Whenever I tell somebody I study user experience (UX) design, I usually get blank stares. It’s a fascinating field because good design tends to be invisible, but when products aren’t designed with people in mind, that’s when the term ‘usability’ comes up in a conversation. UX design is the human component in technology that aims to make products approachable and relevant for regular people.
I’m now a senior at Simon Fraser University, enrolled in the design program. Of all the decisions I’ve made that have led to where I am today, I’m convinced that the best decision of my academic career was getting work experience early on. The tech industry moves at such a pace that universities can’t adapt their programs fast enough to prepare students for the future ahead. School is great for learning theory, but internships offer an opportunity to apply those concepts in addition to providing invaluable practical experience.
Design for Real People
As designers, we’re taught to create experiences that are as simple and as elegant as possible. During that process, it can be easy to forget that we’re designing for actual people, not abstract personas. In school I often had to imagine who my user was, and likewise I made a lot of assumptions such as: all users having perfect vision. Early in my co-op, I had the opportunity to attend an interview with a sight-impaired customer. To navigate our site, this person had to use a third-party screen reading app called JAWS. In short, performing even the simplest action took a huge amount of effort. I learned that accessibility is important, and that it should be accommodated in the the beginning of the design process rather than leaving it to the end.
It’s surprising how much you can learn by just talking to a customer for an hour. One of my favourite interview questions was asking people “can you describe to me what a typical day looks like?”. This is a great question, because it taught me that products aren’t self-contained: the experience doesn’t just end when the customer leaves the app. What happens when they’re out of the product is just as important as when they’re in it.
Communicating the Value of a Design (to non-Designers)
Another great part of my internship is getting to work with engineers and experience what it’s like to be a part of a release cycle. School can be a bit like living in a bubble where everyone is a designer and thinks on the same wavelength, but when working with engineers it’s not just about passing off a list of specs but communicating the value of a design and how it aligns with UX and business priorities. Quite often it’s made me re-evaluate my own work and making sure I understood the value of a design before presenting it to my team.
If I could change just one thing about how most schools teach design, it would be teaching students to embrace ambiguity. Without context and without a defined problem, young designers (myself included) often tend to cling to the first solution that comes to mind. A solution that solves the wrong problem is a situation that everyone wants to avoid. Ambiguity is totally natural, and is actually conducive to the creative process. Some of the most interesting (and most challenging) projects out there are the ones that don’t have any frame of reference and venture into unexplored territory.
I’d recommend every design student to take up at least one term in industry while in school. Getting a feel for how real products are designed, built and used is an amazing and invaluable experience.
About the Author
James was a co-op student on the Product Design team this summer (2015). He’s a third year student at Simon Fraser University. Some of his passions include photography, the outdoors, and sleeping. Follow him on Twitter @jameswng