The UX Student’s Guide to Success After School

Mike Curtis
Jul 19, 2019 · 12 min read

Let’s jump right in. Chances are, you found this article because you’re in one of three situations:

  • A. You’re just about to start college or attend a UX bootcamp
  • B. You’re currently enrolled in school and are curious about success as a UX designer after graduation
  • C. You’ve graduated college or a bootcamp with an emphasis in UX and you’re on the hunt for a job

Make no mistake. Getting a job in UX is fiercely competitive and there’s a constant requirement to step up your game in the hiring process. Whether you’re searching for an internship, associate-level or senior position, you’ll need to fine-tune a few things in preparation for your job search.

That’s not meant to scare you, but to present the reality of the industry we’re in. Unless by sheer luck, getting hired comes through grit and sweaty perseverance. Companies need UX designers who are a good fit for their teams, but they also need designers who have honed their hard and soft skills.

Here are 10 things you can work on immediately, no matter where you are in your UX journey, to point you in the direction of success.

1. Document everything early on and often

The UX process gets messy. You’re finding this out in your team projects and your solo ones. But, that’s what employers want to see. They want to see that you can get your hands dirty, work well in a team, and get the job done.

The best way to show you’re capable of UX work is through a well-documented process. This includes pictures, videos, writings, case studies and more.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by José Alejandro Cuffia on Unsplash

Document everything.

I suggest using the cloud — it’ll be your best friend for being able to reference these materials later on or on the fly. Take pictures of your sketches and wireframes, snap a quick photo of the whiteboard, and write about design decisions made in your groups.

Document how you felt if you argued with someone during a project. That’s a valuable feeling and interaction you won’t be able to recreate later on.

Document the people you’re meeting, how you met them, what potential that relationship could have for you. Document places you apply and where you’re at in the hiring process with them.

I personally use Medium, Google Drive, Google Keep and Google Photos to document my work, jot down quick ideas, and keep track of projects. I use Trello for personal goal tracking.

Lastly, documenting your work will make you a better storyteller, which is an essential soft skill to have. Your ability to tell a good story will be tightly coupled to how well you documented your work. Otherwise, you’re 2-months past a previous project trying to remember what you did and why you did it… and that just doesn’t work. It’s too easy to forget.

Document everything you’re doing and do it often.

2. You never know how you’ll be found

I tell this to everyone. Nobody’s path into UX is identical. We were all found under different circumstances and hired based on unique experiences. You will never have the same experience I did in the hiring process.

If that’s the case, then you have to embrace the fact that you never know how you’re going to be found. So, yes… that means you have to hit all the touchpoints. It’s tedious and it sucks, but it works.

  • A recruiter could contact you with a position based on your stellar LinkedIn profile.
  • Your slick resume could catch the eye of a UX Manager.
  • A connection you make at a meetup could turn into a job recommendation at a local startup.
  • Your meticulously crafted portfolio might drop the jaws of a UX team, compelling them to give you a call and offer you a position.

You see, you just don’t know how you’ll be found. Time permitting (and please make time for it), hit all the areas you can of your personal brand. Craft a great experience for those who might find the digital and physical you.

3. Work on the UX of you

Just as users experience the products we build, others around you are also experiencing you as an individual. You must dedicate time to designing the UX of you. You do this by applying the UX skills you’re acquiring in school on yourself. Design the UX of you.

I’ve written extensively on this topic on my publication, The You Experience. Take some time to review these areas and hopefully it spurs off other thoughts in your mind about how you’re being experienced by others.

4. Do real work

Luckily, most university programs and boot camp programs understand this important key factor. Seeing on paper that you’ve been able to apply your UX knowledge to real-life situations goes a long way.

Your perceived ability skyrockets when you can show a launched app or published site. Doing the actual work and incorporating the UX process gives you valuable experience that hiring managers can’t overlook. It sticks out, in a good way.

You have to dedicate some time to do real work for real clients. This might mean approaching your favorite coffee shop and offering to redesign their website. Maybe your local plant nursery could use an update to their app.

Look for opportunities in your family and community. As I’ve helped students find real work to do, it’s surprising just how many opportunities present themselves simply by asking around.

Once you get a client, you know what to do. UX the hell out of the task you’re given. Maybe you get paid, maybe you don’t, but pour your heart into that project. Conduct the interviews, immersive yourself in the problem, and prove that you’re capable of practicing what was preached in class.

5. Job shadow as often as you can

Job shadowing does a few things for you.

