By Sindhu Giri, UX Technical Expert for Thinkful
I’m Sindhu Giri, an Intermediate Digital Designer at Transamerica and UX Technical Expert at Thinkful, Chegg. As I mentor Thinkful students, I’m reminded of my own transition into the UX Design industry in which I found gaps between what I learned in a structured Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) curriculum and how UX Design was actually practiced in industry.
After working in a range of corporate and freelance positions, I’ve developed a strong understanding of how UX Design deliverables are executed in the field and how UX designers communicate with other stakeholders. Through this article, I want to convey the necessary concepts an aspiring UX designer should know in order to successfully transition into industry.
Design Execution in Practice
There are three main aspects of design execution that you may not explore as a student, but will likely encounter when you're working in the field.
- UX design in practice is more driven by deliverables than in an academic setting
- Companies often establish their own design systems
- Agile methodologies
Let's go into more depth on both of these principles.
Compared to the thorough UX Design process taught in academia, industry tends to be production focused. Most of my day encompasses “hands-on” work—such as designing new UI components for my company’s design system or making post-release edits to a wireframe. Especially when working on established products, there is an advantage in leveraging previously conducted user research and usability testing to support design decisions. Thus, I can immediately hand-off my design work to the development team and expedite the UX Design process.
In my current role, I work on a legacy product that was originally created by previous designers. Beyond the “hands-on” designing, there is inevitably a need for version control and standardization. Similar to the software taught in my coursework, most of my wireframing and prototyping is done in Sketch and InVision.
Yet, specific to industry working practices, I utilize other tools such as Miro, Craft, and Abstract to achieve my full UX Design workflow. Even when working on coursework projects, I would encourage students to consider how a larger organization would require additional steps such as editing previous Sketch files, creating an interactive prototype from static wireframes, and receiving comments from product managers. A mindset shift will enable students to use the above-mentioned tools to create a more robust workflow for their coursework projects.
Company Design Systems
I believe every company should have or move towards building a design system for their digital product development. A design system includes the user interface (UI) components (typically in the form of a Sketch Library) that UX Designers pull from when designing wireframes and prototypes. It can also include branding guidelines, accessibility standards, and content writing principles.
A good design system should be scalable and expandable so that it can grow with the company’s use cases and products. In my current role, I’m part of Transamerica’s Cardinal Design System guild. We develop new components, standardize component documentation, and vet components designed by other UX Designers/stakeholders. Additionally, we coordinate with an external representative to store our work in a Design System Manager (DSM).
Prior to entering industry, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of a design system at all. All of the UI components I used were designed from scratch or pulled from larger libraries such as Google Material Design. Thus, it would be wise for students to expose themselves to design systems early on in their education as they will likely be contributing and/or using one in their future positions. As most companies are moving towards building their own design systems, there are company specific websites detailing the development, usage, and maintenance of their own design system.
Examples of popular design systems:
An agile framework is an iterative project management process used for software development. UX Designers sit within the software development team when working on internal product development. Thus, the UX team also functions within an agile framework when defining requirements and working towards final deliverables. Specific roles, such as the Scrum Master and Product Owner, lead the agile processes within a team. The other members in a software development team should also be aware of the agile methods to make informed decisions.
There are qualifications, such as the CSPO or CSM certifications, that allow an individual to move into the Scrum Master and Product Owner positions.
I didn’t know of the agile framework until entering industry, but learned a lot about the methods and tools by directly interacting with the other software development roles on my team. I start by working with the Product Owners and Scrum Master to determine the user stories for each sprint. Then, I coordinate with the UX Producer to delineate user stories based on priority.
Many new UX Designers are likely to have this kind of close collaboration on the job. So working closely with other students and instructors as you learn will help you develop those skills early on.
Project management is another key aspect of designing products with the agile methodology. The project management software I’ve mainly used are Wrike, Trello, and JIRA. I also attend the necessary agile ceremonies, such as standups, sprint plannings, and retrospectives, in order to monitor the team’s progress for each sprint.
Sprint cycles vary slightly by sprint, team, and company, even when following the agile methodology. So once you’re working as a UX Designer, it’s helpful to partner with the development and project management teams to get a full understanding of your product’s progress and milestones.
