The UX of Getting Started in UX
By Dan Maccarone & Sarah Doody
This is the third article in a 3 part series about the state of the UX ecosystem. To start at the beginning, read this article.
Let’s get the hard part out of the way. Not everyone is cut out to work in User Experience (UX). That’s not a dig at anyone. Most of us aren’t cut out to be dentists, developers, or defensive linebackers. For those that excel at UX, it starts with seeing the world through a problem solving lens and a need to keep improving on the solutions we’ve already found.
We currently live in a world where UX is trendy and a lot of people want to break into it. “It’s sort of like when people hopped onto being HTML Developers,” says Jessica Sciorra, a veteran recruiter who works for VSA Partners in New York City. “They found that writing that stuff could make them a lot of money. It’s similar to any hot topic field. People get into it because it sounds sexy and it’s involved in new products.”
Part of the problem is that there’s still confusion as to what exactly a UX professional is. “What a UX designer is differs from company to company,” says Patrick Neeman, the Senior Director of User Experience at Icertis, a contract lifecycle management platform, and the author of the blog Usability Counts. “The reality is, even the way teams are structured have changed quite a bit, so what the role is can differ by city. Los Angeles is a very different flavor of UX. It’s agency driven. Seattle is becoming cloud central. Boston is enterprise. New York is Financial and Agency.”
To make matters worse, that confusion is spread across three camps: The candidates, the companies, and the recruiters.
First we have candidates, the people who want to work as UX designers. New to the field, they don’t know what to specialize in, so they try to be everything to everyone because, unfortunately, that’s what many job descriptions request. “New designers don’t know how to get started and they don’t realize what it is that hiring managers look for,” says Kristin Mark, an experience designer at Aconex, a Melbourne, Australia based cloud company centered around construction. “They are trying to learn technical skills and design skills and they can’t learn all that and they’re expected to.”
Which leads us to the second camp, companies who want to hire UX designers.
This becomes slightly more complicated because different types of companies look for different types of UX designers. In smaller companies where budgets are tight and headcount is small, recruiters often want to hire that one person who can wear many hats — the researcher, the wireframe maker, the prototyper, the visual designer, and, sometimes even the developer. These are what folks call unicorns and they are rarely good at any one thing. “As your career goes along you’re going to have to become more specialized,” says Jon Fox, the UX & Creative Director at Idean. “There’s only so far you can go as a unicorn. You can use being a unicorn to discover what areas you want to be in, but we want you to produce product.”
Finally we have recruiters trying to find the candidates and that is no easy task, as we learned when writing The UX of Hiring for UX Positions. “It’s popular to say one is a UX Recruiter, they are arguably the most in demand openings but toughest to fill,” says Amy Jackson, a UX recruiter and founder of Amy Jackson Talent.
Due to the high demand for UX designers, many recruiters and recruiting firms use automation to try and weed through candidates. Jackson notes, “Keyword matching might work for an engineering position that requires 5+ years Java experience but it fails for designers because the title doesn’t always reflect the role.”
In other words, “it isn’t what you are called, it is what you do”
This doesn’t always produces the best results. “Hiring is really poorly done across the industry,” says Jared Spool, founder of both the user experience company UIE and the UX school Center Centre. Whether you’re using an algorithm or speaking to someone face to face, one of the challenges is that it’s very difficult for recruiters to understand what skills the candidate is actually skilled at. “The problem with hiring is that you cannot really tell false positives and you cannot easily tell false negatives. You can’t tell if you’ve hired someone who wasn’t a good fit for the job immediately,” he says.
This is why recruiters must work extra hard to recruit for UX. It’s not just about checking a bunch of boxes to see if a candidate fits the desired education, experience, software, and has a good portfolio. You have to look beyond and look at the whole person.
The Road to the UX Profession Has Been Long
“The way I got into it was someone said ‘OK can you spell HTML?’ and we all learned how to do animated GIFs and we were still doing stuff in Flash animation,” say Neeman, who started his career as the editor of a community magazine art director before becoming an early adopter of digital design. But he’s not missing the mark of how different the market was back when UX began to surface in the 1990s.
In the 1990s and early 2000s there was pure confusion as to why you’d even need (or pay for) a User Experience Designer, a term coined by Jesse James Garrett in 2001 — or in those days Information Architect (IA). When looking to cut costs, companies would assume visual designers knew it all and would cross the IA off the budget list, to the detriment of the experience.
“For many years, the role of UX in an organization was really about proving the value of UX,” says Fox. “It was really about why do companies need to focus on UX and why do they need to take a user centric approach to design. Why is design even important? Where the industry is shifting is not in proving it’s value, but how can UX help define the direction that the business is going in.”
Adrian Howard, a UX veteran and co-founder of Quietstars in the United Kingdom, agrees. “We fought for a long time to get respect for the more user-centric stuff in the work that we do,” he says. “There was a point where you always have to make the argument that design matters. It’s much less of a fight than it used to be. Everyone can point to an Apple or a Snapchat and say, ‘look design and user focus matter.’ Because we had to fight for so long, we have a very strong sense of ownership of those things.”
The victories in the industry, though, have created a new challenge. When many of us started in the industry, there was no set standard of what a UX professional’s background needed to be. Many of us got hired because of a proclivity towards curiosity, towards problem solving and, generally had to learn on the job.
