How to continue to improve as a ui/ux designer

Side projects saved my career! Similar to how an athlete trains in the off season before hitting the field...

Wilian Iralzabal

Those times when you get up early... those times when you stay up late... when you're too tired... you don't want to push yourself, but you do it anyway. That is actually the dream. -Kobe Bryant


Similar to basketball, being a designer is both an individual and group activity. Here's the thing, if you want to be able to work really well with a team, you must first be competent yourself. Given that the design industry is changing so often, it's important to stay sharp at all times so that when we work together with our respective teams, we can continue to provide more and more value. But Wil, I'm not a part of a team since I'm at an early stage startup - this doesn't apply to me. If you are not working with a team of designers, you have a team of stakeholders that you should be interviewing and meeting  with regularly right? You also have users, that you are serving. Do it for them. You need to prove to them that you are there to help and be a empathetic designer.

Leveling up is not an option, it's a must

How long do you expect your child to be in the 3rd grade? Only one year right? That's why they make the desks so small. Why is it that as adults, we become dormant and stop leveling up to the next grade? Jim Rhone calls this notion, "Mysteries of the mind".

Allow me to tell you a story: In 2016, I interviewed with LinkedIn and got to the final round of interviews. During this time, I was super excited to even get that far. I looked at it as a learning opportunity, but was convinced that I had the qualities required to get that job offer. I was wrong. I did not end up getting the offer. In fact, the more seasoned I become as a designer, the more I like to get rejected - it builds character. Moral of the story is that I ended up reaching out to the director of design through LinkedIn - who interviewed me and asked her, "What can I do to continue to improve as a designer?". I went on and on about courses and bootcamps that I've been considering to get better at this ui/ux thing. She was kind enough to read over my entire message and replied very thoughtfully. I won't bore you with the details, but basically she told me to do more. Design more, iterate more and most importantly collaborate with others to create end to end digital experiences. There it is, that's your answer. This blog post is over - Mic drop. Sike, it's not done yet , since there are a few other takeaways that I would like to share with you that helped me shape the next action items in my career. First, looking back at it now, she was right. You can learn wayyy more from trial and error than you could ever learn from reading all of the ux books in a library. The hidden message was to become an avid practitioner in the art and science of digital design. It can become so easy to be a headline reader now a-days, "Have you heard of the new Framer X, have you seen the new Figma release notes, have you seen....etc.". The point is not to read about all of these new tools and be a fan boy/girl. Pick a tool and begin using it, pick a ux methodology and begin applying it, pick a prototyping tool and test your work with real users. I won't mention her name in this blog post, but the reply that I got from her was exactly what I needed to hear during that time.

Here is a link to my LinedIn design challenge. Here is the design problem, "How do you continue to bring users back to LinkedIn after they have found a job". Context: Data shows that users are less likely to be active on LinkedIn if they have a job / are happily employed by multiple clients. My solution was to target the more junior folks who are seeking mentorship first. Second persona type was the more seasoned working professional. I thought that if we can unite both junior professionals and senior professions together, then the incentive for the senior folks who have a job would come back to the app to give back / share their knowledge. Thus, fostering a greater sense of community within the platform. View full case study

Self awareness is key

Just because someone more seasoned than you are tells you something, does not mean you should do exactly that. Why? Simple answer, you are two completely different people. Long answer, what people share with you is simply a fragment of their experience and imagination. I had to really think through what it was that inspired me to do my best work. For me it was working with a small team to build a side projects. I ended up partnering with two engineers who were also deeply passionate about traveling and who also shared a similar pain point as me. We all agreed that creating itineraries was one of the most tedious / difficult parts of going on a trip. What do you do when you are itching to work on a side project and don't know what to work on? You try to solve for a problem that you are currently having - it's best if you are also working with people that share the same pain point. I believe that this is what the LinkedIn director meant when she said, "make more". The punchline here is that why you make something is just as important as making it. Find something that you are truly passionate about because it will make the actual making part that much more enjoyable. Between the three of us guys, we made a web-app named "VacayBug". I lead all of the design efforts - from branding the company, logo, colors, social media ads, marketing website design, ui/ux of the responsive web-app and later designed the iOS app. I can't express through this blog post how much I learned through this process. Here's the thing, working for a company will teach you a lot, but having a manager to guide you will speed up your learning curve, which is why I'm not saying that you should quit your job and go build a tech startup with your best buds. In fact, what I'm saying is, do both. Try to have a full time job to pay the bills and have a side hustle that you can call your baby :)