Tips for Succeeding On the Job
Here are a few practical tips for translating your UX Design knowledge into a successful career in the real world.
Build Domain Space Expertise
I believe UX Designers need to understand the company’s industry in order to best design for its users. When joining a new company, I parse through previous user research and meet with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to understand the product, its users, and the main functional challenges. It’s critical to gain an understanding of the domain space without becoming too immersed in the details. You don’t need to be an expert, but you do need to be informed enough to influence functional product decisions.
There is value for a UX Designer to either specialize within a domain space or work across various industries. If a UX Designer were to specialize, there is a lot of potential to transition into the SME role when making functional product decisions. To become a domain space expert, a UX designer would need to truly extend themselves beyond their current role and understand the future of that domain space.
But you can also branch out if you haven’t landed on a specialization yet. I’ve personally seen a lot of start-ups and opportunities within the finance and healthcare sectors. Consultancies and agencies are the best way to gain a broad exposure to a variety of industries and products. With a breath of experience, a UX Designer is able to identify parallels across design work and become a flexible problem solver.
Unite Cross-functional Teams
When working in internal product development, UX Designers are typically situated within cross-functional teams. I’ve directly worked with other software development roles (product managers, software engineers, Scrum Masters, and business analysts) to design and implement my prototypes. I’ve also collaborated more broadly with other departments such as Legal and Compliance, Marketing, and Sales. Consulting or freelance positions might have fewer collaboration opportunities since many processes (such as software development, project management, etc.) are not internal but outsourced.
Personally, one of the most significant transitions for me was situating myself in the cross-functional team structure. I learned that the key differences were the need to take on more ownership of my role and delineate work in a more discipline-oriented manner. When working on coursework projects, I typically only worked with other UX Designers. In industry, I am the sole UX Designer on my cross-functional team and therefore a local expert in the discipline. I am asked to provide guidance on a variety of UX topics such as design system usage, usability best practices, and design patterns.
Additionally, my scope of work in industry is much narrower than what it was in my coursework. Problem scoping and requirements gathering are now done by the Business Analysts and Product Managers. The user research and usability testing are primarily handled by the UX Researchers. As the UX Designer on my team, I have an influence in many of these processes, but the deliverables are ultimately completed by the other roles. Thus, I’ve become more invested in my specific deliverables of designing wireframes and prototypes.
Promote Remote Collaboration
Working within globally distributed teams is becoming commonplace since it allows for greater flexibility and collaboration. However, aspects of remote work can be challenging due to time differences and limited in-person communication.
Over the course of my industry experience, I’ve developed an understanding of the best ways to work remotely. Foremost, I think it's important to have a consistent meeting cadence within teams and external stakeholders. Additionally, the communication and work tools should be standardized within the company to create the most efficient working processes. As a Thinkful student, you’ll get valuable first-hand experience using remote tools to partner with students and professors.
In my previous role, I was paired with a remote UX Researcher and struggled in communicating development or product changes. In order to establish more consistent communication patterns, I set up weekly touch points between the two of us. The touch points helped mitigate communication gaps and allowed us to work at a faster pace.
Currently, I work alongside UX Designers from vendor companies to develop adjacent platforms to my product. I regularly attend meeting rhythms with the vendor company and provide personal insights to ensure that design decisions are standardized across our products.
So when you start working as a UX Designer, especially if you’re remote, I recommend looking for ways to improve and strengthen regular communication with the rest of your team.
After being formally trained in Human-Computer Interaction and design, I noticed several differences in how UX Design was practiced in industry. So when mentoring Thinkful students, I always draw from my professional experiences when providing feedback on assignments or explaining concepts in the curriculum.
I would encourage students to partner with clients, complete internships, and engage with freelance opportunities in order to expose themselves to the actual practice of their discipline. Additionally, there is immense value in conducting informational interviews with working professionals. I would advise that students ask their mentor or another UX Designer about their daily schedule, stakeholder interactions, tools, and working processes. All of these factors vary by company, and you'll begin to gain an understanding of what type of working environment suits you best.
I’m always open to discussing your transition into industry! You can connect with me on LinkedIn or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.