While UX is getting its due respect as an industry these days, this lack of definition, means “that one person’s [definition of] UX design could be a visual designer with a little bit of UX designer, but has never done any user research and another person’s is vice-versa” according to Howard.
In other words, such a vague and fluid description creates an opportunity for myriad paths into the industry. “One of the nice thing about the UX community is we have that umbrella with visual designers, user researchers, UI designers,” says Howard “And we also have somewhere for the generalists. The people who do a little bit of everything, which is an excellent and awesome thing to have.”
There is No Single Origin Story
In the early days of the UX industry, there were really only two criteria folks who hired us could rely on: backgrounds and the conversations during the interview process. Portfolios didn’t show that much from a UX comparison standpoint, and so we had to prove ourselves by communicating our thinking. Today, with a variety ways to show your experience, such as classes, degrees, internships, mentor referrals, and more, the way into this industry seems crowded with opportunities. But, in the end, we still should be looking for the same things that have always made great UXers.
“It’s about curiosity,” says Chris Messina, who is best known for inventing the hashtag and has held innovative roles at Mozilla, Google and Uber. “Someone who has empathy and wants to understand someone’s perspective and experience are the key drivers. If you want to get into this and you’re in finance or you’re in real estate or you’re in traditional graphic design, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you care about asking questions and you actually care about the responses.”
Curiosity is key for anyone aspiring to be in a world where you’re constantly striving to create better experiences for people. We should always be asking questions, realizing that whatever the right solution was last year, may not be the right one this year and that, try as we might, we’re never satiated with a final answer.
“I came into this wanting to learn,” says Messina. “You have to get past your own egocentricity to realize you don’t know shit about anything. You see the ways that people are living and how they’re being very efficient. And you figure out ways they have optimized their lives. The question then becomes, if they have optimized for those types of experiences or designs, what is it lacking?”
And while that’s the best place to start, it is just that: a starting point.
Just being curious won’t necessarily catch the eye of someone who’s looking to hire a new UX person. The problem is, there’s no one best way in and the paths to actually breaking into the industry have changed significantly.
“If I look back to the usability and HCI communities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was very academic,” says Howard. “They were often much more from the ergonomics and cognitive sciences background. But we didn’t really have that group crossing over into things like visual design and UI design and things more like the information science stuff. Those were seen as very separate disciplines.”
Howard’s point of view is echoed by Sciorra, who has been placing UX professionals since the early 1990’s. “The first UX guys I was placing were coming from industrial design,” she says. “Back then there were more user interface people than User Experience people. When I placed a User Interface Designer for Prodigy in 1991 or 1992, it was straight up a design job.”
When looking for candidates today, it’s a very different scenario because people actually have a background in this and the types of projects they worked on can determine whether or not they’re a fit for a job more than just that they’ve been doing this for five or 10 or 20 years. “It is about the quality of experience someone has over time with a brand,” says Sciorra. “You can look at the entire arc — from someone who’s high on the craft, and who’s doing journey maps and personas. It has evolved hugely. It makes it much more complicated.”
For someone new coming into the industry, they probably won’t even have that experience and, to be fair, this is where experience in an immersive class or an internship can actually come in handy. Showing you exude the characteristics that Messina describes can actually be a great start.
“I love humanities people because they really understand story,” says Sciorra. “The combination of humanities and social sciences is a super powerful one. Sociology, anthropology, people who have the specific processes about understanding culture and people. At its base it’s somebody who has an understanding of developing solutions for people.”
Neeman expands on this, saying that he “focuses on people who can write well. Their understanding of language and structure lends itself well to what we do.” For him it boils down to people who can tell him stories. “They have to have intent in their writing. They have to have a way to get from point A to point B. There has to be some kind of closure. The best designers I’ve met are great storytellers.”
A combination of subject matter expertise and passion for story can go quite far to help someone find their footing and their first job in UX. Eric Blattberg, former journalist and graduate of General Assembly’s (GA) User Experience Immersion Program, found those two qualities to be the catalyst into his first success in the real world of experience design.
For Blattberg’s final project at General Assembly, they paired him with a Twitter television analysis company called Canvs.tv. “Given my background at Digiday, I had a real subject matter knowledge there that enabled me to quickly understand the product and the value proposition and actually do some good work for this client,” he says.
That work he did for his class ended up leading to freelance work with Canvs.tv and, eventually, to other projects. What worked here was Blattberg realizing he could apply his experience in and outside the GA class to turn an educational exercise into meaningful & successful stepping stone into his new career.
“How do you get experience without having any experience?” asks Blattberg. “In this case GA enabled me to point to say I did a real thing and it wasn’t a class project.”
The role of UX within companies has also changed, so anyone wanting a way in will have to approach it differently than most veterans. “For many years the role of UX in an organization was really about proving the value of UX. It was really about why do companies need to focus on UX and why do they need to take a user centric approach to design,” says Fox, who comes from a more traditional design background. “Where the industry is shifting is not in proving it’s value, but how can UX help define the direction that the business is going in.”
What Fox is alluding to is that, in the past, design has been a major focus for those hiring User Experience professionals, but as companies realize the impact that design can have on the bottom line, that experience needs to diversify. Designers need to demonstrate not just design knowledge, but the ability to apply design to solve business problems.
“People who can look at data and findings from research studies and who can direct that towards what the goals of the business are are critical to providing what the true solution is,” Fox adds.“You can get people who have more of a business background, an economics background, a finance background. I’m starting to see more people get hired who have those types of backgrounds than have legit design backgrounds.”
