Careers

How to be a standout candidate for that UX job, part 1

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There’s one question I get asked at every brain-picking, group networking coffee chat with an aspiring UX designer.

“How do I stand out?”

I truly believe that once you become a design thinker… well… there’s no going back. (For better or worse, but mostly for better.) Out of habit and necessity, I’m always turning questions inside out and flipping assumptions on their head, encouraging everyone I know, especially designers-in-training, to do the same.

It’s no surprise that when I’m asked this, I often pitch back a question of my own:

“What if your job wasn’t to stand out, but to do everything in your power not to fit in?”

Sure, it’s a subtle difference in wording, but that wording has a profound impact in the way we UXers think about how we present ourselves to potential employers and discerning colleagues. When we know how to iterate on what others have successfully done in their careers and ideate highly personal ways of going about them, we set ourselves up to stand out simply because we’re rebelling against the force of fitting in. It’s one of those things that’s hard to fail at once you’re aware of it—which is exactly why I always ask that question. It’s the gamechanger most people didn’t know they needed.

When it comes to pursuing a career in UX, fitting in is a fatal flaw remedied only by focusing on what you bring to the table—and how it’s just the tiniest bit different than everyone else’s dish.

“We need to make breaking into UX more accessible to all.”

For the past 5 years, I’ve given advice about how to design a life and a living around UX to students, interns, young entrepreneurs, and career-pivoting practitioners. I’ve been asked all the questions and I’ve given all the answers. I’ve identified the common threads and recurring patterns in the information that most entry-level UXers seek, and I’ve packaged up all the hard-earned insights I’ve acquired from my own career along the way into this resource I call Journey Into UX.

User experience design is a practice that, from the perspective of someone trying to get in, can be seen as slightly mysterious without a clear path to follow. My goal with Journey Into UX is to make it easier to forge a clear path forward to do more of the work that matters—solving the world’s stickiest problems with design that helps people get unstuck in their own lives. We need more UX designers ready to join the cause of creating a more accessible world, but in order to do that, we need to make breaking into UX more accessible to all.

Making a career in UX possible to all who are interested is my mission. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I wrote this.

May the insights you find here meet your aspirations where they already are, and may the following pages provide you with the answers to the questions that you’ve been too scared to ask at one of those brain-picking, group networking coffee chats. Remember: there are no silly questions, only false assumptions.

Events and networking

Events
In the UX community, you’ll find that there are 2 kinds of networking events:

1. Events for connecting with others at similar stages of life

Where are your people at?

You’ve probably asked yourself this many times (perhaps even in the middle of the night, crying into a bowl of midnight snack cereal). You’ve gone on following-sprees on Twitter, invested time in feedback and critique on Dribbble or similar portfolio sites, and tried to network from behind the screen on LinkedIn. And yet—nothing is sticking.

If you’re new to the UX community, networking events like meetups, brown bag lunches, free talks, and conferences are often exactly where your fellow people are at. They’re there, making jokes, trading cards, and being curious—together.

In addition to picking up new skills or valuable takeaways that improve the quality of your future work, you’ll be meeting fellow newbies who are facing the same “getting started” challenges that you are. Remember, we’re all in this together. You included.

And…

2. Events for networking with others who can offer you specific advantages and insights

Events are by far the best way to know the names and faces of senior-level UX practitioners—people who are often in positions to hire or otherwise refer your name to someone who is.

Professional UX organizations such as User Experience Professionals Association, the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and Ladies That UX all great for getting involved in networking events—most of which are free (or almost free!) and offer a ton of return for your time. The trick is taking advantage of what’s in front of you, getting out of your own head, and getting in front of the people who are eager and ready to support you when you show up.

NETWORKING
Before we get too deep in the networking rabbit hole, I have to admit something.

I used to hate networking.

I thought networking events were tedious and time consuming. I mean, giving up an evening of Netflix for the company of people you don’t know? Whaaaat?

The idea of networking made me squirm. If we’re being honest… sometimes it still does. In the beginning, though, it made me want to run in the opposite direction. Seriously, what’s an introvert to do when you’re expected to talk to strangers?

At one of my first jobs in consulting, we were required to attend one networking event a month. The company wanted to get their name out there. Needless to say, I hated being forced to network, but it turns out I really needed that push.

And I get it.

It’s really easy to tell yourself that you’re an introvert and that you hate networking. Or that you’re too busy.

There are a million ways to give yourself an out.

I’m busy just like the next person.

I work all day. I have a young child. And yet, I still make it a priority to go to a few events every month.

