Notes from the UX Underground: How to Start at the Beginning

Hate this sketch? So do I… read on.

Many years ago, before the term User Experience was widely used, I worked under a different title, doing many of the same things I do today. On one such day I happened into the cubicle of a colleague and saw him hunched over a blank Word document which was open on his screen. He noticed me standing behind him, and he turned to speak.

“I have the hardest job of all,” he said. “I have to start with a blank page and come up with an idea.”

It didn’t mean much to me at the time (whiner, I probably thought). However, for some reason this moment stayed with me, and I’ve found myself going over it many times since.

Not everyone who works on a project knows my ex-colleague’s feeling of overwhelming intimidation. Staring at a blank document and knowing that in just a few days–or hours–you need to have at least the nexus of structure. An idea that will then, in turn be subject to seemingly endless revision and critique.

I suppose that in a typical project lifecycle, those whose tasks and deliverables are due in the early stages should expect that they are the ones to shoulder the heavy load of making visible the invisible. But dealing with that reality can be scary, and UX is one of those practices. UX designers are typically most active in the early discovery and definition phases of a project, even though our work is called UX design.

So then, what to do when you don’t know what to do?

Luckily, the answer to that question is simple: You just need to start. Of course, the devil is in the details, so the advice to just start by itself is not especially helpful.

With that in mind–and in the spirit of trying to help–I thought I’d write down what I do when faced with making visible the invisible. These things work for me, and they’ve done so consistently for almost 20 years. You may have heard some of these techniques before, others you may not. Either way, the next time you’re stuck I hope you remember this article, and I encourage you to try at least some of my suggestions.

First things first, let’s get those creative juices flowing.

I like to sketch in a special journal which is only for creative work. I buy a specific black sketchbook with unlined paper that is small enough to take with me anywhere. When it’s filled up, I buy another one just like it, so all my creative journals are of a specific type. This association helps me get into the right mindset for creativity. When I pull out the black sketchbook, I feel something inside me click into the creative mode.

Next, I find the right place to work. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most offices are simply not conducive to any kind of creativity. That’s just me, and I hope my boss did not see that.

Find a place that you really like to be that is away from curious eyes and away from the idea that people should brainstorm in groups. Whoever thought of brainstorming in groups should be sentenced immediately to solitary confinement.

You need to go somewhere you do not feel self-conscious. More important, you need to not be conscious about yourself. Here’s what I mean by that: I’m not a good sketch artist. In fact, I’m so bad it’s almost comical. As a left-hander, I’ve always hated my penmanship, and my sketching is just as bad if not worse. On the rare occasions when I need to show my sketches to an actual designer, I nearly die of embarrassment. My solution to this is that I hardly ever do that. So I don’t need to be conscious about my output, because no one will ever see it.

My sketches are merely the first step in a creative process to surface ideas. If it’s difficult for you at first, trust me that it will get easier. Just find a dark corner — or a bright airy park bench — and draw some squares, lines, silly faces, and random thoughts. Later, you can go back and refine them, probably using a tool like… Sketch.

I’ve got some sketches, what now?

The point of sketching is to help get some interface and overarching ideas germinating. Once I’ve done a few pages, I turn my attention to the next task, which is roughing out the shape of the site. For this I use a Sharpie and lots of Post-its or index cards.

Start with the stuff you know, like common navigation elements. You know that About Us and Contact and FAQ’s are going to be up there, so just write it down! As with sketching, the simple act of starting will beget more output.

Try to keep things concise at this point. You’re basically brainstorming labels, section headers, content chunkettes, and perhaps some notes for later consideration. The order or categorization of these cards and post-its does not matter at all. In fact, just write as many cards as come to mind and put them into a pile. You can consolidate and organize them later.

Spread Out

Once you’ve got your big pile of cards, it’s time to begin ordering them into a crude site or content map. Get ready to take up a ton of space. Do not do this on a cramped desk because the limitations of the desk itself will cause you to make poor decisions.

