I am being encouraged to be a mobile UI designer by my hubby. I have 20 yrs of elementary teaching experience. How can I achieve it?
What you need to learn
If you want to become a designer, I can think of six major skills you'll need to master. Some of these you may have from your previous experience, others you might have to learn anew.
- Visual Communication: You need to learn how to convey meaning through graphics. You should also try to learn pitfalls in visual representation and how to effectively exploit texture, weight and depth in an interface.
- Interaction Design: You need to learn the essentials of how human beings parse interfaces and make decisions on their actions. You also need to know the limitations of human input.
- Information Architecture: What makes a structure or taxonomy of information make sense? How do people actually consume and approach content, and what consequences does that have for the way information is arranged? On a smaller scale, how should information be ordered for a human to best understand it? I suspect your teaching experience will prove valuable here.
- User research: How to use interviews and analytics to learn how users 'model' the problem domain. How to use usability tests to uncover bottlenecks in usability.
- Design patterns: What are the common interface patterns that users recognize? What are the analogies used in each, and where do these analogies fall down?
- Development constraints: What's possible with the technologies you want to use. What's possible within the constraints of software development.
Other assets include strong copywriting anb project management skills, and a passion for technology.
How you learn it
There are two main options:
- Academic study: You can study Human-Computer Interaction at university. You can also study by distance learning at some institutions. This can cost you a lot of time and money, though.
Self-learning and practice in a related field: It's not uncommon to work in a closely related field for a couple of years, then sidestep once your personal knowledge is ready. But which fields are most suitable? Of the designers I know, six backgrounds seem common:
- Technical writing: the art of creating user help materials. Favours a background in writing, especially copyediting.
- Front-end development: the practice of implementing interfaces. Favours a background in technology, ideally as a programmer or tester.
- Graphic design: expressing messages through visual media. Favours either a dedicated graphic design degree or a strong portfolio of artistic work.
- SEO and web copywriting: optimizing web content to rank highly in search engine results. No prerequisites, but involves lots of freelancing.
- Business analysis: the art of turning business goals into software requirements. Difficult job but highly paid; often involves UX directly. Favours a background in project management and technical direction.
- Physical product design: creating easy to use, stylish, ergonomically friendly physical products. Favours both art / design and engineering backgrounds, but difficult to break into.
How I did it
My path was the second - learning about UX within a technical writing role. I joined a small company as an English Literature graduate, creating end user documentation and doing some testing and requirements analysis on the side. 18 months later, I transitioned into a role as a junior designer for a major UK website. The difficulty curve has been steep, but the payoff extremely rewarding.
I'm coming from an IT background, holding a MSc of Software Engineering degree, and coming from the background of software design to the field of user interface design.
Most of the User Experience designers don't have a degree in IT, and some of them even - could I use this word? - miss the talent to understand technical devices (or at least, I met a huge bunch of UX designers who had problems to use everyday programs like Photoshop or Microsoft Word correctly - I mean, they literally acted like a beginner office clerk)
Still it's not the point. If you do design well, you can be a designer without IT background.
There are two things to understand:
Embedded devices like mobile phones have limited resources
In order to achieve virtually the same performance as desktop computers, mobile phones use a lot of tricks: that's why you can see only one application at a time, that's why they can play only one kind of video, that's why Skype disconnects all the time on an iPhone while running in the background.
Nokia tried to sneak in a laptop processor into their cellphones, but the battery life was about half an hour in normal conditions. With great processing power comes great consumption, but the battery is limited by the size of the device.
So, therefore, you'll be told by developers a lot of times that this or that idea brings excessive burden to the mobile phone. Understanding how exactly these burdens occur and what are the tricks which can provide similar user experience requires a bit of IT knowledge.
There's only one discipline: design
This is my personal belief: architecture doesn't differ too much from software engineering, mechanical engineering, and it doesn't differ too much from properly-executed UX or visual design.
On what design is, we had a great discussion at this question: Graphic design critique parameters
Some of the visual designers aren't really designers in this sense: in all these years I worked in the industry, all of the graphics "designers" just released a PSDs with random layer names, and only the really-really-really top notch people did actual design. The rest could never even explain their choices. They drew something which, according to them, looked like a webpage, but you could forget user reseach, personas, understanding of target audience or limitations of the media, carefully applied layers of information (I don't mean Photoshop layers with these!), grids, currently trending styles, or anything: it's just a drawing, nothing more.
The industry needs more designers perhaps, but not more cartoonists: in this sense, start with books like About Face (its authors do miss IT background), or Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction, to learn about what design is in the sense of solving problems for people, understanding what the problems are, and finding the most elegant solutions to those problems.
Because that's what design is: it's the way to tell stories, to solve problems through visual and interactive media.