First, it gives a glimpse into the types of teams and cultures that are out there. Just because a company looks hip and cool on the surface does not mean you’ll enjoy working there every day. When you arrive at the company, notice everything.

  • Do they have rooms for collaboration and brainstorming?
  • Do designers sit on product teams with developers, product managers and analysts?
  • Are there post-it notes on the walls?
  • Are they in cubicles or open floor plans?
  • Do people seem happy?

These things matter!

Second, it builds your network. Don’t shadow someone with a secret agenda to have them offer you a job on the spot. Please don’t do that. Shadow them to learn about how they work. Shadow them to ask why they love the work they do. Shadow them to see them in action with their team. You gain a friend, hopefully, a mentor, and you build a network of trust and friendship.

Lastly, shadowing keeps you busy when you’re knee-deep in the job hustle. It helps you plan your day, keep a schedule, take notes, and stay organized. All of these skills play towards your success in finding a job and towards your success in your 9–5 job once you’re hired.

I’ve never been turned down by someone when I’ve asked them to shadow. People are awesome. Ask nicely, be genuine, and have fun.

And yes, if you’re in Utah, get in touch with me, I’d be more than happy to have you come shadow me for a day.

6. Attend local meetups

In many large cities across the United States, the product management and product design community is thriving, bustling, and active. Speaking from personal knowledge, this is most definitely the case here in Utah.

In Utah, several meetups are planned and executed every month. I organize events for one of the largest meetup groups here in Utah, Product Hive. One of the most rewarding parts of my UX career is the volunteer work done to create these events. Why? Because of the people and the content they share. It’s a hot spot for learning, networking and personal development that you can’t find anywhere else!

Local meetups lend themselves to a natural way of creating mentors too. In fact, Product Hive here in Utah has a specific program dedicated to a mentorship program.

You may have to step out of your comfort zone a little bit if this isn’t your thing, but look for meetup groups in your area and attend as often as you can. Go meet someone new, learn a new skill, and enjoy some free lunch. Meetups are amazing!

Don’t have a meetup group in your city? Um… start it! Create it! You are the one to get it off the ground!

7. Embrace the uncomfortable

Talking to a new client is uncomfortable. Conducting user research interviews in real life is nerve-racking. Sitting down for your first interview gets the heart rate going.

Don’t even get me started on meetings with stakeholders and design critiques.

Being uncomfortable is something you won’t escape in this career, but there’s a reason. It’s because, as Jeff Bezos from Amazon puts it, customers are “divinely discontent.” As such, the world needs problem-solvers like you. The world needs innovators and out-of-the-box thinkers. To do that, you have to be uncomfortable sometimes.

Fear is a motivator if you give it the benefit of that perspective. The anxiety we feel, the pressure that’s on us, the unrecognized passion within us — these are the bits and pieces that make us who were are — and these are your strengths too.

The unstoppable, sought-after product designers are the ones who have embraced the uncomfortable as a constant in their formula to success.

8. Move forward with rejection

One of the most powerful TED talks I’ve heard in quite some time was given by Nora McInerny and posted in April of 2019. In her talk, she shares with the audience how she’s learned that we don’t “move on” from grief, we move forward with it. I don’t want to distract you from finishing this article, but if you haven’t seen Nora’s talk, you should watch it today.

We don’t “move on” from grief. We move forward with it | Nora McInerny

Lora eloquently says, “A grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again.” She continues, “They’re going to move forward. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve moved on.”

Her brilliance on this topic resonates with me on every emotional level. I’ve experienced much of what she shares and I’ve found a way to move forward in many aspects of my life.

Rejection emails are going to come. You’re going to be told that the company went with someone else. You’ll be told you don’t have enough experience and you’ll wonder how you’re supposed to get experience if nobody will hire you. Robotic, seemingly humanless approaches still permeate many areas of the hiring process.

Don’t let that bring you down.

Nora helps build the analogy that even though you’re rejected for a UX position, you’re going to laugh and smile again. As an unoffendable, resilient powerhouse, you’re going to move forward. The next day, the next hour, the next minute is proof that you’re moving forward.

Don’t move on. Don’t move on from UX. Please don’t.

We need you in the industry. I want to work beside you and build great things with you. Don’t give up. Move forward with each rejection phone call. Move forward when you’re told no. Use the word “no” as fuel to light the fire in you to keep going.

9. Stay relevant

It’s all too easy to slack off once school has ended, but you can’t.

