UI/UX Designer — what does it even mean?

A short primer on the skills you need to break into the industry.

We’ve noticed something funny at Designlab over the past few months. The web/mobile design industry, for a variety of reasons, is particularly tricky to break into if you don’t already have a deep background in the field. No one seems to agree on the terminology of what UI and UX design even are, job postings are varied (10 UX job postings will look for 10 different sets of skills), and education options have traditionally been lacking… so it’s tough to even know where to get started!

No one knows what it means… but it’s provocative, it gets the people going!

So, we thought we’d write a short post to help clear things up from our perspective.

This post aims to help you answer a basic question: what is the set of skills a tech company typically seeks when looking for a junior-level UI/UX designer? We went through dozens of job postings, spoke to recruiters and design hiring managers, and compiled a list of skills that companies look for in junior-level UI/UX designers. We also highlighted how Designlab fits into the puzzle here, as a way to affordably pick up the various skills you need.

Without further ado, here’s the breakdown of what companies are looking for.

1. Visual design skills

Even when hiring for “UX” designers, we noticed that most job postings were pretty clear about their need for visual talent. Fairly or unfairly, this makes sense — young companies and startups usually have small teams, and need people who can play multidisciplinary roles. Even if you’re not world-class at this skill, you need to be able to confidently make visual design decisions, and put together visually pleasing mockups, icons, and assets.

While most people in the design field understand that UX is so much deeper (UX is not UI!), quite frankly, this is the layer of polish that people typically associate with “design” — and so it’s a necessary set of skills.

How employers describe these abilities:

  • “Strong eye for layout, color, typography, and hierarchy”
  • “Produce assets (redlines, icons, images, color and type specs, working prototypes, etc.) and consult as needed to create and validate visual designs as they appear in our products”
  • “A strong sense of visual design theory and typography are critical”

Relevant Designlab courses: Design 101, Typography (coming soon!), Visual Design (Color + Assets + Hierarchy — coming soon!)

2. User Experience skills

This is the domain of skills that we typically associate with “UX” — the set of abilities that allows talented UX designers to deeply understand a problem space and users, define solutions and develop product workflows, and conduct usability testing post-deployment. We’re breaking this into three broad sets of skills:

User research:

  • “Knowledge of user-centered methodologies”
  • Understand business goals and user needs
  • “Review and analyze user research and usability reports, for use in determining best UI design solutions.”
  • Relevant Designlab course: UX Research & Strategy

Interaction design/IA:

  • “Develop workflows, user task analysis, personas, interaction flows, wireframes, low fidelity mock-ups, navigational flows, and high fidelity prototypes.”
  • Understand opportunities and constraints of multiple platforms (web, smartphone, tablet)
  • Relevant Designlab course: Interaction Design


  • Experience conducting user testing and/or analytical research
  • Relevant Designlab course: Prototyping & Testing

3. Technical/software-specific skills

Of course, a good craftsman/craftswoman knows the tools of the trade in and out. Most job postings we found seem pretty open-ended about WHICH tool you specialize in — as long as you’re proficient at working quickly with the tool of your choice. In some cases, established design teams use a specific program, which you’ll have to pick up — but that should be no problem for you, intrepid designer.

  • Experience with Photoshop/Illustrator/Sketch
  • Knowledge of low and hi-fidelity prototyping tools (Axure, Omnigraffle, Photoshop, etc.)
  • OPTIONAL (in our opinion, this is a stretch and starts veering into mythical “unicorn” territory): HTML/CSS

The Designlab take: You’ll be able to pick up these tool-specific skills during Designlab courses, since you’ll complete hands-on projects with recommended best-of-breed industry tools.

4. General communication skills

So, how do employers vet these abilities and get a sense for how good you actually are? This is where the all-important portfolio comes into play. An equally important set of skills will be tested during the interview process — your ability to clearly communicate, in both verbal and written formats, about your design decisions.
How employers put it:

  • “A portfolio demonstrating design skills and deliverables from a user-centered design process”
  • “Being able to articulate the thinking behind your design decisions is crucial.”
  • “You have a strong ability to communicate your design vision through verbal explanation, sketching, or quick mock ups to small or large groups, from designers to executives”

The Designlab take: Working with a mentor who examines your design work and helps you thoughtfully explain and defend your design decisions is great practice for the kind of work you’ll be doing day-in and day-out as a designer. Also, Designlab mentors are industry veterans, so they’ll be able to comment on your portfolio from an employer’s perspective.

So, there you have it: the basic set of skills most employers look for from junior-level UI/UX designers. This broad set of skills might seem daunting, but it can be achievable (and fun) with the right plan. As you advance in your career, you’ll expand your abilities, and start to specialize in areas that you find particularly exciting.

Still confused? Stay tuned for upcoming posts on i) how to evaluate design jobs based on job listings, ii) how to think about developing your own skillset (hint: be T-shaped)!

Looking for the right courses to take to round out your skillset? Check out Designlab.