Interested in making a leap to become a UX or Product Designer? Here’s 5 tactical steps you can take to launch your design career.
So you’ve learned a little bit about UX and product design – maybe you’ve taken a short intro course or watched some Youtube videos on the subject. You’re interested and overwhelmed. This article is for you! Here is a quick, 5-point plan to get your skills ramped up, meet some design practitioners, build your network and get a job.
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1. First, read job descriptions and note which skills are important to employers.
If you’re interested in a product or UX design career then it’s essential to get the lay of the land. Since your first full-time position will be as a jr. product or ux designer, start by reading entry-level UX or Product Designer job postings. I recommend Indeed.com as a starting place. Look for so-called “hard skills” – these will typically be software platforms like Sketch, Illustrator, InVision etc. They may include wireframing, prototyping, service-mapping, journey-mapping, building workflows and more.
Check out the UX Intern podcast as part of your preliminary research.
You might also listen to the Nov. 11, 2014 podcast of the UX Intern. It has an interview with Airbnb’s Head of Experience Katie Dill, and Happy Cog’s VP of Business Development Joe Rinaldi – it’s an excellent distillation of the kind of skills companies look for in new hires, interns, and entry-level designers.
2. Learn the necessary skills.
Now comes the tough part. You’ve researched job postings and done some discovery about relevant skill sets. Now you have to build your skill set. You can do so on an online platform like Lynda.com, Coursera, or through an in-person bootcamp like General Assembly (disclaimer – I’ve worked as an instructor at General Assembly).
Bootcamps are valuable but can be expensive.
If you can afford the bootcamp, you’ll be accelerating your path towards a career as a designer. I say that as someone who learned UX design on their own – that journey took me a full four years to complete. With intensive education and hard work you can make the transition much faster.
For people that are starting with no design competencies (like a background in visual design, some HTML or CSS, etc) – then I would recommend a bootcamp. You’ll graduate with a skills, a certificate, a network, a portfolio – and into a highly competitive job market. Even entry-level positions and internships can require a college degree in HCI or UX, or 1 year’s experience in the field.
Online courses are good if you’re extremely self-motivated or have a related skill like coding, graphic design etc.
Doing a series on a site like Coursera is a good idea for people with related skills or who have worked in the tech industry before. After completing the course, you should have the hard skills you need. The downside is that you will be less networked in the design world. You’ll also have to augment your learning with mentorships to make sure that you’re getting a full education. You will, however, have saved a significant amount of money. With bootcamps running $4k to $10k, that’s something to consider. If you are highly self-motivated or are financially constrained, then this track is for you.
Whatever track you choose, you’ll start with 3–6 months of experience – you’ll be ineligible for most full-time design positions.
It’s discouraging for those new to design, but don’t despair. The great thing about this field is that your portfolio is a huge part of getting hired. In order to build your portfolio and get that critical 12 months of experience, you’ll need to be creative. You’ll need to have enough working knowledge of design (and designers!) to convince people to give you a chance to work on their projects.
Steps 3, 4 and 5 will help get you out into the world, meet some people and get some paid design work.
3. Set up informational coffeeshop meetings with seasoned design practitioners.
Informational interviews are my favorite way of networking. As a new designer, it will be hard to meet experienced designers. Contact with sr. designers in interviews won’t count for much. The nature of interviews means that people are in a questioning, skeptical mindset. That’s not valuable for you as a new designer trying to establish yourself in a design career.
An informational interview allows you to have a more authentic connection with a Sr.-level UX practitioner. It also allows you to do an end-run around the skepticism inherent in job interviews.
An informational interview is like field research. Buy your interview subject a coffee and a pastry, and find what their daily work really looks like. What tools do they use? What projects are they working on? What skills are critical that might not be apparent from job postings? How did they get to where they are today? It’s low-key and the only thing you’re asking from them is to talk about themselves – it’s a win-win.
The counter-intuitive secret to cold emails.
Setting these interviews up does mean cold-contacting designers. The secret to cold contacts is to actually spend some time on them. Do your research. Look at their profile, their portfolio, and any articles they’ve written or talks they’ve given. When you write your note, be sure and personalize it and show you’ve spent the time to know a little bit about them.
Here’s a quick template you can use to reach out on LinkedIn:
“Hi, I’m <your name>,
I’m relatively new to design and was looking up career paths taken by accomplished UX designers in the <city> area. Your name came up during my search. After some research, I was especially interested in the <portfolio piece or article> and thought that I would reach out.
I’d love to buy you a coffee at <amazing local coffee shop> if you are interested in chatting for 20–30 minutes about user experience design and your work.
Are you free in the next week or two?
Never use this meeting to ask them for a job – the purpose is truly to listen to them talk about their work, about UX and about whatever else comes up.
What if they don’t respond?
That’s OK! Designers – especially the good ones – are busy people, with careers, kids, partners and the rest. Don’t take a lack of a response personally.
Frankly, you can probably expect one response for every 10–20 people you contact. If this sounds like a crazy waste of time, it isn’t.
That one person who agrees to meet you for coffee could become an advocate for you in your fledgling design career. They will probably enjoy speaking with people who are new to UX design. They could in time become an ally as you continue your career journey. So don’t give up!
4. Build your peer network and engage with the community of designers.
A key part of building a successful career is building a robust network. Your network will give you a leg up in a competitive job market. You’ll hear about jobs before they are posted, and have an ‘in’ to help you navigate a company’s hiring bureaucracy. The key thing about networks is that you can’t rush them. You need to start soon, but realize that it takes years to build a good one.
In Austin, Fresh2Design is a friendly community of designers who meet monthly in Austin. There’s design meet ups in every city, Dribbble meet up, conferences – the list is endless. In Austin, here are a few places to start if you want to meet people interested in UX design:
- Austin Design Week, every November
- SXSW Interactive, every March
- Fresh2Design, meets every month
- General Assembly Austin (they offer free 2-hour intro courses multiple times per month)
5. Build your portfolio of paid design work.
In order to launch your career, you’re going to need to transition to paid work as soon as possible. Paid work helps you establish your expertise, make connections and build a credible portfolio. Once you’ve completed the main part of your education, here are some ideas for building your portfolio of paid work:
- Look for UX design internships (typically at larger companies like Google, Indeed, Rackspace, Facebook, etc).
- Apply to lots of positions. It’s good feedback about how you’ve positioned yourself as a designer.
- Let people know you are looking.
- Austin has a large start up scene. Reach out to small companies and start ups to pitch a UX assessment, prototyping work, wireframing etc.
- Reach out to non-profits regarding their product design and user experience needs.
- Join a company you (really, really) want to work for in a non-design role. After 6–12 months you’ll be able to apply for a role in the design team. For companies like Amazon, this approach might give you an advantage over outside designers since Amazon likes to promote from inside the company.
You’re not building a career, you’re building a whole life. That takes time. And patience.
This isn’t a step, more of a reminder.
We’re used to instant messages, streaming whatever we want whenever we want the moment we want it, same-day delivery – the examples are endless. If things aren’t instantaneous, sometimes it feels like they aren’t moving at all.
In this case, patience will pay off. The blog post you write today, the coffee you schedule for next Monday, the interview you have next month, your chance meeting with a mentor during a summer design conference – these things are cumulative, and don’t all happen at once. But they add up to a career – and a life.
You’re in for a creative, winding, thoroughly unexpected journey. If you really want this, then give it time and let it unravel.
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