Don’t try to learn everything. Choose your desired skills and branch out from there.
In the quest of becoming a good UI designer, you can come a long way by reading books, attending conferences, formally educating yourself, trying out tutorials, or just experimenting on your own. However, if you want to go into hyper-speed in bettering your UI design skills, the best way to learn is to work with other designers. Find them at your workplace, hire them, or spend time online in the User Experience- or Interaction-Designer world.
Read A UX designer’s firsts 100 days if you’re starting a new job as a UX designer.
- Design every day. There is nothing that improves design skills as designing. So design, every day. Design at work. Go home and find little design problems in your everyday life and solve them. Have fun with it and experiment. Trial and error is a great way to learn.
- Collect good design. I found that collecting screenshots for UI-Patterns.com made me a better designer. It gave me an eye for what good design is and what it looks and feels like. Always be on the hunt for spotting clever details and great design, and you will start using them yourself.
- Test, test, test. Heuristics will take you far, but the only true way you will learn what works and what doesn’t is through testing. Test on real people, either by conducting usability studies (tests, focus groups, etc.) or by A/B testing.
- Iterate in increments. Deliver value in increments in an iterative fashion. Having an agile process ensures you will build the right product rather than doing it right from the beginning.
For learning on your own, I have collected a list of various resources that will help you on your way to becoming a good designer. On purpose, I have restrained from tech-books and kept it to evergreens. However, before you start, choose your specialty: don’t try to learn everything. Choose your desired skills and branch out from there.
This article was first published on December 3rd, 2009, but has continuously been updated to reflect the current state of the web. The last update was June 11th, 2015.
Fundamental design concepts
Learn the basic principles: The gestalt laws, Fitt’s law, about affordance, feedback, etc. The book Universal Principles of Design gives a great introduction to these and much more (100 principles total).
Then, go read Steve Krugs straight-forward and simple Don’t Make Me Think, which will give you a good sense of how your most basic thought processes on how to approach design should be.
When you got the basics down, continue to the more emotional books by Donald Norman.
First learn basic principles such as the gestalt laws, Fitt’s law, Affordance, Feedback.
The book Universal Principles of Design gives a great introduction to these
Sketching is great for trying out ideas fast and receive rapid feedback.
Sketching is great for trying out ideas fast and receive rapid feedback. It provides a great tool for discussing ideas and exploring different possibilities. Paper prototyping is fast, cheap, and effective: much faster than coding a digital prototype.
Before you buy any books on the subject, check out these UI-pattern.com blog posts on the subject: Drawing corners and boxes, Drop Shadow, Use a thick pen, Get your arm off the paper, Constrain yourself.
The most common approach is the Thinking aloud approach.
Discount testing is cheap and easy. The most common approach is the Thinking aloud approach. It will help you quickly test if other people than yourself understand your abstractions. Sometimes it is enough to just grab anybody you can find, give them some tasks to do, and see how well they perform. This will rid most obvious errors that you did not see yourself.
The more advanced lab-based user testing is a science in itself. It will help you once you have removed the obvious errors from your design and is ready to move into the more psychological and engaging factors of usability.
Consider opting for Guerilla user testing instead of expensive and “correct” usability-lab user testing
One thing is to test whether what you have designed actually works – another thing is getting to the point where you have something to test.
User research is about understanding and engaging in your users. Understanding in what scenarios/situations your users interact with your product, how they interact with your product, and what motivates them to do so.
User research is most often formalized in personas and scenarios, and use-cases – or if you prefer agile methodologies; user stories.
Information architecture is about designing how your design works and how its parts play together. The information architect creates structure and principles to make something work in a clear and consistent way.
There are a handful of books that tackle the very discipline of designing a good information architecture. The ones listed below are the best I’ve come across. They are all old-school and lengthy and is generally only recommended if you really want to get to the bottom of what Information Architecture is about. I have found much more value in reading The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte. However, if you do want to dwell into Information Architecture as a subject, these are the best text-books there are.
3 books on Information Architecture
Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond by by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld
Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become by Peter Morville
Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories by Donna Spencer
Interaction design is about designing interactions. It’s about designing the connection between your software interface and how it is to be used by the user.
Bill Moggridge’s Designing Interactions gives a great insight into the history of Interaction Design and is worth a read for anybody. Designing Interfaces by Jeniffer Tidwell is the classic UI design pattern book, which provides a great reference if you can’t do with UI-Patterns.com.
Books on Interaction Design
Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge
About Face by Alan Cooper and Robert Reimann
Designing Interfaces by Jenifer Tidwell
Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction by Sharp, Rogers, and Preece
Process is a fundamental part of design. Without proper attention to process, you will find yourself spending more hours in a matter of magnitude than you could have. The most common comparison is the horrendous and scary waterfall model against more agile alternatives. The right choice of process depend on the context. The major alternatives are:
- Agile development, which focuses on a processes that embraces both incremental and iterative development. The thoughts behind agile development practices are largely inspired by the Lean manufacturing principles made popular by Toyota. Popular agile methodologies are eXtreme programming and Scrum.
- Lean UX, coined by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden in their book “Lean UX”, is looking at the UX design process in an agile setting from the designer’s point of view.
- Kanban is also inspired by Lean manufacturing and is in one form a variety (or subset) of agile development. Where agile development focus on the full development cycle, empowerment, and self-management, Kanban is a tool for organizing tasks.
- Lean Startup is another offspring from the principles behind Lean manufacturing. The Lean Startup framework tries to solve the problem of finding out what users want and what the right thing to build is by proving or disproving a set of hypothesises through a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank is another classic and proceeds the Lean Startup.
- CMM & CMMI. The Capability Maturity Model (CMM) and the Improved one (CMMI) is a development methodology developed by the United States Defense program to ensure the quality of mission critical software. It relies heavily on statistics and analyzes past behavior to improve what’s coming. It’s great for a non-explorative world, but wouldn’t fit for most web development.
UI pattern libraries
UI pattern libraries showcase recurring solutions that solve common problems. They are a great way to study how others have solved the same problems that you are dealing with yourself – and in a way that has become a standard.
Web design weblogs
There are many out there with great content that will help you learn about both user experience, interaction, business concepts in web design, graphical design, and more. The following list is a very selection of all the great websites out there:
Come back for updates
This article was first published on December 3rd, 2009, but has continuously been updated to reflect the current state of the web. The last update was May 13th, 2023.