Every year, you can look back and see how design has changed. We’re still evolving in UX. Product teams are still being built. Fortune 500 companies are still figuring out what it means to have a design system in place. Organizations still don’t know what it means for design to have a seat at the table.

It is the job of the UX designer to stay relevant and aware of these topics and to have a voice when it comes to business strategy. Equally, it is the job of the UX designer to understand the customer, their needs, frustrations, motivations and pain points.

You will miss out on all of this if you don’t stay relevant. Here are some ways you can stay relevant after (or during) school:

Listen to podcasts, both about design and other topics that interest you

Some of my favorites include:

  • 99% Invisible, Design Better Podcast, Design Much, Designed Today, The Crazy One and Voice of Design … and there are so many more!

Read articles or listen to product design books, both on leadership and human-centered design principles

Here are some of my recent reads:

  • TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson
  • The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You by Julie Zhuo
  • Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal
  • Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
  • Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott
  • 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinschenk

A quick search on Amazon will reveal many more. Message me if you’re interested in my full reading list.

Get better every day at UI design principles

There are countless resources out there for you to get better when it comes to actually pushing the pixels on the screen. To stay relevant with design trends and styles, you’ll need to keep up on a few things:

  • Fonts — download fonts from Google Fonts (they’re free) and do some font pairing to see how different fonts harmonize with each other.
  • Colors — try new color palettes in your designs, learn color theory, use Adobe Color, look for color in nature.
  • Layout — practice using something as simple as an 8-pixel grid and the golden ratio (1.618) in your designs and it’ll do wonders to your design chops; understand spacing and give your content room to breathe. Know when to introduce animations and how to prime users through layout.
  • Copy — to write good copy, you need to… well… write; look for good copy in the apps/websites you frequent and see what makes it work well; write an article on Medium; notice good CTA (call-to-action) buttons and look for tones and character in copy.
  • Software & Plugins — right now, there’s a race to become the coolest and best design software in the industry; Sketch, Adobe XD, Figma…there are so many options for screen design, prototyping, etc. Try them, have fun with them. One of my favorite Chrome plugins is from the guys at InVision called Muzli. Through it, I get my daily dose of design inspiration.

An entire publication on Medium could be dedicated to staying relevant. The point is, don’t slow down. The industry is changing every day. Design trends for 2019 will change completely in 2020.

Stay relevant, practice, and consume design content in a way that works best for you.

10. Commit to constant creativity

The list of “to-do” items above presents an exhaustive, inherent problem:

You’re going to wear yourself out if you don’t take some time for you.

Manage your time for the pursuit of a job and for downtime. In your downtime, commit to constant creativity.

  • Go on a hike to somewhere you’ve never been.
  • Get out your camera and photograph buildings and architecture.
  • Go out at night, throw down a blanket and look at the stars
  • Play some video games or dust off the old board games and invite some friends over
Image for post
Image for post
  • Write a children’s book, narrate it and post the video on YouTube
  • Sing, dance, do some karaoke
  • Get eight hours of sleep, eat healthy food, and do some yoga

You will burn out if all you do is expend energy on UX. Go and do something fun, silly and creative. Set a goal that one of these creative things needs to happen before you can do anything else.


Did I miss some things? Probably. Success after UX school is not guaranteed, nor will it be the same experience for everyone. That’s the joy and excitement of it. Success in UX happens because of the effort you put towards it. What WILL nudge you forward in the process are these simple things you can do right now as you contemplate your next steps forward:

Today, you can start to:

  • Document everything
  • Establish your personal brand
  • Design the UX of you
  • Do real work
  • Job shadow
  • Network, make friends, gain a mentor
  • Embrace the uncomfortable
  • Move forward with rejection
  • Stay relevant
  • Be constantly creative

Thanks for reading and good luck on your UX journey!

Mike W. Curtis

UX Designer | Mentor | Teacher

Mike Curtis

Written by

Helping businesses & individuals apply their UX skills to how they’re experienced by other people. 20 years experience in design, UX, marketing, e-com & sales.

Mike W. Curtis

For nearly two decades, I've been happily working with people in my career to help them solve their problems. My background in marketing, sales, e-commerce and UX has taught me to make informed & empathetic design decisions.

Mike Curtis

Written by

Helping businesses & individuals apply their UX skills to how they’re experienced by other people. 20 years experience in design, UX, marketing, e-com & sales.

Mike W. Curtis

For nearly two decades, I've been happily working with people in my career to help them solve their problems. My background in marketing, sales, e-commerce and UX has taught me to make informed & empathetic design decisions.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store