Career advice for UX designers, from Aarron Walter

Go deeper into research. Focus more on the problem than the solution.

As the VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter draws upon 15 years of experience running product teams and teaching design to help companies enact design best practices.

And recently during an AMA hosted by Aaron Walter on our BetterUX Slack channel, he expertly fielded many questions covering a range of design topics. However we thought for this round-up we’d highlight his replies to questions around getting started in design, how to stand out and how to survive!

After founding the UX practice at MailChimp and growing the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million, as well as guiding design at the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, you know you’re in very safe hands.

Many more questions were answered during Aaron’s AMA, which you can view by signing up to the community.

Do you have any advice for a new UX designer?

It depends on where you are in your career.

Starting out:

  • You’ve got to be curious, constantly reading, listening to podcasts, attending conferences, always pushing your skills and understanding forward
  • Accepts a humble position if needed and experiment, hustle, work extra hours, work harder than anyone else

Further in your career:

  • Negotiate your salary when you take a new position. It can take many review cycles—years—to catch up to a well-negotiated salary
  • Go deeper into research. Focus more on the problem than the solution.

Any level of your career:

  • Reach a high savings rate, live modestly. Keeping up with the Joneses will mean you have to take work you don’t like. Your things will own you.

Do you have advice for a young designer joining a startup as the only UX designer?

This can be a tough situation. You’ll need to be vocal in advocating for the customer. Take key partners with you on customer interviews, run lunch time usability tests with free pizza, show rather than tell about the customer experience as much as possible.

Think carefully about your language. You should be speaking about design through the lens of business. Tell people how design influences churn, signups, retention, customer satisfaction, etc. If you advocate for design with language specific to the craft of design, or make moral arguments that good design is the right thing to do, you’re going to have a lot of skeptics who will start to think design is too squishy to central to your efforts.

How do you stand out as a junior UI designer?

  1. Work harder than everyone else.
  2. Ask experienced people very specific questions to help fill gaps in your knowledge. If you ask, “will you mentor me?” you’ll probably get shot down because your ask is too broad. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee and ask you some questions” will almost always work. Come with specific questions.
  3. Consume all of the books, podcasts, articles you can. The most successful people in any industry have one thing in common—they out learn everyone else.

When you hire entry level designers, what are the most important skills that you look for?

I wrote about this here:

I look for soft skills first like:

  • Humility
  • Work ethic
  • Adaptability
  • Growth mindset
  • Collaborative mindset

I do screen for hard skills too, but those are coachable. If there’s a gap in a candidates skills I can likely help get them up to speed, something that’s very hard to do with soft skills.

I try to reduce inherent biases that creep into the hiring process as follows:

  • Create diverse hiring panels with multiple genders, races, ethnicities, disciplines, etc represented. This helps us see candidates from multiple angles and reduces the likelihood of creating homogeneous teams.
  • I avoid “culture fit” thinking—this person is like us. This creates bias. Instead I try to have a “culture add” mindset. I consider how a candidate adds to our culture and can challenge us to think in new ways.

Do you have a recommended order of hires if you start off with one UX person?

It all depends on the circumstances of the company, what’s most pressing and what you can afford. Early on you need to hire generalists who can do a lot of different types of work—design a marketing site, work on a UI, maybe pull together some icons. As the company grows you need to hire specialists who can do these specific tasks better.

When I built the design team at MailChimp I intentionally focused on UI design, front-end dev, and research—all things I did myself in the early days of the company. I then systematically hired in each of those disciplines to raise our skill level.

Can you walk us through how you normally deal with unproductive feedback from stakeholders?

Such a good question. The best way to handle it is to prevent it.

  1. Start each project with a DARCI or RACI model identifying the stakeholders, who is consulted and who is the approver. This will eliminate the random input from unexpected places.
  2. Create gates for project, reviews where stakeholders have to be present to give feedback. If they can’t make it, they need to send a proxy. After that gate is passed their feedback can not be acted upon.
  3. Run really tight design reviews. Send a great email to invite people letting them know what you’ll review, what you hope to get from the review, what’s inbounds and out of bounds. More about that here:

I was part of a project recently where an exec came in way late in a project, just days before launch, and gave us detailed feedback. This person was not a stakeholder, gave great feedback, but it was just too late to act upon.

We had to do two things:

  1. Politely thank this person for their feedback and let them know we’d consider it for a future iteration.
  2. Politely, but clearly tell the exec who invited that person’s feedback that what he’d done was counterproductive and even damaging to the project and team morale.

Diplomacy is important, but people will often respect boundaries when they are communicated clearly and calmly. You can’t be a doormat.

How do you stay focused on the most critical customer problems as you scale, when you’re getting increasingly more requests for changes?

To keep a large group of people focused on customer problems you need to be a good story teller. Create a vision for the future, how your customers will use your products and how their lives will be influenced.

This will point you in the right direction:

Humans for millennia have accomplished big things at scale through storytelling. In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes,

“How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”

A common myth can be a vision video that shows a product story—something Facebook and Hulu do regularly. Or even a storyboard, which has guided Airbnb for 7 years now.

For more questions answered during Aaron’s recent AMA, sign up to our UX Slack community

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