What this ultimately means is that aspiring UX professionals could come from a variety of backgrounds depending on what they want their specialization to be, but they all still need to have that burning need to be a part of a team that uses design to solve problems.
Speaking of teams, there is one aspect of background we haven’t touched on: collaboration.
“I look for unusual experiences,” says Neeman. “You hire a whole bunch of people that have a bunch of interesting experiences and they have something to contribute.”
Before he left Uber in early 2017, Messina worked with a team of people who had experience enough to claim bragging rights on their own. “We had three designers on the platform team. One guy designed iTunes. One guy was at Adobe. These are rock stars,” he says. But “Even though they are great at design, they are curious and care about people and have an understanding about having conversations and relating to the problems.”
The big takeaway there, even those who have already achieved success in the industry know enough to put their egos aside for the sake of collaboration because most of what we do evolves from conversations — and whether you’re junior or senior, we can all learn from each other.
In the article, What Software Teams Can Learn From Architects, Jude van Soldt draws parallels from her experience in the architecture world. She says, “A good architect is very user-focused, and not just on the needs of the person who’s taking classes or teaching at that school, but also on the neighbor who will walk past every day for the next 50 years and experience that school as an integral part of their city.” This type of holistic thinking is what truly makes great designers — regardless of what they’re designing. It’s exactly this type of thinking that we look for in people who’ll make great UX designers.
To Specialize or Not to Specialize
“One of the nice things about the UX community is we have that umbrella with visual designers, user researchers, UI designers.,” says Howard. “And we also have somewhere for the generalists. The people who do a little bit of everything which is an excellent and awesome thing to have.”
There certainly isn’t consensus on whether or not specialization is the way to go. There’s something to be said for focus — it allows you to really get to know a specific toolset. But it’s polarizing because companies are often looking for people who can do a little bit of everything in UX — that’s true both for large agencies and for startups.
“The market seems to want generalists, (because they seem cost effective, and because most operations are too small to support a team of specialists),” says Steve Krug, a veteran usability specialist and author of the influential book Don’t Make Me Think. “But I think it’s pretty hard to be really good at more than one of the many subspecialties. It’s a conundrum.”
But, if you do specialize, you must make sure you are literate in other areas of UX.
Steve Portigal, owner of Portigal Consulting, says “if you work in a specialized role, you must connect with people outside of your role. You must connect with the people who are not you. And, the more specialized your role is, the more broad your skillset must be.”
Those specialized roles vary not just by specific task (research vs. production vs. strategy), but also by the types of products you’re working on. Neeman points out that his experience is mainly in creating and evolving enterprise software, but that he’s “been on consulting projects where they’ve asked me to do a microsite and I didn’t know where to start.”
What he’s referring to is that there is a vast difference even in people who do similar jobs at different companies. “There are people who are really good at doing micro-sites and they are in UX,” Neeman continues, pointing to the fact that these require a lot of thinking when it comes branding and marketing strategy. Whereas, “enterprise systems don’t have a lot of visual design. The way I’m designing is atomic design-esque. A lot of modules that need to fit together like legos. Most visual designers don’t want to think like that — they want to think of things holistically.”
But there’s an argument to be made against specialization. Jared Spool compares the specific specialization in UX to other vocational fields:
“If doctors specialized the way that UX people specialize, you’d have one person who opens the wounds and another person who sutures it up. One person who takes the heart out and another person who puts it back in.”
He pushes the analogy even further saying that even doctors who specialize in a specific field, such as Cardiology or Pediatrics, all have the same foundation in medicine. “You start as a generalist in medicine,” says Spool. “But then you specialize.When you go to school to become a chef you learn how to do all the parts.” Why wouldn’t the same be true in UX?
Spool takes it even further, suggesting that maybe we’re looking at specialization in the wrong way. “I do believe there’s specialization in our field, but I think that specialization is only now emerging,” he says, echoing how Neeman described his own skillset. “That specialization is people who know how to design Electronic Health Records. Someone who knows how to recruit people for studies and meet regulatory and compliance rules inside the highly regulated field of financial investing, that someone is going to be much more valuable.”
One consistency that most experienced UX designers agree on is that, outside of the executional aspect of the job and being familiar with roles outside of your speciality, the soft skills play an acute role in a successful career.
As we mentioned in the previous articles in this series, software will change, but there are core skills and traits that you can use every day to develop yourself as a designer. In Skill Building For Design Innovators, Portigal outlines a great set of core skills central to the designer’s ability to create and communicate: Noticing, Listening, Understanding cultural context, Synthesizing, Wordsmithing, Drawing, and Embracing pop culture.
The Polarization of UX Education
There has been some form of UX education for many years and in many formats. From cognitive science, human factors and human computer interaction programs at universities like Carnegie Mellon, to more specific UX programs at SVA and Parsons School of Design. Today, the options also include in person immersive programs at General Assembly, in person bootcamps by effectiveUI or Cooper, and online destinations like Lynda, Bloc, Career Foundry, and others. Your options are expanding widely and, honestly, there’s no one right program for a person.
“You have to separate the world into academic schools and vocational schools,” says Jared Spool, who spent several years researching what approach would work best for his own school. “Academic schools that claim they have a vocation program don’t really. Vocational schools that claim to have an academic program don’t really.”
