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An open letter to second generation UX designers in Singapore

by Foolproof Team
12th January 2016

I recently had the privilege to be on a panel discussion about UX careers with Melissa Ng, founder of design studio MELEWI and my colleague Khai Seng for the inaugural batch of User Experience Design Immersive students at General Assembly Singapore.

Amongst the commonly asked questions were a few themes that I would like to explore in an open letter to second generation UX designers. Below are a selection of these questions, my responses and reflections from my co-panelists.

Design-driven economies
  1. “How is the UX industry today compared to when you were starting out and what new challenges do you see?”
  2. “Do you think being a Southeast-Asian UX designer gives you an advantage on the world stage?”
  3. “Do you see mobile design moving towards feature phones in Asia (since there are still developing countries)?”

It’s an exciting time to venture into experience design and I couldn’t be more envious. Compared to the lack of awareness and activity 10 years ago (the first UXSG meetup only ran in 2011!), there are now numerous design and tech events, formal and community-led training, and UX jobs in our little red dot. The fact that General Assembly and Hyperisland have opened campuses here speaks volumes.

However, it’s not uncommon for many job descriptions to recruit for ‘unicorns’ (designers who ‘can do it all’ e.g. user research, UI design, information architecture, visual design AND front-end development) due to limited budgets or understanding of the practice. Don’t be afraid to apply for the role and definitely don’t be shy about pointing out that such people are likely to be rare Jedi Masters like Yoda!

That said, people-centred design will remain a focus as Singapore continues to transform itself into a digital economy and our regional neighbours advance in innovation. As with any country you live or work in, your advantage will be your business and cultural knowledge of the market, so keep conducting design research to deepen that knowledge (this includes the mobile platforms your customers use and what you should then design for).

Design as a craft
  1. “Do you have a UX bible that we can burn and drink with water? There’s so much theory to learn and we still have to be like Indiana Jones to explore and experiment with techniques.”
  2. “What resources do you use and what advice would you give to your old self?”
  3. “What is your design philosophy?”

The first question is hilarious and brings back memories as a UX Padawan: Excitement led to fear. Fear led to self-doubt. Self-doubt led to suffering.

UX design can be overwhelming because so many aspects come into play but don’t feel like you need to master everything at once. Tap on the community as you navigate these choppy waters (meetups are great spaces to ask questions). As with the mastery of any craft, the journey will be tough but the dots will connect one day. Meanwhile, remember that initial excitement and have fun!

There are plenty of articles, books and online courses around but my favourite ways to learn involve:

  • Dissecting experiences (e.g. customer service, restaurants, self-service kiosks) the same way children take things apart to find out how they work.
  • Collecting digital and physical user interfaces.
  • Watching TV shows about other crafts (e.g. Top Chef, Project Runway, Face Off) to see how they approach different design challenges/constraints, work in teams and deal with adversity.

I don’t have a design philosophy per se but really appreciate how some architects meditate on-site to understand the space before they start sketching. Similarly, I try to approach my craft (and pretty much life) with self-awareness and equanimity. Khai Seng talks more about this in Mindful user experience.

Design mentors
  1. “How is your job different from agency to in-house to freelance and which do you recommend for someone starting out in UX?”
  2. “How do you identify a good mentor – what questions would you ask during the interview?”

During the panel, Melissa and I recommended starting out in a good agency to gain exposure to different methodologies, industries and ways of working. However, Khai Seng countered that it’s not about where you go but who you can learn from.

Having stumbled upon UX out of sheer chance in 2005, I was incredibly fortunate that my bosses then not only helped me grow into a strong generalist but trusted my thinking. In today’s world with many employers to choose from, here are some questions you could ask to identify a suitable mentor:

  • Why and how did they get into UX?
  • What’s their past experience as well as understanding of UX?
  • What are their values – are they aligned with yours?
  • What’s their working style – does it clash with yours?
  • How have they coached a junior team member in the past?
  • How do they react to mistakes made in a hypothetical scenario?
  • How is their relationship with their team?

Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way – you might learn from other entrepreneurs like Melissa or you might use the community as an ongoing support group like I did when I was an in-house team of one. You might find a good mentor in an organisation that isn’t ready for UX or it might take a few jobs before you can finetune your needs. Everyone has a different path.

So go forth and be brave. Make plenty of mistakes and learn from them. Take care of your wellbeing and don’t burn out in your eagerness to grow. I look forward to learning from you someday.

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