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Careers in games: getting started as a UX designer

What does it take to become a successful user experience designer in the games industry? Peggy Ann Salz speaks to Jasmin Dahncke and Caitlin Goodale about the role, skills, and routes in
Careers in games: getting started as a UX designer
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Curiosity, continuous learning, and critical thinking – the ability to conceptualise, analyse, synthesise and evaluate information gathered from observation, reflection and research – top the list of traits user experience (UX) designers must cultivate to design games players can't resist.

Creating a great gaming experience requires solid design skills (and a working knowledge of Sketch or Figma is a plus). Beyond graphics arts, the best UX designers also have a range of tactical skills, including concept iteration, user research, prototyping, and usability testing, according to UX evangelist Jasmin Dahncke. "Some you can learn, and you should," she says. "Others, such as people skills, are self-taught."

Dahncke, senior UX designer at Mainframe Industries, a pan-Nordic game venture with studios in Helsinki and Reyjavik, has a long track record in design and a deep passion for all stages of product development. "In Finland and elsewhere, there are great schools that teach about games and game user research, and that is valuable," she explains. "What you know is always important, but it also comes down to who you are and what drives you. There needs to be something in you that is burning for this."

Jasmin Dahncke
Jasmin Dahncke

“There needs to be something in you that is burning for this”
Jasmin Dahncke

"Work on the game – and your ego"

At the core, being a UX designer is all about, well, design.

Typically, Dahncke explains, a UX designer gets the cue from the team that they want to make a new feature. Then the UX designer creates the wireframes and organise the information on the screen that the user needs to understand the feature. "It's about making flows. Like what happens if the player takes a certain action? Does new information need to pop up? And if so, where is it? How big is it?"

Arriving at answers is a long and iterative process where UX designers have to be patient enough to do the testing and fearless enough to accept the outcome. "You will often get it wrong, and you need to accept that and keep at it," Dahncke explains." You need to work on the game, but you also have to work on your ego."
In practice, this means being "open as a person – socially and professionally – to feedback," Dahncke says. It also means embracing data and the departments that work with it.

To get the best results, UX designers have to learn to work closely with data analysts to test features, get feedback and seek the best solutions, Dahncke says. "It's not about us who make the game. It's about the audience we make it for, and to do that, we need analytics, we need data, we need to test, and we need to validate our assumptions together."

“It's not about us who make the game. It's about the audience we make it for”
Jasmin Dahncke

Good UX designers "glue" people and product together

This highlights the importance of one soft skill UX designers possess in spades: emotional intelligence. Their ability to focus on user needs also equips them to drive meaningful connections with colleagues, between teams and across the company.

UX designers are "the glue" communicating between departments and with users, says Caitlin Goodale, Head of UX Design at DREST. The mobile game and e-commerce platform allow users to take part in styling challenges using luxury brands and looks.

Caitlin Goodale
Caitlin Goodale

It's great to be able to connect with players, Goodale explains. But it's also critical to communicate with teams and work on projects that involve multiple departments and stakeholders.

"If I were hiring a UX designer right now, I would look for a candidate with people skills because so much of the job is more about building bridges and [facilitating] communications," she explains. That is where the UX designer plays an invaluable role, "pulling together the teams to deliver the product."

“If I were hiring a UX designer right now, I would look for a candidate with people skills”
Caitlin Goodale

It's a critical capability in a market where the product is much more than a winning title or gaming app. "It's a holistic package that combines data-driven design and data-informed design." In this scenario, UX designers create the experience that will empower players and power the metrics and numbers gaming companies have to hit down the line as they evolve the portfolio or move into LiveOps. "That's why UX designers have to bring their personal perspective and their expert experience to the job."

Portfolios are critical, be sure to show and tell

UX designers are the bridge-builders. They tap soft skills to architect great user experiences and harness business acumen to ensure teams are aligned and equipped to reach audiences and hit targets.

So, how do job seekers demonstrate they have the skillset to play such a pivotal role in the company? This is where the right portfolio can open doors or close them.

UX designers are the bridge-builders

If you don't know how to put together a portfolio, do your homework (and some legwork) to find some expert inspiration. Research the portfolios of UX designers at the company where you want to work or scan the portfolios of UX designers and mentors you admire most.

A great place to start is LinkedIn. If you know the company where you want to work, search for it. Go through the list of UX designers who work there and then employ some Internet sleuthing to find the UX designer's personal website. "At least a few of them [UX designers] will always have their portfolios listed," DREST's Goodale says. "Look through, and you will get a better idea of what they expect and the standards you would be expected to meet."

If you're more of a specialist UX designer and user research is your focus, then make sure your portfolio includes details about how you conducted the research and what convinced you to arrive at the conclusions you did. "That can be one-pagers of text and some examples of the papers they have written or referenced," Goodale explains. "Show and tell how your work in the portfolio is tied into the research process."

If you're more of a visual UX designer, then your portfolio should show off your work. But it should also tell a compelling story, Mainframe's Dahncke explains. This means explaining your thinking and all the step in the journey that shaped and influenced your work. "A no-go is writing walls of text. That's not good UX to start, and no one has time to read it," she adds.

If you're starting and have never worked on a project, then Dahncke recommends you make a case from your favourite game. Is there something in the UI/UX that you liked or hated? Explain it. Maybe even come up with a better solution. No matter what you do, make sure you put your heart into it, she says. "The number one thing we want to see is passion," Dahncke says.

Avoiding blind spots and burn-out

UX designers have to show their talent, but they also have to demonstrate integrity. "UX design is very collaborative, so you want to call out where your work is your own and where it is the result of working with others," Goodale says. For example, just a note at the bottom saying my talented colleague made the logo is sufficient, she adds.

“The number one thing we want to see is passion”
Jasmin Dahncke

Use the job interview to elaborate on all the ideas and inspiration you bring together in your work. And be upfront about the times where a project missed the mark. Goodale likes to ask applicants how they handle dealing with someone that had a different opinion. The answers speak volumes about how that person will deal with feedback and cope with conflict.

Another plus is to show on your resume that you run workshops, do feedback sessions or regularly participate in meetups or lecture series like Creative Mornings. It's all about staying active, fresh and current, Dahncke says. Diverse activities and interests are also the best protection against blind spots and burn-out. Learn from architecture design, join the IGDA (International Game Developers Association), attend industry conferences or just binge on all the great show sessions on YouTube. UX design is about listening and learning. It requires a "commitment to self-growth" and a willingness to "constantly improve yourself as human as well as the experience you design."