There are many pathways into UX design. It’s common to meet UX designers that started their career without an art or design degree. As is the case with any specialty, your career should start with education, but some of the top skills in UX can be learned across a variety of industries. Once you identify your transferable skills and experiences, you can speak confidently about your abilities to hiring managers. Lean into your unique perspective and articulate the value you’ll bring to the team.
When I began searching for a design job, it felt daunting. I didn’t know where to start, and I felt unqualified. Fresh out of art school, I had a painting degree, and I liked to make websites for fun. But I didn’t know how to turn my creative passion into a career. I worked in retail and at a nursing home to make ends meet. I’d daydream about working as a web designer, where I could mix my creative interests along with tech, psychology, and business. I fumbled my way through waves of anxiety and imposter syndrome. After applying to hundreds of jobs, I finally landed a web designer position.
Here’s what I wish I knew back then, and I hope it helps you land your dream job in UX design.
1. Understand the different types of UX roles
The first step is knowing which UX role fits your interests. These days, UX design encompasses user research, usability testing, information architecture, wireframing, visual design, prototyping, and sometimes even developing with code. Job roles are defined by a company’s needs and resources. Larger companies seek specialists with a deep skillset in a given area. Smaller companies expect UX designers to have a generalist mentality, with skills encompassing everything from user research to front-end development. These designers are usually T-shaped, meaning they have a wide skill set with mastery in a certain design skill. Here’s a sampling of UX roles:
- User Researcher
- UX Researcher
- Information Architect
- Product Designer
- UI/UX Designer
- Interaction Designer
- UI Designer / Visual Designer
- Usability Specialist
2. Find a mentor or coach who can offer guidance
A mentor will provide advice and explain how the industry works. Simply hearing someone explain their background and how they got into UX design is helpful. This doesn’t have to be a formal mentorship; you can simply reach out to a designer in your area who is willing to meet up for tea. If you search online, you’ll also find several platforms which provide matchmaking services for those seeking design mentors.
3. Attend UX conferences, classes, and meetups
Seek out UX events to learn best practices, discover new tools, and become aware of new techniques. Not only will you learn new skills, you’ll make friends in the industry and meet folks who are actively hiring.
4. Get some hands-on experience
Practice improving your design skills by:
- Building web or app experiences for others
- Designing your own experiences
- Seeking out internships
5. Develop your experience in high-demand skills
How can you stand out as a candidate when you’re just starting out? You may be surprised by the wealth of skills you already possess. It just takes a bit of self-reflection and practice to put your best foot forward. Here are the essential qualities of a UX designer.
You might be surprised that the qualifications for a great candidate don’t only consist of design skills. Particularly in entry-level positions, employers look for personal skills that set up individuals for success. Here are the characteristics you should bring to the job:
When discussing design decisions, focus on the target audience, user goals, needs, and pain points. Tools that demonstrate one’s ability to solve problems include ideation, root cause analysis, forming hypotheses, and testing assumptions.
Brainstorming a wide range of possibilities and creative solutions is a key component of a UX role. Showcase your ability to dig deeper and ask questions. This often uncovers problems that aren’t immediately obvious.
Design is a team sport that’s best played with humble players. Big egos really put a damper on the vibe. To grow as a designer, you’ll need a balanced mix of vulnerability, confidence, openness, and self-awareness. Readily admit that you don’t know everything, but also know when to defend your design decisions and advocate for the user.
Ethics is paramount, and designers should weigh user needs over business needs. After all, when the users are served, the business succeeds. Advocate in the best interest of the user, and speak up against dark UI patterns.
As a UX designer, you’ll manage several projects with multiple deliverables. Be prepared to speak about your time management skills, and have anecdotes about when you were able to deliver solutions on time and within scope. If this is a weakness of yours, seek out tools to become better equipped.
