Diving into UX Design

It seems as if everyone I talk to about my new career in tech has the same sage advice: Jump in. I’ve always had trouble with this. When I was four years old, I knew how to swim well. I had been around water since I was a baby, but I didn’t want to dive in. I wasn’t scared of the water. I knew how to swim. I wasn’t scared of the deep end. I swam there all the time. I was afraid of the in-between—that time when your feet aren’t firmly on the ground or in the water. The in-between space is scary for me. I need to have a grasp on what I’m doing. Feet on the ground. Check. Feet in the water. Check.

My parents tried to get me to dive into the pool, but I was stubborn. They took me to a swimming instructor who offered me a veiled threat: I could dive off the diving board or he would throw me in. I quickly marched up to the diving board and dove in. It seems I preferred to be in control more than I feared diving.

So although this sound advice to jump in seems like common sense, it scares me. I’m frozen at the end of the technology driving board, arms raised showing the world that I do in fact plan to dive in . . . just give me one more minute. I plan and read and research and read again. I do all of this while I stand, feet firmly planted on the diving board, staring at the water, at the possibilities.

Coding with Floaties

In learning to code, I was still easing into the water in many ways. I reconnected with HTML and CSS until we were chummy again. I’m slowly courting JavaScript, and it is warming up to me. With my new “tech friends,” I’ve created some websites. (They aren’t perfect but they are working.)

But I haven’t fully committed to development. I’m still searching for writing jobs, which keep me busy to the point that I become frustrated when I return from my coding breaks and have to relearn what I knew so well just a few months ago. Arturo helps me when I am struggling and stuck in a virtual corner. And there is some safety in that as well. If I venture too far into the deep end, I know he will guide me back to the shallow end.

In some ways, I did dive into the tech world by designing and writing the code for my website, but I used a template, so maybe I merely jumped from the side of the pool, not from the diving board. It’s an important and brave step. I don’t want to downplay that. I have learned so much from manipulating the template and inserting my own code.

Discovering User Experience Design

I’ve been going to a variety of meetups that discuss JavaScript, front-end development, women in technology, and user experience (UX) design. At a NOVA UX meetup, the speaker mentioned that UX included several areas: design, research, testing, and writing. Naturally, the word writing sparked my interest. I knew that graphic designers fit well with UX/UI, but I wasn’t aware until this meetup that psychology and content writing also play a large role in the field.

I’ve always been drawn to psychology. I minored in it and seriously considered getting a graduate degree in it. (Thankfully, I went with the more practical route of graduate school in English!) I also worked in publishing for a counseling association because of my interest in the field. People interest me. I always joked that I didn’t go to graduate school for psychology because I wanted to study people safely behind the one-way mirror. So I read and analyzed books, which is another way of observing humans and identifying patterns.

NOVA UX also introduced me to the Code Writer’s Workshop, and in June, I volunteered at their Software Leadership in a New Era event. I was jotting down notes on JavaScript and front-end development, and I discovered a journalist major turned front-end developer who works at the Washington Post—how appropriate, right? But Kara DeFrias, the keynote speaker, caused me to put down my pen and listen. She was a captivating speaker, but that was only part of the reason. She was also an English major who kept saying yes until she became a user-experience expert.

Her story and journey resonated with me. But, unlike me, she jumped in without overthinking or fearing the unknown. She had called into check the inner voice that doubts. My inner voice still makes me hesitate. I entered the conference as an unconfident imposter: a writer who was . . . ummm . . . thinking about maybe becoming a developer. But I left the conference determined to silence that voice and take a leap into UX.

Learning the Basics of UX

The more I discovered about UX, the more I realized that it combines my love of people and how they tick with creating content. So I started testing the water by reading the UX classics: Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. And I’m soaking up all the information I can on blogs and websites, such as UX Mastery, usability.gov, Boxes and Arrows, UX Booth, and UX Magazine.

