Stepping into the world of UX

Nicola du Toit
5 min readJul 13, 2018

I recently met an acquaintance who was hoping to move into the (wonderful) world of UX design here in South Africa. She was working as a developer, and had done some formal but limited UX training, and was coming up against the age old issue of “where is your portfolio?”. The following is an adaptation of my advice to her.

Make a portfolio, no matter what

If you can’t wangle any UX into your current work, then work on creating a portfolio in your spare time. This can consist of ideas that you evolve from a concept to high-fidelity mockups or (if you can code) into functioning prototypes that can live on the web.

A portfolio demonstrating a couple of ideas that you conceptualised, prototyped with users (read: family and friends!), tested and built into a mockup will put you way ahead on the curve.

Document everything

The purpose of a UX portfolio is to show that you understand and can apply user-centred methodologies and tools. Yes, the final product should be showcased, but it’s equally important to document how you built that product. It’s like a high school maths problem: “show your ways of working!”

Don’t be scared to include rough or messy work. For example, if you start designing wireframes on a paper napkin in a coffee shop, take a photo and explain how this was where your great idea was born! If you hold an informal focus group, document the questions you asked and write up your findings. Share photos from the session itself. It’s as important to show how you did your research and design, as it is to show the results.

If you’re not sure about which design steps to include, do some reading about the user-centred design (UCD) framework. UCD is the toolkit we use to design great user experiences. Contextual inquiries, participatory design, prototyping, usability testing — that’s all part of UCD! An excellent book about which tools to use when is “Interaction Design” by Rogers, Sharp & Preece.

Learn the software

Almost every UX position I’ve seen advertised requires that you know Figma, Sketch, UXPin or Axure. All have free trials and affordable licensing options. I would suggest you play with them all, and then choose one and get to know it properly. Not only will you be able to produce shiny wireframes and mockups but you’ll also have an opinion on which design software you like best and why.

The other staple to be familiar with is Adobe CC. It can’t hurt to know your way around Photoshop and Illustrator. Adobe’s new cloud pricing structure is far more affordable than it used to be. And if you can’t afford Adobe products, then learn to use GIMP and Inkscape — two excellent and free alternatives.

Read, read and read some more

Google is your friend. There is a huge amount of fantastic UX literature out there. Usability Counts’ “UX Resume and Career Guide” is a really good place to start if you’re new to UX. Also check out the Nielsen Norman Group website (started by the godfathers of UX — Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman). They have an awesome weekly newsletter, amongst other things.

There is also an epic UX community on Twitter. For starters check out these tweeps recommended by the Interaction Design Foundation. They’re always posting interesting articles and links. Read the links that they share and engage with them and their content. Tweet all the things!

If you have time: study!

There are amazing formal and informal ways to study UX in South Africa. Investigate what your local university offers. For example, the University of Cape Town offers a Masters in Information Technology that includes Human-Computer Interaction. UCT’s d-school at the Graduate School of Business offers a range of courses in design thinking for students and professionals. For a faster learning experience, checkout GetSmarter’s online UX course. And of course there are amazing free options online such as Coursera’s HCI specialisation. If you’re flush with cash, definitely investigate Human Factors International’s training programs.

Create an online presence

If you haven’t already done so, build yourself a website. If you aren’t familiar with HTML and CSS there are free website options out there (like Squarespace and Weebly), but learning some basic markup will help you design for the web, and it looks good on your CV so it’s worth doing! (Check out Codecademy if you’re not sure where to start).

Put your portfolio online. Keep it up to date. Blog, tweet, share. Online communication is important in the world of UX. If you can post or re-share a couple or articles a month, it’ll demonstrate that you’re always learning, interested and engaged. Potential employers love this — and they will stalk you online before that interview!

Network

Go to meetups. Go to conferences. Get to know who your local UX practitioners are and connect with them — have that cup of coffee. In Cape Town we have fairly regular UX Masterclasses. These are a great way to meet people in the field. Attend the UX South Africa conference and workshops to learn and be inspired. Get involved in your local design community.

Have faith

You will find an awesome UX position but it may take time. In South Africa UX design is still a relatively young field — a lot of companies are realising that they need UX but they aren’t sure why just yet. Keep looking and keep applying for positions. But be picky about what you apply for. Don’t go for the “UX/UI/graphic design/developer” job ads — those recruiters and employers don’t know what they need from the role.

In the meantime, keep working on your portfolio. You don’t have to be employed as a UX designer in order to start practising to be one. There’s no shame in saying “well I couldn’t do any UX in my current job, so I did all this in my spare time” — that says a heck of a lot about you as a person and about your keenness to get into UX!

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Nicola du Toit

UX and usability specialist, founder of The Empathy Lab by day. Musician by night. Archaeology and anthropology student in between.