The Many Paths to UX

You don’t have to be a killer designer — or even a designer at all — to land a career in user experience design. The field is exploding with opportunities for people from a variety of backgrounds and skillsets, which means mastering XD isn’t the only way to get a piece of the proverbial pie.

Lois Siegel, Director of Recruiting at Motivate Design, says she’s been seeing a lot of demand for both designers and researchers on the UX front. As an internal UX recruiter for Motivate as well as its offshoot recruiting agency UX Hires, Siegel said that there is increasing opportunity for people who are interested in this area.

“There are different areas of UX design and research, and you can’t really eliminate the research from the design,” Siegel said.

While some companies still want designers that can do it all (concepts, research, prototypes and so on), others are looking to segment. They want designers to focus on the design and functionality, and researchers to inform the design. “It’s rare that a researcher does visual design because they’re different skillsets oftentimes,” Siegel said. Basically what this means is that opportunity is abound for both designers and researchers alike.

Pathways for designers

Designers who ask questions or are curious about how things work are a good fit for this line of work, Siegel said. It doesn’t matter if you’re a graphic designer, a visual designer, a web designer, or whatnot, if you’re keen on making things that mean something from a user or functionality standpoint, you’ve already got enough skills to get your foot in the door.

Siegel’s been seeing all kinds of designers send resumes her way.

“They get into UX because they’re interested not just in making things pretty, but in making things functional. How do you do that? You apply user-centered design practices to your efforts. It’s not enough to make something look good. They want to know what the functionality is,” Siegel said.

Skills related to these curiosities can often be learned on the job or enhanced with a quick course or two, but curiosity itself cannot be taught. She’s always looking for design candidates who are genuinely excited and curious as to how to make things work.

Pathways for researchers

If research is your passion, UX just might be your playground.

“Researchers can come from anywhere,” Siegel said. “People who are curious about why people do what they do tend to be good researchers because you have to be empathetic.”

She hires researchers from all kinds of backgrounds including but not limited to:

  • Social sciences
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Marketing
  • Media
  • Business analytics
  • Education

“That doesn’t mean you can’t be an English major and a great researcher, because even there you are analyzing the motivation of characters in a story,” Siegel said.

Researchers with a marketing background are especially in demand at Motivate, she said. “Marketers take qualitative research classes and they know how to build a survey or conduct an interview. It’s another offshoot. It’s not sales marketing, but it’s applying what they know about the marketplace and how to gain insights.”

How to transition into UX research and design

Experience is key, but this doesn’t mean you have to have UX design experience specifically. If you’ve done work that has required any sort of qualitative (soft data) or quantitative (hard data) research then you may have already sowed some of the seeds necessary to cut it as a UX researcher.

“I just spoke to someone yesterday who came from education and built educational products and researched their viability, so she had that,” Siegel said.

Beginners, who tend to be right out of college or are professionals in the midst of a career transition, need to be able to see the value in the insights they have gathered. The same is true for designers. You need to be able to show these insights in your work.

“They have to have a good portfolio and they have to exemplify that they understand UX,” Siegel said. “Most of the time if the portfolio isn’t good, no matter what the experience they’re not going to get the interview.”

What to do if your portfolio isn’t exactly bursting with experience

“I know that as a company, we don’t care so much about where [candidates] come from or what’s their formal education, they have to have an innate design sense. They have to get it,” Siegel said.

“What I tell candidates if they are light on experience to put in their portfolio is to create their own projects or to attend hackathons where, after a weekend, they have a finished product and they can polish it up — or even just making up a project for themselves,” she said.

She encourages aspiring UX professionals without a plethora of experience to imagine themselves already working as a UX designer or researcher. She recommends imagining a new feature for an existing product, like Twitter for example. What would it look like? How would you build it? Where would that information come from? How would you get those answers? Put this in your portfolio.

“Anything to show that they have the experience, the incarnation and the talent to do the job,” she said. “The first job is always the hardest, like with anything.”

Where the UX industry is going from here

Siegel has noticed a slight shift among her clients who are now asking more for “product designers” as opposed to “UX designers.” These companies are less interested solely in professionals who have worked on campaigns or built websites, and instead are seeking candidates with broader experience in product development and user-centered design.

An unconventional background and a passion for products and all realms of user experience is increasingly appealing and, as it turns out, quite valuable to these companies.

Even if you’ve never had UX or UI in your job title before, it doesn’t mean you haven’t traveled some of the same roads and asked some of the same questions more conventional UX designers and researchers have asked. There are many pathways to a career in UX. Where will yours take you?


Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based writer, editor and digital specialist. She works in content marketing by day, studies digital strategy by night, and practices yoga somewhere in between. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.

Originally published at blogs.adobe.com.


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