At the beginning, the first couple of events were really awkward for me. But I started meeting people one at a time. Then I’d go back and see that person at the next event, and then at another event.

That person would introduce me to other people, and then magically after several events, I was actually looking forward to seeing my new friends.

So let’s talk about how you can go to in-person events, stand out from the crowd, and make some friends in the UX world.

Networking is hard. Here are a few good tips to make getting out there easier.

Show up

Let’s address the elephant in the room. If you’re not a natural networker (is anyone, really?), then the first event you go to will undoubtedly be the toughest. You probably won’t know anyone. The prospect of striking up a conversation will cause your anxiety to reach an all-time high. You might want to run for the door.

Stay… and push through it

Everyone goes through this. I feel this way with every new group event I attend, even now! Even the people huddled up around the snack table with a drink in hand had to start somewhere. This is your start.

The good news? I’m here to tell you that the UX community is very welcoming. (Seriously, it’s a unicorn cuddle fest. Bring us your weird.)

“Consistently showing up subconsciously tells others that you are reliable.”

Show up as often as possible,” says Jacklyn Cohen, Organizer of Ladies That UX Atlanta. “When I see people’s faces a few times at my meetups, and at others, I have a much easier time remembering them.”

Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just showing up.” It’s so true, and so necessary to simply show up. Showing up communicates effort, and effort begets interest. If for nothing else, consistently showing up subconsciously tells others that you are reliable.

It’s a commitment you’ll need to make to yourself, but try starting with small commitments that build momentum. One event a month is a great start—soon enough, you’ll be seeing the same faces, in the same places, and start to see networking as less of a “thing to get over” and more of an event to be excited about.

Go solo

It can be incredibly tempting to bring your BFF or colleague with you to take some of the pressure off of socializing. After all, if there’s an awkward pause, in the conversation who better to fill it than a third wheel?

But when the room starts to clique-up or it doesn’t seem like anyone wants to talk to you, you’ll default to what’s easy—talking to a friend. And while there’s certainly a place for being social, the thing we’re working towards here is value in the form of a new connection, a pivotal business card, or a tantalizing next step toward the profession and the practice you love.

Don’t be Linus clinging to his blanket. Because that blanket? It’s weighted. And while you think it’s a comfort, it’s actually holding you back.

“Go your own way. Be your own company.”

Have a goal

What do you want to get out of this event? What will make it feel like a success? Is it purely informational, or are you looking for a guide or a mentor? Do you want to plug into a new community, or come away with a new client or project?

Defining your goal upfront helps you direct your attention towards it.

At the end of the day, networking is more than brushing shoulders and collecting business cards. It’s about getting to know people on a deep, personal level—and in the UX community especially, it’s about building bridges between professional relationships and personal friendships.

And whatever you do… do not leave that event until you’ve got someone’s contact information. A business card. An iOS contact. A napkin. Doesn’t matter—you’ve come this far. Don’t go home without it!

In a room full of vanilla, be pistachio

When it comes to talking to people (who talk to people all day), mentioning one memorable or notable thing about yourself will avoid the curse of becoming forgettable. Whenever I talk to people transitioning into UX, one of the most common things they tell me is that they want a job where they can “learn and grow”.

“Learn and grow” is generic. It’s beige. It’s vanilla.

But there is certainly something deeper beyond the desire to “learn” and the desire to “grow.” Can you spend some time trying to articulate what that desire is? As soon as you begin putting words to it, speaking it aloud, and practicing it in front of your people— well, suddenly you’re not so vanilla anymore.

“If you’re on the hunt for a job in UX, be specific about the role you want.”

If you’re on the hunt for a job in UX, be specific about the role you want. “Anything” comes off as desperate, and misaligned. Instead, think specifically and strategically about your ideal role: what it looks like, who you would report to, and why it supports an organization.

A few considerations might look like:

  • Explaining why you’re pursuing user experience, and the values with the role and company you’re looking for
  • Describing which aspect of UX you’re most interested in: research, strategy, or design
  • Identifying specific sectors (i.e., consumer goods, B2B, healthcare, non-profit) that interest you most.

Sidebar: It’s okay to talk about other things than UX

Talk about your hobbies and your interests. Maybe it’s photography, cooking, or travel. Or, maybe it’s underwater basket weaving, ice cream rolling, or historical reenacting. Random can be awesome, not only for the memorability factor, but because it gives others in your presence permission to fully open up.

