How to Network Without Losing Your Soul
I hate to break it to you, but to make it in the UX profession, you have to network. I’ll be the first to admit that I hate large networking events. I’m deathly afraid of rejection, and even think the term “networking” feels slimy.
All of that is still true except for one thing: how I feel about networking.
The truth is that what I didn’t like was the false impression I had of networking — the same impression I hear from designers every. single. day.
I think our perception of networking is some sleazy salesperson who’s always working an angle. And the verb, networking, conjures up memories of career fairs, conferences, or the worst, meet-ups.
All that said, I’m here to tell you that networking can be a much richer and more rewarding experience than we think.
Before we dive in, let’s level-set on why UX professionals should be networking in the first place.
First off, I’ve already established that the best jobs go to those who know people. What better way to learn about new opportunities than by having someone tell you to your face weeks before the position goes live?!
Second, networking is how you’ll find mentors or those who inspire you to learn and improve. You’ll meet mentors in and outside your field, while also getting better by simply communicating what you do to others.
Lastly, networking is how you stay current in the industry. I learned the importance of responsive web design from talking to a developer at a meet-up six years ago. I also learned most of what I know about blockchain from an introduction to an Ethereum expert.
Okay groovy, now we’ve established that networking is how UX professionals…
- …find great job and project opportunities
- …improve their craft
- …stay current with rapidly-accelerating technology.
Next, let’s break down how we can do it without losing our souls.
“I’m an introvert, so I can’t really network.”
Yeah, I hid behind this for a solid decade. If anyone is to be trusted in an article like this, I assure that I am the person for this job.
Even after learning more networking skills, I still struggle with the same things I did a decade ago: I’m not a fan of big events, I’m terrible at small talk, I struggle to be thoughtful in the moment, etc.
Thankfully, the digital age has given introverts many ways to prepare and improve. You can do research to equip yourself, you can communicate through more passive means, and you can connect through many digital platforms.
Ultimately you’ll still need to talk to people live and in-person, but you can now do that more comfortable than ever before.
“Networking seems disingenuous and superficial.”
Count me as one who continues to struggle with this. I’m a deep talker. Not Barry White deep, but like…topic deep. I struggle to make small talk, and want to dive right into the details as quickly as possible.
The truth is, conversations are only superficial if you make them so. While you don’t need to go deep immediately, you can still be yourself by taking genuine interest in those around you.
“I don’t want to burden people.”
Networking doesn’t just happen at mass events. It can happen digitally, and that even means through cold emails.
It’s easier to tell if you’re coming on too strong in person, but if you’re conversing digitally, it’s a bit more challenging without body language. For those who worry about being burdensome, you’re probably safe just confidently reaching out digitally.
Tactics for networking range from event communication strategies to managing your networking activities. And if it’s not clear, this article is geared towards personalities who find networking particularly anxiety-inducing.
Set goals at networking events
I always set goals for what I want to get out of an event. Whether it’s a UX-oriented meet-up, a conference, or an event I’ve been invited to, I’ve found goal-setting helps in two ways:
- It helps break down an overwhelming event into something manageable. Your goal might be something simple like, “introduce myself to three people,” or more tactical like, “make at least three connections with people I want to grab coffee with later.” The former is easier…the second could take a dozen conversations.
- Goal-setting changes your perspective. Most people stick with the group they come with, or gravitate to people they already know. This is a fine way to start, but if you have a goal, you’ll have to break apart and work the room a little more. It’s kind of like going to the gym: If you struggle with getting yourself there, it always helps to remember your goal.
Make contact after events
Because I’m not great at small talk at events, I often get around it by keeping it simple: introduce myself, learn a bit about the person, then contact them later. Personally, I do much better in 1:1 situations and if I meet someone that seems interesting, I’ll send them an email or LinkedIn message the next day asking to grab coffee. For some of you, talking at events might be easy for you, but I’d still advocate 1:1 time later. You get their focus as well as more time to ask better questions.
