6 Powerful Lessons I Learned as a UX Engineer
They say that the beginning is often the hardest, and that is how I would describe my first few years as a UX Engineer. I was lucky enough to work on a customer-facing project that would be shipped to users from all over the world. It seemed like a pipe dream at first but when I was tasked to take on a designer role for Viana, it opened a whole new world of opportunities, setbacks, and lessons since day one of my journey.
Here are six practical and powerful lessons I learned as a UX Engineer:
1. Find your inspiration
Designers in UX have always posed a fascinating challenge, that is, looking for everyday inspiration. Designers can find inspiration in multiple ways, and it’s typically a personal journey unique for every designer. By taking inspiration from the real world and learning from what others have done, designers can become more impactful in their work.
Inspiration, no matter how fleeting, can be found anywhere you look. Taking inspiration from the real world means seeing the world through mindful observation and using it as inspiration in your everyday work. I am a firm believer that fostering empathy means subjecting yourself to the challenges others deal with. From there, it is a launchpad to expand and explore your train of thought on how you can make others’ lives better.
For example, when traveling, you might feel a certain sense of excitement when you first step out somewhere foreign. There’s unhinged curiosity and openness that compels you to broaden your perspective on culture, representation, and everyday lives. You discover about other cultures; you figure out what is proper and what’s not allowed - and why it is so. And so you learn and understand. What comes next is the desire to always be creating, to experiment, whether it be in your day to day work or something you just truly enjoy.
On the other hand, reading and writing has been useful too. Reading case studies about how others have solved the same problem, how they approached the problem, and the results they got out of it helps massively, especially when you feel so distant from what you’re working on. Learning from what others have done not only speeds up your design process, but also offers you unique insights to the problems you are solving.
2. Pick your battles wisely
As a UX designer working on such a large-scale project, the most challenging part was figuring out and prioritizing what highly desirable features to build while working towards our north star as a fast-growing startup.
Given our scale and scope, the biggest challenge in designing an enterprise product is looking at the big picture while working on the tiny and often unnoticeable details. Building Viana from the ground up requires intelligence and finesse, which is only achieved through collaboration and alignment. I learned that alignment is the antidote to confusion. Question things early and aim for clarity. Don’t be afraid to be the most ignorant person in the room and communicate ideas freely.
As design leaders, we must also set a direction. We can achieve this by understanding the product vision and the future we are aiming for. What is the next impactful thing you can work on as a designer? How can you help the team go from zero to hero?
I usually do this by looking at our product roadmap and categorizing features by high/low impact and high/low effort (Action Priority Matrix), and splitting these into weekly tasks. However, this changes quite often especially in an Agile development process. We have to prepare ourselves for the likely change in prioritization. You can’t help but wonder, which features do our customers need as soon as possible without sacrificing our creative process and keeping development effort in mind? This is a difficult task and one that you cannot do alone — lead through collaboration.
3. Put customers at the centre of your design philosophy
As UX designers, our job at the start would be to analyze unstructured data and ideas and funnel everything together into an intuitive piece of software. Design philosophy comes into play once you have identified the WHO. Who are you designing for? What could their day to day life be possibly like? How technically proficient are they? What problems do they face that our solution could solve?
For Viana, our customers are front and center. We want our users to trust that our product will immerse them in a delightful experience because every component is executed with purpose and them in mind. That’s why it’s essential to design with and for our users with the goal of improving their lives. It’s about being an advocate for the user, their voice of reason. Knowing what they want and how they want it, that’s the icing on the cake.
Having a design philosophy that is centered on servicing our customers is crucial in building Viana. Ultimately, trust is the foundation on which our entire product is built.
How do you know what your users want? The most practical advice I’ve been given was to get your thinking cap on and begin researching. Find out the real customer problem your team has to solve because this is where you can derive the real value of a product. Most times, it’s not about selling the design — but its business impact. As a designer, you also have to consider how design can increase business revenue, boost sales, and attract potential customers.
On the other hand, we also have to delve deeper and understand how design can expand our ability to tell our story. Design, in essence, is storytelling and we are its storytellers. Design has the power to bring people together and shape the lives of society.
4. Progress over perfection
Our mantra has always been progress over perfection, which exemplifies our dedication to growth and innovation. Every experience with Viana is a result of constant iteration and feedback. In designing every interaction, it has to be purposeful and simple.
Will you get it right the first time? It’s unlikely. Walt Disney, Nikola Tesla, Elon Musk, and Albert Einstein faced tough beginnings before their eventual breakthroughs. One of my favorite stories on failing for success would be by the Wright brothers, one of the famous names in aircraft technology who built and flew the first practical airplane. Their method of experimenting and testing prototypes, which sometimes stalled and crashed, were improved by incremental design improvements became the foundation of today’s successful airplane and rocket designs and enabled us to travel from one country (or planet) to another in the shortest time possible.
Imagine that. From a dusty ol’ blueprint came a high-powered object traversing our skies. That is the beauty of progress over perfection. Perfection is a false target. It is in knowing that there is always room for improvement that will propel us to success.
5. It’s an ongoing journey — there is no finish line
Being a designer means being responsible for the product from start to finish. Our work doesn’t end when the designs get shipped or when the sprint ends; we are responsible for the quality and the direction of the work we put out.
Design is a result of multiple trial and errors. It’s never a one-size-fits-all. You will make mistakes, but you will also learn. What’s important is how you choose to overcome such adversity and become better than who you were yesterday. As a designer, feedback, even when difficult to hear, will ultimately make us better.
We can try to accomplish this by taking it one step at a time. James Clear, in his book titled Atomic Habits, explained it perfectly:
Progress is progress, and measuring its impact is a journey in itself — what’s important is that we stay curious and steadfast in solving problems left and right.
6. Challenge yourself!
Being a UX designer requires you to challenge yourself in many different ways. In fact, one traverses the world of UX like a game of Chess governed by the Shannon number, which gives you trillions of possible outcomes for a single game. Anything could happen, so play your pieces strategically and prepare yourself for any change of direction.
Challenging yourself also means being patient with yourself. It’s simple and obvious, but oftentimes we forget. Being in an environment that allows me to make mistakes and supports my unique way of thinking (even when I say things that don’t make sense sometimes!) has eased me in collaboration and alignment.
Celebrate small victories and be vulnerably candid. It takes a great deal of vulnerability to be out of your comfort zone and to put yourself and your work in front of people. I’ve been there, we’ve all been there. Fear will weigh us down incessantly, but there is strength and courage in being vulnerable. Take space, hold space, and show up.
What seemed like a pipe dream at first became a runway towards my journey as a UX Engineer. There will be turbulent moments, but there will also be clear blue skies. So don’t forget to buckle your seatbelt and enjoy the ride.