Learn UX for free! 4 complex steps towards interaction design

Ok. I’ll admit it. That is a pretty clickbaity title. I kinda wanted to lower your expectations in advance. Curb your enthusiasm if you will. I promise that I will not tell you how to apply design thinking, or UX to your life. My hope is that this will serve as a decent starting point for you to learn UX.

Why should you care?

Well. For one, there has been a UX boom in recent years, with organisations investing heavily in design. Currently there are not enough people to fill the roles that exist. Supply is not meeting demand, so more people need to get trained.

For another, better reason, it is an incredibly interesting job to have, and you never stop learning how to do it.

Short term solutions

Many organisations and companies offer short term UX courses. A friend of mine, who wants to learn UX, asked me recently if these courses were worth paying for. Personally, I think that they are, but full disclosure; I’ve previously taught one of these evening courses, so your BIAS alarm should be sounding.

Two days isn’t enough time to learn UX. These courses can set you on the path, and give you an overview of the tools and methods, but you shouldn’t expect them to turn you into a rockstar designer (whatever that is). Also, the prices are quite high, especially if you are just starting out. Enough to be prohibitively expensive if you are a student. Which got me to thinking…

Wouldn’t it be nice to remove the financial barrier?

To answer my friends question, I suggested a couple of more cost effective ways to start off. This way, if he decided that user experience design isn’t a good fit for him, he would at least have found out before spending a big sum of money.

I decided to set the criteria out so the only cost my friend would need to invest was time. I mean, what else is free time for? I’m sharing this here, in the hope that the advice could be useful for others who want to learn UX.

Some context

If you were to ask my wife what I do, she would say something to do with computers, and apps. This is probably my failing as a communicator, but user experience design is quite broad, and can be hard to define. Here’s the wikipedia definition.

I prefer the Cooper approved term interaction designer. I find it to be the most descriptive and useful when describing what I do to someone outside of the tech world. User experience designer is currently the most common title, although product designer is now in vogue. The lack of consensus is frustrating. Here is some insight to the terms used from the always excellent UX Switch. Handily, they have already covered what it means to be a UX designer, so I can defer to them and move on.

Where UX people come from

The path to becoming an interaction designer is, surprise surprise, not rigidly defined. Lots of people who work in UX studied different things at college. I came to UX after starting out my career as frontend designer. What you studied in college actually doesn’t actually matter as much as you may think. For example, Bill Buxton, the author of Sketching User Experiences, and a pioneer in the field of Human Computer Interaction originally studied music at college.

What matters if you want to become an interaction designer?

You need to be interested in understanding people, and exploring what motivates them to do the (crazy) things they do. You also need a healthy interest in technology. Which is not to say you need to know how to code, because you do not. Arguably, it could actually set you back. You ought to be interested in shaping how things should be, and making products or services work better for the people who use em.

Step 1: Start with the soft skills. Read the books

This is counter to how we are typically taught, but soft skills are the hardest to acquire. They take the most time, and lend the most value if you want a career in UX. I personally believe that reading books gives you a huge advantage. So much of this job is how you interact with people. Reading helps you to better formulate your thoughts, and communicate your ideas. There are a tonne of UX books lists on the internet. I won’t overwhelm you with recommendations. Instead I’ll pick a handful I consider to be good jumping off points.

Right now you might be thinking; I’m pretty sure books cost money

Well, yes. They do. But in keeping with my promise of free learning, here’s a tip:
Join your local library.

For those of you in Ireland, here’s something you might not be aware of; all of the libraries here are connected. This means you can request any book from the catalogue, and get it shipped to your local library for free. As an added bonus, the deadline is built in when you take a loan of a book.

Getting your books from the library means that you have a deadline of about a month to read and return the book. To make things even easier, for Irish readers, I’ve included library links for the books listed here.

The Design of Every Day Things, by Don Norman

A brilliant book, and a great place to start. It’s written in an easy conversational tone, and will change the way that you look at the world. You will learn to spot poor design in everyday things. This book makes a case for design better, and in more elegant terms, than I ever could. Read this first!
Get it from the Library, or buy it from Amazon quite cheaply.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This book will help you understand how little you understand people, and give you insight into human behaviour that might seem at odds. Breaks the thinking process into two systems. A fast system which is automatic, and a slow one which is deliberate and considered. No prizes for guessing which one we rely on most. It is well worth reading to get up on the concepts of cognitive biases alone.
Library link here.

The Essential Principles of Graphic Design by Debbie Millman

I’m including this on principle. It’s a graphic design handbook. Graphic Design is a very important part of UX. As a field I feel it has been marginalised as making shit look pretty. Graphic Design is the art of communicating visually, and it deserves much more respect. Typography is an incredibly hard craft, and like interaction design, it stands out most when it is done poorly. Library link to the wonderful Debbie Millman book, with an added link to this classic by
Adrian Shaughnessy.

About Face by Alan Cooper & Designing for the Digital Age by Kim Goodwin

Both classics, and go to books for anyone who makes lists about learning UX. They are only available as reference books in Irish libraries. You can usually get the 3rd edition of About Face very cheaply off Amazon, and it is still very relevant. It doesn’t cover the whole mobile thing but hey.

Just enough research by Erika Hall

UX research does not follow the scientific method. UX research is primarily qualitative. This book is the perfect primer, and includes a step by step guide to doing just enough research. It goes from conducting interviews, through to the correct way to do a usability test. It is compact, but mighty. Get it here. The book apart series is worth reading too. Here’s a video of one of the authors from the series talking – Consider it a treat for reading this far.