Most recently, the immersive programs that have sprung up have leaned more on the vocational side, inviting those interested in breaking into UX to attend five-day to 12-week intensive bootcamps. We covered a lot of the challenges of these immersive experiences in our piece on how the education of UX is broken. But to say these programs can’t be useful is unfair.
“I’ve been at it for about 30 years, and I’m not entirely sure I could break into the system myself today,” says Krug, adding that even if he wanted to learn this formally, “there were virtually no programs you could enroll in to learn about usability back then, with the exception of some Human Factors degrees.”
And even those degrees were broader than what these newer programs are offering. The fact is, the perception of these immersive experiences is way more negative than they actually are — from multiple sides of the industry.
“They expect of course to come out fully tooled to land a high paying UX job,” says Sciorra, from a recruiter’s standpoint. “Oftentimes the process is weak. And the output is unpolished.”
Similarly, Howard says that it reminds him “of what happened with the development community in the late 1990s early 2000s. Learn PERL in 21 days and suddenly you were a senior web developer.”
Even folks who have worked at General Assembly realize that it’s becoming a bit of an uphill battle. “GA has a bad reputation here [in Melbourne] because there were one or two students who came into the interview full of themselves thinking they knew everything and expecting a higher salary,” says Mark, who also became a teaching assistant at GA after she took the immersive class. “In Melbourne some companies are hesitant to hire GA students. There’s a bad taste, because there have been a couple of students that set a bad example.”
One other consistent challenge that these programs have is the balance of acknowledging the success stories from the ones that could drag the program’s reputation down. “I can tell that there are some people who are amazing and were meant to do this,” says Mark. “Then there are people where we’re like ‘oh, shit, how can we tell them they aren’t going to get a job and it doesn’t seem like they’re really getting it.’”
We saw this first hand when we created the curriculum for and taught General Assembly’s first 12 week UX immersive back in 2011. There were standout students who easily could have been hired after the program. But, this was because they’d been in complementary roles — graphic design, web design, library science, psychology — and had years of parallel foundation that helped them think like a designer. On the other hand, there were definitely students who were there chasing shiny pennies and some of them were not hirable after a 12-week program and no previous experience in design or a complementary field.
It’s important to acknowledge the negative perception those in the industry have of these programs because it’s a reality that graduates are, probably unfairly, judged by.
Our collective goal should be to figure out how to help people who would be great at UX find the best way in, and just because there are some challenges with immersive programs, it doesn’t mean they are bad.
In some cases, these programs are the only entry point for some people, especially if the company they want to work at or the country they want to work in puts a lot of value on education, degrees, and certifications.
“I knew I wasn’t going to go spend two years and $100,000 dollars getting a masters in interaction design,” says Blattberg, who as a tech reporter was familiar with many of the UX immersive programs. “I was just interested in moving a little faster and not spending as much money. I think it was helpful in enabling me to have the confidence to take that leap and quit my job.”
Blattberg’s success with his final project did lead to the launch of his career and after freelancing regularly for six months he eventually took a full-time job as a UX designer at a startup.
But he’s not necessarily prototypical of everyone who’s looking to get a job in the industry. The success rate of his class varied greatly.
“Some people got a job two, three, four weeks out of the program. Others were looking for a really long time,” he says. “We would have these fairly regular meetups every month or two. It’s tough to see folks being like yeah still sending out those resumes. Still looking. Or ‘second round, hope it goes well.’ Especially when two thirds are already employed. Especially when you think a lot of the folks are really talented.”
Part of the issue is that companies aren’t often willing to take a chance on less established talent. Blattberg also mentions being beaten out for a job by another UX designer with seven years of experience. But as the industry grows, that seven year veteran becomes harder to find and companies are faced with a real chicken or egg problem.
“There’s not enough seniors to fill the senior roles,” says Mark, whose experience at General Assembly brought her face-to-face with the companies that could potentially hire graduates. “Companies need to invest in juniors so that they can get that experience. Some of them understand the catch-22 but it’s hard to get them to come back and seek out these candidates.”
If they are looking for talent, and they have senior people to mentor greener people, companies do need to open their eyes to immersive programs. It’s the people they are hiring, not the program itself.
“I kind of feel the same way I feel about two day courses or 16 week bootcamps and certification training in SCRUM or agile,” says Howard. “When you leave, you’ll know a lot more about SCRUM, but you will in no way be ready to be the SCRUM master of your team.”
He goes on to say that “it’s the same about the UX bootcamps. Yeah, in your four or eight or 16 weeks, you will learn a shitload. You will learn to do a lot of things you couldn’t do when you went in, but you are not going to be suitable to jump into a senior role.”
That’s where the programs need to do a better job educating both the students, the companies and the recruiters.
Messaging about jumping into a UX career and setting unrealistic salary or seniority expectations are what a lot of companies hear from graduates, as we’ve heard from Mark and from Sciorra.
“I think these courses are good for exposing you to vocabulary. Language and vocabulary are incredibly important,” says Messina. “Learning how to talk in a way that suggests that you have some understanding of what’s going on is important. Coming out of the programs and presuming you know how to solve problems is like jumping into a relationship when you’re 13 and thinking you actually know how to get married.”
Even Spool agrees that an immersive course can be successful for someone. “When we find someone who’s hired a GA person who’s’ worked out, almost always it’s because of their pre-GA experience,” he says. “You can predict the success around a GA graduate by what they did before GA.“
Basically: you get out of it what you give.
