My explorations in the startup world have revealed that my User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design skills pretty much suck. So if I am to successfully bootstrap an Internet startup, I figure that I either need to develop these skills myself or partner with a front end engineer / designer.

For a loner geek like me, learning skills seems infinitely easier than finding partners. So I have resolved to try to teach myself what I need, with the hope that I might stumble upon a partner along the way. Here are some of the things I have done to learn about UX/UI design.

My first step toward learning about UX design was to attend the Rainmakers Live conference this past Monday at the AOL campus in Palo Alto. The speaker list was star-studded. It included:

  • Kevin Fox, the lead designer of Gmail 1.0, Google Reader 2.0, Friendfeed, Facebook Games Dashboard, and who currently works on the UX at Mozilla.
  • Jason Putorti, designer of mint.com (one of my favorite webapps in these budget constrained days)
  • Luke Wroblewski, who was formerly Chief Design Architect at Yahoo!. 
  • Garry Tan, and Jessica Mah

My takeaway from the conference was their answer to the following question: 
I am a back-end engineer who wants to do a startup, but I have no front-end skills. Should I find a designer to partner with? Or should I try to learn this stuff on my own? How would you recommend I start learning about UX design?
The person asking this question might just as well have been me!

The unanimous answer was that the engineer should try to learn about UX design himself for now. Jason Putorti pointed out that mint.com was his first web app, and he had a CS background. So no special education was necessary.

It was suggested that the engineer could get started by studying the basic design principles, looking at other people's designs, understanding what makes them great, and experimenting like mad. Kevin Fox said it was really important to learn how to do Usability Testing. Luke Wroblewski said that you will never be completely happy with what you produce, because it will always be a little different from the idea you have in your head. And that is OK. It is more important to design mindfully and learn along the way. 

Some of the books they recommended for learning about basic design principles, usability testing, etc. were:

  • Designing the Obvious, by Robert Hoekman :  I am two-thirds of the way through this book and it is really great. It is a highly readable and powerful exposition of what makes web and mobile applications obvious. I find the passages where he describes his own design process really instructive. I particularly enjoy the sections called 'Interface Surgery', where he takes existing designs, comments on where they are deficient, and then methodically addresses the issues.
  • Don't Make Me Think, by Steve Krug: This is a web usability classic, and is supposed to have great insight on how to do usability testing. This book is what I am going to pick up after I finish 'Designing the Obvious'.
  • Designing Interfaces, by Jenifer Tidwell: This book is a compendium of Design Patterns for the web. It is a great reference when one is stuck and needs inspiration in one's design. Using common patterns in the right places also helps make things obvious to users. I plan on keeping this book close at hand while I go about designing my app.

In addition to those, there are some great blogs I have found on the subject of design

  • Jakob Nielson's Alertbox has some great articles, like The Top 10 Mistakes in Web Design.
  • Attack of Design, has been instructive as well. Especially this series about improving an existing website design. It reveals the basis for design choices on typography, colors, html/css styling etc. The takeaway is that with a bit of awareness and skill, even a drab design can be made inviting and useful.

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Those are the resources I have found so far. I find this world of User Experience Design quite exciting and look forward to learning a great deal about it in the coming months. If you have any UI/UX design resources which you have found useful, I would love to hear them!