I use the floor, and I’ve seen other people use a whiteboard. Whatever works for you. Remember, this part of it is fun! Approach it like being little again and playing in your room. There’s no right or wrong at this point. You’re creating imaginary worlds.

Once you get your index cards (or Post-Its) into an order you like, take pictures with your phone. This will help you later when you are back in front of your computer, and you won’t have to take up valuable brainpower now trying to remember your ideas. Also, don’t get too attached to your first crude map. Mix everything up and start all over again once you’ve captured your photos. Nothing is lost.

At this point, you’ll notice that you’re starting to internalize what the structure needs to look like from a high level. You’ll see holes that need to be filled and you’ll identify redundancies that can be eliminated. Best of all, you will probably see new ways of categorizing the information before you. These observations are good discussion points to bring back to your team.

Speaking of the team…

There are certain tasks, such as the initial ideation I’ve described, that I have found are best done alone. Afterwards, the insights you gather are what you are expected to take to the team for their reaction. Listen to them carefully at this point; there are many reasons for doing so. To name a few: Cultivating group ownership, consensus building, and plain old rah rah teamwork. These things are absolutely vital to the acceptance of your new ideas.

More to the point of your role as a UX professional is the pragmatic value of providing visual artifacts for the team to react to. These artifacts should be thought of not as complete and finished masterpieces, but tools to get the ball rolling. This helps take some of the pressure off of you. Remember, your job is not to do everything, but rather to provide a framework for your team to come together and solve problems.

Spit it out.

I talk to my colleagues all the time, whether on the team or not. You need to do the same. You can email or chat for many things, but never forget to have lots of 1–1 conversations in person or on the phone. Get real in those conversations! If you have doubts, express them. Not to be a negative nabob, but to deepen the relationships that will make or break you. No one is expecting you to have all the answers. Heck, there aren’t even answers to many of the questions!

Work is a social interaction, and deepening your relationships means your team is more likely to support you when it matters. Like when it’s time to present to the Client. That’s when you need to actually have the answers, and that’s when you want your team solidly behind you.

Don’t forget to seek out people who are outside the professional sphere. I like to ask all kinds of people what their experiences are relative to the problem I’m trying to solve. “How do you like having that sink on the wrong side of the bar so that the floor is always wet?” (Not that I hang out at bars all the time…)

Ask people how they would solve your problem. You’ll be surprised at how much free advice you can get from actual users. I usually don’t ask them what they like, I like to ask them what they don’t like. From a functional point of view, I’m less interested in creating a product that’s liked, than one that’s not disliked.

As you’re starting to see, during my initial process of generating ideas, I’m also gathering as much information as I can. Much of this information I may not even use. But information is power, so gather it when you can. It may come in handy on your next project.

Time to get visual.

At this point the concept is starting to take form, and I’m feeling like God’s gift to user experience; but I know I’m not actually creating anything new. I’m really just reusing tried and true components in a fresh way.

That’s when I turn to Google image search and see how others have done it. I start with the search query “UX pattern _______” (where blank is the thing you’re trying to do). Try it. Spend more time than you think you should reading articles and following links. I like to keep notes while I research using PowerPoint.

There, I’ve said it: I use PowerPoint. I’m sorry.

You can use whatever tool you like. Just make sure you take notes somehow. Copy and paste relevant text and images, and definitely record the URL from whence you got the info. If you need to support your recommendations, references will make you more, not less credible (Source: Wikipedia).

Look for groundbreaking work in a completely unrelated industry. I’ve used Apple countless times to help me ideate solutions for clients whose business had nothing to do with technology.

Looking to a proven leader and repurposing their solution is not “stealing ideas”. Rather it’s applying an idea from an unexpected source. Doing this adds creative value. I find this approach to almost always be more powerful than copying direct competitors.

But speaking of stealing, go ahead and do it.

I hereby give you permission to shamelessly steal ideas. The idea you’re stealing was probably stolen from someone else anyway. Besides, it’s just an idea. You will still have plenty of opportunity to make it your own. Plus, if you’re too obvious you’ll get caught anyway; so be prepared to tailor the idea to your needs, and then go ahead and steal it. Put your mark on it and make it your own!

