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The most common questions I get asked by junior UXers

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The most common questions I get asked by junior UXers

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While it’s only October, 2018 has brought me some incredible career experiences; I finished off a large-scale (2 year) digital transformation of New York’s largest utility provider, did my first technical UX writing work for the most famous fitness brand, and got more than knee-deep learning about the crazy-complex insurance vertical. Whew. Let me catch my breath.

But, it also brought me an incredible array of cold-contact-emails from junior UX designers looking to have casual coffee-date conversations about their UX career. (I applaud all of you. This is NOT an easy thing to do.) The first email made me think about how much I needed this chat 10 years ago, so I made it my goal to say yes to every single email. And, I have.

I know I won’t always have time to schedule these in-person meetings or vid-chats (time = money, yes), so I created a list of the top questions that I’ve been asked this year. Based on my past 11 years in the creative/UX industry, I hope this can act as a starting point for anyone new to UX or anyone curious about where to take their UX career.

May my experience help you navigate your careers,
Christine



1. If I’m a junior UXer, should I work at an agency or a start-up?

My short answer…

Both. Both offer extremely different, but inherently valuable, environments and experiences to help you decide where to take your future career. 

My long answer…

Start-up Life
Early in my career I spent several years at a 5 person creative shop in midtown where I worked side-by-side two developers who helped me understand the complexities of the engineering world and how it could affect the decisions that I made on the creative end of the spectrum. I learned how to work fast and learn faster, balance the trade-offs between technology and UI, and Google-search the hell out of things that I didn’t know. And, the freedom to explore and integrate the use of new tools and practices made my sweet little soul explode with joy.

Adversely, in start-up environments you’re dealing with a more restricted team. You may have less senior leadership who carry past experience to lean on, and with less experience, you’ll have less knowledge to determine the ideal process for a project execution. This can create areas of risk which may fall back on you if things don’t work out. And, done forget, there will be late nights. Yes, inevitably, many of them. But, hey, the snacks and alcohol are great perks. 

Agency Life
Post start-up life, I got a job at a global digital agency. An agency that had won some of the most prized global awards, executed large-scale projects with the world’s biggest brands, and boasted a strong company vision for the future of the local office. If you’re not glossy-eyed by that already, one of the best part of working here was the opportunity to work under some of the most talented individuals in the UX industry. I beefed up my UX best practices (and how to articulate why/when to break them), learned when and how to properly execute a wide-array of ux research methods, and found peace when I learned how to say “no.”

Yes, there will typically be more hands fulfilling more specialized roles. You’ll have lots of resources to answer whatever questions you run into (and yes, there will be lots). It’s the ideal place to meet insanely brilliant people–inspirational leaders that will get you to drink whatever kool aide they are selling, obscenely multi-talented creatives that will make you wonder if they have a life outside of the office, and the most assiduous user experience practitioners that will kill you with both their vast user data and lucid imagination.

Yes, it’s a great place to gain a whole different set of skills and knowledge, but with more people, and more processes, and more red tape, agency-life tends to run a bit slower than start-up world. New tools have to be signed off by your boss, your boss’s boss, finance, and then maybe global gets involved before you can fold a new tool into your toolbox. 

To keep the lights on and go after the more glamour projects, most agencies need to take on some less-than-glamours work. So don’t always expect to be working on the exciting Nike project. 100% of agency individuals have worked on less-than-shareworthy projects like creating mayonnaise advertising or building digestive health website templates. But, if you can get past the product, the work can be pretty interesting.


2. Where do I find jobs?

This is the million dollar question right here. Well…

If you’re like me and on LinkedIn more than you should be, I’m sure you have an inbox full of emails from recruiters trying to throw a hook out in search of their next UX designer. While working with recruiters is certainly an option, this is far from where I start my job search. 

Start with your network. Consider all the people you’ve worked with. Are they at another company that may need a UX designer? Have you gone to any networking meet-ups recently? Reach out to some of the Individuals you connected with to chat UX. Have you recently used a product and been enamored by the experience you had? Reach out to some of the Individuals (or the company) to just chat about UX. Does a friend know a UX designer? Ask them to schedule drinks for all of you to meet. Utilizing this more personal network provides a more accurate inside perspective on what the company is truly like to work for, can help you see how your work-life values will fit inside a company, or can even help you gain a stronger understanding of where your unique skillset would be beneficial to their team’s work. And the best part, these Individuals won’t sway money away from your yearly salary (yeah, I’m looking at you recruiters).

