When entering a new field, there’s usually a standard curriculum to learn. Front-end developers learn HTML & CSS. Content producers learn the basics of copywriting. But…

What about UX? Since everything about a product is technically tied to the user’s experience, it can be confusing to determine the most important topics for beginners to learn. That’s what we’re going to cover today.

The methodology – I compiled this list of topics using this rough approach:

  • My personal experience working as a UX Designer and interviewing for different UX teams
  • Analyzing most written-about topics from top UX publications: UXMag, UXBooth, UXMatters and Alistapart. I distill the main UX categories that overlap from each blog.
  • Knowledge gleaned from UX books. Jesse James Garrett’s 5 Elements was especially instrumental.

TL;DR version of the these UX topics are:

  • UX Strategy
  • User Research
  • Information Architecture
  • Interaction Design
  • Usability Testing
  • Visual Design
  • Content Strategy
  • SEO
  • Coding

Without further ado, let’s dive in!

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ux / user experience strategy banner

related to ux strategy: business strategy / product management

User experience strategy is a blend of business, process and design. If a digital product is a house, then UX strategy is asking why that house should be built in the first place, and how it should be built. And it also involves convincing others (stakeholders) along the way.

Who Does This?

This is the bread and butter of Chief Experience Officers (CXOs), UX Directors and UX Managers. But every UX Designer should be aware of UX strategy because it is an invisible force that’ll affect how you design whether you like it or not (continue below…)

This is also the domain of:

  • digital business analysts
  • producers
  • project managers.

Why You Should Know It

UX is not just about cranking out wireframes.  Interviewers will ask for your thoughts on designing in a waterfall vs agile/Lean process. In project kickoff meetings the factors of budget, resources and schedule will impact your designs.

Business requirements are also a standard requirement when working on digital products. Whether working solo or with a business analyst, much of a product’s user experience does start at the requirements level.

It’s about striking a balance between user needs and business goals, all while executing projects in a resourceful manner.

The more that a UX Designer advances in her career, the more she has to deal with strategy and partner with business. Actually, that happens across every industry and every role.

Solid Resources On This Topic:

  • Applied UX Strategy Part 1 and Part 2 are good primer articles from UXMatters. They are a long read but will give you a very good overview of UX strategy, as well as useful links to other strategic frameworks.
  • User Experience Strategy by Jaime Levy is by far the most definitive book on UX strategy. Having sat in on Jaime’s UX class myself, she is the real deal and has a knack for blending the vital parts of business strategy into the UX design practice.
  • Lean UX is an award-winning book about applying Lean principles to designing the UX of products and services. This is the way that most startups and companies now aspire to validate, test and design products.
  • UXStrat is an entire conference dedicated to the craft of UX Strategy!

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user research section image

related to user research: UX strategy / market research / usability testing

User Research is the practice of identifying your users, distilling knowledge and insights from them, and determining their real-world behaviors. A design that is user-centric means that it was designed in a way to solve those users’ pain points in a way that feels natural to them.

User Research is different from Market Research. UX Research is concerned with evaluating the behaviors, pain points, and number of touchpoints that users experience with a given product/service.

Below is a quick breakdown of Market Research vs User Research by Momentology:

Market Research User Research
Wants Needs
Reactive Proactive
Statistical Significance Good Enough
Incremental Innovative
Time Consuming Quick
Subjective Objective

Who Does This?

Most large product/digital companies now have at least one User Researcher on their teams.

Since UX research is an integral part of an organization’s larger UX Strategy, that means most UX Designers do need to conduct some form of user research to make sure that they’re building something users actually want.

Why You Should Know It

User research makes the difference between making what you think users want versus gathering insights to create something that users will actually enjoy.

Research done right is also a humbling, learning experience. It teaches you empathy and to put aside assumptions for the greater good of your users.

It’s the difference between knowing that most of your users are age 19-25 (market research) vs observing that all your younger users ignore the “Buy Button” when asked to make a purchase (behavior from user research).