I get it! Enough with the books

I would happily go on, but in the interest of brevity I’ll conclude with one small suggestion. Don’t just read design specific books. To do so is to limit yourself, and leaves you with a narrow view of things. In the words of John Maeda;

“I was once advised by my teacher to become a light bulb instead of a laser beam, at an age and a time in my career when I was all focus. His point was that you can either brighten a single point with laser precision, or else use the same light to illuminate everything around you.”

Extract taken from his book, The laws of simplicity– also available from the library when I return it tomorrow.

Step 2: Practice what you learn

There are courses you can take online for free. A lot of courses and opportunities to learn UX.

EdX offers a series courses, called a micro masters, where you learn UX. You can enroll and complete the course without paying anything. Once you complete it you can pay for accreditation, but this is optional (although you might want that bit of proof).

Coursera also offer free courses in UX. Udacity do a free 2 month product design course by Google.

Want to learn Human-Centered Design. Here’s another free course from the people at IDEO that you ca do with a group. The point is, you have options for self directed study.

Step 3: Get familiar with the tools

This is actually the easiest part to learn. It is what people usually do first. It also (kinda) messes the learn UX free ideal that I set out with. Arguably, you don’t actually need to learn these tools. Assuming you are go into a pure UX role, and say, for example you are focused on solely conducting research. Then, you could get away with a couple of pens and paper, a whiteboard, and your big juicy brain.

This hasn’t really been my experience. Maybe yours has been different. Please let me know in the comments below.

(Most) places in Ireland would expect you to know how to use tools like the ones below, and to have experience creating wireframes, and put together visual comps to a certain fidelity. That said, this has been changing over the last few years, with more specialist UX roles getting listed every day in Ireland.

Designing screens

At the time of writing the industry standard tool for screen designers is Sketch. Previously, Photoshop or Illustrator served this purpose. Those tools are inappropriate, and inefficient these days. (In my humble opinion) you need to be a a bit of a masochist to use them for interaction design – Photoshop is a definite case of designing for the elastic user – as you will learn about this when you get to know what a persona is :). You can learn the fundamentals of Sketch at Treehouse.

Sketch is however, a Mac only tool and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Alternatives are available for our friends who use Windows such as Adobe XD, Figma, and so on.

Building interactivity

There are a tonne of prototyping tools. I use InVision. InVision is easy to use, with a low learning curve. It offers some free remote unmoderated usability testing. You kind get what you pay for, but it can be somewhat insightful, and it is exciting to see strangers using something you designed for the first time. InVision plays very nicely with Sketch – with their Craft plugin giving you the ability to prototype directly within Sketch itself. You can see a comparison of prototyping tools over at Cooper.

Step 4: Get to know people working in the field

In conclusion, I’d suggest that this is one of the most helpful things you do when you start. There are a lot of free meetups for design groups, with events on each month. These tend to be well attended, and full of kind, interesting friendly people (not to mention some free food and beer). I got my start on the back of talking to someone at a defuse event, which led me my first job in design, and introduced me to UX (thanks again Seamus).

Some Dublin events cherrypicked from memory:

Please suggest more if you have em, and I will happily add them!

Parting thoughts

This article is long enough, but here are a couple of additional tips and pieces of advice that I have been given, or picked up over time, that have been helpful to me.

Work with people better than you

Seek out smart people and don’t be afraid of asking questions or looking stupid. People are usually very nice. They like to impart their knowledge. It makes em feel warm and fuzzy. You do not want to work in a place where you are the sole designer, or the authority.

Think critically

Don’t accept everything at face value. Google and Apple do stupid things too. People sometimes become attached to the guidelines Apple, or Google put out, and guess what… Apple and Google go and change them.

I remember a particular time working on a product, that the product team made a case for bottom tabs on an Android app. We were told that Android users wouldn’t understand, or like them because they didn’t exist in the Material design guidelines. The thinking was that it would reduce the strain placed on people trying to reach for the top of the screen. In spite of evidence to the contrary, we lost that battle. A couple of months later, bottom tabs were added to Material design under the (slightly dirty sounding) name bottom navigation.

The point is, that these companies do not own innovation. A guideline has it’s place for sure, but it should not be an ideology.

If something is dumb, don’t do it.

Learn to take criticism

You will get critiques that you don’t like. This will hurt. Sometimes it may not seem fair. Occasionally it might not be fair. As a general rule, feedback should always be directed at the work and not the individual. That said, getting no feedback is more damaging than getting good feedback delivered poorly.

Don’t measure yourself against the internet

You are only competing with yourself, and shouldn’t compare yourself against the world when starting out. However, do try to reflect on the work you have done. Look back over time and track your progress. You’ll be surprised, and maybe a little embarrassed by early work, but you learn as you progress.

Ship it

Learn to work to a deadline, and try to stay out of the weeds. Shipping the thing is essential. I launched this site using the bog standard WordPress theme, in the interest of writing and posting my unedited thoughts.

This was done to light a fire under myself. I knew that if it was out in public, I’d be motivated to actually tend to it. I mean, the site has no real traffic, but I wouldn’t have been able to live with the vanilla WordPress 2017 theme.

Within a week, I put together this very basic theme you are looking at. It’s not done, but it never will be. This is the point!