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The Beginner’s Path to UX Career Success

Guiseppe Getto
Guiseppe Getto

To succeed as a UX designer, you need to swallow your pride and lean on others.

Not only will you further practice and improve your skills, but you’re also building your network. As UX Director Patrick Neeman mentions in his blog, the best UX jobs are found through word of mouth.

In this piece, I explain three tactics that can help anyone refine their skillsets (even if you have no formal UX training). I’ll describe:

  • How to build a meaningful relationship with a UX mentor
  • How to become a UX apprentice
  • How to initiate your own UX projects to get noticed by employers

Let’s get started.

The following excerpt is from The Definitive Beginner’s Guide to UX Design.

Tactic 1: Building a relationship with a UX mentor

Like becoming a Jedi, one of the best ways to learn UX is to find a master. Whenever I was doubtful as a beginner, I’d ask my mentors for advice.

Don’t be afraid to rely on mentors to fill in any knowledge gaps. The first time someone asked me for help prototyping a mobile app, I felt no shame in telling them I didn’t know how to do it.  I did, however, mention I was familiar with responsive prototyping and that I was confident I could help them.

Then I emailed one of my mentors, and we figured out the rest.

Finding a UX mentor can be a difficult process, however. Most national organizations (e.g. the UXPA, the IA Institute, the IXDA) have mentoring networks they’ve tried to cultivate, but I’ve always preferred to find my mentors indirectly. I’ve attended conferences, local meetups, and talked to complete strangers.  When I seem to get along with someone, and if they seem to know their stuff, I’ll ask if I can bug them about future UX projects.

And, most importantly: if they say yes, always take them up on the offer.

I can’t believe how many mentees over the years have asked me if they can get advice in the future, and then never followed up.

Advice from an experienced UX practitioner is the most valuable commodity on the planet for beginners. You should always learn from someone with knowledge and mileage.

Potential pitfall: Unresponsive or ineffective mentors


Photo credit: Matthew G. Creative Commons.

If you try taking the advice of one mentor and it doesn’t work out, try getting some different advice. As a teacher myself, I can tell you that no teacher is a perfect fit for every type of student, just as every student has specific needs that not every teacher can meet.

Follow up with your mentors (and always try to meet in person if possible), but don’t be afraid to move on if it’s not working out.

If you’d like to shorten the path to mentorship, you can also consider enrolling in an online mentored course. The classes generally allocate at least 1 hour a week to meet with a mentor over Skype (or in-person, if they’re local) to answer questions and discuss your project.

Tactic 2: Becoming a UX apprentice

Tactic 2 may sound identical to Tactic 1, but by “UX apprenticeship,” I mean what Fred Beecher means: a learning experience that takes you from UX zero to UX grasshopper. These are often programs sponsored by UX organizations (e.g. General Assembly, The Nerdery, Fresh Tilled Soil, etc).

At the same time, not everyone is cut out to be a mentor, which is really just another word for teacher.


Photo credit: Jean Baptiste Paris. Creative Commons.

When evaluating programs, make sure you seek out the opportunity to work on real projects.

Apprenticeships are like internships, but people like me (and Fred) don’t like to use the former, because an internship can mean a lot of things. An internship just means you’re working in an organizational context, but an apprenticeship means you’re actually being trained to be a certain type of professional.

So: not all internships are apprenticeships, but some are.

Formal programs with plenty of hands-on UX training also fall into this category (e.g. Kent State, Bentley, UW, SVA), though some people would probably argue that they are very different. As an academic, I don’t really see a difference between the two, however, as long as academic programs have good relationships with industry partners. (Hint: this is true of all those I just linked to).

Potential pitfall: Ineffective learning experiences

As a beginner, it’s not always easy to assess which programs are worth your time. Beggars can’t be choosers, so sometimes you just have to apply to all the programs  that seem to offer what you want to learn.

Here are some questions to ask before you sign on the dotted line, though:

  • What kinds of portfolio deliverables will you produce through the program? Will you actually produce things you can showcase as evidence of your problem-solving skills?
  • Does the program have a trusted network of potential employers that you can be connected with?
  • How practical are the experiences that the program promises? How conceptual? How product-based? How process-based?

When it comes to the last set of questions, you must find programs that fulfill all 4 criteria (since UX requires mastery of all of them). Even if a program only promises to fulfill 1-3 criteria, or only offers training in specific, limited elements of UX (e.g. prototyping), consider looking elsewhere for comprehensive beginner training.

Tactic 3: Engaging in individual UX projects

Whether as part of a formal industry-based or academic program, or on your own, it never hurts to practice UX principles whenever and wherever you can.


Photo credit: baldiri. Creative Commons.

This is what I tell most beginners struggling to build their portfolio:

  • Find an organization in your local community with a website or mobile app that needs help. Not everyone realizes their website or app needs help. This is why networking is so important. Pretty much 100% of the clients I’ve worked with over the years were people I encountered through my professional network who happened to be looking for design help.
  • Let decision makers within the organization know you’re learning UX and have some feedback on their website or app that they might find valuable. Tell them you’d like to practice by providing them with advice that can improve conversion rates. If you want to matter, always frame design issues as business issues.
  • If they agree, treat the project as a full-blown UX project and produce some deliverables that will actually be useful to them, like a content audit, a prototype for a new homepage, or a new taxonomy for their entire website. This works even better if you can collaborate with the designer who worked on the website. At the end of the project, present your findings. If you do a good job, you might even get a reference and some portfolio entries out of the experience.

Potential Pitfall: Projects that don’t count as legitimate UX experience

I’ve seen a lot of beginners take on the wrong projects.

That’s why this tactic is the riskiest: you really need the help of experienced people to break into UX.

Here are a few things I just don’t think transfer, no matter how great they appear:

1. Deliverables produced for non-digital contexts.

You may have created the most outstanding brochure in the world for a local non-profit or small business, but you’d be much better off designing a wireframe or a sitemap of a well-known website.

2. Deliverables that don’t demonstrate current design aesthetics.

Like it or not, many (I’d hazard to say most) UX professionals work in visual media: prototypes, wireframes, sitemaps, process diagrams, etc. You don’t need to master hi-fidelity design to become a UXer, but you must understand how to communicate visually.

3. Deliverables that don’t demonstrate your process.

In today’s world of Agile UX processes, every project in your portfolio should communicate the following points:

  • How you helped the team balance user goals and business goals.
  • How you analyzed the business and technology constraints.
  • How you collaborated with non-designers.  
  • How you transformed user research and quantitative data into actionable insights for the team.
  • How you worked with the team to resolve unexpected challenges.

If you present wireframes, taxonomies, and prototypes without tying them back to the above narrative, you haven’t sold the true value of your work as a designer.

Since it’s best to learn by example, take a look at these excellent UX portfolios below. Notice how the deliverables are only a means for communicating the thinking.

Austin Knight – UX Designer at Hubspot


Ivana McConnell – Interaction Designer at MyPlanet


Edmund Yu – Head of Product Design at Bloomz


Get out there and stick to it

Though it may sound like a cliche, one of the top traits a UX beginner needs is tenacity.

Unfortunately, we don’t start people out in kindergarten drawing mobile prototypes (yet). If you’re new to UX, chances are you’re going to have to learn a lot on your own. And as you do,  consider it your mission in life to add some innovation to your own neck of the woods.

For more straightforward UX advice, download the free Definitive Beginner’s Guide to UX Design created in partnership with General Assembly.





Guiseppe Getto

by Guiseppe Getto

Guiseppe Getto is a college professor based in North Carolina and is President and Co-Founder of Content Garden , a digital marketing and UX consulting firm.You can also visit his blog online at:

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