One of the places these programs do fall short is teaching collaboration with other disciplines. Mostly because it would be impossible for a 12-week UX program to either work in concert with a similar program in development or design (those students are just learning too!) or it would be overwhelming to try and teach user-focused skills and the intricacies of technological limitations.
“What was most lacking about the GA program is collaboration with real developers,” says Blattberg. “You’re working in a silo and it’s difficult to know how to work with developers if you don’t have that development experience. I’m by no means a developer.”
Senior professionals in product development understand this and some instructors are trying to address this. Tami Reiss, taught Product Management at General Assembly and noted, “many of my students asked questions about who owned product UX design and definition on a team. The answer is ‘it depends and you have to work with different designers of different strengths’. It would have been good for them to get to work on a cross functional team as part of their coursework.”
As Spool and his colleagues created the program at Center Centre, they developed a system where students work directly with real clients and real development teams to get a product built. Every project students do “all have different real world constraints. And all of them have a development phase,” says Spool. “It’s all team based. They don’t only design something but they have to get through the development phase. We use the organization’s developers and each organization has a different process and the students have to adapt.”
Beyond Immersive Programs
Not all UX education programs are created equal. Before you sign up for a program, do the research. Consider the cost, impact to your lifestyle, experience of the instructors, how many times the program has been offered, and the outcomes that other students have experience.
Spool’s point about academic versus vocational degrees are an important consideration. UX is about solving practical problems and the skills needed to do it right can be taught in a program designed around moving a person directly into a job. “The reality of all this is that a vocational program’s purpose is to make people ready for a job,” he says, reaching back to where these types of teaching came from in the first place. “The first vocational trades were all around warcraft. They were around how do we get people who can make airplanes? How do we get people who can repair airplanes?”
One of the bigger challenges is distinguishing what the different benefits are for each type of program — particularly the benefits for you as a student. “The onus is on the programs to be clear and explain to students what is unique about your program.” says Craig M. MacDonald, an Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute in New York, where he also serves as the Program Coordinator for the Master’s in Information Experience Design. “If you want to be a person who can churn out beautiful wireframes, our program is not going to teach you to do that. We focus on broad-based projects, what it’s like to run through the full UX process. What is the area that speaks to you most to get into a career.”
The program at Pratt started in 2015 and has grown steadily, attracting students from all over the world. What makes the program different than other schools is Pratt’s access to programs that focus a combination of visual design, art and library science, according to MacDonald. Which is a stark contrast to a more computer science focused HCI program, which might appeal to a different type of student.
“We’re not saying we’re the one single place to come,” says MacDonald. “We’re not saying you’re going to come here and we put you through this conveyor belt where you’ll have this many projects at the end. You are going to find who you are as a professional.”
Bethany Riebock, a speech-language pathologist, practicing for 9 years, is a problem solver at heart. After discovering UX, she plotted a career pivot because she wanted a new challenge and more location independence. After exploring her education options, she decided that GA and GrowthX (among others) weren’t options because “I wanted to generate income while paying to study UX. I live in Menlo Park, and commuting 3+ hours round trip daily to a 9–5 bootcamp in downtown SF wasn’t feasible. Bloc is 100% remote and offers three course paces with mentoring.”
Shortly after enrolling in the Designer Track at Bloc, Bethany had some concerns. After discussing her concerns with leadership, she withdrew from the program, citing “poor student experience and disappointment with the curriculum.”
Many UX education programs haven’t had time to mature. They’re new and the logistics, curriculum, and instructors still need to evolve. Just like a minimum viable product (MVP) must launch and then be tweaked, the same holds true for these programs.
“I have seen so few examples of a really good undergraduate UX programs,” says Abby Covert, the Staff Information Architect at Etsy. Covert has taught at a range of programs including General Assembly, SVA and the UX-focused school Center Centre, the latter of which is still in its first cohort of six students.
Covert goes on to describe the Center Centre program as a combination of what she likes about graduate programs and what she liked about teaching at General Assembly in the early days. “When I first started working at GA, the names of people were extraordinary,” she says. “Everyone I taught with or in the same building as had a decade of experience, speaking credentials and were writing books and articles.”
Similarly, Center Centre is interested in providing education by the best of the best in a program that breaks down UX in a very consumable manner. “Each part of the UX umbrella is broken down and taught by an industry expert but not in a long-form way,” says Covert. “For the industry expert that comes in, it’s two days of intensive workshop training. In terms of caliber of faculty, it’s even better than GA was back then, just because it’s not about location. They fly people in from all over the world to teach there.”
With it’s two year program, Center Centre takes a different approach than most other programs. “When we think about what to put into our courses, every aspect is based on what do we think a hiring manager needs,” says Spool, the institute’s founder. After years of research into how to train User Experience professionals, he says that what they heard over and over again was students rarely came to interviews with any real world experience.
“If you go to an academic school and you’re an A student, you’re experience is that you’re an A student. All you’ve done is done a project and gotten an A,” says Spool. “What we heard from hiring managers is they hire these people, they give them this project, they hand it in, and the developers look at it and say we can’t do this.“
His point being that most people new to the industry haven’t been through the other side of the process, the build, and often consider handing in the wireframes or the designs the end of the process. Many of us learned that this waterfall model didn’t work during dot-com 1.0, but without having been through that side or been taught that, it’s very easy to believe that the finished “deliverable” is the end of the process.
