One of the toughest aspects of starting your career in UX is getting work experience. When I was first starting out in the field, I would get so frustrated by recruiters who’d reject me for lack of experience. I’d think, “Yes, that’s what I’m trying to do — get a job so I’d have experience!” It seems very circular — you need work experience to get a job but you can’t get a job without work experience. If you’re in that phase of your career, don’t despair! Here are some ways that have either helped me or some of my colleagues build experience in UX research:
Get an internship.
If you’re enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program, you should try to get an internship during at least one of the summers while you’re enrolled in school. To make the most of the experience, try to find an internship that is aligned with some of your objectives after graduation. Maybe you’re interested in working at a large tech company or maybe you want to work at a design agency. Maybe you’re interested in doing research on a specific type of product or in a particular domain. Or maybe you’re even thinking about living in a certain city. An internship is a low risk way to try out one or more of those attributes of your work life. You’ll get experience to build up your resume and get a sense of what it’s like to work at a particular company, on a specific type of product, and/or live and work in a certain city.
A few things to keep in mind with internships:
- A lot of big companies have very specific timelines of when you can apply for internships and when they’ll interview interns. You should start investigating summer internships in the fall prior to the summer term.
- Summer internships are usually only 10 or 12 weeks long. That’s not nearly enough time to get a lot of work done. Make sure that you work with your manager to scope at least one substantial project that you can complete before you leave. Remember this is what you’ll write about in your resume and what you’ll showcase in your portfolio so it should be something you’ll be proud to talk about.
- Before you leave your internship, make sure you understand which parts of your experience you can talk about during interviews and portfolio reviews. I’d highly encourage you to start working on how you’re going to present your work in your portfolio (and your resume) and get that approved by your manager.
- If you’re interested in working full-time for your internship employer, make sure that you understand their process for converting interns to full-time employees. Do whatever you need to do during your internship to set yourself up for a successful conversion. For instance, you could ask if some of your colleagues would be willing to do mock interviews with you. Or if there are specific skills you need for a full-time position, work on building those skills during your internship.
- Make the most of your time to meet people and learn from other people. Setting up 1:1s with more senior UXRs is a good start. But can you help another researcher with their projects? Even if it’s just taking notes for someone, they’ll appreciate your initiative and probably be more likely to remember you from that encounter than from a 1:1. Remember — the UX field is a lot smaller than it seems. You’ll likely run into some of these folks later on in your career.
- If you recently graduated (and aren’t enrolled in a program at a university), you’re probably going to have a harder time finding an internship with large companies. They tend to only hire interns who are currently enrolled in a program. You can still try to get an internship at a smaller company, like a design agency.
Take part in meaty school projects.
I see a lot of resumes of recent grads that list out every single school project they’ve ever completed. Don’t do this! You really should only be listing bigger projects that ideally had some sort of impact beyond the classroom. While you’re still in school, make sure that some of your school projects have enough complexity that they’ll make for good portfolio pieces. And make sure that you do something more with that work than just present it to your professor and get a grade.
I recognize this advice might seem vague so here is one example from my own graduate school experience. At the beginning of my second year at Michigan, I was taking an information visualization class. Like almost every class I took at Michigan, the primary deliverable for the class was a big group project. For this group project, I was fortunate to have been paired up with three of my friends who happen to be three of the hardest working and most talented people I’ve ever worked with. We had heard about the CHI Student Design competition and decided to design our class project around the requirements of the competition (that year’s theme was around encouraging fitness and healthy habits). We conducted subject-matter interviews with professors in our program who eventually connected us to a medical professor who was doing research in the area. She supplied us with pedometers (remember this was 2006 … before Fitbits and Apple Watches were ubiquitous) so that we could conduct a small longitudinal study. We designed a static prototype of a social website (Fitster) that incorporated really fun visualizations of fitness data. We then wrote a short paper about our project that got us accepted into the Student Design competition and we eventually placed third! Everything I’m describing here is well beyond the scope of our original class project. It meant spending a lot of time with my friends in the computer lab late at night designing our mocks, setting up a longitudinal study, analyzing data from our research, writing our case study, and figuring out how we were going to get to Montreal on our very limited student budgets. But all that work meant that we all had a really big meaty project to talk about during interviews and portfolio reviews.
Work as a temp or contractor.
Some tech companies hire early career UX researchers as temps or contractors. These positions are sometimes referred to as UX research assistant or UX research associate. You’ll be employed by an agency and on assignment at another company. Depending on the company and the team you’re working with, your duties as a research assistant may vary from assisting other UXRs with their research (like taking notes, setting up a UX lab for a study, data cleaning, etc) to conducting your own research independently. I used to manage a team of research assistants and the work they did varied depending on each person’s skills and interests and where we were at in the product development cycle. A lot of the research that my team conducted was iterative product (concept and/or usability) research but there were also times when they conducted foundational research.
Getting a position as a research assistant at a company like Google, Facebook, or Microsoft is a huge opportunity to start your UXR career. Here are some tips for maximizing that experience:
- Use this opportunity to conduct a lot of research. This is the time in your career where you should be conducting a ton of research! The reality is that you only get better as a UXR as you conduct more and more research and learn from each study you conduct. Even if the bulk of the work you do is usability research, it is an incredibly valuable foundation to learning about other methods.
- Learn from feedback. Early in my career I used to get really frustrated by feedback. As I’ve grown in my career and mentored more junior UXRs, I’ve noticed that a lot of them don’t really like getting feedback either. While it might be frustrating or hurtful, feedback is actually a gift. The only way you’ll improve your research skills and grow in your career is if you learn from the feedback more senior UXRs provide you. Don’t waste these growth opportunities by being defensive.
- Learn from other UXRs. If you work with other more senior UXRs, learn as much as you can from them. Watch them conduct studies, help them take notes, and read their reports and research plans.
- Build your network. Have I mentioned that the UX field is smaller than it may seem? You’re likely to work with some of the same people you’re working with today — work hard, be kind, helpful, and humble.
- Understand the conversion process. If you like the company and want to work there full-time, understand if they convert contractors/temps to full-time and how that process works. Ideally, you should understand what it takes to become full-time earlier rather than later on in your time as a contractor/temp (so that you have plenty of time to prepare).
- Understand what you can and can’t say about your work. You should understand how you can represent your work externally as you apply and interview for full-time roles at other companies. Have your manager look over your portfolio and resume.
Don’t be picky.
Your first job (or two or three) is unlikely to be your dream job. Don’t turn your nose at opportunities to get real world experience and learn from people who have more experience than you. You are likely to conduct a lot of usability research your first few years on the job. You really have to master the basics before you move on to more complex methods.
Good luck! I’m rooting for you!