Create a list of companies and people you admire
Using sales as inspiration, I use AirTable to track people I want to meet, and companies that interest me — much like a salesperson would use a CRM. I also advise following companies on LinkedIn or Crunchbase to stay
Side note: if you’re afraid of viewing people’s profiles on LinkedIn for fear of them seeing that you’ve looked at them, GET OVER IT! This is one of the most asinine beliefs I had and truly counterproductive. It almost serves as a mini-introduction because if they look at yours after you look at their profile, you’ll start off with a bit of knowledge about each other. I’ve even had people reach out to me after I looked at their profile and I didn’t feel put-off by it at all.
Ask for warm introductions when possible
In cases where you find someone interesting but don’t meet them in person (like that design director you’ve been stalking on LinkedIn, or that illustrator you admire on dribbble), find a way to get a warm introduction from a mutual contact. On LinkedIn, it’s easy because you can see your mutual connections (and remember how we’re ok looking at profiles now?). Find your strongest mutual connection ask if they’d be comfortable making an intro.
Stay focused on them
It gets “salesy” when you are selling yourself. The point of networking is to establish genuine relationships and that can only happen the way you’d form romantic or friendly relationships: by finding common ground and taking interest in the other person. Fascinating!
Ok, at this point you’re probably thinking, “what can I ask about that won’t make me sound like a stalker?” Here are a few examples that work for when you are interested in a company (but don’t know the right person to talk to) or a person (but haven’t been introduced previously):
These are just a couple examples that should be modified based on whether you know the role of the person your contacting or not. For example, if you know you’re emailing the design director, you can be even more specific. Or, if you are using a generic contact form, you’re mainly asking for a contact to be put in touch with.
- I’ve been following you for a while and love what you all are building. Is there someone in the design/research/dev/product team that you could put me in touch with?
- I recently read an article talking about something your company did recently. I’d love to hear how what that means for your product/market.
These examples all assume a cold intro; i.e. you didn’t meet them previously and you aren’t being introduced through a mutual connection.
- I saw something you did recently and would love to hear more about how you went about your research/design/coding/etc.
- I noticed you worked at some company I like/worked at/despise and would love to hear more about what that was like.
- Read an article you wrote and found your ideas to resonate with mine.
The keys to networking with both people or companies are:
- Make it about them — everyone loves talking about themselves. Even if it takes time, it doesn’t feel like a burden for most people.
- Keep it short — long emails are less likely to be read, so less likely to be responded to.
- Keep it specific — vague emails sound salesy and impersonal.
And then “the ask” is really pretty simple:
- Would you have time to grab coffee or lunch? The following weeks are pretty free for me…
- (if remote) Could I have a quick 30-minute call so I could ask you a few questions?
- Or you can simply ask them in email if that feels more appropriate (e.g. with CEO’s, VP’s or other people you think might be fairly busy)
Nurture your connections
Yeah, that’s a weird word but it’s something I’ve learned from sales and it works well here. When you meet people, these are just moments in their lives. Even if you make a fantastic impression on someone, you are one of many to them and they’ll need (and appreciate) you reaching out every so often. Once you’ve established rapport, a simple text or email asking them how they’re doing goes a long way.
- Set reminders to reach out to people or companies at the top of your list in 3–6 month cadences. This ensures you are focusing your efforts on the highest priorities will minimizing the chance you forget.
- Respond to “news” about the person/company on social networks. I’ve had people send me messages after liking something on LinkedIn, or after simply looking at their profile.
- Communicate big news about yourself when appropriate. Have you been talking to a design director? Send them a link to the product you designed after it goes live. Trying to carve out a research position at company that doesn’t have one? Send them an article you just wrote on the subject.
Networking is critical to career growth and skill advancement. But thankfully it can happen on your own terms. Understand what works best for you and embrace that. No matter how you choose to build and maintain your network, stay honest and genuinely interested. Networking well means never having to sell yourself or desperately ask for favors; it’s all about creating and maintaining relationships.
When I’m not helping you read the article I just wrote, I’m working on Sketch design tools at UX Power Tools to make you a better, more efficient designer.