That collaboration with developers is definitely an important factor in the real world and many programs, in addition to General Assembly, simply can’t accommodate that due to how the programs or schools are structured. They need to find alternate ways to ensure that students aren’t learning while only wearing UX goggles.
MacDonald acknowledges that the collaboration with developers is a struggle that Pratt faces. “The hardest part of collaboration is that students say ‘I wish you’d taught us how to work with developers,’” says MacDonald. “But we don’t have a CS program or an engineering program. The way we try to get around it really, is we try to encourage students to get internships. The only way to do that is to do it in a real setting.”
To start combatting this, Pratt did recently start a Front-End Development program.
Nitin Sampathi graduated in 2015 with a BA in graphic design. After a year of working in graphic and motion design, Sampathi started researching UX programs and found the MICA graduate program in UX. He selected this program because it allowed him to keep working while studying. After being in the program for six months, the benefits to working while going to school are clear. “There have been a couple times where I’ve learned about a type of deliverable in class and applied it directly to my job the next day,” he says.
However, because his class is the first cohort, there were a number of logistical issues with the software, curriculum, and the types of instructors. Sampathi notes, “all the instructors have been industry professionals, but not all of them are educators. I think you can tell the difference between the two from the way the projects/assignments are set up, the topics/prompts of those assignments, and the way the instructors communicate learning outcomes. It’s hard to put into words but it’s something you can just tell, educators just have that knack.”
Each of these individuals did all the right things. They sought out education, in their case formal education, and spent a lot of time researching programs to identify the program that was right for their unique scenario. They also recognized that completing a program would only be the starting point. During and after their education program, they created a portfolio, supplemented their learning with self study, and got creative about standing out and finding a job.
The Search for Mentorship
Dan received this email on October 28, 2011 from a woman who had attended a talk he’d given at General Assembly about two weeks before. Unlike many emails we receive from prospective UX designers, this was a very well researched, thought out and action-oriented email.
Two weeks later they met for coffee and discussed what she wanted to do in the world of UX.
A month later, she came on board as an intern, a paid 40-hour a week endeavor that was meant to (and did eventually) lead to a full-time position.
We use this example not to say that reaching out to a potential mentor will result in a job, but rather to demonstrate the power that well thought out communication can have. We take this industry very seriously and we want very much to work with others who share that value — we can disagree on many things when it comes to the details of design, but passion is one of the most important things we all agree is a must.
Unlike the email above, most of the emails or tweets we receive are questions like “how can I get into UX” or “how do I create a portfolio if I don’t have a UX job right now.”
General questions like that are a non-starter and a clear sign that you don’t have what it takes to be successful in UX.
Success in UX is rooted in a strong, solution-oriented mindset and getting into it involves that line of thinking as well. Show us that you have that curiosity and, most likely, you’ll have a more interesting and useful conversation.
And know what you want from the mentorship when you finally do reach out. Start with the solution to the problem. The chances of you receiving a reply with increase exponentially.
“Asking someone to be your mentor can be perceived as selfish,” decrees Mona Patel, Founder & CEO of Motivate Design. “Asking people to give you indefinite one-on-one attention isn’t the way to go. Don’t just ask to pick my brain.”
So what should designers do? Patel suggests that you don’t try have have such formal picture of what mentorship is. “Keep it casual, meet people where they’re at, be more giving and don’t just go in with an attitude of ‘help me’.”
Mentorship shouldn’t actually feel like a formal thing, especially since it can easily evolve into a friendship. “I’ve had many mentors who actually never knew they were mentoring me,” says Patel. It doesn’t have to be a formal thing. Identify people that resonate with you, that challenge you, and devour their content.
“It’s all about having the right connection. It’s kinda like dating,” echoes Kristin Mark. “The best kind of mentorships are the one when they’re not forced. When you’re reaching out to people to be your mentor, it’s not easy because you want that organic connection.” Mark goes on to reinforce that you need to “really think about why you’re going to this person. What you want out of it. Also, what can you give? What can the mentor get out of it?”
Luciano Vizza, a self-taught UX designer, echoes the problem that people have when trying to learn UX, “there’s so much content online, it’s easy to get lost, and that’s when you get frustrated”. His recommendation is that you have to be disciplined. One way to do this is to “find a focus” as he says. For example, Vizza chose specific topics he wanted to learn about and immersed himself in it, such as devouring everything he could find about user on-boarding through Samuel Hulick’s website and resource, User Onboarding. Not a formal mentor, but Vizza smartly sought out knowledge from an expert without taking up any of that expert’s time!
Another tip that Patel has is to look at the people closest to you. “When deciding where they may want to work, designers need to consider who will influence them in those early career years. Your boss raises you. You will be influenced by the people who raise you in your career.”
Part of UX is figuring things out. It’s about problem solving, experimenting, being proactive, and taking chances. Part of good UX is knowing your audience, and if you’re emailing a vague question such as those, or another favorite “will you mentor me” — it shows that you don’t think through the details, didn’t do the research on the person you are talking to.
Mentorship can really and should come from more than just the experienced people in the field. Sometimes we are the wrong people to help. “The best advice I’ve ever seen about getting advice about how to swing a career in UX (which I do get asked a lot) was in a blog post a few years ago,” says Krug, referencing this post on Giving Less Advice. “Basically, the author said ‘Don’t ask for this advice from senior people in the field, because their experience is out of date.’ Instead he suggested asking advice from people who were in your position four or five years ago at most.”