Jacklyn says, “One person in particular sticks out in my brain. She commented that she followed me on Twitter and loved seeing photos of my dog. She told me she also had a pit bull, and I immediately liked her and remembered to continue our conversation later. That wasn’t about UX at all—it was just about seeing me as a real person. We ended up becoming great friends!”

Study up

Events posted on Meetup.com always display a handy list of people who’ve RSVP’d. I’m not saying you should “creep”… but I am saying that brushing up on who’s who is wise. Be natural in your approach, and you’ll definitely stand out. I, for one, am always flattered whenever someone singles me out to introduce themselves!

I recently had someone approach me at an IxDA event who recognized me, struck up a conversation, and now she’s coming by my office for a chat. I’m pretty sure she’ll get more out of coming in person, seeing the sketches we’ve got on the whiteboards, and getting a feel for our research and design process..

Meet the organizers

Event organizers are the ones who put together the day’s lineup, seat people at tables, and know how to navigate the energy of the room.

They’re the people who can mix and match you with other guests that have similar interests by making key introductions—just be sure to introduce yourself to them first, so they know who to pair you with.

“Meeting the event organizer and thanking them for the effort they put into the meetups is key.” says Jacklyn. “Organizers want the gratitude and recognition for their effort, which is generally 100% volunteer, just as much as you want to break into UX.”

Want to get deeper with your connections? Ask where a helping hand is needed. Organizers are always looking for great volunteers, and great volunteers are well positioned to make great connections.

Ask good questions

Opening up a conversation with someone sounds simple, but it’s actually pretty bold—especially if you’re out of practice or a naturally-inclined introvert.

I find that the best approach is to start with an open-ended question, such as, “What brings you here tonight?” or “What do you hope to come away with?” These are infinitely more interesting questions to ask instead of classic small talk, such as, “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?”

Image by #WOCinTechChat. CC BY 2.0.

If you know that your event will feature Q&A sessions of an event or talk, try to begin crafting your questions before the floor opens up. (Trust me, you’ll be the hero who saves everyone from the awkward silence that descends on the crowd when everyone is too skittish to approach the mic!)

If you prefer one-on-one time with a presenter, don’t be shy about asking them questions—but try to wait until they’ve exited the stage if you can. It’s okay to talk to presenters before their presentations, of course, but understand that they might be nervous or distracted. Talk to them afterward is typically better, since you’ll get to know the unbuttoned version of them.

As an eager attendee, one of the things I dislike most is “waiting in line,” standing behind a slew of other people as they wait to get to the presenter. By the time you get to the front of the line, said presenter is likely fatigued from so much facetime. To prevent being another face in the crowd, sit up front! You’ll get quality one-on-one time—and as an added bonus, have less of a trek.

Don’t forget to follow up

Following up is probably the most important tip on this list. It’s something people most people just flat-out forget to do—and yet, it’s probably the most critical part of this whole exercise in networking and community-building.

When following up:

Connect with people using authentic, not canned, connection requests—especially on LinkedIn. Personalize your message in an appropriate way, say, mentioning how you met, what you discussed, a joke you shared, or anything else that will help the person you’re trying to get in touch with put a name to a face.

Email is the surest way to connect. Use it to follow up on your conversation, and be sure to stay in touch long term by asking for simple advice. Trust me, people love giving advice. (Heck, I’m giving you advice right now and loving it!) The idea is to keep the conversation going and to stay top of mind—in a way that’s interesting but not intrusive.

Say thank you. The simplest and most profound action of all. Be sure to acknowledge the time out of your new contact’s day, the amount of effort it took to craft an email, compose great advice, etc.

Whew! We’ve covered a lot of ground—the obvious, the not-so-obvious, and everything in between. Even though it can be uncomfortable, proper networking will help build shortcuts to a UX job you actually want. There are also plenty of other things you can do to improve your chances that don’t necessarily involve networking:

  • Conversing with your fellow UX and design folk on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Slack
  • Joining weekly social media chats that focus on design, UX, and related fields
  • Chiming in with smart design critique and helpful feedback on Dribbble or Behance
  • Becoming an active commentator on popular UX blogs like A List Apart and Smashing Magazine
  • Making valuable introductions to interesting people you think should meet and mingle, either offline or offline

Remember, this isn’t just about being social for the sake of being social, or getting ahead by playing your cards right. It’s about being present… and being present is the best thing you can be in the minds of those who meet you.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this 3-part series, where I’ll go over applications.

Author

Jenny Sun
Jenny Sun started Journey Into UX to help people confidently forge their own path into User Experience. She is a teacher and coach who has guided dozens of aspiring UX designers to impactful careers.

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