LinkedIn has also made it incredibly easy to research experience designers. Find someone who has work you admire–someone who you are incredibly afraid to talk to–and send that person an email. Email also makes it easy for us to click ignore, so, don’t feel back if everyone doesn’t respond. But, for those who do get back to you (remember patience is a virtue), take advantage of it. Ask for a 15 minute Hangout chat. If you’re close, offer to pay for a coffee for a bit of their time. It costs nothing to ask. This is your career, and nothing big comes without a bit of risk. (Trust me, this is the lowest risk task you will EVER have to take in your career, so just do it.)

Connections and networking are integral to shaping an extremely successful UX career. So, don’t be afraid to attend events. Speak up. Ask questions. Make office friends outside of your discipline. Get around, knowledge-wise. Your career will thank you later.

*Footnote here* If you don’t get feverish emails from recruiters, and you are dying to, try updating your profile, ask some colleagues to give you a recommendation, or actively engage with interesting posts. This will help boost your profile in the UX rankings and list your profile higher up to recruiters who are searching for people like you. 


3. What do UX hiring managers look for in a junior UX designer?

We know that you don’t have a plethora of experience, but we’re expecting to see some really strong qualities when we interview a junior UX designer.

  • Hunger: No, I’m not talking food-hungry. I’m talking about a hunger to explore, learn, work hard, and develop new skills without someone babysitting you. We know that you may not have everything figured out at this point in your career, but we want you to always be pushing to better yourself and skillset.

  • Hand-Raiser: We’re not looking for someone with all the right answers, we’re looking for someone who’s willing to admit when they don’t know the answer–someone who isn’t afraid to raise his/her hand in the all-staff meeting. I want someone to tell me when they find themselves lost on a task before I lose a weeks worth of time on you sitting there twiddling your thumbs.

  • Story-telling Skills: UX is a field of crafting and presenting stories. I want someone who can articulate an intriguing story. An easy start is your portfolio. It’s probably pretty light, but walk in and tell me a story about your most recent project. Show me some pictures without a million words on the slide. What excited you about it? How did you connect with it? What was unexpected about it? What did you learn along the way? What do you wish you could do differently?

  • Positivity: No Debbie-Downers allowed. It’s not always going to be rainbows, unicorns, and pots of gold. I look for positive energy. How do you deal with stressful situations?

  • Culture-fit: No (normal) manager likes laying off individuals, so I take extra care in assessing how I see a potential candidate fitting into my team. Individuals have different working-styles, exhibit unique personalities, embody different work-life balance requirements–and that’s cool. But when we have to find someone to fit into an existing team, we want to make sure the fit is mutually beneficial.


4. What about my portfolio? I don’t have much to show.

Even if you only have a single project from a past General Assembly course or a past job, this is the perfect pace to start. Your work is only as strong as the story you tell with it. Use your work and process to guide whatever you create–maybe it’s a deck of slides or maybe it’s a website. Take me on an emotional and engaging journey through your UX process, however this comes to life. Some things to think about:

  • What problem you were looking to solve (and why)?

  • How did you personally/empathetically connect to this project?

  • What type of research did you conduct (and why)? What did it tell you? What decisions did you make based on this research?

  • What types of deliverables did you create over the course of the project? What did they inform?

  • What problems did you run into and how did you solve them?

  • What would you go back and do differently if could?

  • What is the 1 thing you will take as a learning into your next project?

I’m typically not as concerned with how beautiful and shiny it looks, but I am concerned with your articulation. Don’t just show a wireframe and expect your reviewer to be engaged. This is the “YOU” show, so make sure YOU know your stuff.

Inevitably, we don’t expect to see a full-blown 60-slide pitch deck, but we want to hear your story (see how this ties back to one of the qualities I look for?). Consider starting with a story of why/how you got into the UX field. When I graduated college, there was no UX degree, so my colleagues and I all came from different backgrounds. Each of us can articulate a beautiful and engaging story about how we landed in the UX industry. I look for passion, entertainment, and your emotional connection–a story that keeps me on the edge of my chair wanting to hear more and sad when it ends.

