Breaking into UX

The three-step path to becoming a
user experience designer


“How did you get into UX?”

As a UX Design instructor at General Assembly I get asked this question a lot. I know saying, “With three simple steps, you too can be a UX designer!” sounds like an infomercial pitch, but it really is easier now to enter the UX profession than ever before.

1. Getting Started

“How do you get enough experience, to build enough momentum, to get more experience?”

Knowing where to start can be difficult if you’re not familiar with the industry. Here are a few easy ways to gain UX experience until you feel ready to apply to full time gigs:

Freelance & Pro Bono

Almost everyone these days wants their own app or website, and most are willing to pay for it. Let your network know you’re looking for projects; you’ll hear back from at least a few people. Pro bono is another great way to work with causes you’re passionate about (just make sure to clearly define the scope of projects you’ll do for free so you’re not taken advantage of). The best part of contract work is that it can easily evolve into a full-time position.

Hackathons

Hackathons are competitions to concept and build a whole app in a single weekend. These events occur worldwide, are chock-full of software engineers, and are usually pretty light on design talent. What’s this mean for you?

Dozens of engineers competing for the best app with nary a designer to be found = tons of opportunity.

Plenty of hackathons are not only free to join, they’ll feed you, fill you with caffeine, and by the end you’ll have a demo-able app for your portfolio — all within a crazy 48-hour blitz. For more info, check out Design & Hack, YC Hacks, and Angelhack.

Design courses

If you’re moving into UX from a completely different industry, or even just another design discipline, taking a course will teach you the fundamentals of wireframing, prototyping, user research, visual design, and product design. General Assembly has excellent full-time and part-time programs, and many universities like Berkeley and Stanford offer UX courses for professionals through their Continuing Education programs. You’ll get excellent coaching from trained instructors and graduate with at least one highly-polished portfolio piece.

2. Building your UX portfolio

“How many portfolio pieces do I need?”

As few as two solid UX projects can be enough to get your first UX gig. You’ll get bonus points for having designed real apps and websites, but student work and hypothetical projects are acceptable portfolio pieces too, especially for entry-level positions.

In addition to your two UX projects, many companies provide a design challenge as part of the interview process. You’ll be given a project brief and 3–4 days to work on the concept from home. If your submission passes, it’s common to be invited on-site to present the challenge and 1–2 other projects. If you can pull together just a few decent digital projects you’ve got all you need to apply to a range of companies.

The wireframes I submitted for Salesforce’s design challenge were fairly basic. Framing the problem and creating an intuitive user flow were most important aspects for the product design position I was interviewing for.

“How do I put my portfolio together?”

A ton of articles online already discuss assembling a portfolio at length, so I’ll keep it simple:

  1. Demonstrate your thought process. Why did you make the decisions you made? What parts of the projects were difficult and how did you work through them? Read more about the importance of thought process in portfolios here and here.
  2. Tell great stories. Portfolios are as much about challenges as they are successes. Oftentimes the most complex and frustrating projects are best at demonstrating your problem-solving skills and ability to overcome difficulties. Read about portfolio storytelling here.
  3. Know how you’d keep improving each project. Always have an idea about what additional features you’d add, what new user research questions you’d ask, and what A/B tests and analytics analysis you’d run.

3. Applying to Jobs

“What type / size of company should I apply to?”

When I first started looking for UX jobs I noticed a strange phenomenon: as a young designer I did well with startups and large companies, but struck out at mid-sized “growth” companies. Looking back, here’s my theory:

Startups need Generalists, Growth Companies want Specialists, and Established Companies hire both

Startups

Startups hire Generalists. They have limited funds and need a few people who can wear many hats. If you’re good at one or two related skills — like branding or web design — startups are more willing to take a risk on you not having as much experience in another area (i.e., UX). I used this exact method to pivot my career from communication design into product design.

Example: Every Startup. Companies are quickly learning the benefits of having designers get involved early, sometimes even as designer founders. This is especially noticeable in Silicon Valley, where incubators like YCombinator, VC’s like Kleiner Perkins, and programs like Stanford d.school, are increasing the emphasis of design as a critical business function.

Growth Companies

These companies lean towards hiring Specialists. Companies at this stage are going through a significant transition. They’ve raised at least a few rounds, have enormous pressure to grow, and may be starting to bump up against significant competition for the first time. These variables lead Growth Companies to look for designers who are highly experienced in solving specific problems and require little training. This is also the first time many companies can finally afford specialists, whose unique experience and problem-solving abilities usually demand top dollar.

Example: GoPro’s brand is unbeatable, but their competition includes everyone who’s ever made a camera; a key reason they’re focused on evolving into a more holistic media company. You can bet GoPro is focused on hiring designers with backgrounds heavy in media and video to support this strategic initiative.

Established Companies

This cohort is unique in that they want Generalists and Specialists. Companies at this stage are much more mature, with well-established hierarchies and processes. Market competition is still steep, and if the company has IPO’d there’s pressure from Wall Street to constantly create value for shareholders. Like Growth Companies, Established Companies can afford to hire specialists to solve specific problems. However, an experienced Generalist’s ability to use their wide base of knowledge to communicate across different teams is also very necessary. Companies at this stage usually have a large enough design team to support training and mentoring younger designers.

Example: Large companies like Google have multiple design teams with different skills who work on a wide variety of products. It’s possible to join one team, get some experience, and then transition to another group without ever leaving the company. These companies have internship programs, hire all levels of experience, and you’ll work alongside some of the best designers in the industry.

In my experience, getting a position at Startups and Established Companies can be the easiest path into the UX industry. Opportunities at Growth Companies can be more difficult to get at the start of your career, and those companies may not be able to invest in you as much as you need. Of course, if there’s a growth company you absolutely love — say Airbnb, Uber, or Pinterest — you should absolutely apply. Your passion for their product is a huge plus; just make sure to tailor your portfolio and the narrative of your work towards their product as much as possible.

That’s it!

Have two or three projects? Came up with the narrative you’ll want to tell for each piece, and know what you’d improve? Identified a few companies that are at the right stage to provide the growth and learning opportunities you need? Great! Now you’re ready to start interviewing for your first full-time UX job.

Speaking of which… Preparing for UX interviews?


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