HOW TO START A UX CAREER WITHOUT EXPERIENCE
“How did you get into UX without a design degree?”
“What did you do to learn how to become a UX designer?”
“What advice would you give to someone looking to transition into UX design?”
Many people would believe that the immediate answer to this is to complete an intensive bootcamp at General Assembly or Academy Xi. Whilst I’ve heard that they are a great way to cover the foundations, the reality is that there is more to just completing a course in order for you to get a job. As a graduate who had just completed a four year university degree, I was hesitant to invest more of my time and money into yet another intensive course; so I sought for an alternative way to get my foot into the door.
Three months after switching into a UX design role within the same company, I realised that a formal certification was not necessarily a prerequisite to getting a job in UX or even to being successful in this field. In fact, there are many ways in which you can teach yourself these skills, some of which I’ve shared with you below.
What do I need to know?
To know where to begin, set yourself a goal to be achieved within a given timeframe. For instance, if your goal is to become a UX designer in the next six months, you could look at job descriptions on sites such as Linkedin, Indeed and Seek to get an understanding of what is required from you. However, you’ll quickly find that it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important, so it’s useful to frame these key skills and tasks into a design process.
- Empathise. As an advocate of your users, you must be able to put yourself in their shoes. Research tasks include conducting interviews, surveys, observatory studies and focus group sessions to understand your users’ behaviours, needs and goals. You should create user personas to understand the types of people experiencing the problem, user stories to understand how and why a user is performing a task, and user flows in order to understand the steps a user takes to achieve a certain goal.
- Define. Being able to identify and prioritise critical issues helps to define the scope of the project and know where to focus on to deliver the highest impact to your users. A UX designer must work in collaboration with product managers and engineers to gather and evaluate user requirements.
- Ideate. As a designer, you should be comfortable with visualising and sketching ideas on paper. This involves translating concepts into user flows, wireframes and low-fidelity mockups that lead to intuitive user experiences. You should familiarise yourself with applications such as Balsamiq, which is commonly used for rapid wire-framing and getting quick feedback.
- Design and prototype. Experience with industry standard UX design tools such as Sketch, InVision, and the Creative Cloud (e.g. Photoshop and Illustrator) are a must for any UX designer. Strength in UI and visual design including an understanding of colour composition, space and visual hierarchy is also key to this role. Additionally, you should also know how to design for responsive web in order to cater for various screen sizes and resolutions.
- Validate. Conducting usability testing is important to getting feedback on your prototype before it goes into development. It’s essential to work with engineers to understand whether your designs can be implemented from a technical perspective. Knowing how to analyse user data is also key to this role as it gives you an understanding of the performance of your designs and should effectively drive the decisions you make as a UX designer.
Finally, it’s worth noting that UX designers do not operate in silos. They work closely with many key people and teams within the organisation including users, stakeholders, product and engineers. Bear in mind that there will be times when you will come across conflicting perspectives, so it’s important to know when to pick your battles and let the data speak for itself. Knowing how to present and speak confidently to your audiences can help to avoid communication pitfalls and make a positive impact.
What do I need to do?
Now that you know what is expected of a UX designer, think about the ways in which you can acquire and practise those skills. A framework which I’ve found extremely useful for self development that extends beyond UX and applies to anyone looking to advance their career, is what I like to call the Learning Framework. The Learning Framework is comprised of three components:
- Exposure. If you’re new to the field, start by soaking in as much information as needed to understand what the career is about and the types of things you’d be getting yourself into if you were to pursue this path. You can achieve this by reading books, watching videos, attending events or even just by talking to people in the industry.
- Experience. Practise, practise, practise. Start a project, write a blog, get experience or participate in a hackathon. Do something that requires you to apply what you’ve learnt in theory.
- Credibility. Build a portfolio, get a certification, become a freelancer or apply for a job. Work towards something that will give you some level of credibility to prove to others that you’ve successfully consolidated your theoretical knowledge and practical experiences.
Note that these three categories are not mutually exclusive; nor are they meant to be structured in chronological order. This process should be continual and iterative overtime as you accumulate more knowledge and experiences, and progress onto the next level of your career.
Get Exposure: Read, Listen, Watch and Learn
- Read about it. Some examples of popular publications that teach you about the latest industry practices and techniques include UX Planet, Smashing Magazine, UX stack exchange, and the UX collective. These blogs and forums are extremely useful when it comes to getting a second opinion on what the best UX practices are to inform your decision making.
- Get inspired. Dribbble, Muzli and Behance are just some examples of inspiring sites that showcase the works and portfolios of other designers. I’ve learnt a lot just by studying these pieces and applying the concepts to my own work.
- Attend events: What better way to meet other people than by going to a Meetup? My first UX design meetup experience was with Sydney UI/UX meetups, where I got to connect with like-minded individuals and listen to the advice that professionals would give to budding UX designers. Other awesome events that you should look into include those organised by Sydney Designers and Academy Xi.
- Talk to people. My first exposure to the concept of UX design was actually just by talking to people. By observing what they did and asking them questions about their job, I realised that this was an area that interested me most. It’s also worth checking out The Designership, which is an awesome slack group that enables you to reach out to an online community for questions and support.
- Find a mentor. A mentor is another good way to learn things you wouldn’t normally find in books or courses. I’m still seeking a mentor in UX design but I believe that having a mentor will help you grow faster in your role and provide relevant support and guidance to help you succeed.
