Photo By Jens Lelie

So you want to be a UX designer…

A guide on how to get started

As a UX design manager at Opower, one of the most common questions I’m asked is:

How do I become a UX designer?

To help answer this question, I’ve been collecting online resources and stories — and now I’d like to share them with you.

My path to becoming a UX designer

In the past eight years, I’ve gone from design student, to intern, to job applicant, to full-time designer. Currently I lead a UX team at Opower, where we use design to motivate people to save energy. For the past two years, I’ve also taught interaction design to undergraduates at the California College of the Arts.

I started my journey as a mechanical engineering student interested in product design. When I applied for college, I had never heard of UX or interaction design (I’ll use those terms interchangeably in this article). After studying abroad and doing some UX internships, I transitioned from designing physical to digital products.

Times have changed though. The UX design industry has matured, as captured by John Maeda’s Design in tech reports. Art schools are shifting their graphic and web design programs to interaction design. Venture capital firms are running internship programs to match students with startups. And young designers now have lots of mentors to help guide their career.

A guide to a UX design career

There are many well-trodden paths to becoming a UX designer. I’ve created this framework, with resources below, to help you find your own.


1. Do you know what a UX designer does?

There are as many types of design as there are types of engineering. Industrial design is different from UX design, just like mechanical engineering is different from computer science.

Before picking UX design, explore the range of other options. Look into industrial design, visual/graphic design, design research, and design strategy. Here are some online resources to help you understand the differences between design disciplines:

Learn more about different disciplines by meeting practicing designers at local design events:

2. Are you passionate about UX design?

To gauge your interest in UX design, start immersing yourself in UX content. Here are some classic books most people start with:

Once you have the basics, start learning about trends in the design industry:


3. Do you have a design portfolio?

Having a portfolio is a critical part of getting a UX design job. Most hiring managers will spend more time reviewing your portfolio than your resume. Look at some “best-of” portfolios to learn what’s expected.

Many designers use a case study structure that describe each project’s design process before showing the final design. This showcases not only design craft, but also the designer’s problem solving and storytelling abilities.

Before submitting your portfolio, ask an experienced UX designer to review it. Here are some more perspectives on what hiring managers look for:


4. Should you go to design school?

Some designers went to design school, and others gained experience on the job — it’s not one size fits all.

Whether you need a design degree depends on your past experience and how you prefer to learn. For example, instead of doing a design degree, you can try to transition into a UX role in your current company by taking on small UX projects. Also, you may not need a formal design education if you work in fields related to UX design. This includes product management, graphic design, design research, or front-end development.

If you don’t have relevant past experience, I recommend taking some design classes on the side. These days there’s an ever growing list of options — online classes, evening-classes at local colleges, intensive boot camps run by startups, and of course, the traditional design school.

If you aren’t ready to go to full-time design school, start by taking classes on the side. Here are some in-person and online classes you can take while working:

Regardless of where you’re studying, try to find local group of students also taking the course. It’s important to find people to help critique your work and work on projects together.


5. Where should you go to design school?

When researching design schools, seek out current students and recent alumni. They’ll give you the most accurate account of the program. If you can make a campus visit, most schools will let you sit in on a few classes.

Here are some criteria to think about:

  • Cost: Tuition may be the first cost you think about, but don’t forget rent and cost of living for each city. When you start weighing costs, consider the complete ROI. Use Glassdoor and AngelList to look at expected salaries in different levels and locations. For example, here’s a spreadsheet of salaries in the Bay Area from October 2014 courtesy of Designer News.
  • Location: I recommend picking a school near a design hub like New York, Seattle, or the Bay Area. Interaction design is changing at fast pace, and design schools need to update their curriculum every year to keep up. Schools in design hubs draw professors from industry and get more company-sponsored projects to stay relevant.
  • Student body size: Design education requires a lot of hands-on teaching and critique. The smaller the class size, the more critique you’ll get.
  • Classes: Ask for a detailed semester-by-semester curriculum. Look at what’s included in the core requirements versus the electives. Julie Zhuo wrote a great medium post on her dream design curriculum.
  • Career services: Ask what types of jobs recent graduates are landing. Does the school have specialized interaction design career fairs or events? What types of companies recruit there?

​I’ve been reviewing portfolios and interviewing entry-level candidates for the past three years. The top talent seems to be coming from these schools:

Undergraduate programs

One year graduate programs

Two year graduate programs

One year programs have lower costs and taking less time to finish. Two year programs cover more content and give you time for a summer internship. They also usually have an individual thesis project.


6. Where should you apply for your first job/internship?

Use your first job or internship as an opportunity to learn and grow. When applying for jobs, look for places where you will:

  • Learn from great UX designers with the time and management experience to mentor you.
  • Work on end to end projects–from initial concept to shipping a product.
  • Work on variety of problems, platforms, and parts of the design process.
  • Be pushed to create a lot of design work.
  • Be valued. Look for companies where design is a valued at the top business levels. These tend to attract the best designers and give designers the time and resources to do their best work.

Usually design firms and medium/large companies can provide these things better than small start-ups. Growing mid-sized startups can be a great place to learn as well.

Here are some of the top digital product design firms:

  • IDEO
  • frog design
  • Smart design
  • Design continuum
  • Method
  • Cooper
  • Punchcut
  • Sequence
  • Artefact

These larger companies have well-respected and well-run design groups:

  • Apple
  • Google
  • Facebook
  • Intuit
  • Linkedin

If you’re set on joining a smaller company, start with the VC-vetted startups — they often recommend growing startups that value design.

If you’re looking for a place to work with a strong social mission, my manager Deena Rosen put together of list of 12 companies you should know about.


In conclusion,

As you know by now, there isn’t any “right” or “best” path to becoming a UX designer. There are a lot of options. It’s just a matter picking the right path for your own circumstances.

If you have more questions, please comment below. I’d be happy to continue to add resources.


Want another opinion?
Jessica Ivins also wrote a great article on becoming a UX designer.