Self-taught UX Design: Part 1

How to overcome being overwhelmed with a new subject — making a plan to move forward.

This is a good rendition of how I felt when I was mindlessly working through every book recommendation that came my way in the beginning.

This is part of a series on getting into UX, in hopes that it will help and inspire others.

Series:

3 years ago, I decided to get into UX, and I’m now a UX Designer at a top tech company in South Florida, where we have consistently been at the very top of the list for Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For. I managed all of this with a background in Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy.

I’m now leading my own projects and presenting innovative ideas to Senior Directors at the company; all while working remotely from my RV and traveling the country.

I love helping others find their way into tech, so please feel free to reach out. — Thanks for reading!

Original Story — Circa 2017

Recently my family and friends have been asking me how in the world I’ve been learning about the aspects of UX without having a formal background in it. We’re pretty used to thinking of careers in terms of formal qualifications, with well worn paths on how to get there (Think a very specific college degree).

Although I’ve got a solid foundation for UX with my Psychology & Sociology degrees, there is definitely a lot of specialized information that I need to pick up. The Tech field itself has been known to be more open to alternative routes of getting experience, and UX seems to follow that trend as well from what I’ve seen so far. Being self-taught with a mix of relevant transferable experiences isn’t abnormal to see in a Junior UX Designer, and in fact that’s how many of the Senior Designers that I talked to got started. If there are few tailored formal programs for this job though, where do you even find the material to become self-taught?

Truth:

There is no shortage of learning materials online if you seek them out!

  • This goes for more subjects than you’d think*
  • Don’t forget about your local library! The one near me even offered a kind of shopping experience where you could select a few books, and get an email to come pick them up when they were ready for you!

This is wonderful, but can also be a hindrance if you don’t come up with a plan for digesting material at some point. Think “information overload”.

I started out by pouring over blogs, curriculum layouts for MANY online courses on UX, watching YouTube videos by Designers, reaching out to Senior UXers on LinkedIn asking for their favorite resources, reading books that every source recommended, and attending meetups to start getting into the thick of what they’re talking about now so that I didn’t get behind before I’m even in the field.

Does this sound like a lot? Probably. The whole thing reminds me of that saying “ throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks” . You see that glob? Sometimes I felt like that too.

Admittedly, although it was chaotic and not my signature organized route, it gave me a great overview of the subject. This is a necessary part 1 how I see it. How would you know what to start digging down into if you don’t even have a pretty decent overview of what the whole subject encompasses? That digging in (gaining specialized knowledge) would be part 2 by the way. You’ll get there, so don’t worry.

After a while, I started feeling frustrated with how much time I was putting in without seeing the return that I wanted. I felt like I wasn’t really retaining anything because I was digesting so much!

This seems familiar, this “jumbled” feeling

Over dinner while I was voicing my concerns to my partner about that feeling of spinning my wheels, I realized that it wasn’t that long ago that I’d been in a similar situation.

When I started learning to code at the beginning of the year, I spent the first 2 months completely overwhelmed with resources. I wasn’t putting out projects at a decent enough rate to keep me motivated, and I was pretty consistently overwhelmed as I flitted from site to site feeling like there was just too much to learn for me to even start working on something cohesive. (Seriously, if you google “learn to code”…you’ll be amazed).

On top of that, I had this perfectionist mentality that I HAD to memorize EVERYTHING, as this is how I’d previously done well in other subjects.

*spoiler alert* You don’t need to memorize every possible HTML and CSS property, you just need to be able to look them up when you need them*

From that moment of realization, I carefully curated my path moving forward rather than consistently rabbit-holing for hours and losing sight of a project for a feature that was too advanced for me to wrap my head around anyways. The key was in focusing on the short term goal, and then gradually moving forward to build my skill level up as I accomplished more short term goals.

Focus on a small, short-term goal and build up from there

This was really the turning point for me, and over time my GitHub thanked me for it. My projects started out small and basic, but eventually grew in number and complexity. More importantly, I understood how to go about picking up a new concept in the field. I had an idea about the kinds of resources that worked well with my style of learning, and gained the confidence to swim through more complex topics because of a proven track record.

*Flash Back to the Present*

This is obviously a little different than picking up coding, but the principle still remains. I was overwhelmed and down on myself for not retaining enough information to get some momentum going.

The first thing that I wanted to tackle was working through the pile of recommended books that I had sitting on my desk. At any one given time, I had 3 or 4 different books that I was going through. I’m that person that can’t make it through an entire song, and the same goes for books. I like to flit around.

On top of this, although I was consuming so much information, there wasn’t much that was sticking in terms of details. What was the point in doing all of this if I was reading it, but it just went in one ear and out the other?

The Plan:

  • Stick to 1 or 2 books at a time (1 easy reading and 1 technical) AT MOST.
  • Outline each chapter and section quickly as I go.

The idea here is that I’m allowing for enough variability in my reading that I can play to my nature of needing to switch between books, while also narrowing it down enough to ACTUALLY FINISH THEM.

At the end of each book, I would have a distilled version of the content to look back at and cue myself on what the book was about. Not only would this be great for later, but writing down the main takeaway points helps those memories to encode in the first place (hitting that retention problem on 2 fronts).

I’ve needed to adjust the amount of time I spend taking notes so that I don’t get too out of the flow, but all-in-all it’s working out to be a great system.

My 3 “distilled books” and the lineup of recommended books coming up

This tackles the huge pile of books that have been sitting next to my bed threatening to fall on me in the night, but I’ve also been using a similar technique for interesting blog posts, YouTube videos, documentaries etc. Ideally, I’ll end up remembering more moving forward as I continue to make the transition.

In terms of curating things, I’ve been chunking out time for different resources, and making sure that I keep up with them on a daily basis. I have a daily to-do list that I keep in front of me, and I update it every night for the next day. I like to leave a little bit of flexibility for when I run into something that I want to delve into more, but I definitely feel like I’ve got a better handle on things.

Oh the joys of going the self-taught route!

But really, even though it can be a daunting responsibility to take agency over your own education, it also opens you up to FAR MORE opportunities in terms of stumbling across what works for you, new subjects that interest you along the way, and you gain that confidence of knowing that you can actually take control of your own education. I don’t know what’s more powerful than that last one, especially in a time where we have so much information available to us coupled with the fact that 70% of Americans are complacent in their jobs (that’s a post for another day though).

Updated content info:

I’ve since found some info on how we experience learning a new subject, and wanted to give a more concise version of the confusion outlined below while I was in the learning process:

Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience with a subject increases, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their own lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and actually become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.” — VeryWell Mind

For another great video on the subject, check out one of my favorite Youtubers (Johny Harris) giving a great explanation of this effect during his process of learning Astrophotography: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKDe094o-Q8&ab_channel=JohnnyHarris

About me

3 years ago, I decided to get into UX, and I’m now a UX Designer at a top tech company in South Florida, where we have consistently been at the very top of the list for Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For. I managed all of this with a background in Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy.

I’m now leading my own projects and presenting innovative ideas to Senior Directors at the company; all while working remotely from my RV and traveling the country.

Don’t hesitate to reach out here or on LinkedIn. I love helping others find their way into Tech as well!

You can also grab a totally free 30 minute Mentor/Mentee session here.

Designing my best life & helping others do the same | Digital Nomad | UX Designer & Innovator

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