Skills

By Beth McKeever

Fifth in a series. Read Beth’s other Getting Into UX posts here

There are so many different ways to have a career in UX. You essentially get to choose your own adventure by incorporating the skills and knowledge you care about. You may eventually decide that you really care about a specific area in UX, like research or interaction or IA. When I worked in a large company with over 20 UX folks, there were people dedicated to specific sections of a site on a specific platform, like mobile web. There were people who specialized in research and usability testing. There were product owners, business analysts, and more.

But everywhere you go will be set up a little differently. From small UX teams of one to large teams of 20+, from in-house to agency-side, from highly regulated industries to innovative tech startups — each environment will have wildly different needs. In many cases, you’ll find yourself wrapping a variety of distinct skills into a UX position we like to call “The Generalist.”

Being a generalist is how many get started. You pick up skills from across the spectrum, and feel a little like a kid in a candy store when it comes to trying out new tools, roles, or ways to contribute to a product. Embrace it! This graphic from Nathaniel Davis shows all of the different skills and areas of practice under the umbrella of User Experience Design.

Regardless of your specific area of interest, there are tons of ways to expand your UX skills and grow your career. Here are a few things I do to improve my practice:

Pattern cataloging. I keep track of what I find along the way: awesome things, annoying things, things I’ve never seen before. If it sticks out to me somehow, I try to catalog it. I’ve tried a number of different methods for this (Pinterest is a great option), but I always come back to taking a screenshot and saving it in a folder with a master spreadsheet including file name, website or app, and notes or tags about why it was worth saving. LICEcap is a great free tool for cataloging this stuff as gifs, so you can hang on to any animated interactions you encounter.

Writing and speaking. Despite being a bit of an introvert, writing and speaking about UX and process are things that I like to do. I’ve found that preparing a brief for a Call for Proposals is a great way to start thinking critically about what you do and why you do it. It’s a great way to practice talking about your work and your process with the added bonus of sometimes getting asked (or even paid) to speak about it. I highly recommend Russ Unger and Samantha Starmer’s webinar on conference proposals if this is something you’re interested in doing. (Looks like they have a book out now, too!)

Dabbling in HTML/CSS/JS. I don’t think UXers have to code. But knowing how websites and databases and logic work, in a general sense, is super important. Javascript and logic are still things that are a bit tougher for me, but all it takes to begin prototyping an experience are some basic HTML and CSS chops. A good way to think about HTML and CSS is as writing and defining, with some extra syntax. If you have the luxury of working directly with a front-end developer, ask them to get you set up with some basic tools for prototyping: a version control tool like Github, a framework with good documentation like Bootstrap.

Getting integrated into your company’s version control tool is the key to communicating with developers and collaborating with them on prototypes. Having a framework like Bootstrap will help you learn quickly and cobble together prototypes quickly. I’m pretty sure I have a separate blog post on this topic just waiting to be written, so for now I’ll simply leave you with some great tools to get you started:

I think the best way to conclude this series is to remind you to enjoy life while you’re becoming a UXer. Work hard AND play hard. If you don’t take time to recharge, you won’t have that “shower moment” the next time you’re wrestling with a big idea. If you take time to recharge, you’ll find the things you do outside of work start informing the things you do at work, even something as simple as the experience of going to a really great store. Our Web Application Mechanic Andy Kvamme has some great thoughts on this in the SfG blog archive. Go forth and be awesome, folks!

Experienced pros: Share your tips for expanding your skills with me on Twitter, or follow along to see RTs of the best ones!