The amount of information is overwhelming, but as the eternal student, I am loving it. Besides, the topic speaks to my own interests, so it doesn’t seem like work. I’m already in the process of creating a visual vocabulary of some sites that are designed well. And I’m going to redesign my own website and document my process from writing the content to creating personas, sketching, making wireframes, and performing usability testing.

Besides learning the basics (e.g., sketching, personas, wireframes), I am focusing on content strategy, research, and UX writing. I recently participated in Mike Donahue’s webinar on UX content strategy, and he emphasized the importance of creating content that informs the design, not vice versa. UXers, he argues, should design to deliver content. He compared this process with designing a drinking glass. You don’t design the glass and then figure out the beverage—the content. Instead, you design the glass to enhance the content. Positioning UXers as strategic thinkers and including content in every step of the process reduces the amount of iterations and changes the conversation. Like user interface, content should be tested with readability tools such as readable.io.

Skilled Diving: Attending My First Interactive UX Workshop

After the webinar, I was even more excited about UX. My head was racing with ideas and I hungered for more. This excitement temporarily silenced my doubtful inner voice because without too much hesitation, I shed the weight of the girl who just stands on the diving board hesitating and I dove in. No threats needed.

And I didn’t just dive. I did a somersault. (Okay, it wasn’t a perfect 10, but it wasn’t a belly flop.) I attended an interactive workshop on voice-user interface (VUI) and designing an Alexa skill. I walked into the room of approximately 50 UX designers, and in a team of four, I voiced my opinions about the use case we were making for our Alexa skill.

I even challenged a woman who held firmly to her notion that the user would share her exact experience. I gently reminded her that others may have a different experience, and we needed to decide on our target user. In the end, our target user became this woman. Let’s call her Peggy. (Personas are important and allow us to empathize. See, I’m getting the hang of this.) I’ve learned that compromise is key, and she was insistent that Peggy was the targeted user, probably because she felt comfortable staying in the shallow end rather than venturing into unknown waters. So I chose my battle: I let Peggy become our persona, and fought instead to remove some wordiness in our use case. (Who wants a long-winded conversation with Alexa or Siri!)

This workshop also reinforced the importance of voice and word choice, which are topics I have studied and taught for several years. Drawing on Paul Grice’s maxims, the presenters emphasized that UX designers must be concise yet powerful with the content and that the sentence structure must match the context. The structure of a college essay, for example, differs from the way one speaks, so designers need to keep this in mind with VUI. The goal is to make AI mimic the way humans naturally talk to avoid frustrating the user. In the words of Krug, don’t make them think.

This workshop also helped me gain much-needed confidence. Two team members were confused by what a “skill” was, and I told them confidently that it was the application built for Alexa. My research and interest in technology—even products I don’t personally own yet—is paying off.

The Synchronized Dive of Coding and UX

I am not a quitter, so even though I’m excited about starting a career in UX design, I will continue to code. In fact, the one thing I learned from cheating on my JavaScript meetup with the UX meetup is that design makes a better developer and coding makes a better UX designer. Knowing both areas allows for better communication between teams and a better end product, which is the ultimate goal of any company.

So I’m still a writer who is learning to code, and I’m immersing myself in the tech world to see where I fit and what speaks to me. But now, I’m also a UX content strategist, thinking about design and content while I learn to speak the language of JavaScript.

The organizer/planner in me wants to have a clear path with detailed steps along the way, and to some extent, pursuing UX while also learning JavaScript provides me with a framework. But the part of me that needs a clear route is the one who often stands frozen on the diving board, so I’m embracing DeFrias’ advice to always say yes to opportunities.

The image of the girl who stands afraid on the diving board is replaced with this one: The sun glistens on a woman as she takes three steps toward the end of the diving board. Her hands no longer hang unsure at her sides. Instead, they shoot straight up beside her ears, pointing toward the sky, toward opportunity. As she reaches the end of the board, she dives with her eyes wide open into the pool of possibilities. Before she hits the water, she whispers, “Yes,” and she smiles to herself.

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