Getting better at design through doing

VacayBug - marketing home page
VacayBug - marketing home page

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. -African Proverb

As a designer, you can impact a business in many ways. I wish that I had learned that while I was in school. I mainly learned how to design logos, posters, business cards etc. Therefore, it's important to single out a section of the business that you want to improve. For myself, I had been a designer for the marketing team at HackerRank as a contractor in 2014, so the marketing side wasn't a steep learning curve. I mainly put up landing pages and all of the marketing sites that go along with building a business from the ground up. Above is a screenshot of the home page hero section with a huge value proposition tagline. "Let your trip tell a story", was one of the most meaningful tagline that we could come up with as a team. Especially since we were evolving the web-app to be more than a digital itinerary that lived on the web. This app was going to be a social travel app that allowed family, friends and even strangers to see all of the places that you visited/documented, while also being able to read about what you did in each particular location. Each trip was contained in what we called your, "digital itinerary".

While the marketing side was easier for me to pick up, the design of the actual product was not so easy since I did not have a lot of experience in that domain. I knew that I wanted to become an expert in the ui/ux space so this was the perfect opportunity for me to learn by doing. Below are a few screenshots of the app.

VacayBug - personal profile page
VacayBug - personal profile page

The profile page served to host all of the users trips. Similar to most social media websites, you have a hero section, but what was unique about VacayBug was that it showed pins on the map with all of the locations you've visited. The profile page in this case is titled as your "Passport" to keep the travel nomenclature going. During the early research phase, we got a lot of positive feedback from the users in regards to this concept. However, most users did not want to make every trip public. To help solve for these user requests, we created a tab called, "Wishlist", which consolidated all private itineraries and future planning. It's important to note that working on your own side projects is very draining when you are required to make all of the design decisions yourself. For this reason, the VacayBug team and I would go to Santa Clara University each weekend to interview random students about their thoughts on VacayBug. Through quantitative and qualitative research we were able to bring this app to life. Let's cover what an actual itinerary container looks like:

1: Each itinerary was a container of location(s) that a person has visited or will soon visit.

VacayBug - Itineraries
VacayBug - locations

2: Each location had a pin number associated with the photo and a description.

VacayBug - Locations
VacayBug - pin

How personal projects saved my career

Running off your own energy is not easy. Neither is building a web-app from the ground up on your spare time. Going back to the recommendation from the LinkedIn director of design, there is a lot of value in making. Making will be the thing that saves your career, not taking all of the courses in the world. I say this because I've learned that school will teach you methods, strategies and practical tools to use to get your work done. However, nothing will come close to actually doing the actual work. Just pick a tough challenge and work on it every day until you begin to see it all take shape. That's the way to continue to improve as a designer. But wait Wil, what ever happened with VacayBug? Did you sell it for 10million dollars? No, we did not sell it and no, we are not working on it anymore. Our small dedicated team of creators stopped working on VacayBug because the founder had a baby and our lead engineer moved to Seattle. I wouldn't consider this a failure though. I learned lessons during the VacayBug days that continue to help me in my career today. One of the most important lessons learned during that time was how to trust my team. We all lifted our own weight and trusted that all of us would give it our all to put this project together. It was a beautiful journey.

If you want to learn more about this VacayBug, I have created a full case study in my projects section. See full case study

If you're a visual learner like me, below are some Youtube channels that keep me sharp:

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