Solid Resources On This Topic:

  • Just Enough Research by Erika Hall is built on the premise that research is “something every member of your team can and should do, and which everyone can learn, quickly.” And the book delivers. It’s my #1 recommendation for UX Designers need a quick start guide to user research. Practical, to the point, and full of research useful methods.
  • Observing the User Experience is the consummate text on User Research. This is the textbook we were assigned to read in the Cal State Fullerton UX Certificate program. While it is a giant book and can be a bit try, the text is sprinkled with tons of real-life examples from the three authors. A good one to keep at your desk.
  • List of User Research Methods by Usability.gov is a quick rundown of popular UX research methods

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Information Architecture (IA) section image

related to IA: content strategy, navigation design, taxonomy

Information Architecture, or “IA,” is the practice of organizing information to be clear, understandable and findable. If you’ve ever had trouble finding the info on a website, there’s a chance it’s an IA problem. Confusing label here. Weird category name there.

Who Does This?

The job title “Information Architect” dates back before “User Experience Designer” came into being. Today, IAs are now seen as a specialty, and there aren’t as many jobs with strict IA responsibilities because many jobs now demand a broader UX skillset.

UX Designers do not necessarily deal with information architecture with as much depth as a dedicated IA professional, but this is a foundational stage of design for any project regardless of job title.

Why You Should Know It:

Much of design is organizing information. Those with strong IA skills can create sensible, flexible structures that scale. Information architects thrive with content heavy sites, e-commerce, and any situation where lots of (meta)data is required,

Knowledge in Information Architecture will not only help you become a UX Designer, but also assist in all facets of life – writing emails, organizing your files and beyond.

Solid Resources On This Topic:

  • Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond is the consummate text on the topic. Now in its 4th edition, this big reference book is the best starting point for building IA knowledge.
  • How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert lives up to its tagline –Information Architecture for Everybody. It’s a refreshing approach that lowers the barrier to IA with plain language and great examples. The blog at AbbyTheIA is also chock full of educational diagrams and posts on Information Architecture.
  • The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture by UXBooth is a great introduction into the world of IA with links and references to many resources. It’s a very comprehensive list that I’ve bookmarked myself!

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Interaction Design (IxD) section image

closely related: usability, experience design, human-computer interaction

At a broad level, Interaction Design concerns how people interact with products, systems and services. If imagined in Venn diagram form, interaction design encompasses a significant piece of User Experience Design. Thus IxD and UxD after often used interchangeably.

Who Does This?

“Interaction Designer” and “UX Designer” are often interchangeable job titles. If there is a core skill that UX Designers are expected to know, interaction design is that core skill. IxD applies to anyone who prototypes interactive experiences.

Anecdotally, as of this writing (Jan 2016), I find that job descriptions are often more accurate for Interaction Designer roles compared to UX Designer roles, because the latter can include any number of skillsets (pixel-perfect visual design, front-end programming, etc).

Why You Should Know It:

The field of Interaction Design demands that designers elevate their thinking from static to interactive. A sample group of questions that IxDs concern themselves with:

  • What’s the flow of the system?
  • What if this could be reduced from 6 steps to 3?
  • How can we prevent users from making errors?

If this sounds similar to usability, you’re also right. From load times to ensuring your design’s touch targets are large enough, usability is a huge focus of User Experience at large. There’s a reason why UPA changed its name to UXPA 2012.

Solid Resources On This Topic:

  • Complete Guide to Interaction Design – UXBooth does it again with another solid beginners resource. Chock full of useful links and people to follow.
  • About Face (4th Edition) by Alan Cooper is your bible for Interaction Design. The chapter on “Metaphors, Idioms, Affordances” is damn interesting, and “Digital Etiquette” will make you rethink how to treat users with your design.
  • Don’t Make Me Think is the most popular introductory text onusability. Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy is a great companion handbook on how to identify and solve usability problems.
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is the standard textbook in this field for a good reason. It’s hard not to become a more considerate and observant designer after reading this book.
  • Web Form Design by Luke Wroblewsi is probably the most underrated and immediately useful text you can pick up today. His book is full of examples (good and bad) of how to handle user input. A designer ends up making many forms in her lifetime, and so reading this book provides an immediate return on investment

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Visual Design Section Image

closely related: graphic design / communication design

Visuals make the “top” layer of the design stack, and good visual design helps users connect with products. As far as digital UI design is concerned, the main subtopics include typography, layout, color, and increasingly animation.

