– snippet from “NOT a UX designer” podcast by Varima Henry

How to be a UX designer in South Africa? Here are things you need to know.

The UX designer role in South Africa is often confused with what we call the “UX/UI” role. This misleads a lot of humans who want to get into the career on what experience design is about. I hope that this post will provide some clarity on what a UX designer is, how to become one and what to look out for to make it in the South African market. I want to focus on the “UX” role exclusively, what it entails and separating it from the “UI” role. I disagree that they are one and the same thing, though they are very commonly associated together, especially in the digital business era we are in. I wish I can provide some direction and help you on your way to becoming the UX designer you want to be.

What is a “UX/UI” designer?

Let’s start by giving an example of what a UX designer is NOT, but a good example of the UX/UI role;

The successful candidate will need a strong understanding of how typography, colour, interface & layout design (UX/UI), and interactive design work together to create immersive digital experiences. They will need a meticulous attention to detail and a passion to deliver best of breed UX/UI projects.

– Job post on linkedin.

The ”UX/UI” role has evolved from web designers who started providing a customer-centric approach to web design clients. The buzz word UX/UI design came into the market and became an area of expertise for most web designers. To earn more as well as try to stay relevant most web designers started changing their title to UX/UI designers, and I was one of them.

UX design is a different set of disciplines, it requires a different set of skills and toolset to get the job done. It involves different methodologies of user research, facilitation in design workshops like the design sprint, prototyping and being able to package and present the findings back to the stakeholders and your team is all part of being a UX designer.

There is no special formula of becoming a UX designer, especially in the South African market. Coming from the UX/UI role and still struggling to position the value of UX design in the South African market, I will share with you how I became a UX design consultant and some of the things I wish I had done and learned along the way.

How I became a UX designer in South Africa.

Like many UX designers in South Africa today. Most of us were cut from the graphic designer cloth that became a web design career and later became a user-centered design career. Our journey turned into UX/UI designers and then decided to move into a specialized UX role.

In a pursue of adding more value to our clients and being relevant especially when it comes to the title of the designer. The UX/UI designer role became a common term in the South African design market. Over the past 5 years, I really evolved into the UX designer that I wanted to be since the beginning of my career.

Having the opportunity to do some real-life UX design work, design sprints and facilitated over a hundred usability testing sessions. Today I help teams I work with built great prototypes and products. I have worked in both agile and waterfall environments. So what have I learned along the way?

Understand what UX design is in UX/UI roles.

Separating the two roles and what deliverables you are expected to deliver is important to understand right from the bat. This will help you know if UX design is for you or not, especially if you are coming from a design background where you are used to making beautiful pieces of art and you do not criticism well. You also do not have to come from a “design” background, this is one of the biggest assumptions of people/companies hiring for UX designers in South Africa. You will be expected to also deliver UI deliverables in most cases because you will be working on a digital product 90% of the time.

To understand the definition, here is the wikipedia description on UX design is :

“User experience design (UXD, UED, or XD) is the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and desirability provided in the interaction with a product.”

Now that’s a mouth full, but understanding what experience design really is will come from getting yourself aquatinted with the subject and do your homework, read books, follow youtube channels and grow your knowledge around the subject. Below are some links of people and companies that I follow, would recommend and find most interesting in the industry;

  • Aj&Smart – Learn a lot of design sprint stuff from them, great team.
  • Flux – Great advice on becoming a freelance/ UX design entrepreneur. have a lot of youtube video updates.
  • NNGroup – experience design best practices, follow the youtube channel and also use the website for resources and reference
  • Jake Knapp – Creator of the design sprint, follow him everywhere and listen to his podcasts
  • The Futur – Chris Do. master of the process, been following these guys for years and still find the content most relevant for any designer, UX practitioner and entrepreneurs building great brands.

Learn the skills and what UX design deliverables are.

Below is a more relevant example of a UX design role description;

Hiring for a UX designer with experience in conducting extensive user research, creating wireframes and functional prototypes for web applications.

Responsibilities:

  • Create storyboards, process flows and sitemaps to translate user research and design ideas
  • Analyse, propose and develop ways to consistently improve the usability of digital projects
  • Develop UI mockups and prototypes that clearly illustrate how sites should function and be visually implemented
  • Creating mockups for different delivery platforms (desktop, mobile etc.)
  • Research and implementing the latest design trends and principles

Skills:

  • Proficient in Sketch, Adobe Suite and other design tools and software
  • Experience in creating wireframes, prototypes , user flows, process flows and sitemaps

– Job post on linkedin.

