My Advice for Becoming a UX Designer

“How do I become a UX designer?” is a question I get all too often. It usually comes in the form of a friendly email from a stranger, which leads to a conversation over lunch or coffee about how to get into the field. As it stands today, obtaining an entry-level position in UX is very difficult. Most employers don’t want to train and hire entry-level candidates, so would-be UX designers can’t get the experience they need to start their careers. I’ve written about this problem before, and I’m very passionate about finding a way to fix it.

There is no prescribed path for becoming a UX designer. Like many UX designers, I “fell into” UX. I went to art school, majored in art education, realized I didn’t want to teach (at the time, anyway), and then decided to pursue “this web design thing” I had picked up in college. I finished up my art degree by coding and designing sociopolitical websites as works of art, and my resulting portfolio was just enough to land me a job in front end development. From there, I transitioned to a junior UX position. As they say, the rest is history.

I can’t tell someone to repeat that path. But what I can do is share my best advice for those folks out there who wish to become UX designers.

Ask yourself: Do I have the traits of a budding UX designer?

At the 2014 IA Summit, I attended Fred Beecher’s presentation on UX apprenticeship. He advised the hiring managers in the room to seek traits in entry-level UX designers instead of skills. These were the traits he emphasized:

  • Passion for the craft.

  • Curiosity about people and technology.

  • Ability to learn quickly.

  • A detail-oriented nature.

  • Receptiveness to feedback (willingness to accept constructive criticism and act on it).

If you see yourself possessing most or all of these traits, that’s a good sign. It’s also something to keep in mind if you land an interview for a UX position. Since you likely won’t have many hard skills in UX, play up the traits above to your advantage.

Become a part of the community.

Attend local tech events in your area. If there’s a local UX meetup nearby, that’s a great group to start with. If there isn’t one, go to whatever tech community meetups you can, even if it’s for something related like JavaScript or graphic design.

Don’t be intimidated by members of the community who may know more than you. Generally speaking, people in the tech field are very open and friendly.

Introduce yourself and feel free to mention that you’re trying to get into UX, but don’t be a resume-shover either. Form relationships now, even if the people you get to know can’t help you right now. Perhaps they can help you make the right connection 6 months from now or a year from now.

Find a mentor.

I’ve gotten to know a young woman here in the Philadelphia area who wants to become a UX designer. She’s followed much of my advice laid out in this article, and she’s also taken some of the UX classes I’ve taught for Girl Develop It Philadelphia, a non-profit organization that runs affordable web design classes for women. She recently told me “Whether you know it or not, I consider you my mentor.” I was flattered that I’ve made such an impact on her.

With that in mind, find a mentor. A mentorship can be as formal or informal as you want it to be. Soak up anything and everything that an experienced UX designer can offer you, whether that’s merely brief discussions at local meetups or something more formal like portfolio reviews. The IA Institute (IAI) runs a formal mentorship program that’s worth looking into, though IAI membership is required to participate.

Get comfortable with teaching yourself new things.

Most successful web professionals keep current by teaching themselves new tools and techniques as they emerge. Technology is constantly evolving, so today’s skills will be obsolete before you know it. If you’re the type of person who loves to figure things out on your own, this field may be right for you. Start doing that now. Hear an acronym or technique you’re not familiar with? Google it and read up on what it means. If adapting quickly and searching out your own answers makes you uncomfortable, this may not be the field for you.

Soak up free content.

There’s plenty of free content out there about what UX is, how it’s applied, and so on. UX practitioners are passionate people who love to share their thoughts and further the practice.

If you listen to podcasts, check out my blog post about my favorite UX podcasts.

Start following UX blogs like UIE, UX Matters, UX Booth, Boxes & Arrows, A List Apart, etc.

Coursera is once again offering a free online course in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), which is the academic term for UX. It’s a structured course you can take which earns you a certificate at the end.

(Update: Sep. 10th, 2014) All You Can Learn is a library of seminars by experts in all things UX design. Sign up for the 30 day free trial, get comfy on your couch (or desk chair), and soak up all you can. No credit card is required to sign up. The content is aimed at current practitioners, but check out the topics to see what interests you. You may want to start with these:

Full Disclosure: UIE, the consultancy that produces this series, is the sister company to my current employer, Center Centre.

Follow UX folks on Twitter.

Start following notable UX designers and thought leaders on Twitter. Keep up with their conversations and see what trends, discussions, etc. are happening in the field. Then start following other people engaging in UX conversations with them. Eventually you’ll find yourself becoming a part of the conversation. If you choose to remain a silent participant, that’s okay too. :)

Here are some great UX folks to start following: Jared Spool, Dana Chisnell, Dan Willis, Dan Brown, Christina Wodtke, Eduardo Ortiz, Abby Covert, Charlene McBride, Steve Portigal, Karen McGrane, Whitney Hess, and Dan Klyn.

Read some of the classic UX books.

