Illustration by Gleren Meneghin

Learning something new from scratch is no easy task, especially in a multidisciplinary field such as UX with the overwhelming, and often conflicting, amount of information available online.

Learning strategies can be used to enhance the learning process for both educators and learners, but what does “learning” involve? 

Over time, learning theories have become more complex; and thanks to brain research, we are now better equipped to disregard some classical myths that may do more harm than good — for example, the myth of someone being “right-brained” vs “left-brained.” 

Here we discuss some brain-based learning strategies that are substantiated by actual scientific research. Let’s apply them to the ongoing process of learning UX. 

1) Solve real problems: Problem-based learning (PBL) 

According to Dr. Eric Jensen, author of the book “Brain-Based Learning”, the human brain is wired to solve problems.

When you collaborate with other students, peers, or friends to solve problems, you learn new ways to use and combine the information you read about, resulting in new synaptic connections being formed in your brain. 

What does this mean for your learning process?

On one hand, things will start making sense when you apply knowledge to a real context. On the other hand, working on projects you’re excited about will naturally boost your motivation and emotional involvement, which in turn results in effective learning. 

How to apply this to learning UX?

Considering how a problem-centered approach is the foundation of any UX project, it’s easy to apply PBL to your own learning process. To get started, you can think of a problem space you’re passionate about or that means something for you personally. For example, provides great examples in their design project scoping guide

In design thinking, often we refer to the term “wicked problem” to explore a problem that is complex, difficult, or impossible to solve, and has no definite solution — making it an ideal problem to explore and test a range of solutions with the goal of improving the lives of people affected by it. 

Sketchnote based on Richard Buchanan's wicked problems in design thinking.
Image credit LoraCBR (copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0).

2) Discuss with others: Active discussion & debate 

When it comes to learning, there’s a considerable difference between consuming content passively or being engaged in active participation. 

When you’re part of a discussion, you’re forced to participate and interact — you’re cognitively and emotionally engaged, from a science perspective.

Not only are you constructing new knowledge based on your own previous experience, you’re also being exposed and challenged to new ideas and perspectives.

What does this mean for your learning process?

Similarly to what happens with PBL, science claims that this type of activity helps build synaptic connections and new ways for you to use the newly acquired information. 

A constructive debate exposes you to often conflicting perspectives, giving you a chance to develop your own unique view and approach. This also promotes the development of critical thinking skills, one of the many essential soft skills you need in the UX field.

How to apply this to learning UX?

To get started, you’ll need to engage with other individuals at different stages in their UX journey, from UX students to UX professionals. It’s important to not only receive expert and senior feedback, but also peer feedback. This helps you develop your own approach and take a stance on debatable topics, instead of relying solely on someone else’s view just because they’re more experienced than you. 

If you’re self-taught and don’t have classmates to interact with, it might be a good idea to join a design community on Slack or Discord. For example, Adobe runs a discord channel for the Adobe XD Daily Creative Challenge that you can join for free, which helps you interact not only with mentors but also other students like you. It’s a great place to discuss any UX and design related topics in addition to the daily creative challenges. 

There are also a number of great UX courses and bootcamps that can give you the opportunity to learn in more hands-on and interactive environments.

3) Simulate & role-play: Simulations as a learning tool

Simulations and role-playing are commonly used as a learning strategy since they share many of the benefits of the strategies mentioned above — such as increasing motivation and emotional engagement, which brain research considers as important factors in fostering learning.

What does this mean for your learning process?

We are all aware of how we can easily recall episodes or situations that are associated with a specific emotion. When we tie new concepts to different emotional contexts, not only are we making it easier to memorize them, we’re also making sense of how they connect to the real world. 

During a simulation, we’re also promoting the development of important soft skills such as decision making, problem solving, and critical thinking, as already mentioned above. 

How to apply this to learning UX?

In UX, a simulation would involve replicating a real-life situation, considering realistic constraints. This is the case of fictional briefs, for example, that already have specific requirements. Contrary to passion projects, as we suggested above for PBL, a simulation would allow less creative freedom and it’d be closer to a professional context. You can get started by browsing design briefs or challenges and use them to practice what you learn. 

Some authors, like Jane Dunkel Chilcott, make a distinction between role-playing and simulations. In this case, role-playing would be taking the role of a specific character according to a predetermined set of events. If you role-play as a decision maker, a stakeholder, or even the end user, you’re able to put yourself in their shoes and better understand the impact of your design decisions on their lives.  

4) Create graphic organizers: Using your own design skills to give meaning to what you learn

Visual design skills are most likely already part of your arsenal (or soon will be), but did you know you can also use them in the actual process of learning UX?

Findings from brain research support the benefits of graphics and visual aids to help foster attention, learning, and retention. Educators often use this strategy in their classes; but as a student, you can also create your own to help you process new information and link it with prior knowledge you already possess. 

What does this mean for your learning process?

Graphic organizers are a way to visualize relationships between ideas and concepts. They enable you to map, organize, and internalize new information, while at the same time doing what you love — designing.

This hands-on approach gives you once again the opportunity to actively participate in your learning process instead of being a passive consumer.

How to apply this to learning UX?

Even if you aren’t that experienced in designing yet, this could be a great opportunity to start using a UI tool such as Adobe XD to illustrate some of the concepts or information you learn. You can even use plugins like the Whiteboard plugin to help you quickly note down some ideas. 

This technique can be easily combined with the collaborative learning techniques discussed above surrounding active discussions and debate. Examples of collaboration could involve inviting others to exchange ideas and notes with you, or even share some of your graphics to social media channels.

Cognitive load graphic organizer venn diagram: intrinsic, extraneous and germane.
An example of a graphic organizer I’ve created in Adobe XD to explain cognitive load that I later shared on social media. Image credit Ana Santos.

5) Develop a growth mindset: Create a positive environment for learning

Emotions are crucial to learning. The positive impact that emotional involvement has on learning — the building of synaptic connections — is backed by brain research too.

This is true for negative emotions as well. This means that emotions such as stress and anxiety affect learning; so do the beliefs we have about ourselves, both positive and negative. 

Therefore, it’s important to be in a positive climate for learning, either in a classroom or your own learning space, whether that’s physical or virtual. Considering that there are many variables we can’t control, a growth mindset is something that we all can develop. 

What does this mean for your learning process? 

It’s easy to become frustrated and develop negative beliefs if you are unable to reach your goals. However, failing at something doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to develop that specific skill. That’s the difference between a growth mindset — believing you can improve and develop skills over time — and a fixed mindset  — convincing yourself that if you are not good at something, you will never be.

While a fixed mindset will most likely promote negative emotions and unrealistic expectations, a growth mindset, on the other hand, will allow you to see your learning process as a journey, one that is filled with positive emotions.

How to apply this to learning UX?

While it’s impossible to control all the factors and situations that affect our emotional states, slowly working towards a growth mindset is one way to foster a positive climate for learning.

In order to do that, it’s important to accept failure as part of the learning process. After all, you’re getting into a completely new field and starting from scratch! 

Don’t give up!

Learning UX from scratch takes time, work, and a lot of dedication. As with any other field, you won’t master it overnight, so it’s important to embrace failure as part of the process.  

In order to develop your unique approach and grow your critical thinking skills, you need to discuss relevant topics with others, practice what you learn, share and apply.

In the end, all hard work will pay off.