The UX Buffet – How to Learn UX Without Going Insane

How to Learn UX Without Losing Your Mind

How to Learn UX Without Losing Your Mind

this post is inspired from a conversation with a UXB subscriber, who asked…

I feel overwhelmed with the number of things to learn in UX. There’s visual design, usability testing, information architecture…not to mention skills like coding. Where do I start?

Indeed, learning UX isn’t necessarily the smoothest user experience itself. One Google search can easily give UX Beginners the impression that there’s an almost infinite amount of topics to learn. And it makes you question… with UX seemingly being everything, how will I ever get good at it? Should I just not bother?

We’ll explore a framework that UX Beginners can use to get started in the field without getting bogged down by the pressure of learning everything at once. Are you ready? We’ll explore the five steps:

  1. Survey the Landscape
  2. Know the Process
  3. Find your entry point
  4. Go deeper
  5. Apply your knowledge

_ _ _

1. Survey the Landscape

I used to be a fool at buffets. I’d see the first thing that looked appetizing, load my plate up with said item, then immediately regret my decision as I saw people walking by with more delicious foods. My mistake was not surveying the landscape of what was available first.

Learning UX is like a buffet, and it behooves UX Beginners to survey the landscape at hand. The easiest path forward is to get acquainted with the Elements of User Experience Design:

Jesse James Garrett's "Elements of User Experience Design"

Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience Design”

Here’s a quick rundown of the components, sub-disciplines, whatever you want to call them that comprise the field of UX:

  • User Research
  • Content Strategy
  • Information Architecture / Information Design
  • Interaction Design
  • Visual Design
  • [insert topic here]: I’m probably going to get emails telling me to add another element

Your job as a UX Beginner is to know what’s available in the UX Buffet. Sample and get a taste for each one of these sub-disciplines. Read one or two articles (not too many) to get acquainted with each UX component.

Doing this exercise will help you realize that user experience is inherently a multidisciplinary practice that merges art, product strategy, psychology, cognitive science, visual and web design.

Aside: Due to the multidisciplinary nature of UX, we see a bunch of articles about why UX isn’t UI. (Shortcut: UI is part of UX.)

Notice that these elements look more like a product strategy roadmap, and not the deliverables that one might usually associate with UX: wireframes, sitemaps, user flows, personas… The differentiation that comes with the UX profession is process.

2. Know the Process 

At a recent buffet (I don’t go to them all the time…don’t judge), my friend loaded up his first plate with heavy carbs like pasta and pizza. He was pretty much knocked out after his second plate and didn’t get to try the other goodies.

After surveying the landscape of what’s available in a UX buffet, we determine when each buffet item might have its place. It might not be wise to start with ice cream followed by steak, similar to how a UX professional wouldn’t create a prototype without doing some research upfront. Here’s just one example of a UX process:

Lean UX Process

Not all projects can be constrained to an identical path; we must tailor the process to fit the challenges we are facing (ref: Smashing Mag). 

The important part to remember is that UX is not about the deliverables, just as a buffet isn’t about any particular item. The deliverables are part of a design process that melds different disciplines together to create a thoughtful, user-centered product.

3. Find your entry point 

In the last two steps, we solved for the “how do I know what I want to learn, until I see what’s available to learn?” problem. Now that you’ve sampled the UX buffet and are starting with the mindset of process, it’s time to find your favorite UX buffet item.

Instead of trying to learn everything at once, focus on what interests you first. What were the tastiest UX items and which ones do you want to dig into?

There’s a likely chance that you’ll be into a UX topic that matches your current interests and background. Consider these scenarios:

  • Student w/psychology background is drawn towards User Research
  • Business analyst gets into Lean UX and UX Process
  • Former librarian falls in love with Information Architecture
  • 2D artist gravitates towards Information Design
  • Casual blogger gets into Content Strategy

You don’t even have to love any particularly subject at first. It just has to give you that “Hmm…that’s kind of interesting.”