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UX Knowledge Share: Sitemaps

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UX Knowledge Share: Sitemaps

Sitemaps–a deliverable no large-scale digital web project should ever neglect, but yet, something that clients have a difficult time understanding the need for or proper use of. 

I have been lucky enough to spend the last year working on one of my favorite projects ever–a massive digital transformation of ConEd.com–taking the tired looking site from 1999 to 2017 (and beyond). After audience research, content audits, competitive analysis, and gathering insights from web analytics, my team was able to structure an extensive 10+ page document that would become the foundation of the new website. But why did we build this ginormous sitemap?

Initially sitemaps are excellent tools to:

  1. Confirm content prioritization and content organization make sense to actual users. (Is it easy for users to find the content they need to access? Is the terminology used natural to users? Is the point from A to B cumbersome?) 
  2. Align everyone on the future state of site content–new and existing. (Are all stakeholders on-board with the proposed structure?)
  3. Mapping pages to content copy decks (there should be no missing pieces/decks at the end of this)
  4. Avoid content duplication. (Duplicating content is bad practice. Don't do it.)
  5. Establish a flexible design (Make sure the architecture is scalable to accommodate new content over time). 
Sitemap

Sitemap

So, we had a sitemap and built a website. End of story. WRONG! We couldn't just hand the clients a document and expect them to know what to do with it. In order to give the clients the confidence in applying the`same thinking to maintain a consistent website structure going forward, we needed to provide them the logic behind our work.

To transfer our knowledge, I structured a 3-step presentation (with an interactive exercise at the end). Below is my handoff approach that can help you build your customer's confidence in maintaining their new shiny sitemap.

How to structure a sitemap knowledge share presentation

  1. WHAT
    What key information did you start with? Taking into consideration that not everyone at the presentation will have been part of everything done over the course of the project, everyone should understand, on a high level, the breadth of strategic research, the customer and stakeholder interviews, the site goals and guidelines, and the analytics and user testing. 
  2. WHY
    Using the aggregated research, why was the sitemap structured in a specific way? This is where you define the insights–what did you learn from the research that played into decisions on the sitemap? For us, we learned through customer interviews that account transactions (ie. paying a bill or starting/stopping service) were some of the primary goals of users on the site, so we needed to prioritize pathways to key actions. Through customer card sorting exercises, we learned that the VOC (voice of the customer) was important in helping users understand what specific content was. Based on user testing, we found many customers searching for content as a specific type of customer (ie. business vs. residential customer) and because of this, we segmented relevant content based on user type.
  3. HOW
    With a final sitemap structure defined, how can you maintain a consistent sitemap structure going forward? To help our clients, I defined several key questions for them to ask themselves when a new piece of content shows up on their desk. The derived questions could guide them through the thought process to access a proper places that would make sense to customers and also build on the structure we had defined. Some of our questions included:
    • Is this placement in-line with our guiding site principles?
    • What is the audience for this piece of content and does this placement work for those users?
    • Is this easily find-able for the target user?
    • Is this placement consistent?
  4. GROUP EXERCISE: I DO, WE DO, YOU DO
    "I do, we do, you do" s a learning method of talking participants through a new concept, showing them how to do it, and then having them do it on their own. Research confirms this is an effective learning process. I started with a new hypothetical piece of content and talked through my reasoning of where I would put it in the sitemap and why (referencing the research and insights we surfaced). After doing another example together as a group, individual attendees took turns taking pieces of content and talking through where they would place it. Though there may be some struggles, this is a good method to allow participants to apply their learning.
I do, we do, you do: Group Exercise

I do, we do, you do: Group Exercise

In the long run, sitemaps are great tools for:

  1. Maintaining website consistency (making sure that categories/sections don't become dumping grounds for random pieces of content)
  2. Managing content ownership (for larger organizations where content is dispersed across teams, this is a place where ownership of content can be displayed)
  3. Prioritizing content (this continues to be of importance after launch as a site's content grows, items may need to be de-prioritized or re-prioritized)

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Building an Integrated Translation Experience

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Building an Integrated Translation Experience

UX Challenge: Our new website build must incorporate 2 human translated languages (English and Spanish) along with a Google translation widget to accommodate other languages from our target personas. 