This view is actually becoming more and more widespread in the industry. It’s not so much that the people have been doing it for so long have lost touch — our job is to continually be educating ourselves about new trends in how people interact with systems, devices, etc — but rather that the way the industry is viewed and how it’s evolved puts our perspective in a very different place.
“One of the struggles is when prospective designers ask the senior designers who’ve made [a career of it] what the right answer to success is. A lot of times, we can’t tell them. I can’t even explain why I’m successful sometimes other than it’s just the way my brain is wired,” says Neeman, suggesting that those of us who have been in the industry for years have very different context because of how much the the path has changed.
As Blattberg mentions about his former classmates getting together regularly, peer mentorships and check-ins can be just as valuable as reaching out the veterans.
Most of us want to help. It’s in all of our best interests help UX designers grow into more senior roles. The more of us, the better. That’s why many of us are so passionate about producing content and programs that can help people en masse. Sarah does this actively through her weekly UX newsletter, UX videos on YouTube, and online UX courses. Dan does this on his podcast Story in a Bottle by reaching out to other people in the tech world to understand their approach, points-of-view, and experience and lessons on how they got started and what keeps them going.
So how can you stand out? Ask a concise well-thought out question in a few sentences. Demonstrate that you’ve done your homework. And make sure your question isn’t going to require that person write you back a long answer! But please, don’t email someone and ask if you can have a call or get coffee and have zero agenda or purpose.
How Candidates are Vetted
Many recruiters and automated job sites evaluate candidates using a litmus test. In other words, they force requirements without understanding the context of the candidate. Don’t want to upload or link to your portfolio at the time you apply to the job on the big job site? No degree in Human Factors or HCI? Sorry, you definitely won’t be considered.
In product design, we say the UX is not just the website, it’s the sum of all the little interactions and influence points that someone has with your brand — emails you send them, their experience with customer service, content on your social media.
Similarly, we should be looking at you as the sum of your whole. Judging you on just one part of your experience or training isn’t fair to you or, actually, to us if we really want to find the right person. Which is why it’s fundamentally not fair, for example, to completely disqualify someone who has gone to a bootcamp or immersive program.
Dave Malouf, a veteran design leader, has experienced this first hand having been a candidate as well as the hiring manager throughout his career. Instead of trying to apply a litmus test to candidates, Malouf prefers to collect all the relevant information about a candidate so he can make an informed decision that’s based on the individual’s entire makeup, not just one part of their experience.
Here’s an example, imagine you’re at an enterprise company and you’re hiring a junior designer. One applicant is self taught, has a graphic design, background, and startup experience. Many hiring managers would disqualify the applicant based on this experience and education. However with Malouf’s approach, the candidate would still be in consideration. As he noted, “so they don’t have enterprise experience”. You have to look at each candidate holistically, as Malouf says “I’m constantly taking stock of all the little details so I can make an informed decision after getting to know the whole candidate”. Now, imagine with this same candidate the portfolio ends up being a bunch of pretty pictures with no context and not story. Malouf says “that says it all, it shows me their maturity as a designer, and I move on to the next candidate”.
You need to show the people doing the UX hiring that you not only have the skills but can also identify, and effectively communicate, how your skills translate to the position you’re applying for.
Just as we do on any design project, before we start designing, we have to know the audience or customer. We don’t just start designing. In the same way, designers who are looking for jobs should not just blast out the same resume, cover letter, and portfolio to every position they want to apply for. Everything you submit must be tailored to each unique position.
One example Malouf gave was the website of a British copywriter, Joe Coleman. The website is very simple at first glance, some friendly intro text to help you get to know Joe and then a slider. The slider is the genius part though, it changes the copy to be more or less of a hard sell based on the slider position.
This isn’t to say that designers need to build out a complex website. It could be as simple as having one Keynote file that you constantly pull from and re-mix based on each request for work samples that you get. This is exactly what Sarah does. She always tailors which pieces to to potential clients. But she doesn’t just tailor the visuals, she also tailors the story about her role, the process, and outcomes for each project.
Beyond vetting for experience, what other vetting happens? Malouf says that a large part of it is social vetting. By this he means relying on the social networks to find out who’s worked with someone before. If he’s serious about a candidate, he will look them up on LinkedIn, see if he knows anyone that’s worked with them in the past, and see what that person has to say.
Where to Look for Jobs
When asked where hiring managers and recruiters look for candidates, a central theme was that they all start with niche, trusted communities. Here are some of the places that are starting points:
- Slack communities such as Designer Hangout are a great starting point because there is trust and you get to know people based on your interactions with them.
- Niche jobs boards such as IXDA, UX Jobs Board, and Just UX Jobs.
- And finally, reaching into the networks of their peers and colleagues.
It’s important to note a key place where hiring managers are not looking for candidates. Dribbble. This isn’t a criticism of Dribbble. It’s about how people are using it. Many designers use Dribbble as an art gallery for the final product instead of a place to showcase the full design process. We’re not alone in this observation.
