Why User Experience Design is a Great Career for Liberal Arts Students
Want to turn your ideas into real products in the world? Improve others’ day-to-day experiences? Solve meaningful and important problems with optimism and humility? And do it with your natural strengths and skills? If so, consider a career in User Experience Design.
User Experience (UX) Design might be the coolest, best-kept secret career ever for liberal arts students. As a Hamilton College student, you’re already looking at the world from multiple dimensions, intentionally seeking diverse academic experiences, seeking deeper understanding of others who are dissimilar to you, honing your critical thinking and analytical skills, and finessing your oral and written communications skills. You chose Hamilton College because it offers the opportunity to do exactly those things. UX Design offers a compelling career path in which you can continue to pursue those ideals while making meaningful and pragmatic impact on the world.
UX Design might be for you if…
- You’re a highly analytical and critical thinker
- You relish solving complex, systemic problems under challenging constraints, especially by applying knowledge from one area to solve problems in another
- You’re an excellent listener, open-minded, and humble
- You’re an excellent communicator. As a UX designer you often serve as a bridge or even translator between other project team members such as business people and software developers.
- You have cognitive agility between the highest level and most detailed level of thought.
- You’re creative – and that doesn’t necessarily mean good at art (though that can be a help). UX designers require creativity in synthesizing seemingly-unrelated information and creating at-times-unconventional solutions to challenges
- You don’t want to pull all-nighters after college. One perk of UX design is that critical, time-sensitive UX emergencies are rare. Working conditions are often flexible, but you don’t need to work at 2am unless you want to.
What is UX Design?
User Experience Design is the practice of intentionally designing products and services with empathy and consideration for end-users. The goal is to maximize the product’s ease-of-use, minimize user mistakes, and provide users with enough pleasure or satisfaction that they want to use the product again. UX designers work on physical products such as smart watches, medical devices, car stereo systems, and postage meters, and also work on virtual products such as mobile apps, websites, and chatbots. They work alongside business people and engineers or software developers to collaboratively create a product or service. UX Designers focus on the “front end” of products – the part that human beings interact with – and not the “back end” of products that actually makes the products work. At Pitney Bowes, I design world-class user experiences for products that help small businesses send and keep track of mail, packages, and more. A UX designer might also create design for:
- a bank’s website & mobile app to ensure that bank customers can sign in, easily gather account information, and perform bank transactions without confusion while developing trust in the bank.
- a mobile app for diabetic children to help them track their insulin levels, ensuring that the process is quick and error-free while also rewarding and enjoyable and maybe even addictive.
- the process and user interface (screens & controls) for setting up a smart TV, ensuring that even consumers with minimal technical skills can quickly and confidently set up a new TV and get started using it as quickly as possible.
- a smart device for hospital emergency department nurses who need to test chest-pain patients for heart attack. The device has to offer error-free and quick operation in variable lighting conditions while persuading an impatient nurse to follow a required but tedious step-by-step process.
What do UX designers actually do?
UX designers apply their skills to projects by following a basic process: Empathize with end-users, Conceptualize user interface designs, Prototype the designs, Test the designs with end-users, Learn from the tests and iterate the design. Rinse and repeat as needed. What does this look like on a day-to-day basis? A UX designer might find herself doing some or all of the following on any given day:
- User research: To empathize with users, you’ll go out into the world and find people who use your product. This could mean you find yourself spending a lot of time hanging out in hospital Emergency Departments, pediatrician waiting rooms, public libraries, small shops in India, or wherever it makes sense to find your target users. You’ll interview them, watch what they do, observe what they don’t do, and synthesize your findings to understand their goals, motivations, challenges, attitudes, world-views, and habits.
- Personas: To document your research findings and share them with others, you’ll create research outputs that distill everything you know about your end-users into simple example user profiles. You’ll use these to help form a hypothesis about what kind of product and UI design may benefit these users.
- Scenarios & storyboards: To conceptualize how you think users will interact with your product, you’ll create made-up usage scenarios that describe how it’ll work. You may also visualize key usage episodes via storyboards (yes, the very same storyboards a filmmaker would create).
- Product concepts: You’ll use your personas, scenarios, & storyboards to create your first pass at actually designing how the product will look, feel, and behave – including drawings or even 3D models if the product is a physical device. You’ll explore many different approaches and ideas.
- Concept validation: Your users are human beings, which by definition means they’re unpredictable. And you are a human being, which means your design ideas are likely to be imperfect. Even top-notch designers (in fact, especially those) test out early design concepts with users. You’ll hear what the users say about your concept but you’ll mostly focus on what you observe them do. Can they understand how to get started without help? Do they use the thing the way you expected them to? Are they confused? Invariably you will build on your user empathy and draw learnings you’ll use to iterate your design concepts. Then you’ll test them again and repeat the process, often many times.
- Detailed design: To turn your design concepts into a real product, you’ll add details to your design. Some UX designers communicate design details through high-fidelity mockups using tools such as Photoshop; others create user interfaces directly (such as with HTML and CSS for a web-based product).
What knowledge and skills does a UX designer need?
UX designers draw knowledge and skills from such diverse fields as psychology, systems engineering, computer science, and graphic design. These days some universities offer UX and related degree programs that pull relevant content from all of these disciplines (and more). An undergraduate degree related to any of them is sufficient for entry to a graduate degree program, particularly if coursework includes a spectrum of relevant subjects. It’s also possible for those with an undergraduate degree to find UX design internships.
Hamilton has a long history of connecting students with alumni and parents whose advice, expertise, and resources help talented young people achieve success for themselves and in their communities.
Interested? Here’s some advice.
- I mentioned this already but it bears repeating: You don’t have to be artsy to be a UX designer. I’m not, but I work with people who are, and we complement each other’s skills nicely.
- It’s helpful but not necessary to have a UX degree. Most UX’ers I know took a circuitous route to the field. I majored in Math at Hamilton and later earned an M.S. in Industrial Engineering. Others have degrees in graphic design, human-computer interaction, computer science, psychology, or engineering. There’s no one way to get there.
- Be curious. Take courses in a variety of UX-related disciplines and figure out what motivates you. You don’t have to be great at all of them – few UX’ers are – but you have to be great at some of them and conversant in the rest.
- Seek opportunities to learn. Shadow UX designers to understand how they approach design challenges. This is also a good way to break into the field, such as landing an internship.
- Expect to learn a lot on the job. In school you often focus on the ideal (design the ideal car dashboard or iPhone app); in your career you’ll be bound by more (and more bizarre) constraints than you can imagine, and you’ll have to pull that creative lever to succeed.
- UX is a growing field with great opportunities. Companies are increasingly recognizing the business value of excellent UX design, including reduced user need for help and support, increased user perception of product value, increased likelihood that users will be repeat customers, and increased user and customer satisfaction. UX design as a field is on an upswing, rapidly evolving, and ready for smart Hamilton grads to jump in and help us out.