Step 1: Research / Discovery

Because the client had previously been using the Google Translation widget, they wanted proceed with incorporating the same module. Our technical research on the widget was able to highlight:

Google_Translate.png

 

Negatives (*cue tiny violin*)

  1. Minimal customization of widget appearance
    • Elements you can customize: font, background, languages and dropdown icon 
  2. Language drop down is non-responsive 
    • Language options are not all viewable unless the browser width is 1050px+, causing display issues on smaller devices and screens

Positives

  1. Free Free Free!
  2. Offers a multitude of languages 
    • In the interim of having professionally translated pages of content, the module gives customers the ability to get a general understanding

 

Step 2: Build & Test

Solution 1

My first proposed solution positioned the two language tools apart from each other. We feared positioning them together would correlate them as the same thing and we didn't want the un-perfect Google translations to be confused with a professional translation of content. With a minor hack work-around, the tired looking Google Translate widget was placed behind a prettier looking "Google Translate" button click. This gave us the flexibility to tie the visual style into our new brand look and feel. [Google does not offer that feature in its stand alone widget.]

After some initial testing, most users found the translations were the same "feature" and should be combined, regardless if they were imperfect.

 

SOLUTION 2 

Refining my previous solution based on user feedback, I proposed we integrate all the languages into the utility bar. The "Google Translate" terminology was adjusted to "Other Languages" to feel more cohesive with the other options. With a more consistent and integrated approach, customers found this more intuitive and convenient.  (See screens of the revised experience below.)

Based on our research and testing, the client approved our second solution approach. (This will be pushed live with the next code update on ConEd.com)

Because of the widget's technical limitations, there are still the some draw-backs, but conducting some lo-fi prototypes and talking to customers about them, helped us build an approach that fit the expectations and needs of the customers. #win

 

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Project Management: Physical vs. Digital

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Project Management: Physical vs. Digital

I recently worked with tech company to build out a new online trading platform. The company set a tight product deadline and we were hustling to manage our personal deadlines as well as department deadlines. In my past experience experience with project managers, most default to one of a variety of online software tools to manage projects and associated tasks (think Basecamp, JIRA, Trello, etc.). But without a "project manager" here, I still wanted a transparent way to view where the UX & design team were in our project completion–what items were not yet started, in progress, or completed.

My UX team decided to adopt an empty whiteboard to post our team's tasks on–using different colored post-it notes to denote different types of tasks. All team members were responsible for managing their own tasks and moving them to the correct category when they started or completed them. It was a great visual indicator for everyone involved to see the progress we were making without having to open another tab in our browser or log it in another new software management system.

Soon after we began our task board, engineering decided to adapt the whiteboard to include their team's tasks as well. Everyone found something very satisfying about using a lo-fidelity, tactile method of writing down items and moving them across the board.

While I LOVE my digital cloud applications, collaboration doesn't always have to happen in a digital format. And, in this case, it was a refreshing experiment that took us back to an age before computer-based project management. We were constantly reminded, by this huge physical board, of our end goal. And we made it.

The progress of our task management board. We even included a "key" so non-participants had full transparency into our process and progress.

The progress of our task management board. We even included a "key" so non-participants had full transparency into our process and progress.

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Working Together, Half a World Apart

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Working Together, Half a World Apart

The past 2.5 months working out of New York City with a team based in Singapore has felt like a test for me. A test to see how early I can wake up, on a daily basis, and be coherent enough to start a scrum meeting. At this point, I'm pretty confident I'm running a passing grade on that test–but dang, 6am is legit early for this New Yorker.

But this project has also brought on challenges working with a UX team that not only resides on a different continent, many many time zones away, but working with a client that resides in a completely different location than us both.

Here are two challenges we've worked through and some of my personal takeaways:

 

UX Challenge 1:
How could our UX team best collaborate on creating a best in class product experience given our opposite time zones.

Our approach:
My UX colleague in Singapore and I started by setting up a daily schedule were we would adjusted our working hours in a way where we could overlap 2-3 hours of our day. While this obviously created working hours there were a bit uncharacteristic for our profession (me 6am-3pm, and my colleague 12pm-8pm), it was practical given our situation. Most days we spent our overlap hours on Skype calls and video sketching sessions, white boarding, and post-it-noting. We worked through complex user flows, content categorization, and user stories live on a Google-drive document. Each of us would populate our ideas while discussing our rationale, and then we'd move items around. In many ways it was almost like working together in person, at the same table, except most days I worked in my pajamas.