This is a good example of the ideal UX design job you might find in the South African job market if you are looking for experience design work, freelance, full time or contract work. The UX design role involves a lot of human interaction skills such as facilitation and interviewing participants for usability testing. Translating the outcomes to user journeys, process flows, and testable prototypes are also part of the process. But where do you start? Learning UX design in South Africa can be done in formal or informal approaches but I think the best way is to learn by doing. If you have the opportunity to work on real UX design projects or work with teams and in environments that allow you to apply UX design methodologies you are in luck, use that as an opportunity to learn and grow your experience.

“Experience design (XD) is the practice of designing products, processes, services, events, omnichannel journeys, and environments with a focus placed on the quality of the user experience and culturally relevant solutions.” – wikipidea

Learning UX design formally in South Africa can be a bit daunting, without many certified courses to do out there. There are a few that I would recommend as a starting point to get the basics right. Below is a list of resources to read and courses to take if you would like to kick start your journey to UX design.

  • Get smarter Great value for the amount of the certified course, this is a great way to kickstart your UX career, backed by the UCT
  • Humanfactors – Reputable name in the South African UX/CX training market and this course is a good one to add to your bag of tricks
  • Future learn – Free online course to get all your basics in place also a good refresher course.
  • Design of everyday things PDF – Best UX book I ever read (before design sprint)
  • Design sprint – Best UX research book ever read, follow the sprint cult, a true believer in the process. The book is a great way to have an end to end view of the process but you can use what you need when you need it, see my post on the different versions of design sprints suitable for agile teams here.

I was fortunate enough to be able to do most of my learning on the job, I also did a few online courses and started following the right people on social my knowledge and expertise grew over the years. With a lot of practice and a goal of providing the most value in the products, I help build, being meaningful to business and the users that use them has become the core of what I do every day.

Build case studies and build a portfolio online.

Unlike UX/UI designers your work will not be judged by the screens or the final product that you came up with. Rather on how you got there, what was the thinking and process that got you to the final product and what were the results when users tested/used the product/prototype? How did your work add value to the business and the users of the product?

Building case studies on why and how you changed or created a product are what people looking to hire you are looking for, Case studies will help you define your discovery process, prototyping, and testing skills and well as measuring value once the product is in the market or tested using various usability testing.

If you read up online a lot of people suggest that your case studies need to be based on real projects but in my opinion not so much. I think the project doesn’t necessarily have to be “real” but it is important to test with real users. It is hard to come by real UX design projects in South Africa, this means paid gigs. I would recommend working on “made up” or personal projects or improving a service or product that already exists. Build and test prototypes to be able to illustrate your learnings, recommendations and the value of the UX research put into the project.

Make sure to build your profile online so that it is accessible to anyone looking to hire you whether you are looking for a full-time job, contract work or freelance projects. Tell people your story and showcase your work by creating your own website or blog. You can also use free versions platform like WIX, Behance, Medium, and WordPress to get started, Showcase your work and create a voice for yourself in the industry.

Find real work, practice and repeat the learning process.

Now having said all that about building your first portfolio with “made up” projects, there is nothing that comes close to getting real experience. Familiarise yourself with the UX world around you, do your homework and apply what’s practical to your situation, take time to do real-life work and earn real experience.

Practice the disciplines that you would like to specialize in the design world, I enjoy talking to people so I focus a lot on facilitation skills, doing design sprints and usability testing. By practicing different methodologies early on your first few projects will help you figure out what you really want to do and are good at.

Because of the ever-evolving design trends, new ways of doing user research and the influence of tech in the UX world, you need to make sure you stay up to date and evolve with the times. Stay social and find out what people are doing differently that can add value to your customers in the local market.

Conclusion?

It was a tough journey for people who got into the UX design career 4-7 years ago in the South African market, trying to articulate what a UX designer back then lead to the flux of the UX/UI role and a term as a whole, but the industry is maturing and scaling. UX design is here to stay and may evolve to a different name over the years. The need for designing real products that people will actually want to use is becoming a vital investment to make in the South African startup and corporate market. Anyone can become a UX designer given you understand what it is, learn the skills and the tools and love solving peoples problems.

“Experience design is not driven by a single design discipline. Instead, it requires a cross-discipline perspective that considers multiple aspects of the brand/business/environment/experience from product, packaging and retail environment to the clothing and attitude of employees.” -wikipidea

The UX/UI role will keep on blurring the lines of what true UX design is for the South African market but the market is maturing and starting to separate the two roles to get more value from real UX design methodologies.

So do you want to become a UX designer? Let me know in the comments section below, how has your journey been so far, successes and challenges and what you are doing to become the UX designer you want to be. Please also let me know if you would like to listen to more related content on the “Not a UX designer” podcast.