Not much has changed as rapidly as the workplace. This is especially the case with digital designers. 20 years ago, it might have been the norm for you to go to one company, learn one well-defined role, and stay there until you happily retired.
Fast-forward to the present, and things are much more exciting. Entry-level positions now demand a variety of skills. Innovative companies are defining new career paths. It’s a thrilling time to both work and learn.
These changes have come at an interesting time. Educational systems can’t seem to catch up with the demand for teaching new, cutting-edge skills such as UX design. A whole suite of online solutions, from the massive online video courses offered by Coursera, to the nanodegrees of Udacity, have attempted to bridge this gap, but nobody has really crafted a reliable path to a career in UX.
“You don’t need a degree to succeed in UX design.”
User experience (UX) designers are responsible for guiding users safely to their coveted goals. Some people attach the term UI (user interface) to the position to define people who are responsible for what the user sees and how the user interacts with your digital product. Typically, people with a UI background build out the designs that will help UX people achieve the experiences they want their users to live.
UX designers are in high demand. User research firm Nielsen Norman Group ran a survey of 963 UX professionals and discovered they were highly independent and happy with their career path. Nielsen also asked these UX professionals to rate their job satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being perfection. The result showed that UXers were prone to love their job 17 more times than they were to hate it.
Employers reflect back that love. The median salary for UX professionals is $87,000. This is several tens of thousand dollars more than the median household income of America of $53,000.
“The median salary for UX professionals is $87,000.”
UX design is a valuable art that you learn through improvisation. The field is evolving so fast that it places new demands on its practitioners every day. Unfortunately, UX design isn’t something you can learn without some work experience. Fortunately, it is something that you can learn without a degree.
When asked to describe what they looked for in a UX professional, one UX expert said: “If you are a ‘lifelong learner’, in other words, if you are paying attention, you will be able to take previous experiences and apply lessons learned from them to your new situation. That is more important to me than specific skills you might learn in school.”
While 90% of UX designers held a degree, only a minority held a degree that was relevant to UX design itself. This reinforces the idea that anybody who can learn fast can find their calling here.
Hotwire’s Jorge Baltazar described his journey into UX in this guide to UX careers from Springboard as being “accidental” after he coded his first website in undergrad. Even though he studied geography and landscape architecture, when he first learned web development, he “never looked back” from a successful career in UX.
Examples like Jorge abound. What does it take to become like him, a self-taught UX professional?
1. Become involved in the community and find a mentor
You’ll never have a better source of knowledge than a mentor who’s done it all before.
“UX design is a valuable art that you learn through improvisation.”
This thread on Quora has great insight on how to go about doing that, and it reveals that you never receive unless you give first. Become involved in the local UX community. Look for local UX meetups on Meetup.com, or if you’re more prone to online hangouts, check out the UX community on Slack.
You’ll know more about this constantly growing field, and you’ll be able to create value for people in the community. This value will come back to you in spades if you’re looking to create genuine relationships.
2. Seek learning experiences
You can’t become a good UX designer unless you start building things. Look for different challenges to get you started. Tinker around with examples on CodePen so that you can build cool new effects on your own.
Every UX designer starts off with a few jobs that require them to exercise their skills. Look to get hired to build your skills and get exposed to end users. Start building a portfolio. As a designer, you’ll only be able to prove yourself by demonstrating what you’ve built. The more you learn, the more cool things you’ll be able to show, and the more opportunities will open up for you. This is a virtuous cycle where you learn and grow.
3. Make sure you have the resources you need
I mentioned the many resources you have out there to teach yourself about UX: you have to be consistent with searching for the right ones and making sure that you’re through about learning as much as you can from each one. This collection of UX resources will help you do just that, lining up everything so you can learn as completely and systematically as possible.
You can start with the basics, a video detailing what UX design is, and progress to a master class on the elements of user experience given by Adobe. You’ll progress through every element of UX design, from wireframing to building a portfolio of your own.
Once you canvas through different resources, you can join communities like Sidebar.io, which will give you the best new design resources on a daily basis.
4. Become the complete package and mentor someone
UX designers are lifelong learners. There are so many different ways to delight users. You should never be complacent. UX Mag has a wonderful article on the things you should look for in great UX designers: you’ll need to fill technical requirements if there are any (for example, a knowledge of HTML code).
You’ll see the need to become an “idea person,” akin to a creative director. You’ll see the need to become an “insurance policy”—anybody who is a great UX designer has to realize their vision in the face of organizational and budgetary constraints, and you should be able to navigate through that. You’ll see the need for becoming a “dog and pony” show, someone who can present their vision in a way that can sell the entire company on your vision.
Becoming that mix of roles entails a degree of technical perfection, empathy, and charisma that can only come with dedication to advancing those ideals.
It’ll also require you to come full circle and teach a new generation of people looking to get into UX design. Teaching is often the fastest way of learning, so make sure you craft win-win relationships doing just that.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote that “there is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.” As a UX designer, your career path will involve the pursuit of elegant and simple solutions to complex problems, and the goodness and truth that comes from empathizing with users in need of your solutions.
If you follow the steps above, you can achieve that greatness with a simple truth: you don’t need a degree to succeed in UX design.
I’m a self taught programmer and UX designer. I always love to learn new skills and concepts. I’m passionate about good design and I’m currently leading the creative development at Crayon Crunch.