“How do I become a UX designer?” is a question I get often. It usually comes in the form of a friendly email from a stranger, which leads to a conversation over lunch or coffee about landing a job in UX.
Landing an entry-level UX position isn’t easy. Most employers can’t or won’t train junior candidates. Employers want someone with experience who can hit the ground running. This means that aspiring UX designers can’t get the experience they need to start their careers. I’ve written about this problem before, and I’m passionate about fixing it.
There is no prescribed path for becoming a UX designer. Like many UX designers, I found my way into UX design. I went to art school and majored in art education. Along the way, I realized that I didn’t want to teach art to kids. So I decided to pursue web design because I enjoyed the web development classes and programming classes I took in college. I finished my fine arts degree by designing sociopolitical websites. My portfolio had just enough work to land me a job in front-end development. From there, I transitioned to a junior UX design position. I’ve been a UX designer ever since.
I can’t tell someone to repeat my own career path. But what I can do is share my best advice for becoming a UX designer.
Ask yourself: Do I have the traits of a budding UX designer?
I attended Fred Beecher’s presentation on UX apprenticeship at the 2014 IA Summit. He advised hiring managers to seek traits in entry-level UX designers instead of skills. He emphasized these traits:
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 possess most or all of these traits, that’s a good sign. Keep this in mind if you land an interview for a UX position. If you don’t have much UX experience, play up the traits above to your advantage.
Become a part of the community.
Don’t be intimidated by members of the community who know more than you. People in the tech and design fields are usually friendly and open to meeting new people. Introduce yourself to the community members and get to know them.
It’s okay to tell folks that you’re trying to get into UX, but don’t be a resume-shover. Don’t come across as desperate. You don’t want people to see you as someone who’s simply using the community to find a job. Take the opportunity to form relationships. Form relationships now, even if the community can’t help you right now. Perhaps folks can help you make the right connection six months from now or a few years from now.
Find a mentor.
I know a young woman in Philadelphia who wants to become a UX designer. She’s followed most of the advice in this article. She also took some of the UX classes I taught for Girl Develop It Philadelphia, a non-profit 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 to hear this.
With that in mind, find a mentor. Mentorship can be informal. Soak up everything an experienced UX designer can offer you. Ask someone a few questions at the next meetup. Take someone to lunch or coffee. Ask them to Skype with you for an hour.
Be careful not to demand too much of someone’s time. Start small and make it easy for people to help you. If you invite people out to lunch, offer to meet somewhere that’s conveniently close to where they live or work. Buy them lunch, or buy them coffee if you meet for coffee.
Get comfortable with teaching yourself new things.
Successful design professionals keep current by teaching themselves new tools and techniques. 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. If you’re not a self-learner, start forming that habit now. Hear an acronym or technique you’re not familiar with? Google it and read up on what it means. If adapting quickly and finding your own answers makes you uncomfortable, this may not be the field for you.
Soak up free content.
There’s plenty of free UX content out there. UX practitioners are passionate people who love to share their thoughts on the practice.
If you listen to podcasts, check out my blog post about my favorite UX podcasts.
Sign up for UX Thought of the Day. You’ll receive one email every day on most weekdays of the year. Each email contains a bite-sized UX thought or UX tip that you can apply to your design work.
Read my list of UX resources for beginners. Most resources on the list are free, except for the books. As a faculty member at Center Centre, I get to review many UX resources. These are the best resources I’ve found for folks who are new to UX design.
(Update: July 2015) All You Can Learn (AYCL) is a library of seminars by experts in all things UX design. AYCL no longer has a free trial, but you can purchase individual seminars or sign up for a monthly plan. Trust me, it’s worth every penny.
Most of AYCL’s content is for current practitioners, but check out the topics to see what interests you. You may want to start with these:
- How Do We Design Designers?
- Content-first UX Design: What Video Games Teach Us About UX
- Make Collaboration Happen, Even with Stubborn People
Full Disclosure: UIE produces AYCL seminars. UIE 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. See what trends and discussions bubble up in the field. Start following the folks they engage with. 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 follow: 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 plenty of great books for UX beginners. Here are my favorites:
Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug
The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman
A Project Guide to UX Design by Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler
Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld
- Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish (This is one of my favorite UX books of all time. Read my review of the book to see why. You can also listen to a brief interview with the author.)
Learn to code.
You don’t have to master code to be a great UX designer. But an understanding of front-end web development (HTML and CSS) is a must. You’ll need to understand how code works to produce effective designs. You’ll need to know how to communicate with the developers on your team that write the code.
I haven’t coded full-time since 2007, but I’ve kept up with recent approaches like responsive design and HTML5. I’ve read enough about them to understand the principles. This means I still know enough about front-end development to hold a conversation with a developer.
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 found 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 show off your work to the world. Some mobile app developers got their start by creating apps, posting them to the App Store, and 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.
You’ll need real work experience to learn UX design. UX hiring managers want to know how you solve problems. They like to hear about your process. They want to know how you work with teams to reach shared goals. These things are often more important to hiring managers than the final design or experience you create.
Theoretical assignments or projects won’t give you experience. You can read up about all the UX tools in the world, but you won’t know how to use or apply them until you work on actual projects. You’ll need a project with real users, real constraints like time and budget, and real team members. Then, you’ll truly gain experience in UX design.
Jared Spool is a renowned UX design expert and industry leader. (He’s also my boss at Center Centre.) A few years ago, before we worked together, we talked about how aspiring UX designers can gain actual work experience. He suggested taking on pro bono UX projects. Perhaps you can help your church update their outdated website. 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 in an interview. You can discuss the technical constraints you had to work with, the budget limitations, and how you worked with your team/client to achieve shared goals. These are the day-to-day challenges that UX designers face in their work. These are the stories that UX hiring managers want to hear during interviews.
If you’re already in tech, start practicing UX.
If applicable, start incorporating UX practice into your current position. Rather than asking permission, consider making it part of your process. Start small. As you gradually demonstrate the value of UX design, you’ll likely get buy-in from your team on UX design.
For example, rather than usability testing your entire site, get feedback from four to five people on the registration page. You can learn basic usability testing tips from Steve Krug’s usability test demo. You can also read Steve’s book about usability testing, Rocket Surgery Made Easy. Both of these sources are for beginners. These sources won’t make you an expert in usability testing, but they can help you get started.
After you learn usability testing basics, try running a few usability tests. Recruit a few colleagues to observe and take notes. Then, meet with your team to share the results. When you meet, make sure the folks who observed and took notes are in that meeting. They’ll help you share and explain your findings. By sharing your results, and by including others in your process, you may convince your team to infuse UX design approaches into the current process. (See my related article, How I Introduced the UX Process at AWeber, to see how I infused UX design into the culture at AWeber.)
Consider formal training options.
Center Centre is the UX design school in Chattanooga, TN. Center Centre’s two-year, full-time program prepares students to be industry-ready, junior UX designers. I’m a faculty member at Center Centre.
(Update: July 2015) As I mentioned above, All You Can Learn is a library of seminars by experts in all things UX design. If you already work in design or tech, lobby your boss to purchase you a monthly subscription. Otherwise, if you have room in your budget, consider purchasing a subscription.
Propose an apprenticeship or internship.
I know a woman in the Philadelphia area who’s trying to break into the UX field. She recently proposed UX internships 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 don’t know if this will be effective, but I think it’s a great idea.
May the force be with you.
Like I mentioned earlier, there’s no prescribed path for breaking into UX. It’s a tough field to break into, but it’s not impossible to break into. I encourage you to try whichever of these approaches works best for your situation. 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.