Note: I wrote this article for and published it on the CareerFoundry blog.
There are lots of ways to approach the question “How can I become a better designer?” In this article, I’ve taken a big picture view of best practices. This isn’t a guide to wireframing, though you can find one here. So go ahead and close Sketch, Illustrator, or whatever design program is eating up your hard drive space.
Below are 7 strategies you can apply away from the drawing board to improve your design craft.
1. Read (Proactively and Routinely)
I know, right? What a cheap and obvious first rule. But it’s worth including because this is one of the most helpful things you can do as a designer starting out. While learning by doing is essential, practicing without foundational knowledge will waste a lot of effort (and time!). Yes you can teach yourself to cook through trial and error, but if you learn a few recipes and techniques first, you’ll have much better results.
One tip that can be really helpful is to find some go-to sources. Spend a little time upfront searching for good sources, vetting them for quality, and figuring out the ones you like. Maybe you learn better by reading books to get a broader foundational understanding. Maybe, like me, you’re very research-oriented and look for sources like NNGroup and Baymard who publish usability research. Maybe you find a few blogs or authors on Medium you trust. Whatever sources you choose, you’ll be better off finding your go-tos than reading anything under the sun with ‘UX’ in the title.
2. Learn About Related Topics
As an intersectional discipline, becoming a better designer means drawing from other fields. For example, psychology can teach you a lot about how people move through the world and interact with digital products. Understanding mental models will help you design better for your users, as will learning more about your company’s business objectives and the domain in which it operates. Similarly, learning how to communicate more effectively, to contribute to a team, or to manage projects can help you be a better contributor to your design team. Find some areas beyond design that interest you and learn more about them. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to make connections to your design work.
3. Find your Concentration (The T-Shaped Skill Set)
Especially early on in your career, you want to get a broad knowledge of the basics of the field. Ultimately, though, you’re going to want to distinguish yourself as having some expertise in an area of design, so it’s great to keep your eyes peeled for corners of the field you’re especially into. You might love working with voice user interfaces, or maybe you’re really into mobile. Start to hone in on a domain you want to make your own and spend more time learning about it. This balance between breadth and depth of knowledge is often called a T-shaped skillset. You have some broad knowledge of the field (the top of the T shape) and then deep knowledge in one area (the spine of the T). Developing a T-shaped skillset will help you present yourself better and bring unique value to a team.
4. Talk to Other Designers
Talking to designers about their craft and their work environment is one of the best ways to grow your design skills. When I first started in design, I regularly turned to one of my UX designer friends for wireframing advice. Before saying a word, she’d open up several apps on her phone and see how other designers had handled the same issue. Even though she had years of experience, refreshing her memory with some common design patterns gave her context for approaching the problem. This has become one of my go-to approaches, and one I recommend to my students all the time. The more designers you talk to, the more developed your approach will become.
If you don’t have any friends who are designers, find a community near you. Many cities have User Experience Professional Association (UXPA) chapters or UX Meetup events. If you live somewhere with fewer designers, join Facebook groups online or check out some online UX communitieswhere you can meet other designers.
5. Explore Multiple Solutions
The best solution to a design problem is rarely inevitable, so it’s always worth considering a range of potential solutions. I mentioned above that one of my starting points on a project is auditing other apps. You can also check out pattern libraries like UI-Patterns and Pttrns for more examples.
Another smart way to explore design patterns is to find similar projects on portfolio sites like Dribbble and Behance. This is especially helpful when you’re working on your own portfolio, since these projects can give you some of the why behind the designers’ approach. Why did the designer choose this flow and is their reasoning relevant to your project? When you do sit down to sketch or wireframe, this will help you see more possibilities. It’ll also help you with the next strategy.
6. Practice Explaining the Why
While wireframing user-centered interactions is the obvious skill you need as a UX designer,communicating why you’ve chosen one design over any other is sort of the secret sauce. As a new designer, explaining the why behind your work is crucial for building an effective portfolio. This Senior UX Designer and this Senior UX Recruiter explain why it’s so important to show off your problem-solving approach in your portfolio. To be most effective, try to point to some user research you’ve done on the project or some published usability research. And as a design contributor on a team, you’ll frequently present your work and need to explain your design decisions.
7. Do Retrospectives
Reflecting on a project is something that most of us probably don’t do as much as we know we should. Like flossing, we all know it’s important. But in the moment, we can usually find a shiny object (or something else) to look at instead. Doing a quick review—it doesn’t have to be lengthy!—can help you iron out a communication issue on a team project or sidestep a future roadblock in your process.
A key to making these changes stick is writing them down and formalizing them in some way. Again, this doesn’t have to be super comprehensive, just a short list of takeaways is fine. If you’re on a team, get everyone involved, and incorporate the list into your future workflow so you make sure you’re not repeating your mistakes. Especially early on when everything is a learning experience, gathering up those lessons will help you improve your work dramatically.
UX Best Practices: The Takeaway
Finding the approach that works best for you is part of getting your footing in a new field. The strategies in this article can help you develop some concrete best practices that’ll make you a better designer as you move forward in your career.