1. Design ahead of the product development curve. An important part of being an excellent designer is thinking about what you can bring to the table before the project kickoff.
2. Seek out people to brainstorm with. Before you ask people to join you, figure out specifically how you want to organize the session—what are the particular ideas you want to discuss and how are you going to frame them? You should also consider how you want to structure the session. How much time do you need, and do you need to break it up into smaller task-focused periods? Is one big group helpful or should you break into smaller groups and come back together to share your thinking?
3. Get critical feedback on even the smallest changes from the rest of your design team. Getting design feedback from designers isn’t the same as getting feedback from Product, Engineering, Marketing, or Sales—designers see and think in a very different way and will know how to give you useful feedback on the design. They will often make you think “why didn’t I think of that!” Getting feedback from other teams is important, but they’re going to give you feedback on the design, not from a design perspective, but from their domain expertise: this design cannot be implemented from an engineering perspective; we can’t sell that design because those features don’t meet our client commitments; the way you designed the new feature isn’t in line with our product vision.
4. Make sure your project is going to get built. Whether you’re working at an agency, at a startup, or as an in-house designer, make sure you confirm with stakeholders that the project has all the necessary resources for the full product development lifecycle—you don’t want to be designing for a project without project/product management and engineering support. If a project falters and resources fall off or are reallocated, figure out whether or not you should still be on the project.
5. When you give feedback, honor the golden rule. Whether you’re communicating via email, a ticketing system, or in person, always be thoughtful of how your feedback will be received by the person on the other end. Maintaining a considerate, polite, diplomatic, and amiable rapport with your co-workers and clients is critical to building trust and to building better products. Check out Scott Berkun’s classic essay on how to give and receive criticism.
6. Find a mentor that will help you refine your process. That means finding somebody who is willing to give you constant, frank, constructive feedback on your soft skills. This should be somebody who is willing to grab coffee regularly and who you feel comfortable being completely open with—this relationship is an extension of point 5, above, except the criticism is about your performance and progress as a professional.
7. Ask for honest feedback from your close co-workers. How can you work together, better? Where do you not measure up in their eyes? You’ll start to notice patterns based on different peoples’ feedback and it’ll help you identify and focus on your weaknesses.
8. Always be working on personal projects and updating your portfolio. Not only will you continue to learn new techniques and processes that you can bring into your daily job, but when you’re ready to move on to your next opportunity, you’ll have a body of work that is ready to share with potential employers, and you won’t have to scramble to put together new work.
9. Take home your contracts,and read them in full, multiple times, before signing. It’s important to understand what your obligations are as an employee. If you violate your terms of employment, you will no longer be as effective as a designer because you’ve shown that you don’t think ahead, you haven’t been a careful researcher, and that you don’t respect the very people who hired you because they saw you were a smart, talented, motivated person they wanted to be a part of their team.
10. Understand your benefits and health insurance. Just as important as reading your contract, you should take the time to fully understand the difference between an HMO and a PPO, and to ask your HR team how premiums and co-pays work, and what you’ll be responsible for if you need to see a doctor. And if you haven’t started a 401(k) before or haven’t exercised stock options, talk with your HR and Legal teams, and with your family, to figure out what makes the most sense for you. Maintaining good health—physically, mentally, and financially—is just as important to being an excellent employee and designer.
11. Above all, if you don’t understand something, ask questions until you and the person you’re working with are on the same page. Have patience, and you’ll get there, and you’ll also save a lot of time down the road when it would have become clear to everyone else that you were operating on errant assumptions.
Other posts on breaking into user experience
- How to get a UX job and what it’s like
- Will a master’s help you get a better UX job or salary?
- Thoughts on succeeding at your first UX job