Learning UX: Find Your Design Community

I’m a user experience designer, and I love it. I get to listen to people’s stories, then develop solutions that meet their goals. But my path could have been smoother — UX is a broad topic, and even though I was very excited about it, it was hard to know which aspect to focus on in the beginning.

Out of all the books, articles, and videos I read, none was more helpful to my education than getting engaged with Portland’s design community. Going to meetups, asking for informational interviews, and spending time with peers and mentors in the industry helped me learn why user experience design was important to me, and how I should shape my future career.

If I could travel back in time, this is the advice I would give to my passionate, confused self. It starts with understanding what you know about UX, and why it’s important to you.

Clearing the path

Let’s use a method popular in design thinking circles to help you learn more about what’s important to you. You’ll run through a short brainstorming session, and then synthesize the results of that brainstorm.

Each activity is timeboxed to keep you focused on what’s top-of-mind. Your first instincts will be more relevant at the moment than an exhaustive list.

The mind map (15 mins)

Find a large piece of paper and write “User Experience Design” in the center.

Now set your timer, and write anything and everything that pops into your head as you read those words: questions, phrases, people, places, curiosities, anything that connects with the center concept.

My current mind map.
Image by Carl Barrett.

Brainstorming is like microwaving popcorn – when you start there’s a short period of awkward silence. Then, a burst of activity where you’re writing, connecting, writing, connecting. Soon the ideas come more and more slowly. I like to stop near the end when ideas are still popping up, but the flurry of activity is over. Doing this keeps some of that idea-generating energy around for the next step.

Tie it together (10 mins)

A mind map synthesis that connects different ideas and intentions.

Synthesis – Drawing the roads.
Image by Carl Barrett.

The first part of the brainstorm was about mapping the geography of your knowledge. Next, you build the roads.

Read your keywords and draw lines between those that feel like they have something in common. When you draw a line, write what the connection is. These are your general categories.

If I’m having trouble making connections I like to tag terms by their emotional relevance:

  • (!) This is exciting!
  • (?) I don’t know anything about this
  • (*) This frightens me
  • (-) I’m completely neutral to this

The keywords (5 mins)

You should be able to scan your mind map for the most compelling keywords. Of those that have the most lines and tags, write down five that are the most interesting to you. Then look at your map again, and write down any others that are drawing you in.

Find an event

Next, you will use your keywords to find your community Three resources list many of Portland’s design and tech events:

Armed with your keywords, start searching. Write the events you find compelling next to your keywords. I would limit this to process to 30 minutes. If you start to feel tired or overwhelmed, take a short break, and come back to it.

Now you have a list of events and have a good sense of what you want. There’s nothing special to the next step: sign up for the event that is the most interesting to you.

A few more tips:

  • Choose an event that is legitimately exciting. Make sure you’re going because you want to, not just because it feels like you should.
  • Choose a day and time that is convenient. Don’t be blocked by this – if you have to carve out the time, that’s fine.
  • Bring a friend, acquaintance, or co-worker. Bring a few.
  • Respect the event organizers time. If you can’t make it, change your RSVP.

Leaving the house

If you’re ready to go, go! But if the idea of wandering into a room full of strangers that you have to talk to makes you nervous, here’s a little more about how to handle that.

Researching those strangers can help. Starting with the event’s website, you can find information about:

  • The group – look at their website, meetup page, and any other first point of contact
  • The organizers – LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium articles
  • Past attendees – Job titles and skills on LinkedIn

Learning about the people behind the event will help you build familiarity with them by seeing their faces, as well as the language they use to talk about their careers. You also might find new keywords to add to your list.

At the event

The first person you meet at the event will likely be the event organizer. Introduce yourself — knowing that they will probably forget your name, and you will probably forget theirs — and tell them why you’re there:

“I’m interested in learning more about (usability testing, accessibility, user interviews, etc.).”

Don’t expect much more than that — if they are busy preparing just thank them, and move on quickly from there.

The event experience will be unique to you. My only advice is to give the organizer and other attendees your full attention for the next hour or two. If you are lost at any point, ask or write down your questions. If you feel excited and challenged by the topic, you are in the right place.

After the event

Now that you survived the event (I hope!) spend a little time reflecting on the experience. Ask yourself:

  • Was it great? Terrible? Meh? Why?
  • What did I learn?
  • What would I do differently next?

Don’t be afraid to contact the event organizers with follow up questions or feedback. It’s their goal to make these successful, and it can’t hurt to reach out.

My UX community list

This is a list of the community resources that have given me a lot back over the past two or three years. You may have very different needs and interests, so I’d look at this as one particular view of our community.

My goal in writing this article was to help improve your experience of learning UX through community events by helping you be intentional in your learning process in a way that I was not. But I also want to help give back to the community that has given me so much. For Portland’s design community to grow bigger, stronger, and more empathic we need diverse perspectives showing up to our events.

That’s you. Sign up, volunteer, and bring your curiosity to help challenge us so we can grow better together.

Professional groups for the Portland area

Volunteer organizations in Portland

Speaker series and workshops

I’m interested in how your learning experience progresses. Get in touch:

Peter Russo is a UX Designer at Jama Software and Organizer for the Meetup Portland Community Design Thinkers.

By Peter Russo
Published January 22, 2018
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