The counterintuitive part of this approach is to intentionally limit yourself to one UX topic at first, then expand slowly from there. There’s no need to freak out about the dozens of other topics, because of one secret:

Many doors lead to the same room.

If you go deep enough in a into a topic, whether it be Content Strategy or Information Architecture, you are bound to run into the other UX topics along the way.

If you feel like you’re missing something, just review what’s in the UX Buffet. But for the time being, there’s no need to overstuff yourself. Just focus on your favorite buffet item for now. And we’re going to do just that next.

4. Go Deep 

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to read a book on your chosen UX buffet item. Rarely do people read entire books anymore, but just skim article headlines. You don’t want to do that. For those making a career change – it’s worth it to at least read one book on a topic you’re interested in.

Use Google to your advantage and search terms like “Best [insert UX Topic] Book” or “Most popular {insert UX Topic] Book”

Choose the one book that you keep seeing pop up on most popular lists or have lots of rave reviews on Amazon. Then go read that damn book and stuff yourself with some good UX knowledge.

Another way to “Go deep” is to reach out to your UX community at large. Hopefully there’s a meetup near you. Go to a meetup and start introducing yourself and tell people what you’re interested in, ask to learn more and question if they can point to some resources.

Sample Script:

“Hi, I’m new to the field of UX and after doing some digging in, find that I really enjoy Interaction Design. Can I with you and learn about what you do? Where can I start? What helped you the most to get your first job in this field?”

The benefit of reaching out to someone experienced is that they can often curate content for you. Even in this day and age of high technology, we still benefit from the direction that comes from a direct word of mouth recommendation from a friend.

5. Evaluate, Expand, Apply

Evaluate

Reflect on the knowledge that you just learned from your UX Buffet Item. Write a summary of your thoughts on the topic – what you learned, how you felt about the topic, where in the UX process you think it relates to building a product.

Apply

Whenever possible – especially if you are interested in a topic, find opportunities to apply the knowledge you just learned. The awesome thing about UX is that the techniques and processes learned can be applied to a number of projects, even outside of a formal UX job.

  • The finance professional who uses a user flow to communicate how his spreadsheets’ numbers affect the work of his team
  • The entrepreneur who conducts user research to help her understand the pain points of his target customers
  • The writer who employs information architecture techniques to help the blog she writes for better organize its content and sections

Expand

Then remind yourself of all the other UX topics in the buffet. If you weren’t feeling the initial topic you chose, then repeat steps 1 – 4. You’ll keep expanding your knowledge of UX. And hey, if you find that you don’t like any of these topics, then UX is not for you. No hard feelings ;)

summary

There is no “one true path” to learning about something as broad as UX, but for those who’ve been wandering aimlessly through the buffet, this should start you on a path of being well-fed with UX knowledge. You learned to:

  • Survey the landscape to see what’s available in the UX Buffet
  • Understand that despite all the UX topics available, it’s knowing the process of when and how to use each UX topic that’s actually valuable
  • Find the one topic that resonates with you, then read at least one book on it
  • Evaluate, apply and expand the knowledge you learned to further grow your learning in UX.

your future UX learning

Alas, this one article doesn’t cover the entire spectrum of learning UX, but it is a way to get started. Would you be interested in an interactive tool that teaches you different UX techniques – and when to use them? Sign up below for more updates!

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4 thoughts on “The UX Buffet – How to Learn UX Without Going Insane

    • Thanks for the suggestion AJ, I just enabled social sharing buttons at the bottom of my posts. Appreciate you reading and spreading the word man!

  1. This has definitely helped. I’ve been on countless websites and feel overwhelmed with just about everything without getting much of a sense of what UX could be. This article and your entire blog has given me new life into this industry and my hunger and drive is back knowing that there are other people who feel this way.

  2. This article is amazingly helpful. The brake down of each aspect of UX was a great help to a newbie like me. Just want to say, Love what you’re doing.

    P.S. Buffet analogy works perfectly. Cheers!

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