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How To Break Into UX Design

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'UX Designer' is quickly becoming one of the most popular career choices in the design industry. Executives are realizing that creating a positive user experience for their company's product or service is crucial to their bottom line. The demand for designers of all levels is high, and hiring UX designers is a top priority for many companies right now.

Despite high demand in the industry, it's often difficult to get an entry-level UX position when you don't have the relevant past experience. 'How do I get started in UX?' is a fairly common question for those who want to move into the field. There's no prescribed path for getting that all-important first job in UX design, so we've created a 10 step actionable guide to help you get started.

1. Understand UX Design's Many Fields

Since the field of UX design is so broad (and still growing), you need to decide what parts of user experience you want to focus on. What type of designer do you want to be? Do you want to be an interaction designer, UI designer, motion designer, or product designer? Or maybe you want to focus on both design and research? It's important to understand the difference between disciplines, so as a first step, I suggest exploring them all and focusing on the ones you enjoy the most.

Tip: Find skills in your previous work experience that you can transfer to the UX field.

2. Get Educated

The first thing you need to do before working in UX design is to learn how to do it properly. The path you choose for education can vary significantly, and it all depends on you and your preferred learning method. There are several popular ways you can learn UX design, like academic learning at a university, applying for a UX training program, self-learning, etc.

A lot of people ask a question "Do I need a university degree in UX to have a career in it?" In my experience, you don't need a university degree. It's not just the money required, but also the time required -- you'll spend a few years learning and likely won't have enough time to work on real projects. A university degree also won't help you get hired -- hiring managers rarely ask about it during interviews.

Applying for a training program is a much better option. A training program can help you learn the theory behind UX practices in a structured manner and this will make the process of learning UX more straightforward. If you live in a major metropolitan area, you can apply for boot camp program, such as General Assembly. If that's not your case, you can apply for Springboard or Designlab online courses. These courses will help you learn the fundamentals of UX and pair you with mentors for project feedback and critique. At the same time, finishing a boot camp or online course won't instantly give you all the required UX skills. Only lots of self-learning and practice can do that. Read, watch, and listen to everything you can get your hands on in order to understand how and why UX Designers do what they do.

Tip: Once you have the basics, start learning about trends in the design industry. Technology is constantly evolving, and it's important to keep current by constantly teaching yourself new tools and techniques. This will help you adapt quickly to any changes and better shape your career path.

3. Find a Mentor

Any great designer will tell you that they didn't get where they are in their career alone. Most of them have mentors. Mentorship is a great accompaniment to your learning program and can even fast-track your journey to landing your first UX design job. Mentorship doesn't have to be a formal relationship, it can be simple and informal -- a mentor can be your friend with a breadth and depth of experience who can provide insights into how to solve design problems or manage your career (the latter is especially important when you're at the beginning of your UX career path).

Tip: Be careful not to demand too much of someone's time. Just like any other person, your mentor will be busy working on his/her own goals. Make it easy for people to help you.

Find a mentor in the UX field -- a person who is experienced in UX, and text or call him/her occasionally when you need advice.

4. Master the Right Tools

In terms of software, it's absolutely crucial that you get yourself a copy of some prototyping software. According to the recent research conducted by Adobe, 42% of hiring managers think that 'knowledge of UX tools' is the most important skill they look for in UX designers.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy to select a right tool -- there is an overwhelming selection of tools available on the market, and often it's simply unclear what the best option is. The task of choosing a tool can be even harder for someone who just recently has made her/his first step into the field of UX. My advice? I suggest selecting a tool that will help you iterate your design -- a design tool should allow you to go from a rough low-fidelity prototype to high-fidelity implementation really fast.

Adobe XD makes it possible to transfer a static mockup into an interactive prototype in just a few clicks.

5. Get Practical Experience

Your next step is to find a way to put some of this new-found knowledge into practice. UX hiring managers want to know how you solve problems, so find a way to apply UX in actual project work. From first glance, it seems like a classic chicken and egg situation: 'How can I get practical experience if I'm just starting out for the first time?'

In fact, there are a lot of possibilities to apply your knowledge and skills. For example, you can take on small UX projects in your current company, find a local nonprofit and offer to design for free, or even redesign your favorite online service. Once you have an idea for a project, apply what you've learned to an assignment and test your knowledge.