Design and tech are quickly evolving, and it’s important to keep up with the industry. Reading blogs, listening to podcasts, taking online courses, and following your favorite designers on social media are easy ways to stay up to date. Hiring managers look for a spirit of continuous learning and growth. Do you proactively seek out online resources? This resourcefulness is appreciated because it shows you can autonomously help yourself when you’re stuck. Another way to grow is to look at the world through the eyes of a UX Designer. Choose a favorite app, and practice articulating why it’s well designed and identify areas for improvement. When presenting projects, speak about how it performed and explain what you’d do differently if you were to do the project again.
Your special sauce (culture add)
What’s something unique you bring to the team? Sometimes people talk about “culture fit,” as if candidates must fit the mold of the existing team. But that’s not very inclusive. You can speak to your “culture add” by highlighting a unique quality or perspective you’ll add to the team.
People skills that help you thrive in UX design
Since UX design is a team sport, you’ll interact with many different people within and outside of your organization. Being able to listen to others, articulate your thoughts, and evaluate feedback will allow you to develop trust with those around you, advocate for the user, and glean insights from research. Be prepared to demonstrate these qualities during the interview.
Communication is an inherent part of a UX role, where you’ll be collaborating with others on a team. This includes active listening, storytelling, pitching a compelling vision, and clearly communicating with correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Since you’ll work with all kinds of folks, knowing what matters to whom and speaking in their language is important. Ask if you can speak to another designer on the team, to approximate what it’ll be like to work together.
Designers thrive on feedback. The ability to give, seek, receive, and evaluate feedback with a thoughtful eye and a constructive spirit is key to growing as a designer and pushing designs forward. In this field, there’s a lot of ambiguity, ideation, and pivoting.
Design skills necessary for success
Core design skills fall into two buckets: technical and conceptual. Technical skills involve applying design knowledge and putting ideas into action. Conceptual skills are more about ideas and strategy. Design skills are presented in the form of a portfolio, which allows you to showcase your abilities and experiences to employers.
An understanding of design fundamentals and principles is essential. Consistency in design decisions and an appreciation for the craft demonstrate attention to detail. You should be thoughtful about when to use existing patterns and when to introduce new ones. If you’ve worked within an existing design system, showcase that experience. Demonstrate your awareness of design patterns and platform capabilities, all while being mindful of accessibility. From a technical standpoint, it helps to generally know what’s possible to develop, regardless of your ability to code.
Designers create and test concepts while operating at the intersection between user needs and business needs. When you talk about projects, show empathy with the target audience, their goals, and pain points. As far as business needs, include company goals, constraints, and competitive analysis in your design decisions.
The portfolio is so important that it is often the make-or-break part of the application. Managers have little time to vet portfolios in the first round of reviews, so make your online portfolio well organized, easily scannable, and attention-grabbing. Tell a clear, concise, and convincing story. Create case studies that explain the problem, your solution, and the design process for getting to the solution. Show artifacts from the journey. Reflect on lessons learned; if you were to do it over again, what would you do differently? Were there aspects of the project that got cut due to time? Give your portfolio the same level of polish as you give your design projects; it ultimately is judged as a work in and of itself. In the interview process, you’ll likely be asked to present your portfolio. Go deeper on a few projects that showcase your best work and demonstrate the skills you’d use in the new role.
Highlight your strong suits. If your role focuses on user research, go into details about your user research activities and data analysis techniques. If your role involves visual design, showcase your ability to create compelling visuals that are up-to-date with UI trends. If your role involves front-end development, demonstrate a knowledge of HTML, CSS/Sass, and any programming languages you may know. You should have a basic understanding of Git/GitHub, keep tabs on the evolving world of web development, and stay current on browser support.
If you’re interested in learning more about UX design, check out the UX Techdegree at Treehouse, which was created in partnership with Adobe. It’s an online program that allows you to study at your own pace. You’ll learn to critique designs, conduct user research, and design web and mobile applications. Upon completion, you’ll be ready for an entry-level job as a UX Designer. Try it out for free with 7-day trial.