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:
- Startups, this is how design works
Wells Riley created a great design primer that explains each type of design.
- Understanding UX Skills: Part One
Irene Au wrote a 3-part series to help startups hire designers.
- UI, UX: Who Does What? A Designer’s Guide To The Tech Industry
Fast Company explains what different design titles mean in companies like Google and Facebook Design.
Learn more about different disciplines by meeting practicing designers at local design events:
- UX happy hour
A casual UX gathering in many US cities.
A group of all-women UX designers started by Google designer brynn evans.
- Meetup Groups
Many UX groups use Meetup to organize events. Some of my favorite ones in the Bay Area are Action design and design+startups.
- SF Design Week
Every June, San Francisco hosts a design week with open studio tours and free events. Many other cities have these too.
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:
- Design of Everyday Things By Don Norman
- The Art of Innovation By Tom Kelly
- The Inmates Are Running the Asylum By Alan Cooper
- Don’t Make Me Think By Steve Krug
Once you have the basics, start learning about trends in the design industry:
- Invision design digest
Invision, a popular prototyping tool, has a great weekly design newsletter.
- UX design weekly email
A curated list of UX design links every week
- Designer news
Designer News. is the hacker news of the design world. It doesn’t have as many active users, but it surfaces good, timely content.
- Julie Zhou’s medium posts
Julie Zhuo is a prolific and insightful UX director at Facebook. I read everything she writes.
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.
- Grant Leung’s design portfolio
Includes case studies from DAAP projects and co-ops, and shows off Grant’s front-end skills.
- Amy Wu’s design portfolio
Includes projects from Amy Wu’s time at the School of Visual Arts and her previous career as a graphic designer. She uses a clean and simple Squarespace Inc. template.
- Brian Wong’s design portfolio
Features a strong personal brand and demonstrates BRian Wong’s strong visual design skills.
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.
- Dayn Wilberding’s Mini Jambox & the Jawbone App
The sketches and iterations show how Dayn Wilberding solves problems.
- Andrew Kim’s America Elect Thesis
This portfolio is about 50% process and 50% final solution. The visuals make it easy to scan Andrew’s design process.
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.
- How to become a designer without going to design school
Karen X. Cheng wrote a great guide on how she transitioned from product management to UX design.
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:
This online course that pairs you with a mentors for project feedback and critique. It’s $299 for 6 weeks.
- General Assembly user experience classes
General Assembly has night courses, workshops, full-time “immersives” at different commitment levels and prices. Availability and quality of teacher varies by city. Here are some reviews on Quora.
- Udacity: Intro to the Design of Everyday Things
A free 2 week beginner video course by Don Norman, Kristian Simsarian, and Chelsey Glasson.
- Coursera: Interaction Design Specialization
A 4 week interaction design specialization that starts around $39.
- Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design
A free 7 week design course created by IDEO.org and the Acumen fund.
- IDEO U online courses
Multi-week online courses created by IDEO for about $400 per course.
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:
- University of Cincinnati DAAP — Cincinnati
A 5 year program where students take every other quarter off to do a co-op (an internship during the year). That means students graduate with up to 5 professional work experiences to draw from.
- California College of Arts interaction design — San Francisco
Started in 2010, has lots of adjunct professors in industry.
- Carnegie Mellon interaction design — Pittsburgh
Has a strong alumni network and lots of industry connections.
One year graduate programs
- Carnegie Mellon HCII — Pittsburgh
Graduate degree in CMU’s engineering school with lots of industry partnerships.
- California College of Arts interaction design — San Francisco
Started in 2015 after the success of their undergrad program.
- Copenhagen Institute of design — Copenhagen
A affordable and competitive program that attracts an international student body and faculty.
Two year graduate programs
- School of Visual Art interaction design — NYC
Has well organized, well attended recruiting events each year.
- Carnegie Mellon interaction design — Pittsburgh
A program in CMU’s design school, not engineering school like the HCII program.
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:
- frog design
- Smart design
- Design continuum
These larger companies have well-respected and well-run design groups:
If you’re set on joining a smaller company, start with the VC-vetted startups — they often recommend growing startups that value design.
- Designer fund bridge startups
- KPCB Fellows program
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers places “fellows” into paid internships with their portfolio companies
- Khosla ventures design internship
Khosla ventures has a similar program put together by veteran designer Irene Au.
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.
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.