6. Create a Portfolio

Once you have practical experience and real projects under your belt, it's time to create a portfolio. A portfolio is the most important requirement in the UX job application process. It's one of the best ways to prove that you have the experience and skills to perform well in a design job.

Here are a few things to remember when creating your portfolio:

  • It's recommended to present each of your projects as a case study. Each case study should explain your UX process, problem-solving, and storytelling abilities.
  • Attempt to showcase all of your work in a visual way. Use sketches, wireframes, and other design artifacts to give weight to the story.
  • Your portfolio should be presented online. Many designers these days use Behance to showcase their portfolio, which means you don't necessarily have to buy a domain and create a website in order to showcase your work.
  • Look at some 'best-of' portfolios to learn what's expected. Check out our article on portfolios to find examples to strive for.

Getting your portfolio ready can feel like a monumental task, but believe me, it's worth it. You should think of your portfolio as an investment into your future and this investment will get you the job you love.

Tips:

  • Resist the temptation to include everything you've ever designed in your portfolio. A portfolio is a place for your strongest work only.
  • Before submitting your portfolio, ask an experienced UX designer or your mentor to review it.

Having a portfolio is a critical part of getting a UX design job. Image credit: Behance

7. Become a Blogger

The ability to write well about UX design is a huge bonus for any UX designers. Blogging can demonstrate that you're both knowledgeable and interested in the field. Blogging is especially important if you're a novice designer since it shows potential employers that you understand different aspects and concepts of UX even if your portfolio has a limited number of projects.

Tip: It's possible to combine blogging with education. For example, when you read about a concept that you find interesting, write a blog post about it.

8. Get Connected

Establishing a network of contacts is important for any UX professional, but it's absolutely essential when you're first starting out. Just like other industries, the best UX jobs aren't advertised -- they come through LinkedIn, Twitter, local events, and referrals.

Here are a few things to remember:

  • Most people try to create a network of contacts when they are actively looking for a new job. But ideally, you should have a professional network in place before you need to take advantage of it.
  • One of the best places to start networking is LinkedIn. Join UX groups and get connected with your peers.
  • Consider getting more involved in the local UX community. Take the first step, go to Meetup.com, and commit to going to at least one or two meetups or talks each month. Introduce yourself to community members and get to know them.

Tip: It's totally acceptable to tell people you're trying to get into UX, but take it slow; don't just show up and start asking for a job. You need relationships with people before they will help.

Experienced UX designers are key to your next job, and the best way to get connected with them is to attend as many UX events as you can. Image credit: palici

9. Apply for Your First Job/Internship

Use your first UX design job or internship as an opportunity to learn and grow. When applying for jobs, look for companies where good design is a top priority for business. These companies tend to attract the best designers and give them enough freedom to do their best work.

When you're just starting out, you need a workplace where you can:

  • Learn from great UX designers
  • Work on end-to-end projects (design products from initial concept to final product)
  • Work on various parts of the design process
  • Work on a variety of platforms (design for the web, mobile, IoTs, etc.)

10. Be Prepared for Your UX Interview

Once you have your portfolio ready, it's time to start applying! Applications for designer roles are relatively easy. You submit your CV and a link to your portfolio. In most cases, you'll be critiqued mainly on your portfolio for the initial screening. If your portfolio looks great, there's a high chance that you will be invited to an interview.

While every interview will be different, here are some useful questions to have answers ready for:

  • How do you define UX design? Why does it matter?
  • What's your design process?
  • What's the most interesting project you've worked on?
  • Tell me about a project that was difficult. How did you handle the situation?
  • Do you prefer to work alone or with a team?
  • How would you work with engineers/product managers/other designers?
  • What are some apps and websites that you love?
  • Who in the industry do you follow and read?

Hiring managers often seek the following traits in entry-level UX designers:

  • Empathic understanding of the people you're designing for
  • Passion for the craft
  • Curiosity about technology
  • Ability to learn quickly
  • Willingness to accept constructive criticism and improve your work based on it

If you have most or all of these traits, that's a good sign.

Finally, here are two important tips for you:

  • Remember that honesty is the best policy. If you lack the experience to answer certain questions, be honest.
  • Always ask for feedback from the companies that have interviewed you. This valuable feedback will help you focus on things that require improvement.

Conclusion

As you can see, becoming a UX design self-starter isn't a simple thing to do. But no one said that starting a new career would be easy. If you put time into each of these 10 steps, then you're well on your way to a successful career as a UX designer.

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