Down & dirty UX sketch video session

Down & dirty UX sketch video session

My Takeaways:

  1. Many hours apart, technology was the key that helped us bridge a communication gap, and aided in the facilitation of a more collaborative working environment that seemingly only 20 years ago may never have been possible (or just way to expensive to even consider). Regardless of whether we were in the same city or half a world away, real-time tools (Skype, GoogleDrive, etc.) helped us quickly convey thoughts without having to save a 25mb file and send it via email, only for it to get stuck in an outbox. GoogleDrive has since become my tool of choice for a lot of UX-related tasks–planning/estimating, aggregating research, writing findings reports, building sitemaps, and even storing folders worth of sketches–basically anything that I need to access wherever/whenever with whoever. This cloud thing is doing wonders for my ux work.
     
  2. I never considered the obscene number of distractions a regular office environment could produce–coffee breaks, meetings, puppy play time, meetings, client pop-ins, meetings, birthday events, meetings, lunch and learns, and obviously MORE MEETINGS. Having working hours where the majority of the team was sleeping made my day, for the most part, 100% uninterrupted work time. I found I could complete tasks faster and more efficiently with less interruptions. And, this also made my daily morning scrums and team calls that much more focused. Win/Win. 

 

UX Challenge 2:
How does our UX team most efficiently convey our complex design concepts to a client we would not have to opportunity to see or work with in person.

Our approach:
After working with the same client last year, we knew it would be key to sell our well-thought out experience vision to the client. With 8 sprints set up to manage the various areas of the product, we utilized each of those sprints to set up a focused presentation with the client. Much of our work had been done behind the scenes–researching, thinking, validating–and we struggled a bit to find a way to condense 3-4 weeks worth of information into a single 1 hour presentation. We decided on a hybrid presentation approach. We would first set the stage with a few slides that brought the client up speed on our progress (in the grand scheme of the project), what we were presenting in the review (to get their blessings on), and the next steps for everyone involved. Outside of that, my colleague and I utilized many of the sketches we created in our sessions and stitched them together using the prototyping software, Axure. We wanted to use this as our presentation tool, to walk the client through our visualized structure and as well as use it to key in on why we proposed specific experiences.

My home office before a client video presentation–design zen.

My home office before a client video presentation–design zen.

My Takeaways:

  1. Don't be afraid to fail or do it wrong the first time. Our first attempt at presenting our UX via interactive sketches turned out to be a bit difficult for engineers and our very technical audience to comprehend. But, that was, in theory, great. We learned something about our audience! They wanted something more tangible. They wanted to see real content they already had populated in our work. This learning would guide our next presentation. 
     
  2. Sometimes what you think may be the most efficient way of working turns out to be less efficient than imagined. Sketching is fast–down and dirty and not really super focused in on the details, but rather the core concept. That's great for communicating quickly, but having to scan sketches in, resize them, link them up in a prototype all to learn that you forgot a key item in the experience can really slow you down. We were on a limited time frame and to make small text edits and rearrange items in sketches became much more difficult than it would have been had we simply built our concepts out in Axure to begin with. 

 

And those takeaways are why I love what I do. No two projects are the same. No two clients, teams, offices, or tools are the same. It's really an act of progressive learning. We take our best stab given our past knowledge, current situation, and team structures with the understanding that we will have to be agile–always learning and adjusting appropriately. So, cheers to new experiences, whether in the same city, or half a world away.

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Doing research in a 100 square foot office

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Doing research in a 100 square foot office

When my 300 square foot New York City home is my UX office for 50% of the year, 100 square feet get dedicated to ideas, analysis, crazy drawings, and a splattering of post-it notes–right next to the bar.

The past few months I've been working with a talented team in Singapore doing extensive stakeholder and customer research, user profiles, and customer journeys for an enterprise US company. Communicating and sharing our ideas across many times zones isn't always easy when your process is very hands-on, but we've fallen into a continuous process of daily hangouts, Skype video conferences, long emails, and hand-offs. Because we are exactly 12 hours difference, someone is always touching the work. It's been a living, breathing, changing project, and I'm looking forward to spending the next month on the final vision proposal.  

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