My Advice for Becoming a UX Designer

UX books and sticky notes

Photo by Jessica Ivins

“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 are unable to train junior candidates; they 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 “fell into” UX. I went to art school and majored in art education. I realized I didn’t want to teach (at the time, anyway), and then decided to pursue “this web design thing” I picked up in college. I finished my art degree by designing sociopolitical websites. My 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?

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. 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 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.

Attend local tech events in your area. If there’s a local UX meetup nearby, that’s a great start. 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 open and friendly. Introduce yourself and get to know them.

Its 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 to be seen as someone who’s just using the community to find a job. Use this 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 two years from now.

Find a mentor.

I know a young woman here 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 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 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. Just be careful not to demand too much of someone’s time. Start small and make it easy for people to help you.

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.

Successful design professionals keep current by teaching themselves emerging 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.

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

(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 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 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:

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

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 also 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 new 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. From what I’ve heard, 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 the craft of UX. UX hiring managers want to know how you think. They want to know how you solve problems. They like to hear about your process. This is often more important to them than the final product 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 truly know how to use or apply them until you’re in the trenches.

I attended a discussion at UX Camp 2014 in Washington, DC. During the discussion, Jared Spool suggested taking on pro bono UX projects so you can get actual work experience. Perhaps you can 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 during an interview. 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. 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 make it a part of your process. 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 use free tools like Peek that 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 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.

  • Check Codecademy, Lynda, and Treehouse to see if they offer UX courses. Most of them offer coding tutorials, but they may offer UX tutorials as well.

  • (Update: July 2015) As 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. Very honestly, I don’t know if this will be effective, but I do think it’s a great idea that proactively gets you in front of employers.

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. 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.

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    • 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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