There are a number of starter books that most seasoned UX-ers have read. There are plenty more you could start with, but here are my favorites:

In addition to the list above, check out Whitney Hess’ recommended UX books.

Learn to code.

You don’t have to master it, but an understanding of front-end web development (HTML and CSS) is a must for any  UI designer, including UX designers. You’ll need to understand how the code works in order to produce realistic and effective designs. You’ll also need to know how to communicate with the developers or engineers that work with you.

Speaking of which, I often tell people that it may be easier to break into the field as a developer than a UX designer. At least 10 women in the Philadelphia area were able to find full time front-end development jobs after taking courses with Girl Develop It Philadelphia.

When you learn to code, you can create a few simple sites, make them live, and therefore show off your work to the world. From what I’ve heard, some mobile app developers even got their start by creating apps and posting them to the App Store, then pointing employers to their work. UX, on the other hand, requires actual project experience to master.

Find a way to apply UX on actual project work.

Unlike coding, most UX practices require actual project experience to master. In many ways, UX is less about deliverables (wireframes, site maps, or other documentation) and more about the processes applied to achieve effective UX design.

When this topic came up during a discussion at UX Camp 2014 in Washington, DC, Jared Spool suggested doing pro bono UX work. Perhaps you could help your church update their site. Or maybe your Uncle owns a deli and his site hasn’t been updated since 1997. Even better, if someone in your area is organizing a grassroots conference or runs a tech/design meetup, offer to help them design or manage their site.

This is actual work experience that you can talk about with hiring managers. You can discuss the technical constraints you had to work with, the budget limitations, and how you worked with your client to achieve shared goals. In many cases, these are the day to day challenges that UX designers face in their work.

If you’re already in tech, just start practicing UX.

If applicable, start incorporating UX practice into your current position. Rather than asking permission, just start making it a part of your process whenever possible. Start small rather than biting off more than you can chew up front.

For example, rather than usability testing your entire site, get feedback from 4-5 people on the registration page. You can also try using free tools like Peek, which record a random user’s first impression of your website. Share this with your team to justify small UX projects that you’d like to take on.

Consider formal training options.

  • Center Centre, nicknamed the Unicorn Institute, is a trade school opening in the Fall of 2014. Located in Chattanooga, TN, it offers an on site 2 year program to train industry-ready junior UX designers.

  • General Assembly offers 12 week on site evening courses in UX.

  • Last but not least, check for online courses from Code Academy, Lynda, and Treehouse. Most of these providers offer tutorials in coding, but they may offer UX courses as well. As mentioned above, Coursera offers a free online course in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), which is the academic term for UX.

  • (Update: Sep. 10th, 2014) As mentioned above, All You Can Learn is a library of seminars by experts in all things UX design. A 30 day free trial is available and no credit card is required to sign up. If you’re already in the tech field, lobby your boss to get you a paid account. You’ll have access to a wealth of UX topics any time you need them.

Propose an apprenticeship or internship.

I know a woman in the Philadelphia area who’s trying to break into the UX field. She recently told me that she’s proposing a UX internship to tech companies in our area. I think that’s awesome. She’s networking, making contacts at those companies, and proposing her time for a UX internship. I am not sure how effective this approach would be, but I do think it’s a great idea that proactively gets job candidates in front of employers.

May the force be with you.

While it’s awesome that I was able to come up with so much advice, the reality is that there are no guarantees. Most careers in tech do not require certification. Therefore there is no prescribed path for achieving a career in UX. However, I encourage you to try whichever of these approaches works best for your situation. And if you do, please let me know how it goes in the comments.

Do you have any other advice for breaking into the UX field? Please share in the comments as well.



    • Jessica Ivins says

      Thanks Laurel. These are great options for folks who are local to Philadelphia or New Brunswick, NJ.

  1. says

    Fantastic article Jessica! Ryan Cayabyab posted it to FB on the same day we (in Cincinnati) had a meetup about getting a UX job. I posted your article in that discussion.

    I hope you’re doing well, and hope to see you again.


    • Jessica Ivins says

      Beth, sorry I didn’t approve this comment earlier. Somehow I missed it. I hope the class went well.

  2. David L. French says

    One thing I see missed over and over is that to be an effective UX designer you have to have a real good understanding of:
    -Consumer behavior (purchasing consumer products, services or B2B same)
    -Focus group, live UX research dynamics interfacing with users.
    Without strengths in these effectiveness is limited and appeal to employers as someone with a good
    skill set is limited.

  3. Meka says

    This is excellent advice Jessica! I don’t know how I missed this nugget of goodness. I especially like the information about “All You Can Learn”. Well, to be honest ALL of the information is great!! I’ve been trying to get into UX and have found it VERY difficult. I worked on UX projects when I was getting my Masters but no “real world” experience. Now, I’m trying to soak up all of the information that I can to keep myself “in the know” regarding what’s going on in the world of UX. Thanks again for this.


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