The CareerExplorer Discord Community had the opportunity to speak to Shannon Boyd, a UX designer, in a live, fireside Q&A.
The transcript below has been modified and abridged from the original conversation.
Shannon Boyd is a UX designer, currently working at Sokanu in Vancouver, Canada. She has worked at various digital product enterprises, while completing university studies, for the past three years.
Prior to completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Interactive Arts and Technology from Simon Fraser University, Shannon studied Science and Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia.
The roles of UI, UX, and Graphic Design
There is often confusion between UI and UX. Could you clarify what each role involves?
They are related concepts (which are sometimes used interchangeably at certain companies) but they generally refer to slightly different roles.
UI stands for ‘user interface’. The user interface is the mechanism by which a user interacts with a product or feature, thus it is a primary component of the user experience.
UX stands for ‘user experience’. It is a broader term which encompasses many elements across multiple touchpoints that make up a customer’s experience with a product or service. It goes beyond interface and visual design; involving customer research, content, product strategy, information architecture, motion design and animation, and more.
UX is about creating a deliberately crafted end-to-end experience that delivers value to users and, in the case of designing a product or service for a company, fulfills a brand promise. One caveat: there is no single definition of UX that is agreed upon by all members of the field, particularly when it comes to job titles and the responsibilities included. It’s a good idea to carefully read the details of a job description to understand the role beyond the title listed.
It’s also probably worth mentioning the role of product design, as it’s frequently used in proximity to UX design. Product design tends to be the label used at companies that build and maintain their own digital products or services. The role of a product designer encompasses all the same skills and responsibilities of a UX designer, but with a greater focus on considering business requirements within the design process, as well as thinking about how the design can scale and align with the future product direction.
Could you also clarify the differences between a UI/UX designer and a graphic designer?
Within a digital product context, a graphic designer or visual designer tends to be primarily responsible for the look and feel of the product.
They could be working to define brand assets like color, typography, iconography, logo, illustrations, or they could be working on marketing assets like promotional emails, advertising banners, landing pages, etc. In other contexts, they might design signage, wayfinding, posters, slide decks, etc. I have never worked as a graphic designer, so there are probably a lot of applications missing from this description!
It’s important for a UI or UX designer to have a solid competency in visual design, because it’s expected that any visual elements of a product experience are intelligible and beautiful.
Getting Started in UX Design
What drew you to the field of user experience (UI/UX) design?
Initially, my plan was to pursue architecture, and since the architecture program I was interested in at the University of British Columbia [in Vancouver, BC] is a master’s degree, I needed to choose an undergraduate program to complete first.
I ended up deciding to take a Bachelor of Arts degree from the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University, with a focus on design. Although the program was much more focused on digital technology than anything I had studied or been interested in previously, it was a compelling option. After my first couple of semesters learning graphic design, animation, spatial design, UX, and more, I was really excited about the career opportunities in digital design and decided that this was the path I wanted to pursue instead of architecture.
I realized that UX design, in particular, is a blend of disciplines that I had always been passionate about—psychology, art, writing and communication, and strategic problem solving. I also discovered that UI/UX designers are in high demand at the moment, so from a pragmatic perspective, I felt hopeful about the prospect of finding work in my field during and after my education.
How long did it take to complete your education?
It’s a four-year degree program, however, like many students pursuing the design stream, I took about 5.5 years to complete it. For the first few semesters, I took a full-time course load but later on I reduced my workload to part-time and took a couple of semesters off to pursue internships and other opportunities.
Would someone be able to learn UX design without a degree?
I think it’s possible to learn the fundamentals of UX through self-learning. I’ve certainly learned a lot from other designers sharing tutorials and articles online (Medium is a great source).
However, UX practice tends to be a highly collaborative, iterative process. One of the biggest assets of my education was working on teams with other students and learning from each other. Also, many of the courses were structured around a studio model, where on a weekly basis, students would share work in front of the class and participate in group critiques that would inform how to move forward with our projects. Both of those elements were hugely beneficial in not only improving my own design skills, but also preparing me for the environment of professional design practice.
I’m not suggesting that someone couldn’t do UX design if they were self-taught, but I think it would be really beneficial to find a mentor who can offer regular feedback on their work and provide connections to other people to learn from.
Were there many assignments and late nights studying?
Yes! Because so many of my courses were focused on group projects, there were quite a few late nights spent working with my team to get everything done before a presentation.
Working as a UX Designer
Was it difficult getting your first job?
I was fortunate to have a strong network in my university program’s community, and I received my first UX internship through a referral from a professor. After that, I went through a more traditional interview process for my second internship, though, again, I was fortunate enough to have a connection with the initial interviewer through my school network.
What was the interview process like?
For my second internship, I went through a screening call with a company recruiter, and then two rounds of interviews with designers from different departments. For each of the interviews, I presented my past work (which only included school projects at that point) and answered questions about my process and learnings.
Finally, after I received a job offer, I had meetings with a couple of design teams within the company to figure out where I would be a good fit.
Did you present a portfolio during the interview?
Yes. In fact, sharing a portfolio is usually a requirement for even submitting an application. Along with your resume, a portfolio is one of the key assets that recruiters will use to determine if they want to offer you an interview.
One thing I’ve noticed from interviewing with various companies is that everyone has a different opinion on how to best present a project case study. I’ve had some interviewers tell me that they wished my portfolio displayed my process more thoroughly and that it showed all the iterations which led to the final form. Others have said that they don’t have time to read lengthy case studies and prefer to see brief, highly visual examples of the project, which can then be discussed in greater detail during an interview.
