This article has been kindly supported by our dear friends at Uxcel who is a deeply passionate team working from all over the world to build amazing tools to help designers build their careers. Thank you!
Web design is full of people who value open collaboration and knowledge sharing. It’s a career in which you can be completely self-taught, using affordable — if not free — resources from experts and like-minded people around the world. This is worth celebrating!
But with so much to learn, how do we decide what to focus our time on? How do we maintain our existing skills? Where should a beginner start? How do we become hireable? Let’s take a look at how Uxcel (pronounced “You Excel”) goes about answering these questions.
The Three Pillars
Uxcel believes its platform can help you become a better web designer using three core pillars. These essentially involve an iterative process of learning and practicing, with the aim to use progress enough (and have something to show for it) to improve our job prospects over time.
1. Improve Your Design Skills With Interactive Learning
We start with learning — no surprise there! Uxcel has courses specific to individual areas of web design, each one consisting of many interactive bite-sized lessons. This removes the time that gets wasted when you don’t know what to focus on next. Each lesson is small enough to fit in during the spare time. With all the courses being available at the same time, without needing to register for a specific course, you are able to dip your toes into any areas of design without committing to an entire course.
2. Test And Measure Your Design Knowledge
Closely linked to interactive learning is the importance of testing yourself. Alongside the courses, Uxcel also has an entire section of skill tests and assessments dedicated to measuring your progress as you improve. Particularly intriguing is that you can only take these tests once a month! This is a clever mechanism for ensuring you don’t cheat yourself and are able to see a real indication of your improvement over time rather than just practicing to pass tests.
3. Build Your Professional Profile And Get Hired
After learning and measuring come improving your professional profile and hireability. Getting the roles you want can be hard, especially at the early stage of your career. It’s often a catch-22 situation between needing experience to get a job and needing a job to get experience. So showing that you have a clear focus on the steps, you need to take and are regularly practicing can help to elevate your profile when applying for a new role.
Theory, practice, and getting a job. This may sound idealistic; however, it’s a framework that, when done regularly with purpose, is bound to help you go in the right direction. One thing is clear though: whether you use Uxcel or Bootcamps, YouTube or University, you’ve got to put the work in.
Don’t Cheat Yourself
Osmosis. Have you ever bought a book that is full of valuable information and somehow felt good about seeing it on your bookshelf but never actually ended up reading it? Or maybe you keep a gym membership even when you haven’t been in a while? I’m guilty, too; it’s such a natural thing to do even when we all know full well you need to put the work in!
Uxcel’s Skill Tests can only be completed once a month. At first, this felt like the antithesis of not cheating yourself; it felt lazy. But when you think about it, learning shouldn’t be a chore or something you feel bad about if you miss a day. The technique of stopping for a moment and looking back at your progress over the past month is a really useful tool that you can use.
In fact, completing these skill tests once a month helps to prevent you from cheating yourself. You cannot go back and change your answers; your ranking against the other designers on the site for that assessment will stay the same for an entire month. So you’re going to feel the encouragement to do it well and to focus and take pride in what you’re doing.
This is a concept we can apply to much of what we do. How often have you marked an article as “Read later” and never did it? I do it all the time, but it’s just a subconscious attempt at osmosis.
Improve Your Skills In Five Minutes
According to Uxcel, even just 5 minutes per day over the course of a month is enough time to see measurable improvement in anything you’re trying to learn. This might sound in direct contrast to not cheating; five minutes is hardly any time at all. But — as with any fad diet — if you try to deep dive, you may learn a lot in a short amount of time, but it will not become part of your routine, and it will not be a long-lasting habit.
- Build a habit.
Bad habits are hard to break, and good habits are hard to make. To build a habit, we need to keep up the momentum, which means it’s better to have low expectations and minimal effort. The more we see progress on achievable goals, the more rewarding it is, and the more we can maintain the habit.
- Anyone can find five minutes in a day.
It’s really easy to persuade ourselves against learning. Maybe it’s too expensive or too hard. By keeping the aim manageable, it becomes easy to fit around our daily lives.
- Interactivity is fun!
If your experience of education to date has not been so great, perhaps even five minutes of concerted learning a day sounds tedious to you. But let me promise you, this is a fun way to learn! It’s so easy to get carried away completing the skill tests and reading the theory.
Building up a mechanism for knowing how to learn efficiently will always help with everything we do going forward. We can take these approaches of keeping small manageable chunks per day to achieve anything we want.
How Do I Know What I Don’t Know?
So you’ve decided to learn a new area of web design. You have set aside 5 minutes a day. You know it will require effort on your part there’s no point in cheating yourself. Now, the question is where to start?
Let’s make one thing clear. You will never be able to know everything, and you don’t need to. It’s impossible. Technologies and best practices that feel like they are the final solution quickly become old hats. Entire new disciplines crop up, sometimes seemingly out of the blue. Trends and opinions flow in and out like the tide.
If you’re anything like me, it can feel like a ping-pong ball. One minute you can feel like an expert, and the next, as if you’ve started back at square one. Even knowing how and where to start learning it is full of choices, and not every solution is as suitable as another.