Who Does This?

Those with training in traditional graphic design typically make a great transition into designing high fidelity interfaces for digital products, with job titles like Visual Designer, User Interface Designer and occasionally Product Designer.

Employers are understanding more and more now that UI is not UX, but having Visual design skills is often seen as a must for UX Designer positions. UXers might not be required to make the hottest graphic design, but they’ll need to create clean designs that look good.

Why You Should Know It:

Good visual design enables a designer to go from concept (low-fi) to product (high-fidelity). Almost every UX Designer will feel immediately more powerful with visual & UI design in their tool belt.

And let’s not forget that visual design engenders trust and confidence in users. From behavior specialist, BJ Fogg:

“…looking good is often interpreted as being good—and being credible…This basic human processing bias— “looking good is being good” —also seems to hold true for evaluating the credibility of Web sites, especially since design look is highly noticeable.”

Solid Resources On This Topic:

  • The Non-Designers Design Book (4th Ed) is the best bang-for-buck book on visual design I’ve ever read. Knowing “C.R.A.P.” (you’ll find out) alone is worth the cost of this book; to this day I still apply these principles to all my designs.
  • Practical Typography is a beautiful free guide on typography. Since designs are 90% text (look at any web design and strip out the text…what are you left with?), knowing a few good typography rules will immediately enhance your designs. Start with Butterick’s Typography in Ten Minutes for a quick primer.
  • Design for Hackers by David Kadavy is a surprisingly deep book that teaches design from a historical perspective, analyzing how we arrive at design today through architecture, the development of the alphabet and beyond. The book does a great job explaining the “why” behind visual design principles.

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Other topics of consideration

I don’t consider the following topics core to a UX curriculum for beginners; they don’t come up as often on-the-job as the aforementioned topics. With that said, the following topics are all industries onto themselves, and knowledge in them will prove very useful for UX Designers.

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UX Metrics (analytics) section image

closely related: Analytics, KPIs, ROI, A/B Testing

How do you know if your design is successful? How do you measure a product’s user experience?

User Experience metrics help provide “objective, persuasive data on which to base your design recommendations” (NNGroup).

Who Does This?

There is a “data” person/team at most companies and they come in several forms:

  • Data Analyst
  • Business analyst
  • SEO (Search Engine Optimization) professionals
  • SEM (Search Engine Marketing) professionals
  • Analytics (web and/or marketing)

It’s smart for UX designers to partner with and learn from those who own metrics in order to measure the user experience.

But with services like Google Analytics, Optimizely and CrazyEgg, UX designers can get started measuring UX on their own.

Why You Should Consider It:

When working with stakeholders – especially those in the business realm – metrics help designers get buy-in. Numbers help explain how designers arrive at certain decisions.

Analytics are powerful when paired with user testing to strike a balance between qualitative and quantitative factors. It’s the difference between knowing how many people clicked a button (quantitative) versus reasons why people clicked that button (qualitative).

Peter Drucker, management guru, is known for saying “What gets measured gets managed.” Measuring the user experience with the right metrics helps designers stay objective and work towards a goal.

Solid Resources On This Topic:

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Content Strategy section image

closely related: copywriting, information architecture

Bless Wikipedia for having the simplest definition of content strategy:

Content strategy refers to the planning, development, and management of content—written or in other media.

Who Does This?

Just as “UX Designers” used to be called by other names (*cough web designer cough*), “Content Strategists” have come into their own in recent years.

Due to the recent formalization of the field, those who hold titles like “web content writer” and “copywriter” often do content strategy.

Anyone who writes words or creates media for consumption can leverage content strategy to their benefit.

Why You Should Consider It:

Designers who have a sense of content strategy can design better sites that feel natural and conversational, as opposed to cold and transactional.

There’s a saying in the digital business that “content is king.” Think of any website or app and strip out just the text, and you remove 90% of its meaning. Then take out other media like images and you pretty much just have a skeleton of a layout.

You may have heard of content-first design, which sounds like exactly what it is: starting a design with the content first. It’s a great way to prioritize designs, because changing the words is much easier than changing a design.

Some of my articles like The Text First Portfolio and Minimum Viable UX Portfolio have a content-first bent to them.

