UX is the hot career path for new designers. If you’re an experienced designer, chances are you’ve met more than a few people looking to land their first job in the field.
Aspiring designers often find the design world confusing and intimidating. With the endless deluge of boot camps, seminars, human factors degrees, and online courses, it’s no wonder that they don’t know what to choose—nevermind what being a UX designer actually means, or how to land a job in the field.
Helping these people can feel a little like teaching a child to read: you don’t know how much you take for granted until you try to teach it to somebody else. But as a Springboard mentor and a Skillshare teacher, I’ve learned that a few key lessons help young designers cut through the noise and land their first UX job.
We’ll be going into:
- How to decide that UX is right for you
- Developing practical UX skills
- Learning to explain design results in business language
- Finding the right job
- The solo homework it takes to become a great UX practitioner
1. Make UX a conscious choice
The key to landing a great UX job is understanding what the UX field actually looks like.
But if you’re just starting to learn the UX trade, chances are you’ve heard a lot of convoluted, often conflicting, information about UX specialties. The lack of emphasis that most UX curriculums put on explaining the differences between user researchers, information architects, and interaction designers certainly doesn’t help.
I’ve interviewed many aspiring designers who think of UX specialties as discrete roles with little overlap. Don’t fall into this trap.
Every UX specialty shares the same basic foundation: understanding users, uncovering their needs, and designing solutions that solve their most painful problems. UXers of all disciplines need a broad understanding of UX principles to do their jobs well.
And though bootcamp instructors and Medium authors may try to convince you otherwise, there are far more UX generalist roles out there than they make it sound, and they’re much more accessible to beginner designers.
“I want junior designers to understand the big picture before they specialize, which means understanding the entire user-centered design process.”
When I hire junior designers, I typically have them contribute as generalists, learning under designers in a variety of roles, before specializing themselves.
Why? I want junior designers to understand the big picture before they specialize, which means understanding the entire user-centered design process. You don’t have to be an expert—just well-versed enough to contribute effectively not just within your own discipline, but towards the team’s larger goals.
It’s not just me; employers all over are growing to appreciate employees who can speak to a number of business interests, as opposed to one specialization.
While you might not be excited about the prospect of running user interviews or conducting usability tests, you still need to learn how to do those things reasonably well. To excel as a UX designer, you have to really care about people and understanding what makes them tick.
If your interests don’t include users and their motivations, consider other career paths like graphic design or art direction. These are legitimate and valuable fields that may be a better fit for you. But if you still want to become a UX designer, the following advice should get you there faster.
2. Focus on practical skills
In many organizations, if not most, those who manage UX designers are also doing design work themselves. My “typical” day, for example, includes not just overseeing others’ design work, but conducting user interviews or designing individual interactions as well.
The pressure to manage while still being an individual contributor is high, so hiring managers (myself included) look for candidates who have mastered these practical skills enough to hit the ground running and contribute from day one.
But I can’t count the number of new designers I’ve met—from bootcamp attendees to graduates of prominent design schools—who don’t fall into the category.
Practical skills that will set you apart
- Learn how to beg, borrow, and steal from designs solving comparable problems. Find and bookmark a few good pattern libraries like GoodUI and UI Patterns and create a swipe file of your favorite design paradigms. Having these resources at hand for inspiration will go a long way to helping you succeed in the face of an unfamiliar problem.
- Practice solving the same problems in dramatically different ways. When your manager gives you a design task, they’ll expect you to present multiple solutions. Exercises like crazy 8s will help you prepare both for your day-to-day job and the infamous whiteboard challenges you’re likely to encounter during interviews.
- Understand the basics of HTML and CSS. Experienced designers may be tired of debating whether designers should learn to code, but startups and smaller organizations are desperate to hire designers with at least a basic UX Engineer skill set.
- Be willing to teach yourself. Design is about solving problems, so design organizations want to hire people who are good at figuring things out for themselves. Don’t underestimate the power of thinking out loud, Googling things, and rolling up your sleeves. You don’t need to ask permission. In the absence of experience, your willingness to take initiative will set you apart.
GoodUI is the GoodUX designer’s best friend
A real life list of job skills needed for a junior UI/UX designer
3. Emphasize results
Companies aren’t just looking for junior designers who can create beautiful UIs or elegant interactions. It’s equally important (at least) to drive meaningful business results and create significant experiential improvements for the user.
To a hiring manager, your understanding of the business is as important as your understanding of design, so every communication you have with potential employers should demonstrate that you know and care about your job’s impact on the success of the business.
An example of a Mixpanel funnel
Take the time to learn a bit about funnel analysis and A/B testing, the foundation for quantitatively measuring whether your work is actually improving business results. You don’t have to know the nuances of every analytics tool, but a basic understanding will significantly increase your hireability.