Let’s take a quick look at Smashing Magazine, for example. This is a website full to the brim of content written by all kinds of people in the industry. It’s completely free to read and browse more than a decade of articles. As I said in my introduction, we are incredibly lucky to be in a situation like this. However, browsing aimlessly through thousands of articles is a lovely thing to do, and of course, there is so much to learn. We do need some kind of structure to effectively be productive in our learning.
Uxcel structures the courses in a very clear way. Each course is clear from the title what it covers at the high level, for example, “Design Accessibility,” “UX Design Foundations” and “HTML for designers”. This helps the initial overwhelming sensation that is so common when looking for information as it feels like a small list to choose from despite each containing a large amount of information. Then when you go into the course, it’s again broken down into very easily digestible chunks such as “Common Designer Roles”, “Atomic Design by Brad Frost” and “Design Grids”.
This structure provides the best of both worlds. It gives you both the freedom to explore and the structure to be guided further.
Am I Really Making Progress?
My favorite way to learn something new has always been to apply it to a side project. This complements the courses in Uxcel very well as having little side projects you can apply the lessons learned in the courses will help to cement the knowledge, and you’re likely to see the difference when measuring your progress each month.
Unfortunately, side projects can feel like a disappointment. I start a new project thinking it’s a great idea, and I then realize how much time I’ve spent on something that no one else will ever see. It’s easy to feel disheartened by this and feel like these projects have been a waste of time. I know I’m not the only one!
To change this mindset, I’ve been going through old projects and making notes of what I learned from them. In theory, I would write an in-depth case study each time. But that hardly ever happens, So setting a goal of a few bullet points for each project is much more achievable and helps to see the benefit from the effort I’ve put in over time.
I noticed a similar approach with Uxcel. The monthly skill tests are just like my bullet points; a low-pressure way to check in with your progress without high expectations. I see there being two kinds of progress to test and measure: specific goals that you have a strong focus on, and general stuff that you learn as you go. I often had specific goals for the side projects, but even if I didn’t achieve those goals, I was still able to find benefits from looking at the things I did learn, even if I had not intended to.
Learning Through Play
Children learn everything from coordination to social skills through play. It is interesting to see a platform that specializes in self-development have a section of these games in their navigation alongside Courses, Skill Tests and Job Board. Uxcel treats games as a first-class citizens on their platform.
In fact, gamification is a key part of Uxcel across the entire platform. In the skills tests, it doesn’t tell you which answers you got wrong but it does say how you compared against everyone else. I have to admit, as a developer that has always had an informal interest in design, to be placed in the “top 10% of designers” (humble brag!) is rather motivational!
What makes these games useful? They are specifically targeted at practical skills that will benefit you as a web designer. And so it comes back to the second pillar “Test and measure your design knowledge”; having these informal games that you can play as often as you want means there’s a way for you to continuously test and measure yourself on these hyper-focussed practical tasks. It’s great to understand the theory of design, but you need to be able to put it into practice and these small games give you practice for skills that you will be using time and time again.
Another key point is that it’s fun and challenging; there’s something healthily addictive about trying to get a high score in comparing color contrasts.
The third pillar is to build a professional profile and to make it easier to be hired. I considered skipping this pillar entirely — thinking it is not related to learning. I’ve come to the realization that this isn’t true. One main reason for learning is to improve your career. If I look back at things I’ve learned over time, I can see a clear correlation between the stuff I focussed on learning and the roles I later got because of it.
Uxcel understand this. While it may not be as simple as “Course + Test = Job”, the platform is organized in such a way that your profile is being updated as you go through the courses and skill tests. Without even necessarily realizing it, you’re building a picture that shows the things you are focusing your time on. You’re building your professional profile — you’re breaking out of the Catch-22 situation. Say, for example, you’ve been working in a visual design role but want to move into a UX role. You can use this profile as a way to prove that alongside your work experience, you also have a keen focus on UX.
No matter where you are in your career, the idea of using stepping stones to plan your journey is important. Seeds that can be sown, knowing where you want to get to and how you can go about it. Learning and career improvement is intrinsically related.
Learning As A Team
Taking it a step further, Uxcel provides tools for companies to use Uxcel within their teams. Many companies already use a Skill Matrix to see which areas of knowledge and experience are well covered within the team and how it’s distributed across members.
If a team of designers is using Uxcel as a learning platform, then it gives a consistent approach to managing this skill matrix as the strengths and weaknesses can be easily measured. This is not to judge employees but to assist in the development of skills across the team.
Building a career will always be hard, but we’ve seen that by applying a focus on how we learn, we are able to give ourselves the best possible start. This is true for anyone with an ambition of improving their skill set, no matter how far along the journey you already are. Uxcel has a clear vision for its platform; the three pillars are being implemented in everything they do. This is something we can take forward ourselves, whether using the platform or not. The key is to make purposeful choices, have a structure to fall back on, put the effort in, and measure our progress throughout.