Solid Resources on the Topic:

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search engine optimization (SEO) section image

closely related: UX Metrics analytics, search engine marketing (SEM)

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of making your content get found by search engines. Here’s the formal definition:

The process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s unpaid results—often referred to as ‘natural,” “organic,” or “earned” results.

Who Does This?

Many SEO Professionals refer to themselves as SEOs, or search engine optimizers. Here are some job titles you might be working with:

  • SEO Professional
  • SEO Specialist
  • Search Specialist
  • SEO/SEM/Analytics Specialist

The last bullet points shows how SEOs are often responsible for digital marketing and analytics efforts.

Why You Should Consider It:

You’ve designed a great website and made it live. Other than notifying friends on your Facebook and Twitter, how do strangers find your new creation? In one word, Google (okay, and other search engines.)

Aside: my SEO friends joke that they don’t work at Google, but Google keeps them employed.

More and more, user experience factors like mobile-friendly sites and loading time affect how high websites rank on search engines.

SEO practices also cross-pollinate with information architecture and content strategy – if people search for a certain term, why not use that same content on your page when designing?

Solid Resources on the Topic:

  • Beginner’s Guide to SEO – the massive free guide to SEO from Moz, a leading SEO company
  • Marketing Guru Neil Patel’s The On-Page SEO Cheatsheet is an action-packed post with practical tips for designers
  • Stick to blogs like Moz and Search Engine Land to stay updated; Google can make changes to their search algorithms at any point, so even books 1 year old may be outdated

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Code, Development, Programming section image

closely related: programming, front-end development, back-end development

At a certain point, designs need to be made into real working products. Prototypes and new design-to-code tools are getting better each day, but they still don’t come close to manipulating code.

Who Does This?

This is the longest ongoing debate in the design community: should designers code? The answer to that question is “it depends.”

In The Last Post You’ll Read On Whether UX Designers Need to Learn Code, I argue that the contexts of work environment and team structure are vital. For example, someone who wants to work in a leaner environment that requires wearing more hats (startups) may have to pick up front-end web development, whereas another person who wants to focus purely on UX can specialize in larger teams. 

People who code for a living go by just as many names as designers, so I’ll list the job titles with the most cross-over with UX roles:

  • Web Designer
  • UX/UI Developer
  • Digital Designer
  • Front-end developer
  • Product Designer (more and more so associated with a “unicorn” skillset)

Why You Should Consider It:

Even a little front-end knowledge can help UX Designers communicate with developers. Given 2 equally good designs, knowing that one solution is easier to implement in code will save you and the developer a lot of time.

There’s one camp arguing that knowing the realities of code can stifle the most creative, user-centric designs. While that might apply for some people, I don’t know a single designer who regrets their coding ability.

Solid Resources on the Topic:

  • Codecademy is the de-facto beginner’s resource on learning code through interactive lessons. I highly recommend following up with General Assembly’s free Dash interactive tutorials, which help you build more fun mini-projects.
  • Shay Howe’s Learn to Code HTML & CSS is a beautiful resource that covers both Beginner and Advanced topics for free :-)
  • Check out A Smarter Way to Learn HTML & CSS and A Smarter Way to Learn Javascript, a series that helps beginners learn coding concepts quick. “The learner spends two to three times as long practicing as he does reading. Based on cognitive research showing that retention increases 400 percent when learners are challenged to retrieve the information they just read.” Sounds promising, and the Amazon reviews are near-perfect!
  • Codepen is the Dribbble of code. It not only allows you to explore interesting designs from a thriving community of coders, but you can easily see how designs are implemented in HTML/CSS/Javascript.
  • Macaw and Webflow are two of the most formidable design-to-code products on the market today. They aren’t perfect and come with their own learning curves, but I’ve heard that the actual code output quality is quite impressive.

Do I have to learn all that?

If you feel a bit overwhelmed right now, then what’d you expect from an Ultimate List?? Just kidding. This industry is huge and I stress again that you don’t have to master all of these topics.

But knowing about these topics helps make you into a more complete UX Designer, because they are all different facets of building a product/service. This is especially true when you interview with an entire digital team (not just with the UX team).

Try reading through one or 2 links in each topic’s Solid Resources and you’ll be ahead of most UX Beginners.

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