Get Experience: Action, Practise and Perfect
- Participate in-person. I would highly recommend that you participate in a free six week program called Level Up Build, run by the industry leader Thoughtworks. This program gives you the opportunity to work with a cross functional team in an Agile environment. Hackathons organised by groups like Girl Geek Sydney are also usually free and a great way to learn and collaborate with other people to solve problems and pitch ideas. You can find a full list of hackathons on sites such as Eventbrite, Hackathons Australia and the Disruptor’s handbook.
- Start a project. Projects are probably one of the best ways to apply what you’ve learnt in theory to the real world. A side startup that I’m currently involved in called SEALADDER served to be a huge boost to getting my foot into the door. The startup aims to help people like yourself, gain visibility on the skills that they need to be successful in their career and the things that they need to do in order to achieve their goals. If you don’t have an idea for a project, another way in which you can get experience is by looking at existing websites and finding ways to improve the UX by redesigning the page.
- Experiment with tools. For rapid wire-framing, learn how to use Balsamiq. When it comes to creating high fidelity mockups, Sketch app is an industry standard toolkit, so familiarise yourself with this application. It’s worth noting that buying a Sketch license only costs $99 USD upfront and includes a year’s worth of updates. Sketch also provides great templates and resources to help you get started. If you’re looking for something free, Figma and Adobe XD are new but good alternatives to Sketch. If you’re keen to understand design from a front end developer’s perspective, I would highly recommend looking into Webflow. Prototyping tools that you should also be familiar with include InVision and Marvel app. For component interactions, reference to Material Design as this is commonly used as an industry standard.
- Get work experience. Some examples of sites that offer internship opportunities to students include Hatch and Ribit. Note that some companies may not always publicly list their openings, so it’s worth approaching them directly as it helps to establish a connection and notify employers early on that you’re interested in a role.
- Document your learnings. As you continue to learn and acquire new experiences, it’s also important to document what you’ve learnt so that you don’t forget about it. Write it down in a blog or keep a journal handy so that you can collect your thoughts and refer to it as you continue to develop.
Get Credibility: Test, Earn and Qualify
- Build a portfolio. Now that you’ve got some experience, start to build out a portfolio. Look at the portfolios of UX designers from top companies on Bestfolios for inspiration and identify what makes a good portfolio stand out against others. Some examples of my favourite portfolios are created by Simon Pan, Hiroo Aoyama, Kejia Shao, and Amruta Buge.
- Do freelancing or contract work. Upwork, Fiverr and Freelancer are some examples of platforms where you can build brand credibility by working for clients as a freelancer or contractor. If you don’t feel confident with working for a paid client, then look at websites like Skills for Change where you can use your skills to help charities and non profit organisations with projects online.
- Get a certification. While I mentioned earlier in this article that a certification is not necessarily a prerequisite to getting a job in this industry, it’s certainly a good way to learn UX in a structured classroom environment. If you’re looking for in-person courses, General Assembly offers a 10 week immersive course whereas Academy Xi offers various 1 day to 10 week options. Alternatively, you can look to learn online through sites such as Udemy, Coursera, and Skillshare. I would recommend having a look at this comprehensive list written by UX Planet on the various types of courses you can take to learn UX.
- Evaluate yourself. It may be difficult to assess your own skills, so asking a mentor or someone in the industry to review your resume and portfolio will help to identify where your strengths and weaknesses lie. It’s also handy to compare your current skills and experiences to the requirements listed on the job description to see how you stack up.
- Apply for a full-time job. Now that you have accumulated a list of experiences and learnings, it’s time to apply for a job. Don’t let the minimum years of experience requirement get in the way of applying for the role as age is not always the determining factor of talent and potential. Focus on communicating your best projects and the process that you followed to solve problems. Don’t worry if you haven’t ticked all the boxes – your passion and willingness to learn should shine through your work!
What should I keep in mind?
Focus on developing your skills, not your job title.
Your job will change in the future, so learn to adapt to new and emerging trends in the market. UX design was not a thing when I was at university, so don’t bet that it’s here to stay. The skills that I had acquired from when I was an auditor to digital marketer has led me to where I am now; and has in fact equipped me with the skills to inform what I currently do in my UX role.
Don’t stick to a plan; stick to a goal.
Always have a beacon of light that serves a higher purpose. Your plan today is probably not the same as it was five years ago, nor will it ever be stagnant going forward. So find out what it is that you want to do as a lifelong goal; whether that’s to help other people achieve their goals or to create products for a better future. You might not know what it is now, but your experiences overtime will shape and inform your understanding.
If you don’t like where you are, then do something about it.
There have been too many times where I’ve heard people complain about how they hate their job or how they wish they could quit sooner. In all honesty, I was once in that position too. Understandably, it’s hard to break out of the mentality that “there will never be a better opportunity after this” or that “it’d be pointless to leave now”. It’s okay to feel that way but don’t let it become an unhealthy blocker that stops you from pursuing what you really want to do. Remember, change won’t happen until you do.
Don’t give up! Learning takes time.
You’re not going to achieve everything in one go, so set yourself some goals that can be achieved within a reasonable time frame. If you’re currently unemployed and feeling disheartened, don’t give up! Use this time to invest in yourself and fill in the gaps of what you currently don’t know. Continue to build up your portfolio with new experiences using the Learning Framework and check in with a mentor or a friend to keep you on track. Good luck! 🙂