I’m still trying to figure out the right balance, but my current strategy is to write up a succinct project overview, and also provide a link to a more detailed case study for those who are interested in reading more. I found this article from a design recruiter at Figma to be a useful guide.
Does location (where you live) matter when it comes to job opportunities?
Prior to 2020, I would have said yes but it seems to matter a lot less now that so many companies have switched to a remote work model. The majority of UX/UI jobs are concentrated in large cities, with San Francisco and New York being bigger hubs in North America.
What is the earning potential for a UX/UI designer?
It varies depending on the type of company and location. Agencies and startups tend to pay a bit less compared to large, established enterprises. Also, jobs in the US tend to be higher-paying than in Canada and Europe.
A rough estimate of an agency/startup salary range would be something like $65K USD at a junior level, to $150K at a more senior level. Larger companies could be more in the range of $110K USD for junior to $300K at the higher levels.
There are other elements of total compensation to consider, like bonuses, receiving equity, as well as benefits the company offers (some will match contributions to your 401K, in addition to various spending accounts for health and wellness). I’ve found some online resources like salary.design and Blind helpful for gauging compensation at different companies.
Also, at least within my network, people are pretty open to having transparent discussions about their salaries. The only people who benefit from secrecy around employee compensation are employers!
What type of person would do well in this career?
Ideally, someone pursuing this career would have a blend of creativity and problem-solving skills. Being a critical thinker, being comfortable with ambiguity, and having a general interest in working with digital technology would be good assets for someone to have.
How much variety is there in your job?
It depends on the company. At one place I worked, design didn’t have a very prominent role in the product development process, so my work tended to be quite repetitive and focused on producing design artifacts (e.g. mocks, demos) based on decisions made by others.
Places I’ve worked where design is more highly valued, my job had more variety—involving research, defining high-level product strategy, ideating potential future product solutions or new features, as well as being an equal stakeholder in all product decisions for projects on the company roadmap. Good managers recognize that design is fundamentally creative work and so they should offer support in ensuring that you are feeling stimulated and challenged.
What computer skills do you need to do your job? Do you need to be able to code?
There are a variety of digital tools that I use on a daily basis. At the moment, I mainly use Figma, Principle, After Effects, and (occasionally) Webflow for working on wireframes, mocks, and prototypes. I also use Notion and Google Workspace for project management.
However, I’ve noticed that the preferred or industry-standard software for designers seems to change rapidly (RIP, Sketch and InVision) so I think the most important computer/technology skill to have is the ability to learn and adapt to new software and workflows.
The question of whether designers should know how to code is hotly debated and doesn’t really have a definitive answer. You definitely don’t need to know how to code to work as a designer, but I think it’s really beneficial to understand some of the principles of software engineering, particularly front end development.
The more you understand, the easier it is to communicate with the engineers who you’re working alongside with on a project. It also can make you more empathetic to their motivations and challenges, which might be quite different from yours.
How often do you interact/work with other people? Are people skills necessary?
Design involves frequent collaboration with others, whether it’s sharing your work for feedback from other designers, negotiating project decisions with other stakeholders, or conducting research interviews with customers.
It’s definitely important to have the ability to work with others, particularly others with personalities and areas of expertise that might be distinctly different from your own. I think that having strong communication skills is essential to being a successful designer and to building constructive relationships with other team members. I’ve found that the better I’m able to communicate my decisions and rationale throughout my design process, the more buy-in and trust I earn from other stakeholders on the project.
Are there negative aspects to being a UI/UX designer?
Not in my opinion! However, all UI/UX jobs aren’t created equal. I think that some companies have the sense that UX is important but don’t fully understand how to incorporate it into their organization.
It’s a good idea to ask a lot of questions of a potential employer to find out how they view design and how it fits into their product development process, in order to figure out if the nature of the role is a good fit for what you’re seeking.
Can you give us an example of a day in the life of a UI/UX designer?
An example day might look like starting off with a stand-up meeting with the design team, where everyone shares a brief update on the status of their projects and what they will be spending the week working on.
After that I’d probably have some emails and Slack messages to follow up on. Then, there would be a few hours of heads down working time to make some progress on a design project, which could be conducting research, sketching product flows, wireframes, mocks, or creating prototypes, depending on the stage of the project.
In the afternoon there might be a design crit where I could share my in-progress work to get feedback from other designers, and offer my suggestions to other designers on their projects. Afterwards, there could be a design review meeting where a larger, cross-functional group meets to take an in-depth look at a particular project that’s underway and makes decisions about how to move forward. At the end of the day the team might hang out for a drink before leaving for the day, since most offices have a very casual, social environment.
Advice and Closing Thoughts
If you could go back in time, would you have done anything differently?
I don’t think I would have done anything differently! Not in terms of big decisions at least. I’m a believer in the idea that every experience you have helps prepare you for whatever comes next, so it’s hard to regret past decisions through that lens.
The only thing I wish I had done a better job of is maintaining my portfolio. There are a number of opportunities I chose not to pursue because I felt that my portfolio was so outdated that I couldn’t possibly prepare in time. I probably should have gone after those opportunities regardless, but as I said, no regrets.
What advice do you have for those wanting to pursue a career in UI/UX design?
Start building your network right away, and try to take advantage of internship opportunities while you’re still in school. I think prioritizing those over graduating quickly will serve you well in the long run.
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