How to land your first job in UX v.1a

At least, “How I think it should work”

“How do I get a job in ____?” This is a very commonly asked question. In UX, it shouldn’t be a mystery. Bridging the gap from the realm of the scholastic into the demanding reality of the job market can be difficult in any field. But it surprises me when those trying to break into UX get stuck.

UX is a practice of problem solving. In the case of securing the first gig, I’d suggest that the solution is as simple as “follow your process.” Don’t have a process? I’ll share mine with you. My process is fairly generalized. It allows me to refine based on the context of the problem I’m solving for. That being said, These steps should feel familiar.

Define the problem > Do some research > Form a hypothesis > Test >Get feedback > Pivot or proceed

Step 1 — Define the problem

For the sake of this article, I’m going to operate under the assumption that you are trying to secure a job in UX or Product Design. That’s the problem you’re trying to solve for: “Get a job in UX.” See that was easy. Step 1, complete.

You will most likely run into additional problems to solve during the steps 3 -6. If you don’t please write up a case study and provide a link in the comments. You may also find yourself redefining the problem in terms of “securing the right job.” This could entail working with a specific mentor, A financial goal, a product or company you really love. I hope you make the effort to add these requirements to your user journey.

Step 2 — Do some research

This is where the heavy lifting comes into play. Once you’ve defined you problem, questions should start bubbling up. It’s a natural phenomenon. It’s innate to the human condition, we call it “curiosity.” How to apply that curiosity is part of your process.

I process it the following way. I define a dream job, pie in the sky scenario. Sometimes I’ll even formulate a fictitious job description. I then start gathering companies and people I’d like to work with. Some of these might not even have jobs posted. Doesn’t matter. This is just the research portion of the journey. I then start to match up descriptions jobs and places to my personal job description.

Back to the questions. Some of your questions will be born out of ignorance. Some from fear or trepidation. Some from the task itself as you wrap your head around the situation. Acknowledge them all. Yes, all of them. They are born from recognition of a need, some part of your mind is trying to address. These questions will help you in defining your hypothesis.

My current top 3 questions looks like this:

  • What does the design culture look like at company X? How design is viewed, by the leadership of a company, will have an enormous impact on the expectation surrounding your job as a designer. How are designers utilized by the company? Do I have access to users? What role does design play in determining the direction of the product? Who makes the decisions about design implementation? etc…
  • What growth opportunities exist with this role? Professional growth is important to me. Will I have access to design mentorship within the company? Will I have opportunities to mentor? Is there a program for additional training in place?
  • What does the job look like? Beyond the job description, what is typical of this role on a micro level (day to day) and macro level(year to year)? Where can improvements be made? How does the role play to my strengths or weaknesses (I have some, so do you. It’s OK.) What is the team structure? What does the existing workflow look like? Velocity of the product to market?

Now that you have a group of jobs, people, and/or companies and some things you like to know about them, start digging in. Who do you have direct access to? What have they published? What do review sites like glassdoor.com or comparably.com or even just search google.

Step 3 — Form a hypothesis

Start connecting these questions to the list of job postings and companies or individuals you’d like to work with. You can map these anyway you like, affinity mapping with post-its in an excel spreadsheet, whatever. It’s your process. Take a look at what you’ve learned and what questions you’ve been able to answer through your own research. You have started to form some opinions along the way. Maybe even started shifting postings or organizations along a scale of desirability. These are assumptions. In UX they are good. But you need to test them. To test them you need to convert your assumption to hypothesis, or something you can experiment against. Let’s do that with one of my motivation questions.

  • Assumption 1: Design culture at Company A is not very mature.
  • Hypothesis 1: I believe culture at Company A isn’t very mature for the following reasons: 
    1) The role of design in the direction of product. 
    2) Designer turnover. 
    3) Design leadership reports to engineering rather than product or an executive design role.

You now have a series of topics that you can test against. In this case, create non-leading questions to validate your hypothesis or disprove it. example: “What can you tell me about the design culture at Company A?”

Make a list of SMEs (subject matter experts) and start reaching out. These aren’t necessarily hiring managers, but they could be.

Step 3a — Test your hypothesis

Who do you know? Who are you connected with online or through a professional organization? If you live in Utah or want to I’d suggest Product Hive. If you aren’t down with Utah, that’s fine. Check out meetup.com for local professional organizations in your neighborhood. Cruise websites like medium and linkedIn. Find some people to reach out to. Chances are, you will find a connection to a person that can give you the insight you are looking for. Often this will be a friend or associate of someone you know.

