Design Challenges, And Why You Should Do Them

So, you want to start a career as a UX Designer. You took a bootcamp, you joined a few communities, and now you’re thinking about design challenges as a way to turn your theoretical knowledge into something practical. In today’s piece, we’ll cover everything you need to know about design challenges.

A design challenge is simple. There’s a UX problem that you need to fix. UX is a broad subject, and there are countless online design challenges to get you started. There’s the Daily UI challenge, the Daily UX writing challenge, among others. Embarking on these challenges may be useful in the short-term as you dip your feet and build your skills.

I was doing some of them, namely, the two I just referenced. But I fell off the wagon. Why? Because these prompts weren’t real. There was no impact in designing a calculator or alarm clock’s UI. Was it fun? You bet. Did I learn more about UX? Without a doubt. But the stakes were low, and it didn’t matter whether I finished the challenge.

The other problem I found, likely worsened due to the pandemic, is that people work on these challenges by themselves. You risk surrounding yourself in an echo chamber of your own ideas, and the lack of collaboration doesn’t look great on a resume.

Recruiters may take note of your initiative to do these challenges, but your designs won’t resonate if they don’t solve a real problem.

Your best bet is to figure out which aspect of UX you want to explore, then find a real-world UX problem you can solve. Thankfully, there are countless problems to solve.

Signs of a Good Design Challenge

We’ve organized a few design challenges here at IterateUX. Back in September, we crafted design prompts for real-world products and services. From The Home Depot to Zoom, our community members spent a two weeks working together to understand the problem, work through the UX process, and draft deliverables that tackled the issue in a meaningful way.

One of the differences between this type of design challenge and what you might find online is the very real stakeholder with which you’re working. Your reputation is on the line. Or at least, that’s how I like to think about it.

Not only that, but you’re now collaborating with other people! Since UX Design can be so broad, I think people feel the urge to improve their skills in all aspects of UX. You’re the researcher, the UI and interaction designer, maybe you’re even the coder.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all useful skills to have, and I encourage you to continue developing them. A lot of UX Design job postings call for a combination of these skills. But, collaborating on a design challenge lets you outsource whatever you want.

This way, you can focus on the skill you want to improve, like user research, and let someone else do the UI work. You can own that part of the process, and talk to it during an interview.

You can still try your hand at different skills, but you risk being a jack of all trades and a master of none. After all, it takes a lot of time to be skilled in a particular domain, let alone multiple domains. It might serve you well later on in your career, but it’s best to have deep expertise in at least one area with supplementary skills elsewhere, also known as a T-shaped designer, especially if you’re starting your UX journey.

The other benefit of working on a design challenge is that it’s your project. In other words, you and your team will need to figure out how the process should unfold, including which methods to use, and that will depend on the context of the project. Maybe a contextual inquiry will uncover richer data compared to ethnographic research.

Conclusion

Design challenges let you flex your creativity, a skill which will be critical when preparing for the future of work. Not only that, but UX design is a growing field that counts everyone from graphic designers, to computer scientists, to business development people in the ranks, among others. The chances are high that you’ll learn something new.

To sum up, an effective design challenge should have a real problem that needs solving, a multidisciplinary team with different perspectives, real-world stakeholders, and a deadline. A design challenge should replicate a real-world working environment as much as possible. It will prepare you for your next UX role, and give you another portfolio piece.

The best part is that it’s all up to you. Take the initiative to form a team, find a problem, and solve it. Simple!

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