So now I’ve got some ideas and some existing patterns, what’s next?

Start with the site map. Then do some flows. Then begin designing your navigation. I like to do these things right away, because if I don’t know what to do, this is at least mindless activity that gives me a to-do list. Doing this mindless activity helps me get unstuck.

If I’m feeling like I don’t know what to do next, and at the same time I see a Contact page in my site map, I think, “Oh yeah. I can at least do that.” Then I create the contact page. In other words, having these artifacts and using them as a to-do list helps me keep moving which also keeps my doubts at bay.

I have no idea what to do on the Home page, and it’s due first.

It’s very important to understand that the Home page is a minefield. If you’re having trouble knowing what to do on the Home page, work instead on some of the more transactional pages. You can tell the project manager whatever you want, but work on the pages in the order that suits you, and that usually means not doing the Home page first.

Why do I recommend putting off the Home page? First the expectations for the Home page are simply too great, and often unrealistic. Both your team and the Client want the Home page to solve all their problems.

Second, beyond the brand requirements are the egotistical requirements of all the stakeholders on the project. You’ll never make everyone happy, nor will a Home page; but nobody wants to hear that.

Finally, the Home page is mythically positioned to be the creative panacea that makes or breaks the entire experience. Blow that myth off right now; that’s a whole lot of pressure at a point in the process when you actually have way more questions than answers.

What I do is sidestep that problem by creating a Home page placeholder with my global nav, header, and footer (if I have them roughed out). Then I design a transactional page where the purpose is abundantly clear. An example of this is a product detail page.

You know (and/or can find patterns) which specific functional elements need to be on a product detail page, so just get them on the page. You can tweak the layout later. Getting a couple straightforward pages under way will help you begin to carve out a framework that will inform the overall paradigm, and ultimately will tell you exactly what to do on the Home page.

After all this, if you’re still getting nowhere and the clock is ticking; if you feel the butterflies in your stomach and the voice of self-doubt is getting louder in your head, just shut everything down and quit thinking about it for a while.


· Reading an actual book.

· Take a nap.

· Take a walk.

· Take a ride.

· Take yourself out to your favorite restaurant.

· Reach out: Chat with another UX person, either on your team or in your extended network. You can always post questions to a group and see what happens.

· Get cosmic: If I have a thorny problem I don’t know how to solve, I tell myself as I’m drifting off to sleep that I’ll wake up with the solution. More times than I can count, I have woken up with the solution.

· Disrupt your sleep cycle: I sometimes wake up in the night with an idea, I like to get up and commit it to solid form right then. I’ve found that if I wait until morning, I usually forget the idea. Also, sending emails at 5AM makes your team think you’re an amazingly dedicated workaholic. Bonus points there.

The Sanity Defense

My last bit of advice is to help you stay sane. Try to remember that we are in the business of revision. You need to keep your cool when you’ve got 10 people all critiquing you at the same time, telling you what to change and how. It can feel like being told your baby is ugly.

There’s an attitudinal sweet-spot of remaining open to change, while at the same time not allowing design-by-committee to take over the group.

It’s critical you remain confident, but find a way to set your ego aside. There’s a difference between explaining your thought process, and justifying your decisions. Try not to justify because you’ll come off as defensive; but definitely explain your thought process. Odds are, you’ve thought quite deeply about this and have an expert opinion that the team wants to understand.

That said, be prepared to accept that the best UX solution may come from a completely unexpected source. Gasp! A non-UX person might have the answer nailed.

Running into the end zone with someone else’s good idea does not diminish your perceived expertise. In some ways, UX professionals are facilitators of a group creative process… and UX is messy! Harness that energy, direct it, and remain focused on the user. No matter what, you are their advocate.

I said that was my last bit of advice, but I forgot the most important thing.


We are lucky to be UX professionals. It is fun to improve the world, and fun to get paid to do it. Besides, what else are you going to do all day?

With that, I bid you the best of luck and the greatest of successes.

That’s all I’ve got. You’ve got it from here.


Author: Michael Shur

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