One of the best articles we found is by Paul Adams, VP of Product at Intercom. In his article, The Dribbilisation of Design, Adams writes, “too many designers are designing to impress their peers rather than address real business problems.” This, in turn, has lead to many designers focusing on the end result. Adams continues, “the worse applications sent in flat PNGs or PDFs of full wireframes. No articulation of the problem being solved, nor the business and technical constraints. No context.”
In contrast, he says the best applicants can “show their thought process. Sketches. Diagrams. Pros and cons. Real problem. Tradeoffs and solutions. Prototypes that illustrate interaction and animation. Things that move, change and animate. Things that use real data.”
Rooting Your Expectations in Reality
“The best jobs never appear on job boards; they are through word of mouth,” Says Patrick Neeman on Usability Counts. “It’s usually discovered through endless hours of networking or because recruiters found us after we promoted ourselves. Normally, these jobs are through personal or employee referral.”
One of the big issues here is that people wanting to come into this world rarely understand what UX is really all about. Honestly, even those of us who have been in it forever have seen the industry expand to make it broader than it should be.
“The field still doesn’t have enough definition around it,” says Neeman. “The personal referrals are priceless. We go with people we trust, even more so than other competencies.”
It’s certainly how we both found our earliest jobs in UX and how we continue to do so. Dan got his start when his grad school professor and digital media pioneer, Elizabeth Osder, referred him to an information architecture job at iXL, a large web-consultancy that exploded in the dot-com boom. She was VP of Media & Entertainment there at the time.
Similarly, Sarah got her start when a former boss handed her the book Information Architecture For The Worldwide Web because he thought she’d be good at it. A year later, he hired her as a web designer at a large Fortune 500 company where she got to see the impact of UX in a large organization. This also sparked Sarah’s interest in UX and motivated her to teach herself UX and develop her first freelance design business in 2003.
While the industry was younger then and there were far fewer of us, Neeman’s advice rings just as true then as it does now. Today, perhaps more than ever, there are many resources at your disposal to start showcasing yourselves. But you need to be willing to do the work.
When Kristin Mark realized she couldn’t do another session being a TA at General Assembly due to visa issues in Australia, she hit the pavement hard. “I trolled people on LinkedIn. I went to meetups. I talked to anyone I could,” she says. After the relatively short time of five weeks, she found a job as a UX Designer at Bourne Digital through a meetup. And it was thanks to the education she’d gotten: “I did everything that GA told me to do.”
There’s no one size fits all for getting a UX education, getting hired, practicing UX, or being a leader. Eliza Doton, a UX Designer who took a 12-week course at GA says, “When I first started out, I thought there was a checklist of things. In my prior psychology classes there was a prescribed way to write a research report for example. My Bachelor in Psychology was based around the idea that there was ‘one right way’ to do things.”
After getting a job at an education company and working as a UX designer, Doton noted “the reason I love this industry is that it’s full of people always learning and evolving their skillset. Nobody knows everything.” This was a powerful realization for her because she often questioned her competency and that initially affected her confidence as a designer. “I may be sitting beside someone who’s been doing it (UX) for far more years, but often times I know more than them about a software or new take on a method.”
It’s those people sitting next to you, though, who can teach you soft skills you may not even know you don’t possess.
Early in his career, Howard says he quickly ascended to ladder to be the technical director at a startup “I was completely incompetent to be a manager or leader in any respect,” says he says. “I’d never worked in that context before. I’d never worked with good managers before in any meaningful way. This was a skill I didn’t have. I wasn’t a good leader.”
As he progressed through his next few jobs, though, he realized that he was learning these through context from his peers.
“Later on in life I worked with some different kinds of people and there are things called listening and talking to your staff and all these things that you do when you’re a manager and understanding that your job is to get everyone else to do their best,” he says. “That’s stuff you can learn in your off-time but being mentored by someone is better. it’s not something that is trivial to learn. It is a skill that needs time and practice for you to get good at. I wish more people spent more time learning that.”
How do you break into a field that is ever changing? How do you find your spot in an industry that has such confusion across the candidates, companies, and recruiters? How do you navigate the uncertainty and the unknown?
The truth is that you don’t break into UX. The best UX designers get excited about the journey — because the education of a designer is never over.
But there is one catch, do not let yourself get paralyzed by the massive amount of information and resources available about UX right now. Why? Because if you try to spend all your time learning about UX, you take away from the valuable lessons that can be learned from just doing.
Don’t overthink it. Don’t get hung up on what software you should be using, or what research method to use, or what design process you should follow.
Our best advice is to just start. Start doing. Start making. Start looking around you, spotting problems, solving them, and practicing how to think and how to do.
And the comforting thing is that people will appreciate the fact that you care. “One of the things that’s cool about the design world is that if you do good work and you’re able to tell a story about it, it doesn’t matter what your degree is in, it doesn’t matter where you went to school, people will hire you,” say Neeman.
Getting a job in UX is only the beginning. The senior designers of tomorrow will be the junior ones who today, remain humble, never stop learning, stay curious, embrace their role as an advocate, and consciously make an effort to collaborate with and learn from other disciplines.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dan Maccarone is the co-founder of Charming Robot, a digital product design agency in NYC. He also hosts the podcast Story in a Bottle, chronicling the stories of tech and media professionals. Follow him on Twitter @danmaccarone.
Sarah Doody is a UX Designer & Entrepreneur in NYC. She teaches people how to think like a designer through her UX courses, weekly UX newsletter, and her YouTube channel. Follow her on Twitter @sarahdoody.