If you get them on the phone make sure you’re not interrupting anything, and let them know you understand they are busy, and promise to be quick. If they don’t have time try to schedule something. If you do schedule something, don’t blow them off or show up late.

When you talk to them, be respectful of their time. Be prepared. Know the topics you want to cover. Let them know you are in a job search, and you are doing some groundwork or research to understand what the current job economy looks like. Ask for insights, but don’t be thrown off if the person you are interviewing isn’t able to go into specifics. Phrasing your question along the lines of, “without sharing anything that you shouldn’t, what are some of the things you are looking to a designer at this level to be able to solve?” goes a long way toward demonstrating respect while providing an opening for the information you need to act on.

Be prepared to share what you are looking for in a position if the topic arises. It should. But again you probably shouldn’t ask them for a job outright. You could ask questions about a current opening to get a better understanding of what a hiring manager looks for in a candidate. Even ask for recommendations on who to talk to about getting a job. If they have something open and like the way you approach the interview, they might even say “me.” This has happened to me before. If this happens and you are prepared, awesome! If you’re not yet prepared, ask what the person would like to see when you come back. Get specific. Nail those requests. We’ll get into that next.

Step 4 — Test your might

You’ve collected your data from various sources. You’ve validated or pivoted on your Hypotheses based on research. You have a really good idea of what potential organizations want from you to demonstrate your ability to perform in their design team. You have the foundation for a product. That product is your job search collateral. Specifically, your resume and your work samples.

There are a number of great articles detailing successful methods for creating these artifacts. Here are just a few. Your mileage may vary:

UX/Product Design resume:

Demonstrated competency:

The most important suggestions I can make are these. Understand the audience the collateral is trying to serve. Test your collateral early and refine. Do this by showing it to people before you submit it for the job. I screwed this up in my most recent job search. My resume had an incomplete sentence. Rookie mistake. Never think you’re above simple

Now that you’ve gotten those easy fixes taken care of, it’s time to put your work in from of people and see if you are effectively meeting the requirements of the jobs you are applying for.

This can go one of two ways:

  1. You get an offer!
  2. You don’t get an offer…
    Don’t sweat this. It’s rarely an indicator of your ability or worth as a person. Though you may want to work on both of those aspects to make you that much easier to say yes to in the future.
  3. You get told flat out “no!”
    You’re going to be ok. I’m sure you’re still a remarkable individual.

Here’s a little something I’ve learned from acting (Don’t judge me. It’s made me a better presenter.)The audition is one of the toughest things you do, current harassment issues aside. It’s the job interview. And it can be brutal. But here’s the trick. After you read a part, always ask if they’d like to see it done another way. Or if you’re singing, ask if they’d like to hear something else. Give them more information to base a decision on, more time to consider you, more opportunities to demonstrate your professionalism, competency, and range.

“But this is design Jac. How do I translate that advice to design?” Simple. Ask if what you gave them for an answer met their expectation.

  • “…and that’s why I always start my process sketching by hand. Does that answer your question or can I share different story talking about how I developed my design process?”
  • “Did that effectively answer your question? or should I reframe my answer in a different way?”
  • “Is there anything else you’d like to see that you aren’t seeing in these examples?”

Now et’s just assume that you feel the interview goes well. You may have totally nailed it. You still may only be a top 3 or 5 candidate, and someone else got the job. Just because you didn’t get the gig, doesn’t mean you get nothing. You can always get feedback. And that my friend is data, and you know what we do with data.

Step 5 — Pivot or proceed

If you got an offer, congratulations. Weigh your options and proceed or decline and be gracious doing either.

If you didn’t get the gig, you may want to pivot. Take the feedback you got from your testing/interview process and go back to square one. Form a new hypothesis iterate and test. Rinse and repeat until you get that job.

Conclusion

There are a number of things I didn’t go over in this article, like personal branding or position statements, portfolio creation, working with recruiters or agencies, or well a lot of things. By this point you should realize, job hunting is not an easy thing. It’s very dependant on the specific context of your market, your skills, and your desired outcomes. You are responsible for designing your career. Approach it that way. Proactively, with an understanding of your users, and an iterative approach founded on what you learn through your process.

You’re going to crush this.

Agree/Disagree? Let’s hear your take on it. This, like many other aspects of design, is not the only path to success. I’d love to hear your stories as well.

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