Whenever possible, include results in your resume and portfolio. What did your design accomplish? Did it increase retention or improve activation? By how much? A focus on data will go a long way towards setting you apart from other candidates. For example, if you were working on an onboarding feature, you might note something like: “the changes the team made resulted in a 26% increase in user activation.”
If your portfolio consists solely of redesigns and sample projects, emphasize your hypotheses and the metrics your designs should drive. For example, if you redesigned the flow for inviting friends on a popular photo-sharing app, you could posit that the redesign would increase referral rates and explain that the team could test the redesign with an A/B test. Doing so will demonstrate that you care about the performance of your work, not just aesthetics.
4. Find the right fit
Picking the right place to start your design career is critical, and there’s a huge variance in the support organizations offer new designers.
“Explaining what…senior designers expect from new hires is key to helping new designers navigate the journey to their first job.”
It’s especially important to join a “design mature” organization when you’re first starting out. Mentorship, process, and support from the rest of the organization will help you get acclimated and up to speed quickly, rather than struggling to learn the ropes without support.
The positive impact of investment in mentoring
What to look for in a “design mature” company
- The users of your portfolio are hiring managers and potential colleagues. Use your portfolio to demonstrate as succinctly as possible that you’re worth interviewing. That means showing that you think and behave like a designer. Everybody’s yardstick here is different, but when I review portfolios I look for designers who emphasize results (see above), explain how they arrived at their final solution and truly care about how users think. Here’s some other great advice.
- Interviewing effectively is about storytelling. Yes, you’ll likely get a whiteboard interview or take-home project. But beyond that, your job is to convince the team of three things: that you can do the job, that you’ll fit in with the team, and that you truly want to be there.
In my experience, doing this effectively is all about telling the true stories from your past experience, including non-design jobs or school projects,that illustrate these qualities best. Think about the times you’ve solved problems creatively, demonstrated inquisitiveness, or uncovered surprising insights about people and how they work. Be prepared to talk about them.
- Networking doesn’t have to be painful. Most networking advice goes something like this: show up to a conference or networking event, try to strike up a conversation and hope you’re engaging enough, repeat. If this type of advice makes your skin crawl, you’re not alone.
Ask about the size of the design team and the level of support and mentorship they provide new designers. If there are fewer than 3 designers, consider looking elsewhere unless you’re confident you’ll get the mentorship and support you need.
While there are certainly exceptions, smaller organizations often have trouble mentoring new designers while maintaining the pace the rest of the team expects of them. Larger organizations sometimes have the same problems, but many have the time and resources to send junior designers to conferences, provide them with professional mentors, and provide comprehensive on-the-job training.
“Picking the right place to start your design career is critical, and there’s a huge variance in the support organizations offer new designers.”
HubSpot, for example, offers employees up to $5,000 a year in tuition reimbursement, and smaller companies like Buffer provide modest budgets that support self-led learning. Ask whether these opportunities exist.
Look for organizations that incorporate smart design practices into their day-to-day. Is the organization research-driven? Does it iterate quickly, or are the internal politics too fraught for experimentation? Do they use design sprints? No organization embraces every best practice or follows the user-centered design process to the letter, but some are much closer than others. For your first role, you’re more likely to thrive in an organization that’s relatively mature in its design approach.
Finally, ask about design project stakeholders. How versed are marketers, engineers, and the leadership team in design thinking? Does the organization buy into the design approach and put the user first, or are designers fighting a constant, uphill battle? Do day-to-day interactions between designers and non-design team members seem collaborative and sophisticated? Save yourself agony later by avoiding organizations with low buy-in for real user experience work.
Other designers have written elegantly about creating effective portfolios and selling yourself in interviews.
To their advice I’d add the following:
I wish somebody had told me earlier in my career that it didn’t have to be that awkward. Instead of trying to work a room like a used car salesman, pick a designer you know and ask to do an informational interview over coffee. Use the interview to learn more about their day-to-day and get advice. Then close by asking if they can recommend any other designers for you to talk to. I’ve found several jobs this way, and you can, too.
Above all, don’t get discouraged. Finding your first UX job can be challenging, but if you’re willing to learn and talk to people, you’ll get there. Keep hustling until you do.
Pay it forward
Explaining what the design world is really like and what senior designers expect from new hires is key to helping new designers navigate the journey to their first job. Not only will this help them evaluate job opportunities, but they’ll be more prepared to hit the ground running and get to work.
If you’re an experienced designer, you were probably the recipient of quite a bit of help and advice along your professional journey. Take the time to give back to the design community by paying it forward.
Want to read more about landing a UX jobs?
by Tim Noetzel
Tim Noetzel is a full-stack product designer passionate about creating products people love through data-driven design. He’s been leading design teams at startups in Boston for over 10 years, and currently serves as Director of Product Design at Swish.com.