Alright, I'm going to break this down in separate sections so it's a little easier to digest. Each item isn't necessarily a question, just different thoughts broken down, though there's questions throughout. Obviously, a lot of this has been on my mind as of late and just want to get some of this off my chest!
If you tl;dr this, I totally understand. I tried, that's all I can ask.
deep breath, pounds back protein shake
1. So I'm speaking as a web/UI/visual designer who is looking to get into UX. As I eluded to in the thread with Patrick Neeman, I have a rather light portfolio from a visual designer perspective, so even worse off from a UX sense. I have done several websites in the past that have shut down, mostly blog sites that helped me build my craft, and only have one recent one that, while visually 'decent', wasn't much of an excercise in UX so much as "Hey, I'll update your website", "Cool, thanks!". No user research outside of educated guesses on the type of clientele, no personas, just a few sketches that are long gone, style tiles for layout, and straight HTML into brochureware that is retrofitted with CushyCMS for client edits. And the downside to that one project? It took FOREVER (see #7).
Otherwise, I've worked in-house pretty much most of my career, past positions being web/print hybrid and this one only recently being web exclusive over the past year (currently work for a wholesaler, so we're talking e-commerce). I don't have much of a variety to speak of, I work on the same site day in and day out, working on different elements here or there (#2). So I need further work, I have to figure out where it comes from. I do have the latest UX Mastery ebook, and have a few things to say about the recommendations there, as well as suggestions elsewhere (#4 and #5).
Problem is, it doesn't take long for someone to change something or to request a change, usually without my knowledge, and the non-designer developers go in and wreak havoc on what I produced. Thus, the user interfaces I've designed have been compromised, and prospective employers checking out the site are seeing an end-product that does not represent my skills. I essentially have to rely on my Photoshop mockups from before with the caveat "No, really, it used to look like this but someone changed it".
This is definitely an issue with organization, ownership, and communication, but the problem is there.
- This is basically the one question I was going to ask before it evolved into this mega-post: what should I, as a current visual & web designer, be focusing on or doing? What I mean is a lot of the suggestions on carrying out UX projects typically involve a pro-bono (#4) or hypo/hyperthetical project (#5), but as confident in my skills as a web/UI/visual guy, about the most I could produce for someone is brochureware. I don't have the resources or skills to build out anything remotely complex. I am learning some backend (#9), but essentially I feel the extent of what my skills can offer is "Here is what your site will look like! Now someday we might get it to work". I'm basically reinforcing my skillset as a visual and UI designer at this point. Sure, I can go through an entire UX process, but at the end of the day, it's an unfinished or semi-static site at the most.
Yes, there is the option to hire out development work in an outsourcing capacity, but that brings up…
Pro-bono work. I see this suggested frequently with alarming regularity. Nevermind the obvious ethical issues. Usually it's suggested to do pro-bono for non-profits, but the availability of a non-profit isn't a guarantee. Also, there's the practicality. Not everyone has the disposable income to take on a free project (who hosts it?), and I would think that there is some value in the skills a new UXer has. And then there's the issue of outsourcing anything to fill in gaps of your own skill set. Taking on a pro-bono project and then trying to find a developer to make your site work seems like a loser's game. Unless you're a unicorn. Maybe I'm overthinking this and it doesn't need to be an extremely complex project.
Hypo/hyperthetical work. I've seen it mentioned in quite a few places, and I understand the suggestion. Take an existing site or some interface and take a stab at how you would handle it. Makes sense, as the content is there, and as a user you could find ways to make it work better for yourself. Except this isn't really UX. You weren't there behind the scenes to come up with the reasoning of the current design. You don't know the users, what they're like, what makes them tick, what doesn't make them tick, where they're clicking, where they're stumbling, what their current resources & technology allow; you're going off of semi-educated guesses. Essentially, you're back to just doing UI at this point.
Also, I've heard from several thought-leaders in the industry that it tends to be a slap in the face of those who have done the existing work. It comes off as a sign of disrespect. I certainly wouldn't want to do that.
A more sensible alternative to this is doing a made-up project, but this starts entering "school project" territory, which is usually cited as a last resort to portfolio work ("replace it as soon as possible"). Made-up content, pie-in-the-sky thinking, possibly unrealistic backend implementations, none of the ugly realities of real world work. Unless of course you're that mythical unicorn and can actually build out your own idea in a functional format. Or if you can find someone who will do it for you (a gigantic "if").
- So while I'm mulling all of these points, the other one that comes up quite often is the call for designers to "Learn To Code" (curiously, am not seeing calls for developers to "Learn to Visual Design", at least not at the same volume). The reasoning makes sense, and I've eluded to it a few times already, in that as a visual designer who knows markup, I can only go so far until I have to look to someone else to make something functional.
But, I get the same 24 hours as everyone else, and when I'm not working at my regular job, I have a limited amount of time to split between learning to code and learning to UX as it is, to say nothing of anything else; hiring managers (rightly) want people with personalities and other interests outside of their work, which is tough when "other interests" is given a backseat to all that time learning to code.
This isn't meant to be a cop-out from doing after-hours learning. I understand that you need to keep brushing up your skills and can't always count on on-the-job training to maintain relevance. But surely focusing on learning to code seems like it is taking time away from doing other things like reading up on human/computer interaction, cognitive psychology, etc.
So while I'm spending that very-valuable amount of time either learning to code or learning the UX craft, if I somehow magically am working on a site on the side, at the rate I'm going, I'll have enough work to satisfy a recruiter by 2025. This could just be an issue of education and stressing deadlines, but even doing that, I had to shift deadlines on my last freelance project because getting content from the client was like pulling teeth. Clients are usually a bit zippier on the delivery when they're the ones who sought you out for a project (then again, maybe not). And I feel like the incentive to submit deliverables is even less when it's a pro-bono project. I'm speaking from a dearth of experience that isn't caged in an in-house environment.
Anyway, not everything is all bad! I have been making significant strides to instill a culture of UX at my current job. It's amazing how little research and usability testing we do ("none"), but that's all changing. We're going through an implementation of mobile or responsive, pending some tech/CMS issues. So I'll be sketching my butt off, will be going to on site usability tests, developing functional wireframe/prototypes, establishing a pattern library, filling out use cases, building out the templates and the stylesheets, and making a case for design autonomy so my work isn't getting undone (while having the pattern library so developers are informed as to what to do). I'm still trying to figure out how I should present the idea of user research to management; it seems like that could be insulting ("so about the customers we've been serving for over 90 years, care to get me some information on them?").
But even after mentioning this, it was suggested in Patrick's thread that this one project still won't be enough for a portfolio. GAH! Of all the work I've put in to get this far, I feel like I'm getting left behind by those who are getting more opportunities
If you read all that, you have my apologies or thanks. Possibly both. Maybe what I need is just some time off to relax. As you've seen, I kind of have my head all over the place with this.
I did stumble on a mention at IxDA of this course which may very well address most of my concerns, and I plan on getting into that this weekend, but if anybody has any advice, words of wisdom, etc., I would be very grateful.
Anyway, thanks/sorry for reading!